Annihilationism: An Unbiblical Doctrine

Does the Bible teach that Hell is punishment forever? In this article, we will examine the doctrine generally known as annihilationism, sometimes called "conditional immortality", although the two terms are not exactly synonymous. This idea has gained some popularity or at least sympathy among evangelicals lately (famous names include John Stott, Gordon Wenham, and F. F. Bruce) and so warrants some attention.

A few words on the limits of this study.

The Social Background of Hell

The majority of verses that describe Hell say nothing at all about timeframes for occupation of Hell by the wicked -- from this may we conclude that there is a chance that the doctrine can be averted?

One major problem with such a stance is this: When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about Hell (cf. Luke 12:4-5, Matt. 10:28), he speaks to them on ascertainable ideological ground. Josephus reports that the Pharisees fully believed that the souls of the wicked went on to eternal punishment [Cro.4VH, 65].

It may be acknowledged, of course, that this immortality was conferred upon souls rather than being an intrinsic part of their nature; this much is correct from the annihilationist camp, in agreement with 1 Tim. 6:16. But it is not true that Jews believed in a doctrine of "soul sleep" in which the soul passed into an unconscious state until the resurrection: That much is shown by Moses and [perhaps] Elijah making an appearance at the Transfiguration)

Some critics may argue that overall, there was a diversity in Jewish views of the ultimate fate of the wicked, but since the question here involves a known view on the part of the Pharisees, the question is moot. It is with they whom Jesus interacted in these verses on this topic, and the belief in eternal punishment may be assumed even where no timeframe is mentioned.

However, for the sake of argument, I will not list verses for support unless they contain explicit reference to a time frame.

Objection: Josephus is less than reliable in many areas, and often imbibes Greek thought into his "history." He is hardly reliable enough to base something like this on . In addition, Josephus also reports that the Pharisees believed in the preexistence of souls!

Josephus did often present Greek thought in his work, or explained Jewish thought in Greek terms in a way that sometimes failed to represent the Jewish thought with perfect accuracy. But there is no evidence that this led Josephus to falsely ascribe a Greek belief to a Jew.

The Pharisees either a) believed in eternal torment as Josephus said; b) did not believe in it, but Josephus either b1) recast their beliefs in "Greek" fashion or b2) just plain lied about what they believed. The latter two are rather hard to swallow, since Josephus was a Pharisee himself, and it is hard to see what Pharisee belief would have had to be "recast" into eternal torment, or why he should have ascribed a position to the Pharisees that they did not hold at all.

In order for this argument to mean anything, it has to be proven that the Pharisees did not actually believe in eternal torment and that Josephus therefore may have made some sort of mistake. Simply arguing for the possibility of guilt by association is to argue in a circle. The data, as it stands, clearly indicates a Pharisee belief in eternal torment.

Also, re the Pharisees believing in the pre-existence of souls: This is false. It is a misreading of Josephus in which he describes resurrection in Greek terms. See on this matter Link 3 below.

A different tack is taken by Powys [280-1], who argues that here and in verses like Matt. 10:28 and 25:46, Jesus is "seiz[ing] one of [the Pharisees'] own foundational concepts and, with powerful rhetorical effect, hurl[ing] it against them." In other words, he didn't accept their belief, but used it against them anyway, without making it clear anywhere else that he did not accept it, and in other places Jesus also used the concept merely rhetorically and evocatively.

This argument is invalid, as it merely assumes what it sets out to prove.

Verses Indicating Eternal Punishment

As we examine verses that are used to support the argument for eternal punishment, two key words will crop up. We will look at these first.

The first key word is aionios. This is the word that translates as eternal. There is no other Greek word that can refer to an eternal period of time.

The only other word I have seen suggested, pantote, carries the idea of regularity and dedication where it is used, rather than timeframes: For example, "Jesus replied. 'I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.'" - John 18:20) This word, Barr tells us, is used in cases that "refer fairly uniformly to the being of God or to plans and realities which, once are established by Him, are perpetual and unchanging. Since the word is not used of more mundane realities like the flowering of fig-trees, one cannot argue that the same kind of temporality is attributed to these as to the being of God." [Barr.BWT, 77]

Walvoord, following Buis, counts 66 occurrences of aionios in the NT [Cro.4VH, 23]. 51 of these refer to the unending happiness of the righteous. 2 refer to the duration of God in His glory. 6 indicate an endless amount of time in other contexts, and 7 appear in reference to the punishment of the wicked.

