Ecclesia semper reformanda est
This is Part 2 of a series of posts on Annihilationism, the Christian doctrine that the eternal destiny of lost souls is eternal death, annihilation, after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. This doctrine is contrary to the traditional orthodox position that lost souls consciously suffer eternal torment in hell fire, which I will refer to as “Traditionalism” and those who subscribe to the doctrine as “Traditionalists.” Part 1 of this series on annihilationism is found here on my blog.
As I previously contended in Part 1, Annihilationism is supported by Scripture, and the traditional doctrine of conscious eternal torment is not supported by Scripture, despite more than 17 centuries of acceptance of Traditionalist doctrine as orthodox. Traditionalism relies on the premise that the soul is immortal, a doctrine that is not found in Scripture. In fact, the Bible teaches that the soul is not immortal. This post will further discuss the false doctrine of the immortal soul, the foundation upon which the doctrine of conscious eternal torment of the lost rests. I will begin with some review of the Annihilationist doctrine as discussed in my prior post. The annihilationism is coupled with conditional immortality. Immortality is the gift of eternal life given to those who believe which is conditioned on election.
As I wrote in Part 1, the Biblical support for the Annihilationist view begins in Genesis, Chapter 3.
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
Genesis 3:22-23 (New International Version 1984)
Whether you understand this passage and the Genesis creation story as literal history, or as a true myth provided by God as revelation of the fallen nature of humankind, or consider the Bible to be just an ancient text, in this passage God banishes mankind from the Garden of Eden expressly so that we cannot live forever. Sin entered the world accompanied by death.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23 (New International Version 1984)
Who gets eternal life? Those who believe in Jesus Our Lord! John affirms the gift of immortality to those who believe in this familiar passage:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16 (King James Version)
Here, those who do not believe “perish.” The primary meaning of “perish” is to die. However, when a Traditionalist reads this, he or she substitutes “. . . should not suffer eternal torment in hell” for “. . . should not die.” In discussing this passage with a Christian friend, my wife asked her what the word “perish” meant. Without hesitation, her friend responded, “Eternal torment in hell.” If the word “perish” is used anywhere else to describe what happened to someone, in the newspaper describing a house fire, or an auto accident, we think “death”, the cessation of life. But we have been brainwashed to read “eternal torment in hell” whenever a Bible verse is referring to the fate of the lost, whether death, destruction, perish, or eternal punishment or destiny.
John 3:16 is clearly referring to eternal destiny of the believer, eternal life, and clearly should be read as referring also to the eternal destiny of the unbeliever; he or she will “perish”, will die.
You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.
John 11:50 (NIV)
In fact, the Traditionalist makes this substitution for all of the references to the “death”, “destruction”, and eternal “punishment” of the lost souls. It should be obvious that cessation of existence forever is an eternal punishment, but Christians tend to ignore this because of the strength of Traditionalism in the Christian Church and in our Western culture. Capital punishment is the most serious punishment that we have in our human system of justice, and the Bible authorizes this punishment beginning in the Old Testament proportional system of punishment summarized in the well-known Biblical passage:
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Exodus 21:23-24 (NIV). In order to accept the doctrine of eternal torment, the Christian must be able to accept the justice of eternal suffering in hell, conscious suffering forever, as justified by a temporal life of sin on earth which may be as short as a moment, if you believe that unbaptized infants go to hell, or 13 years for a teenager who dies an accidental death without a saving faith in Christ.
John Furniss was a 19th Century Roman Catholic priest who was known for his ministry to children. In a book authorized by the Roman Catholic Church, Furniss mercilessly describes the fate of the child who dies without baptism, condemned by original sin:
“The fifth dungeon is the red-hot oven. The little child is in the red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists itself in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. God was very good to this little child. Very likely God saw it would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished more severely in hell. So God, in his mercy, called it out of the world in early childhood.”
quoted in Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, pp. 141-142. To write this, Furniss or anyone would have to overlook the barbaric injustice, and rely on some mysterious divine judgment that could justify such disproportionate and clearly sadistic punishment to an innocent infant without rational conciousness. God gave us our conscience and moral sense. Why would He have us believe that He would do this to an infant who dies without grace?
