I do not hold to the ‘traditional doctrine’ of Hell; the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. I am an advocate of “annihilationism”, otherwise known as “conditional immortality”. My disbelief puts me in a minority amongst Christians, but I don’t exactly know why. I think all evangelicals should hold to annihilationism, and my hope is that this post will be the first step in you embracing annihilationism.
For those of you new to this discussion, the advocates of the ‘eternal conscious torment’ view of hell are known as ‘traditionalists’. The advocates of annihilationism are usually known as annihilationists or conditionalists.
A little while ago, a group of friends and I ordered some pizza, hung out for a while, snagged a movie off of Amazon and sat down to watch it. This movie was “Hellbound”, and it was a fairly decent examination of the doctrine of hell and the various views on it. It seemed to be primarily focused on the debate between ‘eternal conscious torment’ (ECT) and universalism, brought about by Rob Bell’s
statements questions about the existence and/or nature of hell. While annihilationism was given some time in the movie, it was largely unconsidered and left as something worth thinking about… but less interesting than the other two options. It wasn’t off the table, it was just sorta pushed aside.
With my minimal online influence, I’d like to place annihilationism back in the middle of the theological table, to be considered with the other two. I am confident that annihilationism will emerge on top as the most biblically, theologically and philosophically accurate understanding of the doctrine of hell.
This blog post is not meant to be a full treatise of the doctrine of hell. While theology is certainly an interest of mine, I make no claims to be an authority. The purpose of this post is to be a jostling of your current theological apple-cart, if you will. I challenge you to study this issue for yourself. I believe annihilationism to be correct, but I could be wrong.
To quote John Stott: “I do not dogmatize about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. but I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to eternal conscious torment.”
I can almost guarantee that many people reading this will try to infer something about my motivations for embracing annihilationism. Please don’t do that. My motivations are irrelevant to the discussion about the biblical warrant for eternal conscious torment. However, if you would like to discuss my motivations I can assure you that it is not because I am morally repulsed by the traditional view, or because I can’t handle eternal conscious torment, or because I “hope” traditionalism isn’t true. I am an annihilationist because the biblical arguments for it are strong and the biblical arguments for eternal conscious torment and universalism are weak at best. That being said, there will undoubtedly be a handful of people who ignore the conditionalist arguments and point to made-up and/or irrelevant nefarious motivations.
… oh well.
Annihilationism! … and go!
– God is the creator and sustainer of life, and result of salvation is eternal life.
– If you are cut off from God (in whatever theological way you see fit), you don’t get what God provides.
– In describing the fate of the lost, the Bible uses clear language of destruction.
– Those who do get eternal life, live eternally. Those who do not get eternal life, do not live eternally. The Bible presents a consistent ‘eternal life vs not eternal life’ theme.
Lets look at some Bible!
Just a handful; this isn’t a full book, man. My goal here is to use so-called ‘proof-texts’, but in a way that is faithful to the context because we like proper hermeneutics. I encourage you to examine the context surrounding these verses. All verses are in ESV (because all the cool kids use ESV)
“… for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
“… Let [the Lord] rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (imagery used from the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis 19)
“When the tempest passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is established forever. Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him. The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short. The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish. The way of the Lord is a stronghold to the blameless, but destruction to evildoers. The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land.”
“… many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
“… do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“… [the cursed (v. 41)] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9
“[Those who do not know God (v. 8)] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…”
2 Peter 2:6
“… turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…”
2 Peter 3:7
“… the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
1 John 5:11-12
“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
There you have it! 17 verses that seem to clearly indicate the fact that eternal life is given by God, the fate of the lost is the opposite of life. There are more, but I chose the ones that I like because of how straight-forward they are.
I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah ok but traditionalists have some proof-texts too!” I know they do, and I am not unwilling to address these. I believe a proper, Biblical understanding of these verses almost always make these ‘pro-traditionalist’ verses into pro-conditionalist verses. Some are legitimately [slightly] challenging, but not many. But responding to those is for another post.
When discussing this issue, many traditionalists and conditionalists point to the same text and say it supports their view, but a single text could not support both views. But a single text cannot support both views, unless there is a misunderstanding of the text. It seems that this confusion happens because we both agree that the punishment of the lost is eternal, everlasting, etc., so we point to verses that say ‘everlasting punishment’ to support our case. The disagreement comes in when we make the distinction between the effect of the punishment and the act of punishing.
So which is it?
Does the act of punishing continue for eternity (traditionalism), or is the effect of the punishment eternal (conditionalism)? Both seem to be possible ways of understanding the words eternal, everlasting, etc.
Let’s look at some more Bible! After all, when there is a possible ambiguity, we should use the Bible to interpret the Bible when possible, right? hashtag hermeneutics.
“… whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
“… And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…”
he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
These verses use the word “eternal” in a way that is inconsistent with the act of sin/salvation/redemption being eternal, but is perfectly consistent with the effect of these things being eternal. Additionally, what would ‘eternal destruction’ mean if it the act of destroying was eternal? That would have to mean that the destruction was never accomplished, which is clearly in direct conflict with many of the verses [listed above] that indicate the ultimate ‘fate of the ungodly’ is destruction.
And when the Bible consistently dichotomizes “eternal life” with ‘death’, ‘destruction’, etc., the conditionalist interpretation comes out on top on this one. It seems to me that in order to get eternal conscious torment out of the Bible, you must interpret…
… ‘death’ to mean ‘not death but eternal life in torment’
… ‘perish’ to mean ‘not perish but remain in existence in torment’
… ‘destruction’ to mean ‘torment that never actually results in destruction’
… ‘extinction’ to mean ‘not really extinction because they still exist’
The last point I’d like to make is this.
If the Bible meant to convey the doctrine of annihilationism, it has done a really great job in doing so. Rarely do I find a passage of scripture that seems to indicate anything other than the ultimate non-existence of the unsaved. However, if the Biblical writers wanted to convey eternal conscious torment as the ultimate fate of the lost, how else could these passages have been written? All that you’d need is a simple change of wording. A change in wording that we do not see.
Destruction? No; torment!
Extinction? Perish? Death? just kidding; eternal existence!
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions or push-back, feel free to leave a comment below, or find me on twitter!
And now, some resources!
Here are some of my favorite online articles dealing with conditionalism:
- Rethinking Hell’s website and podcast
- The Case for Annihilationism by Greg Boyd
- Ask a conditionalist (annihilationist)…Edward Fudge responds
- Right Reason podcast series by Glenn Peoples (podcast notes found here)
- Chris Date vs Albert Mohler
Edward Fudge is one of the foremost defenders of conditionalism, and here he is talking about Hell for about an hour. Its good, check it out:
Many times, traditionalists will appeal to church tradition as one way to justify eternal conscious torment. So, if you’re wondering what a handful of the early church fathers thought of hell, here is Glenn Peoples on the topic:
If you have any additional resources that you think are just awesome, tell me about them! I may add them to the list if they’re as awesome as you say!