A counter-argument seeks to make the point that aionios may in some cases refer to a limited period of time. For the word by itself, we may say that while it is true that it may refer to a time which began at a certain point and continued on into the future for eternity (and once, in the case of Rom. 16:25, backwards from a specific terminus), it never has any other meaning than an eternal period.

It is significant that whenever some critics make this claim, no examples are provided as proof. [Will.EDEP, 73ff -- who says, for example, that the word "may (mean) a week, a month, a year, an age, or a series of ages". Elsewhere, Pinnock's appeal to Cullmann as proving this point is useless, as Cullmann's arguments have been superseded by Barr.]

There is, however, a second way in which the annihilationists/conditionalists suggest that the strength of aionios can be deflected, and we will look at that when we reach a specific cite below.

The Hebrew equivilent is 'olam' and is used frequently for things or events which will or did end.

To try to deflect the meaning of a Greek word through use of one in Hebrew does not do full justice to the intricacies of one language to another that is completely different.

But indeed, we need not even go in that direction. The assertion is misleading: olam is used not of things that "will" end, but things that did end, but were meant not to. Specifically, it is used to refer to ordinances in the Jewish law which were to be kept by the Israelites.

The word olam is also used to describe the tenure of a slave, indicating that his service will last for the entirety of his life. One might argue that this indicates a time that ends, but the parallel usage of olam with the phrase "as long as he lives" in 1 Sam. 1:22-28 indicates that what lies behind olam in these cases is something of a figurative sense of "forever" that stresses the permanence of the person's condition.

Barr, as well, in Biblical Words for Time, the premier study on this subject, regards olam as meaning essentially "in perpetuity" -- i.e., forever.

A second key word is apollumi, which emerges in our translations as "destroy". This is an important word, for many annihilationists like Pinnock and Fudge actually see it as favoring annihilation (Matt. 10:28; 2 Thess. 1:9; Phil. 3:19).

But the meaning of this word and those related to it does not refer to "destruction" in the modern sense that that word is used for the annihilation of something. Rather, it is closer in meaning to the way we use "destroyed" to mean ruined or lost, as in, "He destroyed his family with his drug habit."

Lest there be any doubt, take a look at some verses where the same Greek word is used, and ask youself: Were any of the items in question annihilated? [Fern.CQAH, 41]

Other words are used of the "destruction" of the wicked - an example being 'kataphtheiro' in 2 Peter 2:13 --- translated as "utterly perish". Paul also uses "apollumi" in 1 Cor. 15:18, translated "perished". Paul's hypothetical argument here makes it clear that he means they will not live again.

Also, the Old Testament speaks of the final end of the wicked in terms such as "cut off"; will "be no more"; are "slain"; they will "not be found"; "vanish like smoke"; "perish"; "be destroyed"; be "torn to pieces"; "vanish like water which flows away"; "melt like a slug"; be like the "stillborn"; their "blood will bathe the feet of the righteous"; etc.; etc. These pictures cannot possibly symbolize "perpetual concious torment forever."

I will simply ask this question: In any of the places where apollumi is used, did the things in question "cease to exist as" whatever they were? No -- the oil of Matt. 26 did not cease to be oil; it was simply (so it was argued by Judas) put to a use that it should not have been. It remained oil. The same may be said of every other example I cited, and of 1 Cor. 1:19 -- the plans did not "cease to exist as" plans; they simply did not fulfill their intended purpose.

This is right in line with the traditional view that while God intends us for eternal life with Him, those who are apollumi lose out, but do not in any way evaporate or cease to exist, but per our understanding of the nature of hell, fits in perfectly with hell as a place of shame.

That "other words" are used is true, but beside the point. 2 Peter 2:13, at any rate, refers to people currently living on the earth.

Now to specific cites. Some of these are stronger than others, but these are indeed the most clear indications available [cf. Buis.DEP]. These we may add to the social background data above to indicate that the doctrine is one that is both assumed and taught in Christianity.

  1. Matt. 10:28//Luke 12:4-5
    Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
    I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.

    In this case, the Matthean parallel passage is much clearer in description than the Lukan one. However, they are complimentary rather than contradictory.

    This is a fairly clear statement that the soul and body will be destroyed (in the sense noted above -- not "annihilated") in Hell. Annihilationists and conditionalists have a great deal of trouble with this verse. Knowing that the resurrection of the wicked is clearly taught in the NT, some will deny that the nature of the resurrection body of the wicked is the same as that of those of the justified, and that it will eventually "lose all vitality and truly die" [Fudg.FTC, 176], but there is neither scriptural nor social warrant to suppose that there will be any difference in this way.