Henry Constable was an Anglican minister who wrote a definitive argument for Annihilationism in his 1868 book — the entire book in pdf is available here: Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment. The recent theologians who have argued for Annihilationism are indebted to Constable, including Edward Fudge, whose exhaustive 466 page study of the doctrine of eternal punishment, originally published 1982, examines Biblical references from Genesis to Revelation, and extra-Biblical references as well from the period between the Old and New Testament to look at what people at the time of Jesus thought about eternal destiny, arguing persuasively against the Traditionalist dogma of eternal conscious torment in hell, The Fire that Consumes. As I wrote in Part 1, in reading Fudge’s book, I was surprised to find that F.F. Bruce, a prominent mainstream Evangelical historian/scholar, wrote the Foreward, commending Fudge’s work, claiming himself to be agnostic like C.S. Lewis on the question of eternal torment versus annihilation. I highly recommend both Constable’s and Fudge’s books. I also recommend Glenn People’s excellent paper, Why I Am an Annihilationist which is among his work on annihilationism and other theological and philosophical subjects found on his blog.
For the Traditionalist, not only does the lost person suffer incredible torment forever for his temporal sins and inherited fallen nature, but the elect, the chosen ones, saved by the mercy of God, are supposed to rejoice. Here, Jonathan Edwards describes what the saints in heaven will experience looking upon lost souls suffering torment in hell:
Every time they look upon the damned, it will excite in them a lively and admiring sense of the grace of God…The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.
Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” IV.
As Evangelical theologian and scholar Clark Pinnock, an Annihilationist, has described this unfathomable eternal schadenfreude as follows:
Not only is it God’s pleasure so to torture the wicked everlastingly, but it will be the happiness of the saints to see and know this is being faithfully done. It would not be unfair to picture the traditional doctrine in this way: just as one can imagine certain people watching a cat trapped in a microwave oven squirming in agony and taking delight in it, so the saints in heaven will, according to Edwards, experience the torments of the damned with pleasure and satisfaction.
Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 6 [First published in Criswell Theological Review: 4.2 (1990), 243-259]. Pinnock’s paper is the best short defense of Annihilationism I have read, and I recommend it highly. I rely on it extensively in this post.
How can this be? I cannot imagine feeling such joy, or being changed so that I put natural affection and empathy aside to experience “joy” at such eternal suffering. If you believe that the lost souls suffer eternal torment in hell, it is apparently logically necessary (and psychologically necessary as well, to avoid cognitive dissonance), to also believe that the sanctified soul in heaven must rejoice in the sufferings of the lost because the Christian believes that there is no sorrow in heaven. Surely, even if you are a Traditionalist and believe this is a Biblical doctrine, if you are honest and have any sense of empathy or pity or mercy, you must admit that this is a miserable doctrine to attribute to the loving God that we find in the Bible, regardless of His wrath and hatred of sin which offends His pure and holy nature. As Pinnock further writes:
Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself. How can we possibly preach that God has so arranged things that a number of His creatures (perhaps a large number predestined to that fate) will undergo (in a state of complete consciousness) physical and mental agony through unending time? Is this not a most disturbing concept which needs some second thoughts? Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does. Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on His own enemies for all eternity? As H. Küng appropriately asks, “What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?”
Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 8.
I reviewed arguments for Annihilationism in my first post on the subject. Now I want to concentrate on the foundation of the Traditionalist doctrine — the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The Bible says there is one who is immortal, God.
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal . . . .
1 Timothy 6:15-16 (NIV)
Paul clearly tells us that the gift of eternal life clothes us mortals with immortality.
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
Romans 2:7 (NIV) and further, describing the believer’s transformation, clothed with the gift of eternal life, Paul writes:
I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. . . . For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 15:52-54 (NIV)
Immortality is the gift of eternal life given to those who believe, not to those who are damned. And yet, in order for souls to suffer eternal torment they must also be given eternal life. If lost souls literally suffer torment in fires of hell, then, as Glenn Peoples puts it, either the lost must be given an infinite mass in order to be consumed in fire forever, or God must constantly regenerate the resurrected body cast into hell as it is consumed by the eternal fires of hell moment by moment forever. The honest traditionalist admits that the lost soul must also be given immortality in order to suffer in hell for forever, even though there is no Biblical support for a gift of eternal life to the lost, only to the saved.
