Hell No: the Case for Annihilationism

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.

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11 thoughts on “Hell No: the Case for Annihilationism

    • I would LOVE to read The Great Divorce! Unfortunately, my Lewis collection is sorely lacking. We have the fiction, but very little theology; only Miracles, Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, and Reflections on the Psalms. Of those, I’ve only read the first two. Stupid school, always giving me more books to read 😉

  1. Romans 6:23 declares that the wages of sin is death.So wouldn’t a sinner have paid his punishment when he dies(the first death) ?

    • Hi Marty, and thanks for your comment!

      Yes, though I’m not sure that we can get our entire notion of sin, death, and afterlife from that passage. I think it refers more to the fact that death of any sort is the result of a disordered and sinful world.

      But you’re right in the sense that this sentiment shows a worldview that Paul frequently displays, in which the punishment for sin is inherent to that sin – i.e., sin has its own consequences, and there’s no real need to add to those consequences. It’s the biblical notion of karma: actions have consequences of their own, and you reap what you sow. Within this approach, the notion of eternal conscious torment as punishment for human sin seems like absurd overkill: if we’re punished for our sins by the natural consequences of those sins, what justification is there for being eternally burning and eaten by worms?

    • Hi Marty,

      Sorry it’s taken so long to reply – I just saw this now!

      Yes and no. There are two different judgments mention in Scripture. The first judgment, usually associated with original sin, is universal: death. This is sometimes understood to be a limitation on human evil, as our deaths prevent us from getting eternally worse. The second judgment refers to what happens after we’re resurrected – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting death (however you might interpret that). Paul is referring to the first judgment in Romans 6:23, and doesn’t talk as much about the second judgment; his letters are always about the current conduct of the church, and his arguments to enforce good behaviour don’t usually depend on painting a fearful picture of the future – he usually draws first from the Old Testament to show the effects of God’s judgment within history, and frames his discussion in terms of inheriting the Kingdom of God or not.

      I hope that clears it up a bit!

      Jeff

    • Hi Dave,

      First off, thanks for reading!

      As for this site, I see a few red flags right away. These red flags don’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with the argument proposed here, but they do make me want to read and think carefully about it.

      First, the implicit message that every translation of the Bible except the King James is inaccurate. There’s an entire science behind how manuscripts are chosen when producing a Bible translation, but the history of it is enough: the King James version was based on a manuscript that is newer than the manuscripts now used for modern translations. That this pastor implies that every other translation “removes the phrase” shows that he doesn’t really know what the Bible he’s reading is, but more than that it shows that he’s been influenced by a view of Bible translation that is low-grade idolatry at worst, and a conspiracy theory at best. The King James Version is just a very old translation of the Bible that uses different source manuscripts than modern translations, and elevating it above others as somehow divinely ordained puts more faith in the written word of the Bible (poorly translated) than in the Living Word. This is a red flag because it makes me question this pastor’s judgment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that his reading is wrong (that one verse aside).

      The second red flag is that this article is very short and simple, yet manages to imply that huge swaths of the church, including the Catholic and Protestant Popes (Billy Graham joke there), have obviously faulty theology. Is this pastor convinced that nobody reads the Bible but him? If this issue really is as simple as he claims, then are the Pope and Billy Graham really involved in a global conspiracy to cover up the truth about Hell? We’re not all that stupid, and the Pope (any Pope) is a careful theologian who is steeped in thousands of years of interpretive tradition. They really have thought this through, and their answers are more complicated than this article allows. This article takes quotes out of context and fails to represent a full understanding of any of the positions he debunks, lumping them all together in short soundbites instead. That should make you question it a bit.

      But finally, what I actually think of the argument. I think it’s simplistic, reductive, and abuses the Bible. I also think that it’s incoherent and subject to some obvious contradictions. If Hell literally is what all of those verses say, then it’s made of fire but still dark and full of worms and chains. What he’s suggesting, then, is that God – who otherwise acts quite consistently – suspends all physics and biology, making special fire that doesn’t cast any light and special chains that don’t melt and special worms that live in fire, and that those damned to Hell are raised not in human bodies, but in a weird new body that can withstand fire eternally but can still feel pain. Now, God can certainly do all of those things…but is that really what the text is trying to say?