    Another tack is to argue that the words "kill" and "destroy" being in parallel should mean that they indicate the same thing [ibid., 177], which seems all too obviously without any linguistic support.

    Finally, an appeal is made to Luke's parallel version being itself parallel to Is. 66:24 (see below), which supposedly argues against eternal punishment; we will look at that verse shortly, but generally, to make this argument in this way begs the question of whether or not the punishment described is eternal or not.

    Scripture nowhere even hints that the wicked receive an indestructible body.

    Where can it be proven that the resurrection of the wicked with an "indestructible" body is "unscriptural"? "Extrascriptural", yes -- it is a proposition I derive from logic, not with (but also not contrary to) Scripture.

    1 Cor. 15 does not say that only those in Christ will be raised immortal in some way; I would agree that the resurrection body of the wicked will be different from that of the Christian, following the Biblical logic of a "sown" body bearing "fruit" that corresponds with the nature of the body. But there is nothing in Scripture that contradicts the idea that the bodies of the wicked will be somehow destructible.

    On the other hand, this argument may be pointless to begin with; if hell is a place of shame rather than literal flames, then the bodily "destruction" is completely metaphorical -- and the nature of the body is irrelevant to begin with.

  2. Matt. 12:31-2//Mark 3:29
    And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

    Some fall back on the argument that this is a sin that could only be committed in that time and place (rather than describing, as we have argued in Link 4 below, the sin of disbelief), but this would still leave open that eternal punishment exists, at the very least for those few people who committed this sin in the first century.

    Another tack is to say as Fudge does that [Fudg.FTC, 181]:

    To say that the sin is never forgiven is not the same as saying it's perpetrators will always endure conscious torment for committing it. It is possible in our society for a convicted murderer to be pardoned. But if he is not forgiven, the form of his punishment is beside the point. He is no more pardoned if he is executed for his crime than if he spends 100 years in prison.

    It seems to me that this explanation begs the question. If a special point is made that a sin is "never" forgiven, then it seems to me to imply that the person will always be around to experience the non-forgiveness. One could argue as Fudge has, of course, but to do so makes the whole point of Jesus' teaching superfluous. Why make a special point to say that a sin in never forgiven in given time periods, unless one will be around to fully experience those time periods?

    Hayes [Cro.4VH, 105], trying to soften the passage in favor of a purgatorical stance, says, "One could ask what meaning this text could have if it were not possible that some sins could be forgiven in the next world."

    I think Hayes is missing the point of the hyperbole here, but let's just assume for the sake of argument that this verse allows for forgiveness of some sins. That would still leave one very much unforgivable sin, and that is still DISBELIEF. There is simply no getting around eternal punishment in this way.

  3. Matt. 25:46
    "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

    Up until now, our verses have been a bit vague, or softened by a parallel; but this one is harder to explain. Pinnock [Cro.4VH] objects to the use of this verse, saying that it gives no indication that the eternal destiny involves conscious suffering; therefore, he says, we have the "freedom" to interpret this verse as not indicating such a thing.

    I think it is quite plain that Pinnock here is simply trying to insert a concept into the text that is in no way implied, nor indicated by the social background data. Significantly, his only answer to the counter that the "eternal life" being conscious must indicate a parallel to the "eternal (punishment)" being conscious is, "I beg to differ."

    Obviously: "Begging" the question is really the only way to get around what is quite evident in the text.

    Shaw [Shaw.LAD, 72] is more vague when he argues that the length of the aionios must be determined by context; hence, he argues, allowing that fellowship with God means a "duration of aeon of God Himself" (that is, forever), so it is that "the character of the existence out of or apart from fellowship with God" determines a non-eternal punishment.

    May I frankly say that this argument by Shaw makes absolutely no sense at all, which is perhaps why he doesn't bother to explain it. He has assumed an equation of "God everlasting = life everlasting", but has offered no initial corollary for the counter-equation, only the secondary corollary: What is it that equals, "not punishment everlasting"?

    A much better argument comes from Williamson [Will.EDEP, 85] who, following a somewhat preterist eschatology, suggests that Matt. 25:46 was already fulfilled in the events of 70 AD, and that the "goats" are the Jews while the "sheep" are the Gentiles. But even allowing for a preterist interpretation, it seems unlikely that, at least, Matt. 25 and onward can be fit into 70 AD, but rather, with the age following 70 AD, which ends with the final judgment. (See my essay at Link 5 below.)

