How difficult it is to escape a theological rut. Once my doctrinal wagon wheels roll into one, they just want to remain in the path of least resistance. So I avoid listening to anything that might challenge my position, and I keep moving straight ahead…in the rut carved out before me.
Blessed are those whose wagon God occasionally jars, giving them a chance to see some light. Still, it is quite easy to fall right back down into that rut—where it seems so much safer. Down in the rut there is no risk of being criticized by everyone else whose doctrinal wheels are following the same well-worn groove. So we all keep singing I Shall Not Be Moved while the Lord is singing Amazing Boneheadedness.
For several years I’ve been challenged by an alternate view on a doctrine I’ve held for almost four decades. I’ve done my best to stay in my rut, but it has become increasingly more difficult. Scriptures keep jarring me. Recently, I think I may have been jarred onto a new path for good, and that will be the subject of my e-teachings for the next few months.
Let me say from the outset that the doctrine I’ll be writing about is not one that is among the essentials, such as Jesus’ deity, death or resurrection. You can fall on either side of this debate and remain heaven-bound. If you disagree with me, I won’t consider you a heretic, and I hope you’ll show me the same courtesy.
On the other hand, the topic is not trivial. It is certainly worth studying as it does ultimately reflect on God’s character, and thoughtful Christians do think about it.
The topic of which I’m speaking is the debate over hell. Not the existence of hell, but the nature of hell. More specifically, is hell a place where the unrighteous suffer eternal conscious torment? Or is it a place where the ungodly temporarily suffer differing degrees of just punishment before they are annihilated, never again to exist as a spirit, soul or body?
I’ve always believed the former, and when someone first suggested to me the latter, the doctrine known as annihilationism, I rejected it. But as I studied Scripture and listened to others, I’ve found myself leaning more in that direction. So let’s consider a few introductory points about the concept of annihilation.
Let me start with one of the verses in the Bible that provoked me to begin thinking about annihilationism. It is, in fact, the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16. Read it slowly. Try to ignore any preconceived ideas you may have about it, and see what happens.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Did you see it? The contrasted consequences of believing and not believing in Jesus are possessing eternal life versus perishing. When I think of something perishing, I think of it coming to an end, not continuing forever. The word perish never implies a state that is continual or ongoing, much less a state that is eternal.
The Greek word translated perish in John 3:16, apollumi, is often translated in the New Testament as “destroy,” which again implies a coming to an end. Whoever believes in Jesus will not be destroyed, but will live forever. That is precisely what Jesus said.
The fact that “eternal life” is contrasted with “perishing” in John 3:16 seems to further underscore the finality of perishing. The two alternatives are polar opposites. John 3:16 really doesn’t present the alternatives of living forever in hell and living forever in heaven, even though it is often interpreted that way.
This is not the only place in the New Testament that we are told that the unrighteous will ultimately perish or be destroyed. Consider Jesus’ warning to His disciples recorded in Matthew 10:28:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy [apollumi] both soul and body in hell (emphasis added).
Note the contrast. People can kill bodies but not souls. That is, when someone kills another person, the soul of the deceased continues to live. God, however, can destroy both body and soul so that neither continue to live. That sounds like annihilation.
Once you begin to seriously consider what John 3:16 and Matthew 10:28 are actually saying, other verses in Scripture begin to catch your attention, especially those that speak of the ungodly one day perishing or being destroyed. For example, consider Jesus’ words recorded in John 10:27-28:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish [apollumi] (emphasis added).
Notice again the contrast is between eternal life and perishing. If, however, even the unrighteous never perish, but live eternally in torment, we’d have to wonder why Jesus made such a promise that His sheep would never perish since there is no possibility of anyone ever perishing. We’d have to wonder why He didn’t say, “I give eternal life in heaven to them, and they will never suffer eternal torment in hell.”
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish [apollumi] but for all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).
God doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed. Again, this begs the question: If the unrighteous live forever in a state of perpetual torment, why would Peter write that God wishes that no one perish but that they all come to repentance when in fact none will ever perish?
Consider Matthew 7:13-14, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction [apoleia, a Greek word derived from apollumi], and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it (emphasis added).
Again, the contrast is between “destruction” versus “life.” Taken at face value, one would conclude that those who choose the broad way will be destroyed (annihilated), but those who choose the narrow way will not be destroyed, but live.
How about Philippians 3:18-19, where Paul writes of the ungodly: “They are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction” [again, apoleia] (emphasis added). If the enemies of Christ are tortured eternally, why would Paul have said that their end would be “destruction”? As the late respected, evangelical scholar John Stott wrote, “It would seem strange…if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and…it is difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing.”