Pinnock sums up succinctly as follows:
Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. J. Maritain, for example, states: “The human soul cannot die. Once it exists, it cannot disappear; it will necessarily exist forever and endure without end.”18 To this we must say, with all due respect, that the Bible teaches no such thing. The soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. The Bible states that God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16) and that everlasting life is something God gives to humanity by grace (1 Cor. 15:51-55). Eternal life is not something we possess by any natural right according to Scripture. Immortality is not inherent in human beings. We are dependent on God for what happens to us after death. Rather than speaking of immortal souls, the Bible refers to resurrected bodies, to persons being reconstituted through the power of God (Phil. 3:20). In a word, Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 14.
How did this happen? As Constable and others have written, in the 3rd century, the Christian Church incorporated the Greek concept of the immortal soul into the theology of eternal destiny. Augustine was the Church father who is most responsible for the adoption of the immortality of the soul, and the consequent doctrine of eternal torment. In his theology, Augustine adopted the Platonic belief of the immortality of the soul, though he did not believe in the Platonic belief in the preexistence of the soul. According to Peter Brown, writing in Augustine of Hippo, in the period just before Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 387, Augustine absorbed himself in the writings of the neo-Platonists where he learned his Platonism. Plato’s own writings were not available to him then. In that same year of his baptism, Augustine published a series of “sketches” titled On the Immortality of the Soul. There, Augustine argues for the immortality of the soul from reason, not from Scripture. For Augustine, the soul is the Platonic form of the body, the eternal idea derived from God, the Supreme Good, and the body is animated by the soul. The body gets is form and its life from the soul which is derived from God, the Supreme Good. As such, the soul is immortal. Augustine reaches this conclusion by arguing that the soul and reason are inseparable because he also has found that the mind and reason co-exist and that the soul and the mind are one. He concludes:
Consequently, if, as we said above, the soul is a subject in which reason is inseparably (by that necessity also which it is shown to be in the subject), neither can their be any soul except a living soul, nor can reason be in a soul without life, and reason is immortal; hence the soul is immortal.
A Christian relying on revelation in Scripture could easily call this nonsense, but this is Augustine, and apparently, the Church has not been interested in tracing his belief in the immortality of the soul. This immortality comes to us living in our body on this earth in this life through our soul. Plato equated the form of the Good, the ultimate form, with God, and Augustine does as well, for example, in Chapter XV of On the Immortality of the Soul, Augustine writes:
The soul is prior to the body in connection with those supreme and eternal principles which survive unchangeably and are not contained in space; and the soul’s connection is not only prior but also greater; as much prior as it is nearer, and for the same reason as much greater as it is better than body. And this nearness is not in place but in the order of nature. According to this order it is understood that the supreme essence bestows form upon the body through the soul by which it exists in whatever degree it does exist. Therefore, the body subsists through the soul, and it exists to the extent that it is animated, whether universally, as the world, or particularly, as some animal or other within the world.
This is philosophy. It is not theology. There are no citations to Scripture supporting the immortality of the soul in Augustine’s On the Immortality of the Soul. The soul is immortal for philosophical reasons, based on a Platonic idea of God.
Later in life, Augustine wrote a masterpiece, the City of God, comparing the world with the kingdom of God using the analogy of two cities (from which my blog gets its name). In the City of God, Augustine is arguing against annihilationists of his time who believed that the lost, those who die without Christ, do not live forever in torment in hell. Without any reference to Scripture regarding the immortality of the soul, which is unusual for the mature Augustine, Augustine refuted the annihilationist by assuming the soul’s immortality as follows:
The soul gives life to the body by its presence: it rules the body; and this soul itself can suffer pain, while incapable of death. Here we have found something which feels pain and yet is immortal. This property, which now, as we know, belongs to the souls of all men, will at that time belong to the bodies of the damned.
Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 3, Penguin Books (2003), Trans. Henry Bettenson (1972).
Interestingly, early Church father and theologian Origen also assumed the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and further adopted the Platonic belief in the preexistence of the soul. However, because Origen believe that Scripture teaches that God eventually eradicates evil, and death and hell, Origen taught that the souls in hell eventually were saved, adopting a universalist position on salvation.