    Finally, we here come to a second argument used to deflect the force of aionios as meaning "forever". Fudge [Fudg.FTC, 41ff] argues that the word may be read in a qualitative sense as well as a quantitative sense -- i.e., refer to both duration and character of what the word modifies.

    This much we find agreeable, and Fudge provides some good examples of places where aionios seems to have only a qualitative meaning (Heb. 6:2. 9:12). Thus, for example, verses speak of "eternal judgment"; but the "judgment" itself is a one-time event, whereas the results of it are what is eternal; "eternal redemption" took place in one event, but its results continue forever, and so on. This, so we are told, should serve as an interpretative key to Matthew's "eternal punishment."

    The problem I see with this verse has to do with the fact that some of these words, including "punishment," do not indicate in and of themselves something with a single and solitary point of action with only results (rather than actions) that persist. Our only real clue for this verse is the parallel phrase for eternal life -- and we have seen that attempts to dis-establish the parallel do not work.

    At best it can be argued that the word for "punishment" here (kolasis) has a sense of "pruning" or "stopping short one's development" and that this may or may not indicate conscious pain [Fudg.FTC, 197]; for our part, it does fit in perfectly with the idea of hell as a place of shame. The only other use of the word in 1 John 4:18 carries the strong implication of retribution.

    In Mark 3:29, the phrase "eternal sin" is used. Surely "eternal sin" does not mean that the one who is guilty continues sinning forever. No, it is meant to tell us that the results of the sin in question remain forever, not the act itself.

    In Heb. 5:9, the author uses "eternal salvation." Does this require us to understand that Jesus is "eternally saving" believers? Certainly not! Hebrews, more so than any other NT book, makes it clear that salvation was accomplished "once for all." What this phrase tells us is that the finished work of salvation is "aionios" in its result.

    Once again, all that is done here is question-begging -- it is assumed without any justification that "punishment" is in exactly the same category as "sin" and "salvation". My question is: In which Greek grammar does it specify that any time aionios is paired with a noun, it signifies a process that has a completion? It is not found anywhere; it is a rule created by the annihilationism position.

    At the risk of being anachronistic by dealing with English rather than Greek, let me use a comparable word to "punishment" to make a point. Annihilationism would have us believe that "punishment" refers here to a completed process that is eternal in its results. But let us say that, rather than eternal punishment, we were to be sentenced to eternal entertainment. It is a word paired with aionios, we will say, and it is a noun "formed from a verb involving process".

    Following annihilationism logic, someone sentenced to "eternal entertainment" would begin eternity by, say, watching a few back episodes of the Three Stooges, then have it turned off from there on.

    "I thought this was eternal entertainment!" you would cry.

    "Sure it is!" Gabriel answers. "You can remember what those Stooges episodes were like and laugh about them for the rest of eternity."

    This would sound like false or misleading advertising to me -- and that is what the above annihilationism argument regarding the word "punishment" is. It is a twisting of the normal meaning of a word to suit a given position.

    Of course, if annihilationists could show somewhere that the Greek word behind "punishment" refers somewhere to an "experience" that included under the rubric of the punishment an effect not actually experienced by the one punished, but merely a result of the punishment, then they might begin to have a case.

  4. Mark 9:43-8 (cf. Is. 66:24)
    If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'

    In using this verse, Jesus alluded to the OT passage noted above. This verse in Isaiah was interpreted to refer to the torments of eternal punishment both in rabbinical sources and in the Jewish apocryphal works like Judith.

    Against the use of this verse, Pinnock objects that Judith (and presumably any other works) "should not determine the meaning of Isaiah or Mark." [Cro.4VH, 155]

    It shouldn't? Since when have the tenets of critical analysis been abandoned simply for the sake of eliminating a troublesome teaching? Nowhere else is it said that rabbinic and apocryphal sources "should not determine the meaning" of something in the NT.

    Why is that the case here? If this is abandoned then Wisdom of Solomon and Philo are out for understanding the Trinity (see Link 6 below).

    A stronger argument notes that the bodies in question are said to be "carcasses" and therefore could not possibly be suffering. This is a valid point that should be considered seriously, for the word used here is clearly one used only of corpses (cf. 2 Kings 19:35//Is. 37:36).

