Annihilationism 101 – An Introduction to Conditional Immortality

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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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.50.12 AMFor 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.

Small caveat:
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!

Put simply:
– 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)

Psalm 1:6
“… for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Psalm 11:5-6
“… 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)

Proverbs 10:25-30
“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.”

Daniel 12:2
“… many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Matthew 7:13-14
“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.”

Matthew 10:28
“… 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.”

Matthew 25:46
“… [the cursed (v. 41)] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

John 10:28
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Romans 2:6-8
“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.”

Romans 6:23
“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.”

Hebrews 10:26-27
“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.”

Revelation 20:13-14
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.

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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.

Mark 3:29
“… whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin

Hebrews 5:9
“… And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…”

Hebrews 9:12
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!

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And now, some resources!

Here are some of my favorite online articles dealing with conditionalism:

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!

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9 thoughts on “Annihilationism 101 – An Introduction to Conditional Immortality

    Jon McLeod said:
    January 10, 2015 at 2:32 am

    If I have the time, I might reply to this post with a few thoughts since I’m also studying this topic at the present time. One observation about the above post: you write that the biblical case for a never ending hell is “weak at best.” I would say that you’re too easily dismissing the opposing view. If the traditional and majority view of Christianity on the topic is “weak at best,” what does that say about Christians?

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      Thomas Rem said:
      January 10, 2015 at 4:50 am

      They are imperfect sheep with imperfect pastors; and leaven can easily influence the flock. Though there was some leaven left over from the reformation; we see that generation by generation the church is made perfect removing that dreadful leaven. remember Ephesians 4:11-15

      Liked by 1 person

        Thomas Rem said:
        January 10, 2015 at 4:57 am

        I want to attest that in this fallen world it is easy to be influenced into wearing certain types of glasses ; some because there cool looking,others because its to bright for you and others because you received them from your parents and passed it on; and some because its all the rage with your generation. But in tell you take a step back and ask yourself are these the right glasses to where; you will get somewhere

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    Jon McLeod said:
    January 10, 2015 at 3:00 am

    But I should also thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    Karen Longanecker said:
    January 20, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    I am afraid that I must respectfully disagree with you, Elijiah. In your study on this topic, please consider the following:

    1. You refer to Matthew 10:28. The Greek word for destroy is apollumi. This word does not always refer to annihilation. For instance in Matthew 8:25 it refers to drowning. In Luke 15, it is used when referring to the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. In John 17:12, Christ says, “and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction . . .” In Acts 1:25, it states that Judas went to his own place, not that he ceased to exist. Apollumi is also used in Scripture to refer to ruin, to spoil, and when something is wasted.
    2. In Matthew 25 we find a passage on the final judgment. In verse 46, our Lord states, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The same Greek word translated as eternal is used in both instances.
    3. The Bible teaches degrees of punishment (Matthew 11 and Hebrews 10 for example).
    4. In Revelation 20, the devil is thrown into the Lake of Fire where the Beast and False Prophet are. The Beast and the False Prophet are human beings. Verse 10 concludes with “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

    I greatly appreciate your love and passion for our Lord and Savior. May God bless you as you serve Him my brother.

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      ElijiahT responded:
      January 20, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      Hey Karen!

      I do plan on doing a response to traditionalist arguments at some point in the future, but it’s not at the top of my list as of right now. However, I’ll toss some thoughts your way to see what you think.

      1. In my experience, traditionalists who appeal to various understandings of apollumi are guilty of what some people have referred to as ‘exegetical fallacies’. This is when a single word is used and the reader appeals to every possible way that the word has ever been used. I don’t disagree with you regarding the various ways the word is used, but its important for us to understand the word contextually, and not appeal to every possible understanding of the word.
      It seems to me, given the consistent life vs death dichotomy, the comparison to the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, and other references to the ‘lost’, considering all possible understandings of apollumi is unwarranted. Some understandings are simply more justified, given the context.

      2. We agree that the punishment and life is eternal. The punishment is annihilation, and it is eternal. In order for annihilation to not be eternal, God would have to bring the unrepentant back from annihilation, and that doesn’t make much sense.

      3. I’m not sure how annihilationism is inconsistent with degrees of punishment. I am admittedly not settled on the issue myself, but let’s imagine a situation where those in hell are punished differently. And then they are annihilated. Eternal conscious existence is not required for different levels of punishment.

      4. There is a parallel passage to the event described in Rev. 20:10 found in Daniel 7:11. Given that both Revelation and Daniel are apocalyptic, we should approach them both using a similar hermeneutic. While Rev. 20:10 says “tormented day and night forever and ever”, Daniel 7:11 says “destroyed and given over to be burned with fire”.
      It seems that these two passages are giving us different messages, but that’s the nature of apocalyptic literature.

      This is obviously far from a full response to these things, but I don’t want you to think I’m dismissing them. I think there are good reasons to think the annihilationist perspective comes out on top, even given these considerations.
      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      J.D. Gallé said:
      February 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      K. Longanecker:

      While recognizing that E. Thompson (the author of this blog) has already provided a response to some of your concerns, I would like to touch upon a few points myself.

      1. Matthew 10:28 and Apollumi. Even a small sampling of apollumi and its usage within Matthew’s Gospel reveals that the term consistently suggest death, the termination of life, or being killed/executed by another agent (cf. Mt 2:13; 10:28; 21:41; 22:7; 26:52; 27:20). E.g.:

      * Herod sought to destroy/kill (apolesai) Jesus as an infant (2:13; cf. v. 20: “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life [psuchēn are dead”).

      * In a boat during a harsh storm out at sea, the disciples fearing for their lives cry out “Save us, Lord; we are perishing [apollumetha]” (8:25).

      * Jesus warns the twelve that those who find their lives in this age will ultimately lose/destroy (apolesei) them (10:39; cf. 16:25). This is set in the context of Jesus’ exhortation for his disciples to take up their crosses and to follow him to martyrdom if need be. For this reason losing/destroying one’s life now in order to gain it everlastingly cannot be reduced to metaphor (cf. also Jn 12:25).

      * Toward the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry the religious leaders conspired to have Jesus killed/destroyed (apolesōsin, 27:20).

      In all of the Matthean texts cited above apollumi is used synonymously with the dissolution or ending of human life, killing or slaying. It is not unthinkable, then, that the term should be used in essentially the same sense in Mt 10:28 where, for all intents and purposes, “kill” (apokteinō) and “destroy” (apollumi) appear to be used interchangeably.

      2. Aiōnios in Matthew 25:41 and 46. For an elucidating discussion on the term aiōnios and its usage in the New Testament, see Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2013), pp. 41-8.

      3. Final Punishment and Proportionality. Even if we are to grant different degrees of suffering being, in some way, meted out on the finally unrepentant in Gehenna, it is not immediately clear to me how final annihilation is unable to account for the proportionality principle.

      4. Revelation 20:10. Even if it were granted that the beast and the false prophet are specific individuals and not institutions and that three beings were to suffer everlasting conscious torment, this still does not discount the notion that unrighteous human beings will be finally destroyed. If, however, the beast and the false prophet are not to be understood as personal beings, we are left with only one non-symbolic entity undergoing perpetual torture:

      However we are to handle Revelation 20:10, it must be remembered that John of Patmos is not writing of the fate of lost humankind in this verse. There are reasons I believe Rev. 20:10 should not be taken as a literal declaration, but the above considerations must suffice for now.

      J.D. Gallé
      3 February 2015

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