Annihilationism is the belief that the final fate of those who are not saved is literal and final death and destruction. It runs counter to the mainstream traditional Christian understanding of hell as eternal suffering and separation from God.

In contrast to the more traditional view, which holds that the wicked will remain conscious in hell forever, annhilationism teaches that, whether or not God may use hell to exact some conscious punishment for sins, he will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked completely, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. This is essentially a moot point for Universalists since in their view all will be saved and hell will one day be empty.

Each of the three views, Annihilationism, Eternal Torment and Universalism, has at least one major feature in common with the alternatives. Universalism and Eternal Torment both affirm that everyone will have immortality. Universalism and Annihilationism affirm that evil will one day no longer exist, and Annihilationism and Eternal Torment both affirm that some will be punished eternally, without remedy. For the annihilationist, however, eternal punishment is seen as "permanent elimination."

Conditional immortality

The doctrine of Annihilationism is often, although not always, bound-up with the notion of Conditional Immortality, a belief that the soul is not innately immortal. At death, both the wicked and righteous will pass into unconsciousness, only to be resurrected at the final judgment. God, who alone is immortal, passes on the gift of immortality to the righteous, who will live forever in heaven or on an idyllic earth, while the wicked will ultimately face the second death, i.e. extinction.

Even though it may be logically possible for one to believe in the natural immortality of the soul in the orthodox sense (rightly understood), and at the same time affirm that God will annihilate the wicked, "in actual practice those who teach annihilationism also teach conditional immortality, and vice versa. This accounts for the tendency to treat the terms as synonyms." ^[1]^

Presuppositions

While annihilationists claim that they find their position to be biblical, one common rationale is that divine justice and love make eternal suffering in Hell a morally repugnant idea. Many annihilationists claim that the idea is an unfair punishment for finite sins of people. How can this accurately reflect God’s ultimate victory over suffering and evil, they argue, when it permanently installs a place of suffering in the final, eternal order? Likewise, how can the saved live in blissful joy knowing that some of their loved ones burn forever in hell? With this in mind, many annihilationists (though certainly not all) claim that the idea of "eternal suffering in Hell" is a misconception and perversion of the truth about God's justice and love.

Traditionalists respond that only God is qualified to determine what is truly just, and raise suspicions that annihilationists may be succumbing to modern cultural pressures. The argument does go both ways, however. A common response to the idea of annihilation is that God is infinitely holy and therefore demands infinite conscious punishment. Another argument is that preaching annihilationism will make people less eager to spread the Gospel. Annihilationists respond that what matters is not what any person believes the holiness of God demands, because only God is qualified to determine what is truly just, and that whether or not something is true is irrelevant of how it affects evangelism, if it is even conceded that annihilationism dampens missionary zeal in the first place.^[2]^

Main arguments

The biblical language of destruction

Annihilationist argue that language used in the Bible to describe the fate of the lost speaks in terms of destruction, death, and similar terms which imply a ceasing to exist. Examples include Matthew 10:28, where Jesus warns of God's ability to destroy body and soul in Gehenna, Matt 13:40-42 where Jesus speaks of the judgement by comparing it to weeds being thrown into a furnace, Romans 6:23 where Paul says that the wages of sin is death, 2 Peter 2:6, where Peter says that what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah was an example of what will happen to the lost, and so forth.

Notions of hell depend on Greek ideas

Annihilationists also claim that traditional notions of hell depend on Greek ideas of an immortal soul, which have been erroneously read back into Christian Scripture. Traditionalists find this irrelevant, pointing to passages in the Bible they claim support the idea of an immortal soul. Annihilationists reply by denying that Scripture does teach this, instead pointing to Scripture that declares immortality itself to be a gift.

William Crockett responds,

There is no doubt that second-century Christian apologists drew heavily on Greek philosophy, especially on the philosophy of the Cynics, to support the Christian position. But Fudge makes it sound as if we have a struggle between Paul, the Hebraic-minded Jew, and post–New Testament hellenists. In fact, Paul himself was heavily influenced by hellenism, as was every Jew in Palestine during the first century. 'In Hellenistic- Roman times,' says Martin Hengel, 'Jerusalem was an 'international city,' in which representatives of the Diaspora throughout the world met together.' In short, says Hengel, 'Palestinian Judaism must be regarded as Hellenistic Judaism.' We need to be careful, therefore, not to suggest that the New Testament writers looked through Jewish Old Testament eyes when in fact their literature, education, culture, philosophy, and language were thoroughly permeated with Greek thought... [A]lready in the first century we know that the Pharisees of which Paul was one—had absorbed the doctrine of immortality. Josephus comments on the Pharisees: They believe that souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice: eternal imprisonment is the lot of evil souls, while the good souls receive an easy passage to a new life (Antiquities 8.14). Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment (War 2.163). We cannot say that New Testament writers endorsed the Platonic or Pharisaic belief in a never-dying soul. If this were the case, annihilationism as a view would be impossible to maintain because the soul in every human would simply exist forever, whether in heaven or in hell. In the New Testament, however, we find the Hebrew belief in the resurrection of the dead rather than the Greek immortality of the soul (1 Cor. 15:53-55; cf. Dan. 12:2). The Pharisees believed in the resurrection as well, but only for the righteous; yet they still expected the souls of the wicked to be punished eternally. Their view combined the Greek idea of immortality with the Hebrew doctrine of resurrection. The apostles taught that everyone, whether good or evil, would be resurrected (John 5:29; Acts 24:15; cf. Dan. 12:2); they did not suggest the soul had some special substance that made it eternal. Yet it is clear from the New Testament that both the righteous and the wicked are destined to exist forever even though the precise nature of the resurrected bodies is not always clear. All things depend on God for their existence, and it is God who resurrects and sustains his creatures, some unto life in heaven, and some unto death inthe place we call hell.^[3]^