    On the other hand, it is just as obvious that this verse does not support annihiliationism: In fact, if we note vv. 22-23, the indication is that just as the righteous continue to come for worship forever, so it is that they will continue to go forth and see these who are outside of the city.

    We are therefore faced with the paradox [Bern.FH, 171] of dead bodies that perpetually burn, with no indication of consciousness, but we are certainly not given any sense of annihilation. We are left only with 1) later interpretive methods which did use this verse to indicate eternal punishment, 2) the fact that Jesus applies the name "Gehenna" (the perpetually-burning garbage dump) to this place, and 3) this question: If eternal consciousness is not in view here, then why is there an option presented of entering hell with a whole body? If the person is not conscious, what is the point?

    I conclude that the data is marginally in favor of the interpretation of eternal punishment in Mark. And we may add that knowing hell as a place of shame confirms what this passage means, for to have a dead body exposed and not buried was a sign of great dishonor.

    These words are obviously taken from Isaiah 66:24. As used by the prophets they signify not "perpetual torment" but rather death, plain and simple.

    I need only make the point here that if we wishes to stress that Mark had to use Isaiah in exactly the same way as Isaiah did, then all typological prophecy is invalid. It was my acknowledgement above that Isaiah cannot be used by itself to support eternal, conscious torment. However, it is also clear that some later Jewish interpreters used this verse typologically in favor of eternal torment. The evidence of this verse being coupled with admonitions about the "whole body" leans slightly in favor of the traditional position.

  5. 2 Thess. 1:8-9
    He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.

    Unlike many of our verses, this passage uses the word olethros rather than one of the apo- words above. However, it still has the meaning of destruction, punishment, ruin and death. (cf. 1 Tim. 6:9-10)

    I have thus far seen no arguments against this verse that we have not already covered elsewhere in some form, but we can add that since Paul here describes the punishment as being "shut out from the presence of the Lord", there is a strong implication that the persons in question will exist and continue to exist [Pet.TRA, 555]. (Note that this refers to the loss of fellowship with God and has nothing to do with God's omnipresence as such.) It is therefore perhaps the strongest verse against annihilationism, and the least able to be re-interpreted.

    The idea of "different kinds" of God's presence is nowhere supported in the text. The fact that the wicked are excluded from the very power required to sustain their existence proves that their final end is destruction.

    If there is any speaking here of "two kinds" of God's presence -- I prefer to say, two "degrees" of it -- then it is done here by Paul first and me by derivation. At the same time, this does nothing to show how the first part of the verse squares with annihilationism. The active voice of the verb in this passage suggests a continual existence for those who are "shut out"; the preposition here (apo) literal implies separation by distance, not annihilation at all.

    This objection would work just fine if he could show that the Bible teaches that God's "power" (ischus) is indeed in a constant sustaining relationship with humanity, but as we are given no cites to prove this, little can be said, and I find no proof of this in any of the 11 places where the word is used.

    But I don't see why the sustaining power, even if in this sort relationship, has to be in a continual relationship as opposed to one, let us say, that allows for a "single shot" of power at a given point that lasts in effect through eternity -- so that one might say that those in torment, though thereafter "shut out/away" from God and the majesty of His power, nevertheless continue to live.

  6. Jude 7
    In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

    Some also try to cite this verse to favor annihilationism, for it is argued that Sodom and Gomorrah were totally destroyed, and they no longer suffer. It is also added that since these cities are cited as an "example" [Fudg.FTC, 286 - who notes that the word is used in secular sources to mean samples of corn or produce] that therefore, reality must follow example: Eternal fire here refers to the results, not to the course of events.

    This is possible, but one should recall that in earthly terms, there really would be no suitable "example" of an eternal fire that could be called upon. The closest possible analogy to an "eternal fire" for the Jew would be the legendary, perpetually-burning Gehenna garbage dump, and even that of course would eventually go out. So the fact that an earthly example is used here does not mean that we can discount a teaching of eternal punishment.

  7. Rev. 14:9-11
    A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name."

    There is little that is presented that is new against these verses. Fudge [Fudg.FTC, 298] cites parallel terms in Isaiah used in relation to the destruction of Edom; thus he says Revelation must describe a complete destruction and annihilation. But this begs the question of whether Isaiah is using "eternal" language hyperbolically to describe Edom's fate, and since he is describing events on earth as opposed to those in heaven, one may argue that there is a strong likelihood that this is what Isaiah is doing.

