Skip to comments.Flaws in the Arguments for Annihilationism
Posted on 07/13/2004 8:38:04 AM PDT by presidio9
The origins of the doctrine known as annihilationism go all the way back to the 4th-century when a man named Arnobius first propagated a doctrine that unbelievers passed into nonexistence either at death or at the time of resurrection. As to man, Arnobius . . . denies his immortality. The soul outlives the body but depends solely on God for the gift of eternal duration. The wicked go to the fire of Gehenna, and will ultimately be consumed or annihilated (Schaff 859). It was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D. The doctrine did not reappear again in church history until at least the 12th century. Throughout church history, leading church fathers have taken a strong stand against annihilationism (or conditionalism) in favor of the traditional (orthodox) view of hell as eternal punishment (everlasting) for those who choose to reject Jesus Christ and His gracious offer of eternal life. A few of the more famous figures of Christs church who have given whole-hearted support to the traditional doctrine include: Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and Dwight L. Moody. The Westminster Confession of Faith was very clear in its affirming of hell as eternal punishment: but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (Grudem 1196).
This past generation has experienced the movement of men believed to be stalwart evangelicals reaching to defend annihilationism. The well-known ones include John Stott, Clark Pinnock, John Wenham, Philip E. Hughes, Steven Travis, and their numbers (those advocating annihilationism) appear to be growing. Why should this be so, and what is the Biblical weight to be given their arguments? Can it be possible that evangelicalism is being attacked from within by a low view of God and His inspired, infallible, and inerrant word?
ANNIHILATIONISM ARGUMENT #1
Our immortality is not a natural attribute of being human (is not inherent in the make-up of man as a corporal-spiritual creature) at present; so, eternal life can only be given to believers at the resurrection as Gods gift. Unbelievers will pass into destruction (annihilation) of body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). Only God has immortality in Himself (I Tim. 6:15-16).
The eternity of God and eternal life for believers is not in doubt amongst evangelical Christians. What is at issue is whether eternity means the same in regards to eternal punishment. Clark Pinnock argues that if souls will exist forever, then those who reject the Gospel must be put somewhere: I am convinced that the Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul has done more than anything else (specifically more than the Bible) to give credibility to the doctrine of the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked (252).
Louis Berkhof argues that: God is indeed the only one that has inherent immortality. Mans immortality is derived, but this is not equivalent to saying that he does not posses it in virtue of his creation . . . . Eternal life is indeed the gift of God in Jesus Christ, a gift which the wicked do not receive, but this does not mean that they will not continue to exist (691).
Edward Fudge, in summarizing his annihilation argument for Matthew 25:41, 46 says that unbelievers:
are banished into eschatological fire prepared for the satanic angels. There they will eventually be destroyed forever, both body and soul, as the divine penalty for sin . . . . The eternal punishment itself is the capital execution, the everlasting loss of existence, the everlasting loss of the eternal life of joy and blessing in the company with God and the redeemed (125).
Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us perhaps as clearly as anywhere else in the Bible that the unsaved will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:46). Significant here would seem to be the parallelism. Millard Erickson holds that it (the parallelism) is of great significance:
If the one (life) is of unending duration, then the other (punishment) must be also. Nothing in the contest gives us warrant to interpret the word (eternal) differently in the two clauses . . . . Humans were designed to live eternally with God; if they pervert this their destiny, they will experience eternally the consequences of that act . . . . It is a humans choice to experience the agony of hell. His or her own sin sends the person there, and his or her rejection of the benefits of Christs death prevents escape (1246-1247).
Finally, John tells us in Revelation 20:10-15 that first the devil is thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, to be tormented day and night forever and ever and a few verses later he describes unbelievers as being thrown into the same lake of fire. Robert A Peterson closes out this discussion aptly:
This is in keeping with Jesus words to unsaved people, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil (Matt. 25:41). I conclude that Fudges appeal to word order in the expression, The lake of fire is the second death to make it fit annihilationism is an evasion of the teaching of Revelation 20 (168). [Fudge argues] . . . that Revelation 20:14-15 never says that human beings are tormented for ever and ever. Technically, this is correct, but it is a case of straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel . . . . If (unbelieving humans are meant for annihilation) . . . why hasnt John informed his readers of the change in meaning? Because there is not change in meaning; the lake of fire means everlasting torment for them, too (Fudge and Peterson 168).
