A few days ago I mentioned the paper I’m about to write about the hermeneutical decisions that lead people to different opinions of Hell. I’ve always been under the impression (and those who hold other opinions about Hell will certainly make it sound so) that the annihilationist (or conditionalist) position is based entirely on personal discomfort with the notion of Hell. We think that the traditional view of eternal conscious torment is sadistic, and it leads to comparing God to Hitler or far worse. Obviously this doesn’t line up with our understanding of a just and loving God, for eternal torture in response to finite sin is neither just nor loving. Traditionalists say that even finite sin becomes infinite because we perpetrate it against an infinite God, but that logic is based on an understanding of justice from the middle ages that we no longer accept (i.e. in the middle ages one’s punishment reflected the amount of honour the person you committed a crime against had, so if you stole from a beggar it had a small punishment because he had small honour, but if you stole from a king it had a large punishment because of his great honour being offended). Nowadays we figure that stealing is stealing, regardless of who you steal from. So we’re left with a doctrine that makes God unjust, or unloving, or both. Further, a conditionalist would say that their reading represents the text better than the traditional view anyways. Let’s take a closer look.
The New Testament talks about Hell in pretty vague terms, but common terms to describe it include “fire”, “destruction”, and “eternal” (usually in some combination with the other two). A literal or traditional reading of “eternal fire” is eternal torment, with “destruction” as a metaphor for that eternal torment. Augustine described it in almost zombie terms, as being never dead or alive but eternally dying, burned by the flames and eaten by the worm but not consumed. Interestingly, in this sense the “literalist” doesn’t read these images perfectly literally. The conditionalist notices that literal fire consumes whatever touches it, a notion that obviously goes together with “destruction” much better than the notion of eternal conscious torment. Revelation refers to a “lake of fire”, which is always identified with Hell in every view, but it calls this lake of fire “the second death” – which again makes more sense when read as destruction or annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment. If you trip over the word “eternal”, it can fit either thesis: for a traditionalist, it is a fire that is burning forever; for an annihilationist, it is a punishment that is eternal in the sense that it is final, i.e. there is no second resurrection after the second death, the impenitent will be finally and eternally dead, consumed by the fire. In this sense it’s not hard to argue that the annihilationist has a much better reading of the New Testament passages that deal explicitly with Hell.
Traditionalists will quote Revelation 20:10, which talks about the Lake of Fire, in support of their view of eternal conscious torment, and indeed it is the most troubling verse for an annihilationist view. It says that the devil is thrown into the lake of fire with the beast and his prophet, and they are “tormented day and night forever and ever”. A few verses later it says that death and hades and the sea give up the dead in them and everyone is judged, and then death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire as well, along with everyone whose name is not written in the book of life, and this is called the second death. The argument is that if the devil and the beast and the prophet are tortured day and night forever and ever, then so must everyone that is thrown into the lake of fire. This seems pretty rational at first glance, especially if we’re talking about a literal lake of fire (something that is highly debatable, considering the obviously metaphorical uses of fire in other texts, as well as the description of Hell as utter darkness, which is difficult when there’s so much fire around). However, keep in mind that for the people thrown into it, the lake of fire is called the second “death”, yet for the devil and the beast it is referred to as torture. Could there be a difference between a spiritual being’s experience in the lake of fire and a human being’s? Is it possible that the devil is a spiritual being and can withstand a lake of fire, though it would be torturous for him? Of course, a traditionalist might argue that human beings are also eternal beings with a spiritual nature, and that an everlasting soul would experience it the same way.
This is another interesting part of the annihilationist or conditionalist argument: it does not affirm the traditional view of the immortal human soul. After all, if a human soul is immortal then God must do something with all of the wicked souls, right? He can’t really get rid of them, right? This is one of those doctrines that has been around long enough that we all tend to affirm it even though we can’t think of where it comes from in the Bible. Turns out, it doesn’t come from the Bible at all! The notion of the immortal soul is from Greek philosophy; in the Bible, human beings always have bodies. It can be argued that in the intermediate state, after death and before judgment, we still exist despite the fact that our bodies are dead; but the fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Bible talk about disembodied human existence explicitly, and even implicit references tend to be a bit of a stretch. If we don’t continue to exist without our bodies, then it’s a very simple matter for God to stop sustaining our life; the fires of Hell would consume the impenitent rather quickly unless God supernaturally sustained their flesh, which again comes down to how literally you want to read “eternal fire”.
So the conditionalist or annihilationist view is debatably a better reading of the Bible, and does not clash with our theology of God as loving and just and merciful. It also doesn’t offend our sensibilities because it doesn’t paint God as an evil torturer, and it doesn’t argue for a sadistic impulse in the saints who (according to the traditional view) get great pleasure out of witnessing the torture of souls in Hell (as it makes their existence in Heaven seem that much better). It really seems like a better reading all around, except for one little issue that changes everything: historical and literary context.
Around the time of Jesus, there were a lot of Jewish apocalypses floating around that clearly taught eternal conscious torment. There were also Greek religions and philosophies that taught very similar versions of it. So when we read Jesus’ rather vague statements about and allusions to Hades and Gehenna in the Gospels, we have to take into account the context of those statements, i.e. Jesus’ hearers would have automatically made a connection between what Jesus just said about Hades and what they already know of Hades: that it’s a place of eternal conscious torment. If Jesus didn’t mean that it was a place of eternal conscious torment, the onus was on him to specify his own position…and he doesn’t. He doesn’t explicitly affirm any of those visions of endless torture in Hell, but he doesn’t say anything against them either, and in his context people would have made connections between what he preached and what everyone else was preaching, and the annihilationist view makes no account of that fact. So while it’s entirely possible that God will simply destroy the wicked impenitent, it’s not a good reading of Jesus’ references to Hell, and Jesus makes the most references to Hell in the New Testament.
Close, but no cigar. I wrote this to point out that most of our defenses of the traditional or literalist view of Hell are not based in scripture, but in tradition. We defend the traditional view pretty rabidly at times, but in many ways the other options are stronger. We defend against annihilation by saying that it’s just “the Adventist view”, because we often call SDA’s heretics and therefore this view commonly held by them must be heresy. If you have a better argument for the traditional view other than a very literalist reading of scripture, theology based in tradition, or attacks against the other views (that usually are straw men or red herrings), please let me know. As it stands, while I don’t support annihilation based on the previous paragraph, I certainly don’t support a literalist doctrine of Hell either. I’d be interested to hear the interpretations of Hell from my friends, the Lewis scholar and the Anselm scholar; both of those beloved theologians have interesting views on it.