    Pinnock [Cro.4VH, 157] makes the astonishing claim that these is no indication of how long the suffering described in this verse is to last. Williamson [Will.EDEP, 180ff] tries a different tack, arguing that this refers to earthly events, for "torment is suffered while the worship of the beast is in progress," and he figures that no one will worship anything while in torment.

    This quite clearly doesn't pass scrutiny, for verses 9-10 clearly indicate that this is something that is foretold of those presently worshipping the beast.

    Williamson also argues that because the torment takes place "day and night," this event must also be taking place in time, for an angel previously declared that time would be no more -- or so Williamson says; the verse he relies on is Rev. 10:6, which in the KJV reads:

    And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer...

    But as a more modern version shows, this is the actual meaning:

    And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, "There will be no more delay!"

    The reading used by Williamson, as Barr shows [Barr.BWT, 78n], does not fit the context of the passage. Modern versions like the NIV correctly capture the sense of this verse referring to the time of completion of the divine purpose -- not to the end of the institution of time. (Otherwise, Williamson says nothing about the "forever and ever" part of the original passage.)

    As a counter, it should also be noted that Revelation uses the phrase "day and night" to refer to things that occur continuously. (4:8, 7:15, 12:10) Even Fudge [Fudg.FTC, 300] must admit that while it "may be true" that the suffering will last day and night (always), this may not mean that there are not times when it will not occur -- just that it does not occur on a fixed schedule (i.e., just during the day, but not at night)!

    Finally, it should be noted that while annihilationists admit that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet are clearly tormented forever [Pinn.DFI, 257], and thus suffer eternal punishment, they will argue that those thrown into the lake of fire with them do not necessarily suffer the same eternal fate. Once again, this is obvious question-begging. There is no support in the text for the idea that others in the lake of fire will suffer any differently.

  8. Rev. 20:12-15, 21:8
    And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire...But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

    Some argue that this verse points to annihilation. Williamson [Will.EDEP, 146] offers parallels in the NT that indicate that we already suffer the "first" death in this life in the sense of being in sin, so that the "second" death must be the last, and annihilation; otherwise, he concludes, this verse would be describing a third death.

    The problem with this interpretation is that Revelation describes this second death as taking place after the passing away of the old earth and the bringing on of the new Jerusalem -- and, also, after the stopping of death and pain. This means that what Williamson sees as the "second" death has already been eliminated by the time he supposes it is to happen. What he is actually doing here is mixing language used in different ways by different authors and assuming that they always mean the same thing when they use similar word-concepts.

    The same author [ibid., 154] also tries to argue that, if eternal punishment is true, then because this verse says that the fearful and unbelieving "shall" have a place in the lake of fire, then anyone who in the past did not believe (meaning everyone) shall be in the lake of fire.

    Like the interpretation of the verse above, this reading of the text (which he also applies to Mark 16:15-6) hardly needs detailed refutation. If it is not more clear that these verses refer to those who are "fearful and unbelieving" at the time, then how else is this concept to be expressed? (It does not say, "All who were ever" fearful and believing, but those who are.)

    Other than this, there are the usual arguments: That the verse does not specify conscious suffering, etc...things which, being speculation, can have no reasonable answer.

    Maybe Satan is annihilated too. Both Isa. 27:1 (in light of Rev. 12:9 & 20:2) and Jer. 10:11 suggest a real death for Satan and his demons. Heb. 2:14 implies destruction for Satan. In Mark 1:24, Jesus encounters some demonic spirits who expected "utter destruction" at an appointed time. The major passage in this connection would be Eze. 28:18-19, if this passage has reference to Satan as many believe.

    • Is. 27:1 -- Satan is not mentioned in this passage at all; the enemy here is "Leviathan" -- a word used symbolically to represent all of God's enemies. This would likely include Satan, but to conclude from this verse that Satan will be "absolutely destroyed" means we would also have to conclude that God lives in a house and that the earth talks (26:21), that God runs His own personal vineyard (27:3) and likes fighting weeds (27:4). In other words, one can hardly read this text with a full literal sense, nor give it preference over other verses that do contain a more literal sense.
    • The verses in Revelation, Jeremiah, and 1 Corinthians have no applicability at all.
    • Mark 1:24 uses the word apollumi -- a word we have seen offers WK no support.
    • Ezekiel 28:18-19 -- see Link 7 below; the passage does not refer to Satan at all. But regardless of what the interpretation is, let it be noted that in modern versions, these verses are rendered in the past tense -- this describes something that has already happened. If anything, then, these verses show that language of permanent death/destruction can be used figuratively.