The eternality of hell and its eternal punishment of the wicked could not be clearer than Christs own description in Mark 9:48: where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched in conjunction with Jude 7s scenario : [the wicked] are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. This writer must conclude, as does John Walvoord, that: eternal punishment is everlasting, regardless of the terminology, [for] . . . it is never regarded as being terminated . . . . Doubting the matter of eternal punishment requires either doubting the Word of God or denying its literal, normal interpretation (26-27).
This writer concludes that the arguments here for annihilationism by Pinnock and Fudge are shallow and are not supported by Scripture.
ANNIHILATIONISM ARGUMENT #2
The Biblical words and imagery such as fire, death, and destruction indicate extinction and annihilation. John Stott suggests that the imagery of hell as eternal fire points toward destruction rather than torment. He argues that: The main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction, as all the worlds incinerators bear witness (316).
A reading of Daniel 12:2 and Matthew 25:41 and 46 together seems to clearly reveal that Jesus Christ and Daniel intended that hell be understood not as a place of extinction or annihilation, but rather of conscious eternal punishment. David F. Wells discusses the wide range of meanings of the above three Biblical words:
Sinners are cut off (Ps. 37:9, 22, 28, 34, 38), but so is the Messiah (Dan. 9:26); sinners are destroyed (Ps. 143:12), but so was Israel (Hos. 13:9; cf. Isa. 9:14) and so were the sheep and coins that were then found (Luke 15:4, 8); unbelievers are said to die, but then all of us have always been dead (Rom. 6:13; 7:4; Eph. 2:1, 5; cf. Rom. 7:10, 13; 8:2, 6; I Tim. 5:6; Col. 2:13; Rev. 3:1), and that surely does not mean we have been without existence and consciousness. (42).
Just as was argued by Millard Erickson for Argument # 1, it seems most appropriate here to renew it again: the main contrast between eternal life and its opposite is two very different types of life, not existence verses (sic) non existence (Habermas and Moreland 172).
Robert Reynold makes a most appropriate inquiry to those espousing the doctrine of annihilationism: Why (does) John (the Baptist) characterize the fire as unquenchable (Matt. 3:12) if every impenitent sinner at the final judgment is instantly consumed by it? (50)
This writer concludes that the argument that the imagery of fire, death, and destruction indicates extinction and/or annihilation is a weak one, unsupported by the Scriptures as a whole.
ANNIHILATIONISM ARGUMENT #3
Annihilationists argue that the goodness of God makes the traditional view of eternal punishment incongruent with Gods perfect justice: doesnt hell contradict Gods love? The famous British writer and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, of the 19th century, went so far as to proclaim that a good God could not punish unbelievers forever and therefore refused to believe in hell.
Clark Pinnock announces his position on this issue in the most scathing language:
I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind as outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity (that goes) far beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There would be a serious disproportion between sins committed in time and the suffering experience forever. The fact that sin has been committed against an infinite God does not make the sin infinite. The chief point is that eternal torment serves no purpose and exhibits a vindictiveness out of keeping with the love of God revealed in the gospel (247).
Edward Fudge is in substantial agreement with Pinnock, for he pleads with his readers:
to carefully and prayerfully consider the evidence for conditionalism (annihilationism) and then to jettison the ancient tradition of everlasting conscious torment. It is a horrible doctrine, unworthy of God, foreign to the Bible, spawned by pagan philosophy and preserved by human tradition. It deserves to be rejected once and for all (208).
Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, believing that this argument of the annihilationist theologians is their strongest, give this response:
If we compare extinction with life in hell, it is clearly more immoral to extinguish humans with intrinsic value than to allow them to continue living in a state with a low quality of life. In fact, we do not believe the second alternative is immoral at all, but the first alternative (extinction) is immoral . . . the endlessness of existence in hell at least dignifies the people there by continuing to respect their autonomy and their intrinsic value as persons. Extinction does not . . . . Hell saddens all of us, God included, but we believe that the traditional notion of hell is both biblically and morally sound (Habermas and Moreland 173-174).