      To understand what the text is really trying to say, we need to take it on its own terms. Good writers and speakers use analogies, metaphors, and imagery to drive home their points. Jesus was a good speaker, and in many ways Paul and John were good writers. These texts were obviously using imagery and analogies to make their points, and this pastor has reduced their literary and rhetorical masterpieces to woodenly literal physical descriptions. I’d hate to see how he reads Song of Songs, and I have trouble taking his point about the nature of eternity if he has trouble determining the genre of the book he’s reading. There are better sources that address this issue, and their answers are much more satisfying (yet no easier for the damned). As a place to start, I recommend checking out NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, or CS Lewis’ The Last Battle (which is a much easier read than Surprised by Hope).

  2. I have enjoyed reading your overview of annihilationism in this post. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the topic. I too have always been a traditionalist, but recently have taken stock of my beliefs and find a traditionalist view of hell to be not very compelling. In fact, I find the arguments for conditional immortality to be very compelling in comparison, which is a surprise for me given how staunchly I once held a traditionalist view.

    So, I have found that the references in the Bible to an after life, or a hell, actually very neatly support a conditionalist perspective, just as you have also noticed. I noticed your decisive paragraph where you say that around the time of Jesus, “there were a lot of Jewish apocalypses floating around that clearly taught eternal conscious torment”. Be that as it may, there were also plenty that didn’t. Regardless, much of the imagery used in the Bible which traditionalists use, I do not think can be interpreted that way because God and the author say so. A prime example of this is Revelation, where both God and John himself interpret the lake of fire to be the second death. This surely is a case of the Bible giving an interpretation of the imagery in the story (much like the visions of Daniel also have an interpretation, without which there is no way we could interpret the visions ourselves). If John and God says the lake of fire is a symbol of the second death, then that’s how I must understand it.

    For me, I’m an unwilling conditionalist, but I do think that it is the proper teaching of the Bible, and I am having to adjust my theology to suit. Fortunately, I am finding that as I do so, much of the rest of my theology becomes a tiny bit simpler – things fit a bit better.

    I can recommend to you http://rethinkinghell.com/tag/j-i-packer/ which I have just read, which is a response to https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/j.i.-packer-on-why-annihilationism-is-wrong, which in turn is also a repost of J I Packers original article which you can find here at http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html.

    Another resource is the unbelievable podcast which discusses this topic in one of the episodes. The main argument from the traditionalist view is that it’s the traditional view. Not very compelling given that we already knew it was the traditional view. But if the Church could get something as fundamental as unconditional grace wrong for a thousand years, surely it is possible it could get hell wrong as well.

    Do check out rethinkinghell.com though.

    All the best!!

    • Hi Andy, and thanks for your thoughtful response!

      I’ve found that studying theology has upended quite a few of my strongly held positions, and I’ve unwillingly adopted several positions based on my reading of the texts. That suggests two things:

      First, that I wasn’t just looking to fit the text to my own view. I’m sure I do this far too often anyway, but my most fundamental shifts in thought have been deeply uncomfortable experiences. If I feel compelled to change long-held beliefs, even unwillingly, then there must be something to the new view.

      Second, it tells me that there is incredible comfort in accepting the default or traditionalist view. I don’t know if this is because it was so long ingrained in me, or because it was passed down to me from authority figures, or because it carries the weight of long tradition, or what. But knowing how powerful that can be, I dare not judge anyone who clings to a view that I have since discarded.

      Like you, I’ve found that many other parts of my theology have actually gotten easier since making this change. This shows not only that eschatology is hugely influential on most other doctrines (I think it provides a context for an entire theological worldview), but also that the traditionalist view was a framework that distorted those other doctrines (outside of that framework, the other doctrines just fit better). I’ve found myself more on the universalist side of things, but I still prefer annihilationism over traditionalism, largely for the reasons you mentioned.

      Thanks for the resources, I’ll be sure to check those out!

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