    Philip Hughes wrote: "It would be hard to imagine a concept more confusing than that of death which means existing endlessly without the power of dying. This, however, is the corner into which Augustine (in company with and many others) argued himself." (THE TRUE IMAGE, p. 403).

    I suggest Hughes consult Genesis 3, where he will find a "death" which means existing without literally dying. Just extend it into eternity.

    Since God has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Eze. 33:11), are we to believe that they will forever be tormented in His presence?

    This argument involves an illicit exegetical jump. Sure, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but the wicked do indeed die, and that hardly means that the eschatological goal cannot be fulfilled: The goal is not God's "pleasure" but righteousness.

    From a Jewish standpoint, harmony is achieved in the universe as long as things are in their proper place. So, if the wicked are in eternal torment, and that is where they belong, things are indeed reconciled in line with verses like Col. 1:20.

    "Death" itself is cast into the Lake of Fire per Rev. 20:14. What is the result of this? It is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). Why would we believe that it would be any different with anything else cast into that same "Lake of Fire"?

    The word in 1 Cor. 15:26 -- which is in a passage that has to do with resurrection and physical bodies, not eternal issues -- means "be voided, abolished, rendered idle". In other words, physical bodies will no longer die. It is an exegetical jump to connect this "death" with the "death" of Rev. 20:14, although it is probable that physical death is an aspect of the "death" of Revelation. One way or another, this says nothing either way about eternal, conscious torment for the wicked, and if anything, works in favor of it.

    Outcries Against Eternal Punishment

    Other than those we have already noted above, there are a few extra-scriptural arguments, mostly "by outrage", that have been called to the fore against eternal punishment:

    1. The "finite sins" argument. In our essay at Link 8 below, we reject Anselm's argument that eternal punishment is justifiable on the grounds that any sin against an infinitely holy God amounts to requiring an infinite price. Hence this argument by annihilationists is moot for us.
    2. The unhappy saints argument. This argument asks: How can those who make it into eternal joy be happy knowing that the unsaved are locked forever into eternal torment?

      One suggests that we will, at that point, see things exactly as God sees them -- and realize the justness of the condemnation. It's also a position that seems to rely on a view of hell as literal fire; under an honor and shame paradigm, there is no such problem, except for we who have abandoned the agonistic dialectic.

    3. The spirit of the belief argument. Williamson [Will.EDEP, 3ff] devotes much space to arguing that Christianity's "spirit of love and kindness" operates against eternal punishment, and cites specifically the parable of the lost sheep and that of the Prodigal Son as indicating a more universalist position.

      But he fails to note that the lost sheep parable specifies that "lost sheep" is compared to one who repents -- and that the Prodigal Son had to return to the Father, and was welcomed upon his return. It also fails to acknowledge the proper meaning of agape love, which is not exclusive of just punishment. (See link 9 below.)

    4. The namecalling arguments. Finally, there are attempts to sway by emotion which include comments like this from Pinnock and Shaw [Cro.4VH, 88; Shaw.LAD, 74ff]: Eternal punishment means "God is a sadistic torturer", God is a loser in the battle for souls, etc.

      In response, I can only say that all who choose Hell, do so of their own will. God "tortures" no one (especially not with the understanding that hell is a place of shame, not literal fire); they have selected their fate; hell is "a condition brought upon the sinner by his persistent self-will" [Chan.LH, 29] -- they won't like the darkness, but they hate the light even more. C. S. Lewis rightly said that the doors of Hell would be locked from the inside.

    Verses Used in Favor of Annihilationism

    There is a small set of verses that have been used to support annihilationism. Here we will look at those.

    • Is. 65:17 "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
    • Rom. 8:19-23 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

      It is argued that since these verses (and others) indicate that the entire universe will be in harmony, then it is impossible that a place like Hell could exist where there would be creatures stored who are not in harmony with God, or that there is any possibility that God will "lose" the battle for souls [Bern.FH, 212; Will.EDEP, 70; Shaw.LAD, 74ff].

      But Crockett points out [Cro.4VH, 63] that this is imposing our modern view of what constitutes "harmony" on a text written prior to our time. Within an ancient Jewish context, so long as the wicked were "put in their place," so to speak, then harmony is achieved; it is only when they are "out running loose" that things are considered unharmonious. Furthermore, one might just as well argue that annihilation equates with disharmony, for it "means the unmaking of free, created agents (and)...the taking away of that freedom which defines the structure of the moral relationship between God and man." [Chan.LH, 27]

    • Matt. 13:30 "Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn."