Wayne Grudem makes a most significant response to the argument that eternal punishment cannot be reconciled with Gods goodness and love:
The argument that eternal punishment is unfair (because there is a disproportion between temporary sin and eternal punishment) wrongly assumes that we know the extent of the evil done when sinners rebel against God. David Kingdon observes that sin against the Creator is heinous to a degree utterly beyond our sin-warped imaginations (ability) to conceive of . . . . Who would have the temerity to suggest to God what the punishment . . . should be? He also responds to this objection by suggesting that unbelievers in hell may go on sinning and receiving punishment for their sin, but never repenting, and notes that Revelation 22:11 points in this direction : Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy (1151).
The love of God and the goodness of God are attributes that give us great gratitude in this life, and yet for now we only see them (and appreciate them) through a glass darkly. The same can be said of Gods corresponding attributes of His holiness and His righteousness. He instructs us to Be ye holy, for I am holy and He never compromises His holy being to moral evil. Harold T. Bryson brings these last two attributes together when he declares: Gods righteousness helps us to understand the reasons for hell. God uses diverse means to reveal his moral requirements - conscience of men, law and prophets, teachings of Christ, and the character of Jesus. When men lack righteousness, God must condemn to be true to his character. He must punish transgressors. Scholars call this facet of Gods action punitive righteousness. To overlook or to neglect sin would be to act contrary to his nature. Hell does not mean that God does not love people - it means that he hates sin. [For] those who persisted in unbelief, Jesus condemned . . . . God condemns only those who will not repent. Hell or the consequences of sin cannot be blamed on God . . . . If we believe that God is holy and righteous, then we must believe that hell is part of his will . . . [H]ell does not contradict Gods character or cast a shadow on his goodness (88-89). (underscoring supplied) This writer finds that this argument is a clear victory for the traditional doctrine of hell. The factor of eternal punishment is evidence of Gods goodness, His righteousness, His holiness, and His benevolence. William Shedd expressed clearly over one hundred years ago that rationale for endless punishment as a necessity because sin is an infinite evil:
The incarnation and vicarious satisfaction for sin by one of the persons of the Godhead, demonstrates the infinity of evil. It is incredible that the Eternal Trinity should have submitted to such a stupendous self-sacrifice, to remove a merely finite and temporal evil. The doctrine of Christs vicarious atonement, logically stands or falls with that of endless punishment. Historically, it has stood or fallen with it. The incarnation of Almighty God, in order to make the remission of sin possible, is one of the strongest arguments for the eternity and infinity of penal suffering (153).
The enormity of unbelief, then, must be punished with the greatest severity to declare Gods justice, that God is a God of infinite righteousness as well as infinite love. While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace (Walvoord 27).
ANNIHILATIONISM ARGUMENT #4
God and His Word cannot accept an everlasting evil coexisting with an everlasting good the continuing presence of evil creatures in Gods universe will eternally mar the perfection of a universe that God created to reflect his glory. (Grudem 1150).
This argument on its face seems to be strong, for it is undeniable that evil remaining unpunished diminishes Gods glory in the universe. In response, Habermas and Moreland argue:
Preserving in existence creatures of intrinsic value may be more in keeping with the demands of a moral universe and a just God than annihilating those creatures. Hell may be a part of what it means for God to be all in all and not count as a counter example to it . . . . God is already the sovereign Lord of the world, but this does not rule out libertarian freedom, evil, and things not in keeping with Gods desires . . . the existence of hell, traditionally conceived, is not contradictory to a new world taken as a whole (171-172).