Cosmic harmony

William Crockett writes,

"If [annihilationism] were not so, say the annihilationists, how could there be harmony in the cosmos? When God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; Rom. 8:19-23), is it not reasonable to expect the whole creation to be at peace with God? If somewhere, in some dark corner of the universe, there are still rebellious or suffering creatures gnashing their teeth, how can this be considered harmony? "This is a reasonable argument, but an argument that better suits universalism than it does annihilationism. The logic of harmony at the end of time would suggest that God will gather all his creation into one big harmonious family, rather than setting up a cosmic scaffold on the Judgment Day to dispatch masses of people into oblivion. "In any case, the problem with this kind of argument is that it imposes present-day expectations on ancient writers. The annihilationists suppose that a new heaven and a new earth should produce harmony, or else the renovation is somehow incomplete. To annihilationists it seems ludicrous to say that God will renovate nature, yet still have sinners languishing in hell. But the Jewish writers of late antiquity do not follow this line of reasoning. It matters little whether the wicked are destroyed, plunged into hell, or otherwise shriveled into insignificance. They never suggest that harmony must come from annihilation as opposed to eternal suffering. Put bluntly, harmony comes when evil is removed notwithstanding the method. To them the wicked are hostile elements, intrusions that mar the landscape of God's renovation. When judgment finally comes, the wicked are cast aside, and that is all that matters."^[4]^ To this, an annihilationist might argue that, philosophy and common beliefs of the apostle's contemporaries aside, that the scripture does indicate cosmic harmony, that all things are under God and that his enemies will be done away with, which does not allow for the eternal existence, let alone torment, of the wicked. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Ephesians 1:10 are often cited ^[5]^

Literalism and symbolism

Much of the debate revolves around terminology and the symbolic imagery of Revelation. Annihilationists argue that passages that speak of the unsaved as perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matt. 10:28) should be taken literally. Traditionalists argue these terms do not necessarily include the idea of annihilation or ceasing to exist. Traditionalists argue that the passages in Revelation that speak of everlasting torment, even though it is apocalyptic imagery, should nonetheless be taken literally. Annihilationists point out that such imagery is, in virtually all other cases, not literal at all (e.g. the lamb, the beast, the stars, the candlesticks etc), that symbolic language from the Old Testament is used (such as when one compares Revelation 14:9-11, 19:3 with Isaiah 34:9-10), and claim that literal interpretations of the meanings of visions referred to in texts such as Revelation 20:10 lead to serious logical and hermeneutical problems. ^[6]^

History of support

The vast majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, generally held to traditional notions of hell. However, the annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Embryonic forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr (d. 165).^[7]^ Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) is also supposed to be a conditionalist according to some conditionalist writers. In his Epistle to the Magnesians, he wrote "Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be". ^[8]^ Some suggest it is also found in the writings of Arnobius (d. 330).^[9]^ However, the Second Council of Constantinople (553) condemned the idea.

In 1520 Martin Luther (1483-1546) published a defense of 41 of his propositions and cited the pope's immortality declaration as among "those monstrous opinions to be found in the Roman dunghill of decretals." The 27th Proposition reads,

"However, I permit the Pope establish articles of faith for himself and for his own faithful - such are: a) That the bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament; b) that the essence of God neither generates nor is generated; c) that the soul is the substantial form of the human body; d) that he (the pope) is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; e) that the soul is immortal; and all these endless monstrosities in the Roman dunghill of decretals - in order that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such also his faithful, and such his church, and that the lips may have suitable lettuce and the lid may be worthy of the dish." ^[10]^

Annihilationism today

Today many traditionalists claim that the doctrine is most often associated with groups descended from William Miller and the Adventist movement of the mid-1800s, including Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other Adventist groups. However, a number of evangelical theologians, including Anglican John Stott, Church of Christ elder Edward Fudge, Open Theists Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, as well as Philip Edgecombe Hughes and others have offered support for the doctrine, touching off a heated debate within mainstream evangelical Christianity.

Since the 1960s, Annihilationism seems to be gaining as a legitimate minority opinion within modern, conservative Protestant theology. It has found support and acceptance among some British evangelicals, although viewed with greater suspicion by their American counterparts.

Popular advocates

Further reading

Favorable

  • David L. Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988)
  • Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Fallbrook, CA: Verdict Publications, 1982)
  • Clark Pinnock, "The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent," Criswell Theological Review 4 (Spring 1990). [1]
  • Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: The Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1965), a Seventh-Day Adventist view
  • Philip E. Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

Critical

  • Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire : Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) ISBN 0310240417
  • John H. Gerstner, Repent or Perish: With a Special Reference to the Conservative Attack on Hell (Ligonier, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990) ISBN 187761114X
  • Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984) ISBN 0871234335
  • William G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1986) ISBN 0851517544
  • Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Press, 1995) ISBN 0875523722
  • Harry Buis - The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

Notes

  1. Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, by Alan W. Gomes
  2. Glenn Peoples, "Has Robert Peterson Defeated Annihilationism?", Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society (Dec 2006): 26-28. PDF
  3. William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 68
  4. William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 63
  5. Millard J. Erickson, Is Hell Forever? http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_hell_erickson.html
  6. Glenn Peoples, Fire And Flood, http://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles-reviews/fire-and-flood
  7. St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho (Chapter V) - http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html
  8. Ignatius Of Antioch: ' 'The Epistle Of Ignatius to the Magnesians' ' - http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0105.htm
  9. Arnobius, Against the Heathen: Book II, paragraph 61, last sentence
  10. Champions of Conditional Immortality

See also

External links

Favorable / sympathetic

Critical