Constable describes the contradictory positions that resulted from Augustine and Origen’s belief in the immortality of the soul:
Before the preaching of the Gospel, the highest order of heathen philosophy had framed for its satisfaction a theory of the immortality of the soul. While the great mass of mankind had absolutely no hope of any future life; and while far the greater number of philosophers taught that death was for all an eternal sleep; there were “high spirits of old” that strained their eyes to see beyond the clouds of time the dawning of immortality. Unable, as we are able, to connect it with God as its source, and with his promise as their assurance, they framed the idea of an immortality self-existing in the human soul. Egypt, the prolific mother of religious error, appears, from the best authorities in our hands, to have been the source of this idea. But it was extracted from the tombs and the hieroglyphics of Egyptian priests by the brilliant and restless curiosity of Greece. Socrates, and his great pupil, Plato, presented it to the human mind wherever the Grecian intellect penetrated, and the tongue of Greece was known. Cicero recommended the theory of the Academy to his contemporaries in his “Tusculan Questions.” They did not indeed teach it at all consistently, nor do they appear themselves to have relied with any firmness on its reality. It was with them a great hope fitfully entertained, rather than a sober conviction. “I have perused Plato,” Cicero sadly complains, “with the greatest diligence and exactness, over and over again; but know not how it is, whilst I read him I am convinced; when I lay the book aside and begin to consider by myself of the soul’s immortality, all the conviction instantly ceases. It is indeed doubtful whether any of the great minds of antiquity in their esoteric or inner faith held more than the tenet of Buddhism, which teaches that the soul, originally derived from Deity, is at length to be re-absorbed and lost in Deity again:
“That each, who seems a separate whole
Should move his rounds, and fusing all
The skirts of self again, should fail,
Remerging in the general Soul.”—TENNYSON.
5. However this may be, those of whom we speak presented to the common mind an idea not so vague as this. The conception of it kindled their imagination, and the discussion of it afforded a theme for their logical powers. According to it, the soul was possessed of an inherent immortality. It had no beginning and could have no end. What was true of one soul was equally true of all souls, good or bad. They must live somewhere, be it in Tartarus, or Cocytus, in Pyriphlegethon, or the happy abodes of the purified. This idea, sublime for a heathen, passed readily and early into the theology of the Christian Church. Philosophers, converted to Christianity, brought with them into their new service too much of their ancient learning. Heedless of Paul’s warning voice against philosophy in general, they considered that a considerable portion at least of Plato’s philosophy must be exempted from the apostolic condemnation. We find accordingly the Platonic philosophy of the soul’s immortality running through and blending with the theological reasoning of Athenagoras and Tertullian, of Origen and Augustine. Teachers who should have consulted only the oracles of God, leaving behind them their heathen lore as Moses left behind him the learning of Egypt, supplemented those living oracles with theories drawn from a brilliant Greek philosophy, which was in its turn suggested by the priest-craft taught in Egyptian temples. Their theory was that the life of the wicked must be as eternal as the life of those here redeemed and brought to Christ, because every soul of man was immortal.
6. A moment’s reflection will show us that a dogma of this kind could not remain idle. It must influence irresistibly in one direction or another this whole question of future punishment. It must mould the entire doctrine of the Church upon the subject. According as men connected it with one truth of Scripture or another, it must give rise to two opposite schools of thought. Connect the immortality of the soul with the scriptural doctrine of the eternity of punishment, and you inevitably create the dogma of eternal life in misery, i.e. of Augustine’s hell. Connect it with another great truth of Scripture, the final extinction of evil and restitution of all things, and you as inevitably create Origen’s Universal Restoration. For each of these opposing theories there is exactly the same amount of proof, viz.:—Plato’s dogma and a dogma of the Bible; and if Plato’s dogma could be proved to be a scriptural doctrine, then, by every law of logic, Scripture would be found supporting two contradictory theories, or, in other words, would itself destroy all its claims to authority.
7. Accordingly, this philosophical idea of Plato is found influencing most powerfully and most unfairly the interpretation of Scripture from the second century down to our own time. An example of this will probably show this more forcibly than any words of ours. Tertullian is commenting upon our Lord’s teaching in Luke xix. 10: “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Vulgate, quod perierat). No one knew better than Tertullian the primary and proper meaning of the Latin verb pereo, and that it meant, “to vanish,” “to die,” “to perish,” “to be annihilated.” Why would he not attach this meaning to it when he was commenting upon the text of the Latin version? Here is his own account: “We, however, so understand the soul’s immortality as to believe it lost, not in the sense of destruction, but of punishment, that is, in hell. And if this is the case, then it is not the soul which salvation will affect, since it is ‘safe’ already in its own nature by reason of its immortality; but rather the flesh, which, as all readily allow, is subject to destruction.” Such was the influence upon the interpretation of Scripture which his theory of the soul forced upon Tertullian. It led him to deny to the terms of God’s word what he knew to be their primary and proper meaning, and to affirm that the salvation of our Lord had no relation to the human soul, but only to the bodies of men! A similar influence this theory has had upon theologians down to the present day.