Philip E. Hughes, arguing here for the annihilationist position, says:
The conception of the endlessness of the suffering of torment and of the endurance of living death in hell stands in contradiction to this teaching (death shall be no more. Rev. 21:4). It leaves a part of creation which, unrenewed, everlastingly exists in alienation from the new heaven and the new earth. It means that suffering and death will never be totally abolished from the scene . . . . When Christ fills all in all and God is everything to everyone (Eph. 1:23; I Cor. 15:28), how is it conceivable that there can be a section or realm of creation that does not belong to this fullness and by its very presence contradicts it? (372)
Hughes concludes by arguing that unbelievers will be cast without hope into the abyss of obliteration, (receiving) the destruction of the second death (373). This writer, in response to the position of Hughes (above), would agree with Larry Dixon that: Annihilationism fails to account for the biblical teaching concerning future degrees of punishment (Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 12:42-48; Rom. 2:5-9), as well as for the present existence of evil (177). Gods Word and the arguments of Habermas and Moreland, and Dixon all serve to refute this argument of the annihilationist theologians. Hughes and Fudge, for example, seem to conjecture their doctrine virtually out of whole cloth in their invented terms such as the abyss of obliteration. Again, the traditional doctrine of hell stands on solid ground in contrast to this argument of the annihilationists.
Annihilationism would seem to be an attractive doctrine except for one major factor: the clarity and forcefulness of the Scriptural passages cited in this paper for the traditional doctrine of hell lead inescapably to the validity of the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked (Grudem 1151).
Grudem acknowledges the hardness of the traditional doctrine of hell:
The reason it is hard for us to think of the doctrine of hell is because God has put in our hearts a portion of his own love for people created in his image, even his love for sinners who rebel against him. As long as we are in this life, and as long as we see and think about others who need to hear the gospel and trust Christ for salvation, it should cause us great distress and agony of spirit to think about eternal punishment. Yet we must also realize that whatever God in his wisdom has ordained and taught in Scripture is right (1152).
Erickson adds that:
God does not send anyone to hell. He desires that none should perish (II Pet. 3:9). God created humans to have fellowship with him and provided the means by which they can have that fellowship. It is a humans choice to experience the agony of hell. His or her own sin sends the person there, and his or he rejection of the benefits of Christs death prevents escape. As C. S. Lewis has put it, sin is the human being saying to God throughout life, Go away and leave me alone. Hell is Gods finally saying to the human, You may have your wish. It is Gods leaving the person to himself or herself, as that individual has chosen (1247).
The problem with all of the forms of annihilationism is that they contradict the teaching of the Bible (Erickson 1245). The entire Bible, and perhaps especially the teachings of Jesus Christ, provide great and substantial authority for the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal punishment for those who choose to reject Christ. The teaching of Jesus would also confirm that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Matt. 11:21-24). This writer believes that there is a spirit of the age or zeitgeist active in the church universal that is in the nature of a fifth column. Its ambition or purpose is the watering down of the true message of the cross, the Biblical teaching and message of the final suffering of the unbelievers in hell, and indeed the other great traditional and Biblically-based doctrines of the church which support the most holy and elevated view of our Trinitarian God and His created humanity. Sadly, this writer must observe that the efforts of the annihilationist theologians, serving to erode the traditional doctrine of hell, has an impact upon Christs church in the West which cannot be described as favorable. Their unfortunate doctrine joins hands with the many other forces in society that serve to bring about an ever lower view of God and man. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Too bad you couldn't have found say, a USA Today version- shorter, larger font, lots of pictures- for the 'death to Islam' crowd that hangs around here. But I liked the essay as is..
I think that the concept of God as an old man sitting on a cloud hurling down judgmental death sentences to anyone who doesn't believe right has hopefully gone away.
How very few would bother with church or, especially, tithing if there was only a choice between Heaven and nonexistence.
Thanks for the ping!
By this argument, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were the leaders among humanity in extending dignity, respect, and value to their enemies.
Great article. A surprise to find it here. Those interested in this article may well be interested in an article on Gehenna, improperly translated hell, at
Without judgment, there would be no end of sin. Man can't evolve out of sin. Judgment is coming.
How many licks DOES it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
And what do you suppose it has been replaced with, a young, soft-headed man who hands out pats on the head to one and all "for trying?"
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