      Verses like this one, which refer to a destiny of fire, are often called upon in support, for it is reasoned that fire annihiliates what it consumes.

      But this is not true: Fire does not destroy matter, but converts it to another form [Blan.WHH, 230 -- note that this is not a question of God's capability to annihilate matter, as some suggest; Fudg.FTC, 431; and note as well that this fits in with an idea of shame and disgrace as the fate of the wicked, being that what is burned becomes of no use], and moreover, it is presupposed that the substance of what is in the fire is such that it is indeed annihilated, which begs the question of what actually happens.

      And in this particular case, if it is argued that the analogy should be taken to the furthest extent possible, then the righteous will be ground up and made into bread. Of course one would indeed agree, as a reader noted, that it is a metaphor that expresses that the believer will "fulfill the purpose for which the Almighty has always intended it." Burning renders something impotent and keeps it from spreading seed, as it were (it may be noted that the burning of tares was more "hygienic" than it was destructive) and this matches exactly the idea of hell as a place of shame within which the wicked will be rendered ineffective and impotent -- but not annihilated.

      It should be pointed out again as well that in terms of earthly parallels, there is no perpetual fire on earth that contains objects that are never consumed by the fire. Our writers are after all constrained by what images they had available.

    • Matt. 5:26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

      This verse is used by annihilationists (and also universalists) to suppose that at some point the person might "pay the last penny" and "get out of jail". Such an argument fails to account for the reality of debtor's prison: In such cases, barring intervention, the person never pays the last penny, because they can't get out of prison to make money to pay the debt. If this happened a relative would have to get you out by selling their own land, which is where any analogy to eternity breaks down; only a broker acting for a patron (i.e., Jesus) could pay such a debt.

      Fudge [Fudg.FTC, 165] supposes that since death releases someone from prison, then this verse can still support annihilation; but Jesus never says, "you will not get out until you die" -- and could not say it, because the problem again is the lack of an earthly parallel to an eternal prison. No other metaphor is available.

    • Finally, Pinnock [Cro.4VH] uses a number of verses that refer to corruption, death, or perdition for the wicked (Matt. 3:10, 12; 1 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 6:8; Phil. 1:28; Rom. 1:32, 6:23; 2 Pet. 2:1, 3; 3:37; Heb. 3:6-7, 10:39) that either do not specify any sort of time frame or else refer to judgments on earth. But in not one case do these verses indicate anything like annihilation.

    Conclusion

    The doctrine of eternal punishment, though seldom mentioned in Scripture, seems quite clearly Scriptural, even if it does happen to be unpopular. Admittedly one can claim that some unsaid condition or twist on the language applies to the text; but given the social background data and the agreement of the early church on this subject, one must conclude that it is extremely unlikely that the NT can be read any differently.

    To close, a personal word. When critics like Pinnock and Shaw fudge the data and then accuse proponents of holding their position so that they can carry the "ultimate big stick" [Cro.4VH, 39; Pinn.DFI, 246; Shaw.LAD, 78] to threaten people with, or say that the early church only adopted the view to stem heresy and get some comfort out of persecution, or inject emotion into the issue and claim to be quite proud of having done so, they are not only engaging in psychoanalysis, they are also being extremely unhelpful. In 25+ years as a Christian, most of those spent believing in a literal flame-hell, I did not once wield this "stick" in anyone's face; many people in my own family reject Christianity in part because of someone else in my family who did wield the bat of eternal punishment; it is not part of the Biblical kerygma; and if hell is a place of shame, then Pinnock's objection goes completely out the door.

    How then does Pinnock suppose that I have come to believe this doctrine, and still do with a differing view of hell as a place of shame? One must face the fact that eternal punishment is taught in the Bible, and deal with it. Whether you choose to do so with acceptance, or by means of paste and scissors, is up to you. Exegeting it out of existence is not a viable option.

Sources

  • Barr.BWT - Barr, James. Biblical Words for Time. SCM Press, 1962.
  • Bern.FH - Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell. Cornell U. Press, 1993.
  • Blan.WHH - Blanchard, John. Whatever Happened to Hell? Crossway, 1995.
  • Buis.DEP - Buis, Harry. The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957.
  • (Remaining source cites mysteriously lost...contact me if references are needed.)

    -JPH

    Links

    1. here
    2. here
    3. here
    4. here
    5. here
    6. here
    7. here
    8. here
    9. here