[footnotes omitted] Henry Constable 1868 – Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, pp. 14-19.
There are several passages of Scripture that Traditionalists use as proof texts that have been discussed by the prominent scholars who believe Annihilationism is supported by Scripture, including John Stott in “Essentials” See john-stott-discusses-hell. Clark Pinnock discusses the passages that support Annihilationism followed by the passages cited by Traditionalists in the previously cited article, which since this is a blog, is worth citing in its entirety as follows:
III. THE CASE FOR THE ANNIHILATION OF THE WICKED
What I want to do is what I am assured cannot be done, namely, to show that the Bible does not teach Augustine’s version of the doctrine of hell. Almost all who defend his view admit that the idea of everlasting torment is a genuinely awful concept, but they go on to defend it anyway on the assumption that it is nevertheless mandatory scriptural truth (much as a strict Calvinist argues in defense of his doctrine of the sovereign reprobation of the nonelect—recall Calvin’s reference to “the horrible decree”). They tell us that they do not like the doctrine any more than anyone else but have to espouse it because it is a biblical idea and they have no choice but to uphold it. They make it sound like the infallibility of the Bible were at stake. Let us ask then whether the traditional doctrine of hell is biblically and theologically sound. In my view it is not.
1. The strong impression the Bible creates in this reader with regard to the fate of the finally impenitent wicked is a vivid sense of their final and irreversible destruction. The language and imagery used by Scripture is so powerful in this regard that it is remarkable more theologians have not picked up on it. The Bible repeatedly uses the language of death, destruction, ruin, and perishing when speaking of the fate of the wicked. It uses the imagery of fire consuming (not torturing) what is thrown into it. The images of fire and destruction together strongly suggest annihilation rather than unending torture. It creates the impression that eternal punishment refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of being tormented forever.
Frankly it is a little annoying to be told again and again by the defenders of everlasting torment that there is no biblical case for the annihilation of the wicked. A. Pink, for instance, calls the position an absurdity, while W. Hendriksen says he is aghast that anyone would argue otherwise than for hell as everlasting torment; and Packer attributes the position to sentimentality, not to any scriptural ground. But is it not really quite the other way around? Does the burden of proof not rest with the traditionalists to explain why the strong impression of the destruction of the wicked which the Bible gives its readers should not just be believed?
A brief overview of the Bible will show what I am driving at. The Old Testament gives us a clear picture of the destruction of the wicked (perhaps because it is more oriented to this world than the next) and supplies the basic imagery of divine judgment for the New Testament as well. Consider Psalm 37 where we read that the wicked fade like grass and wither like the herb (v. 2), that they will be cut off and be no more (vv. 9, 10), that they will perish and vanish like smoke (v. 20), and be altogether destroyed (v. 38). Listen to this oracle from the prophet Malachi: “For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). The message is plain—the finally impenitent wicked will perish and be no more.
Turning to the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching about the afterlife is sketchy in matters of detail. While he certainly referred to a destiny beyond the grave either of bliss or woe, he did not bother to give us a clear conception of it. He was not a systematic theologian but a preacher more concerned with the importance of a decision here and now than with speculations about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. At the same time Jesus said things which support the impression the Old Testament gives us.
He presented God’s judgment as the destruction of the wicked. He said that God could and perhaps would destroy body and soul in hell, if He must (Matt. 10:28). Jesus’ words are reminiscent of John the Baptist’s when he said that the wicked are like dry wood about to be thrown into the fire and like chaff to be burned in the unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:10, 12). He warned that the wicked will be cast away into hell like so much rejected garbage into the Gehenna of fire (5:30), an allusion to the valley outside Jerusalem where sacrifices were once offered to Moloch (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), and possibly the place where garbage actually smoldered and burned in Jesus’ day. Our Lord said that the wicked will be burned up there just like weeds when thrown into the fire (13:30, 42, 49, 50). The impression is a very strong one that the impenitent wicked can expect to be destroyed.