But what about those scriptures that speak of “eternal punishment”? For example, Jesus warned in Matthew 25:46 that the unrighteous, will “go away into eternal punishment.”
First, we don’t want to make the mistake of murdering scores of scriptures in order to save one. So we need to look for ways to harmonize all the scriptures we’ve been considering with what appears to contradict them in Matthew 25:46. And it isn’t really difficult. “Eternal punishment” doesn’t necessarily have to describe the eternal conscious tormenting of a person who lives forever. Annihilation is an eternal punishment. The unrighteous person is annihilated, never to exist again, forever. That is an eternal punishment. Jesus said the unrighteous would suffer “eternal punishment,” not “eternal punishing.”
Take note that Scripture also speaks of “eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:2). No one interprets that to mean there will be a judgment that will continue eternally. Rather, everyone interprets it to mean there will be a one-time judgment, the outcome of which will be eternal.
So when Paul warns that the unrighteous “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (2 Thes. 1:9), he may not be writing of an incomprehensible oxymoron, that is, an unending destruction, (since all destructions ultimately end). Rather, he may well be writing about something we can easily understand, namely, a one-time destruction of people that becomes a permanent, eternal state. After the souls of the unrighteous are destroyed eternally, there is no hope of their resurrection. That is annihilation.
The Moral Questions
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the doctrine of the eternal conscious torment of the unrighteous is that it makes God appear to be unfair, punishing a person for billions and billions of years for only a lifetime of sin. In fact, at the end of those billions and billions of years of torture, God is just getting started in terms of eternity. Our minds naturally object to such a concept, as it seems morally indefensible.
Of course, our perception could be wrong, and who are we to find fault with God? If, in spite of the many scriptures we’ve just considered, the unrighteous actually do suffer eternal conscious torment, then it must be fair in some way that we can’t understand. Still, we don’t have to question or defend God’s apparent unrighteousness in eternally tormenting the unrighteous if He does not, in fact, eternally torment the unrighteous.
But how can we not question the fairness of the unsaved suffering eternal conscious torment? Consider the sense of injustice we intuitively feel when we hear of a person who is found guilty of some crime but whose punishment seems greater (or lesser) than what he deserves. We all believe that the punishment should fit the crime, and that belief stems from an internal sense of justice and a knowledge of the Bible. Under the Law of Moses, God prescribed certain punishments for certain crimes. More severe crimes required more severe punishments. “An eye for an eye.” And that is just. So naturally we question the idea of eternal conscious torment.
Imagine a 20-year-old murderer in a human court of law being sentenced to be tortured as much as he could humanly endure, so that he would experience agony every waking minute for the rest of his life, with an objective of keeping him alive until at least age 80. Would anyone consider that a just punishment, even for a murderer? Yet it seems we’ve assigned to God an injustice that is infinitely greater, an everlasting conscious torment that will be suffered by multitudes.
Consider also the two following scenarios:
1.) Imagine for a moment a young person who dies in an auto accident just a few days after reaching “the age of accountability.” (Note: Most Christians do not believe that babies and young children who die are consigned to hell, because they are mentally immature, and thus God does not hold them accountable for their sins, otherwise He would be unfair. So children must reach an “age of accountability” before God begins holding them responsible.) In the case of our young accident victim, God had been holding him accountable for just a few days. Let us imagine that in those few days, he consciously sinned without repentance. Can you then imagine that young person being consciously tormented forever as a just punishment by the One who declared that He would “render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6)? To put it in Abraham’s words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25).
2.) Finally, imagine being in heaven yourself, knowing that God has been torturing your unsaved family members for the past ten thousand years, and knowing He has every intention of torturing them to the same degree for the next hundred trillion years, and when that is complete, continuing on forever. Might that not tend to make your experience in heaven less heavenly?
If the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is true, both of those scenarios will be actual realities.
Another Objection to Annihilationism
But don’t some cults teach the doctrine of annihilationism? Yes, some do, but that should not be our test of orthodoxy. We should examine all doctrine by its compatibility with Scripture. Keep in mind that every cult that claims to be Christian has some truth within its doctrine, otherwise the cults could never fool anyone that they are Christian. For example, cults believe that God exists. Should we reject God’s existence because all cults affirm it?
There are, of course, other objections to the doctrine of annihilationism, including objections that arise from Scripture. Before you write to me with one of them, you may want to wait until I’ve completed what I have to say on this topic in my next few e-teachings.
Read Part 2 of this series.