The Apostle Paul communicates the same thing, plainly thinking of divine judgment as the destruction of the wicked. He writes of everlasting destruction which will come upon the wicked (2 Thes. 1:9). He warns that the wicked will reap corruption (Gal. 6:8). He states that God will destroy the wicked (1 Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28). He speaks of their fate as a death they deserve to die (Rom. 1:32) and which is the wages of their sins (6:23). About the wicked, he states plainly and concisely: “Their end is destruction” (Phil. 3:19).
It is no different in the other New Testament books. Peter speaks of “the fire which has been kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7). The author to the Hebrews speaks of the wicked who shrink back and are destroyed (Heb. 10:39). Peter says that false teachers who deny the Lord who bought them will bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1, 3). They will resemble the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were “condemned to extinction” (2:6). They will perish like the ancient world perished when deluged in the great Flood (3:6, 7). Jude also points to Sodom as an analogy to God’s judgment, being the city which underwent “a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Similarly, the Apocalypse of John speaks of the lake of fire consuming the wicked and of the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).
At the very least it should be obvious to any impartial reader that the Bible may legitimately be read to teach the final destruction of the wicked without difficulty. I am not making it up. It is not wishful thinking. It is simply a natural interpretation of Scripture on the subject of divine judgment. I think it is outrageous for traditionalists to say that a biblical basis for the destruction of the wicked is lacking. What is in short supply are texts supporting the traditional view.
2. Some advocates prefer to call their position conditional immortality rather than annihilationism because it sounds more positive to the ear. Underlying the doctrine of annihilation, after all, is a belief in conditional immortality, the understanding that our immortality is not a natural attribute of humankind but God’s gift. This is clearly an important issue in our discussion because belief in the natural immortality of the soul which is so widely held by Christians, although stemming more from Plato than the Bible, really drives the traditional doctrine of hell more than exegesis does. Consider the logic: if souls must live forever because they are naturally immortal, the lake of fire must be their home forever and cannot be their destruction. In the same way, the second death would have to be a process of everlasting dying and not a termination of existence which is impossible. I am convinced that the hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul has done more than anything else (specifically more than the Bible) to give credibility to the doctrine of the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked. This belief, not holy Scripture, is what gives this doctrine the credibility it does not deserve.
Belief in the immortality of the soul has long attached itself to Christian theology. J. Maritain, for example, states: “The human soul cannot die. Once it exists, it cannot disappear; it will necessarily exist forever and endure without end.”18 To this we must say, with all due respect, that the Bible teaches no such thing. The soul is not an immortal substance that has to be placed somewhere if it rejects God. The Bible states that God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16) and that everlasting life is something God gives to humanity by grace (1 Cor. 15:51-55). Eternal life is not something we possess by any natural right according to Scripture. Immortality is not inherent in human beings. We are dependent on God for what happens to us after death. Rather than speaking of immortal souls, the Bible refers to resurrected bodies, to persons being reconstituted through the power of God (Phil. 3:20). In a word, Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).19
The Greek doctrine of immortality has affected theology unduly on this point. It is one of several examples where there has been an undue hellenization of Christian doctrine. The idea of souls being naturally immortal is not a biblical one, and the effect of believing it stretches the experience of death and destruction in Gehenna into endless torment. If souls are immortal, then either all souls will be saved (which is unscriptural universalism) or else hell must be everlasting torment. There is no other possibility since annihilation is ruled out from the start. This is how the traditional view of hell got constructed: add a belief in divine judgment after death (scriptural) to a belief in the immortality of the soul (unscriptural), and you have Augustine’s terrible doctrine.
Nevertheless, I do not call my position conditional immortality. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of my view. Conditional immortality has to be true for a negative reason—to make the destruction of the wicked conceivable, but it does not positively establish annihilation simply because it would still be possible that God might give the wicked everlasting life and condemn them to spend it in everlasting torment. Conditional immortality then, while necessary to belief in annihilation, does not prove that annihilation is true. The key issue remains my first argument: the Scriptures suggest the destruction of the wicked.
3. As I intimated earlier, everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom He does not even allow to die. How is one to worship or imitate such a cruel and merciless God? The idea of everlasting torment (especially if it is linked to soteriological predestination) raises the problem of evil to impossible dimensions. A. Flew was quite right (I think) to say that, if Christians want to hold that God created some people to be tortured in hell forever, then the apologetic task in relation to theodicy is just hopeless. Stott seems to agree: “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” I even wonder what atrocities have been committed by those who have believed in a God who tortures His enemies?
Naturally, various attempts have been made by the traditionalists to hide the gruesome problem. C. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, for example, make use of postmillennial eschatology to argue that very few persons (relatively speaking) will go to hell anyway. Presumably we do not need to worry much if only a negligible number is tormented while a numerical majority is saved. Such a calculus, however, achieves little: first, because few today would accept the postmillennial premise to begin with, and second, because the tens of millions still suffering everlasting torture even under their scenario are tens of millions too many.
Alternatively it is common to try to hide the moral problem by redefining hell. C.S. Lewis tries this when he pictures hell in The Great Divorce as almost pleasant, if a little gray, being the kind of place from which one can take day trips on the bus into heaven and return again to meet with the theological society which meets regularly in hell. This resembles Sartre’s picture of hell in No Exit as consisting of being cooped up with the other people forever. In these terms, hell is nasty and inconvenient, but certainly no lake of fire. Thus by sheer speculation the biblical warnings are emasculated and the moral problem dealt with by fancy footwork devoid of exegesis. The fact is that the biblical warnings spell a terrible destruction awaiting the impenitent wicked, and if hell is everlasting there is no way to make it other than endless torture. I understand why traditionalists want to take the hell out of hell, but it should not be permitted, because it breaks the concentration and prevents people from seeing the need for theological renewal on this point.
4. The need to correct the traditional doctrine of hell also rests upon considerations of the divine justice. What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. Even the plagues of Egypt were intended to be redemptive for those who would respond to the warnings. But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it. Furthermore, it would amount to inflicting infinite suffering upon those who have committed finite sins. It would go far beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There would be a serious disproportion between sins committed in time and the suffering experienced forever. The fact that sin has been committed against an infinite God does not make the sin infinite. The chief point is that eternal torment serves no purpose and exhibits a vindictiveness out of keeping with the love of God revealed in the gospel. We should listen to H. Küng:
Even apart from the image of a truly merciless God that contradicts
everything we can assume from what Jesus says of the Father of the lost,
can we be surprised at a time when retributive punishments without an
opportunity of probation are being increasingly abandoned in education
and penal justice that the idea not only of a lifelong, but even eternal
punishment of body and soul, seems to many people absolutely monstrous?
5. Finally, from a metaphysical point of view, everlasting torment gives the clear picture of an unending cosmological dualism. Heaven and hell just go on existing alongside each other forever. But how can this be if God is to be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) and if God is making “all things new” (Rev. 21:5)? It just does not add up right. Stott asks: “How can God in any meaningful sense be called ‘everything to everybody’ while an unspecified number of people still continue in rebellion against him and under his judgment?” It would make better sense metaphysically (as well as biblically, morally, and justicewise) if hell meant destruction and the wicked were no more. Otherwise the disloyal opposition would eternally exist alongside God in a corner of unredeemed reality in the new creation.
6. Nevertheless, the reader may be asking, have I not forgotten something important? What about the texts which have always been taken to support the doctrine of everlasting conscious torment? In regard to them I would say that their number is very small. The texts which can be taken to teach this doctrine are few in number and capable of being fairly interpreted in harmony with the majority of verses which teach the destruction of the wicked. I deal with these “difficult” texts in the way that biblical inerrantists or high Calvinists deal with the difficult passages they face.
(1) “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). This imagery is taken from Isaiah 66:24 where the dead bodies of God’s enemies are being eaten by maggots and burned up. It is safe to say there is not a hint of everlasting suffering in the verse. The fire and the worm destroy the dead bodies; they do not torment them. The fire will be quenched only when the job is finished, not before. The tradition simply misreads the verse.
(2) “They will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). I admit that the interpretation of everlasting, conscious torment can be read out of this verse if one wishes to do so. Such a meaning is not at all impossible from the wording, especially if one smuggles the term “conscious” into it as is very common.26 But there are considerations which would bring the meaning more into line with what I judge to be the larger body of evidence. Jesus does not define the nature of eternal life or eternal death in this text. He just says there will be two destinies and leaves it there. One is free to interpret it to mean either everlasting conscious torment or irreversible destruction. The text allows for both possibilities and only teaches explicitly the finality of the judgment itself, not its nature. Therefore, one’s interpretation of this verse in respect to our subject here will depend upon other considerations. In the light of what has been said so far, I think it is better and wiser to read the text as teaching annihilation.
(3) But did not the rich man suffer torment in the flames in a famous parable of Jesus? (Luke 16:23ff.). Yes, this is part of the Jewish imagery Jesus uses. But one should keep two things in mind here: first, the mention of Abraham’s bosom (v. 22) should alert us to the fact that we are dealing with imagery, not literal description; and second (and more importantly), the story refers to the intermediate state between death and the resurrection and is not really relevant to our subject. This point should not be missed given the fact that the passage is used regularly (and erroneously) in the traditionalist literature to describe hell, not the intermediate state.
(4) But what about those passages in the book of the Revelation of John which speak of Satan, the false prophet, the beast, and certain evildoers being tormented in fire and brimstone (Rev. 14:11; 20:10)? Only in the first case (14:11) are human beings at all in view, and it is likely that what is being described is the moment of their judgment, not their everlasting condition, with the smoke going up forever being the testimony to their final destruction. In the other verse (20:10), it is the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet who are the only ones present, and they cannot be equated with ordinary human beings, however we should understand their nature. John’s point seems to be that everything which has rebelled against God will come to an absolute end. As Caird comments: “John believed that, if at the end there should be any who remained impervious to the grace and love of God, they would be thrown, with Death and Hades, into the lake of fire which is the second death, i.e. extinction and total oblivion.” I think it would be fair to say that the biblical basis for the traditional view of hell has been greatly exaggerated.
Positively I am contending that Scripture and theology give solid support to the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. The case is impressive if not quite unambiguous, and the traditional view looks less likely in comparison with it. Yet I would not say that either side wins the argument hands down largely because the Bible does not seem concerned to deal with this question as precisely as we want it to. But it is amusing to hear traditionalists claiming that they alone hold to the infallibility of the Bible as illustrated by their holding to everlasting torment of the wicked. Their position is in fact very weakly established biblically.
[footnotes omitted] Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 11-19.
In conclusion, the Traditionalist doctrine, that the lost suffer conscious eternal torment in hell, relies on a false doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Scripture strongly supports the Annihilationist doctrine. In his paper, Clark Pinnock has strong initial words expressing his outrage at the defenders of the Traditionalists who argue that the Annihilationist position is grounded in secular sympathy for the lost. His words are worth pondering:
How should I begin? Shall I treat the subject in the calm way one would when dealing with another issue? Would it be right to pretend to be calm when I am not? To begin calmly would not really communicate a full account of my response. I do not feel calm about the traditional doctrine of hell, and so I will not pretend. Indeed, how can anyone with the milk of human kindness in him remain calm contemplating such an idea as this? Now I realize that in admitting this I am playing into the hands of the critics, when I admit how disturbed the doctrine makes me. They will be able to say that I have adopted arguments on the basis of sentimentality and a subjective sense of moral outrage. In a recent paper, J.I. Packer has said that he dislikes the idea which critics of everlasting conscious punishment seem to have of their moral superiority, when it is not spiritual sensitivity, he says, but secular sentimentalism which motivates them (referring in the context to none other than his esteemed evangelical and Anglican colleague J. Stott). Nonetheless, I will take the risk of beginning at the point of my outrage and hope people will hear me and not put it down to sentimentality. To such a charge I would reply: if it is sentimentality which drives me, what drives my opponent? Is it hard-heartedness and the desire for eternal retribution? Such recriminations will get us nowhere fast.
Pinnock – The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent [Original Paper], p. 7-8.
Our God is a loving God, who shows mercy to us who believe as a matter of grace alone. In addition to conforming to Scripture, it is fitting that a righteous judge whose nature is love would justly punish the lost after the first death, and then end their existence in the second death, rather than punish with conscious excruciating pain forever.
I conclude with a video of a lecture by Edward Fudge on “Three Views of Hell.”
For reference, Part 1 of my discussion of the doctrine of conscious eternal torment of the lost in hell and Annihiliationism is found by clicking here.