On December 29, 2010, the woman who later became my wife emailed me a question. We’d known each other about a year, and (unknown to us) we were a couple of months away from dating. But she was a new convert, I was a pastoral intern, so I must’ve seemed like a good person to ask about hell. So on December 29, 2010, this showed up in my Facebook Message box.
Okay, so annihilationism does not seem totally out of the question to me, not at all. Moreover, I’d really really like to be able to reasonably hold this position…. can it be done? Your true opinion.
In case you don’t use this word every day, “annihilationism” is the idea that hell is not eternal—that the people there burn up and cease to exist, rather than suffering forever and ever. The doctrine of endless punishment had been a great emotional stumbling block to Tilly both before and after her conversion. So I knew I needed to tread carefully, while maintaining biblical fidelity.
About three weeks later, Tilly received my answer in the form of a 12 page Word document. With Tilly’s blessing, I have decided to share that letter with you. It’s rather lengthy, but it divides naturally into two parts. Part 1 deals with the biblical evidence, and Part 2 explains how I personally cope with the idea of eternal punishment. This post is Part 1. I have maintained the personal letter format, with light edits. If I were writing the same letter today I would have laid greater stress on degrees of punishment in hell (Matt. 11:22, 24; Luke 12:47-48), but beyond that my views haven’t altered in the past seven years. Hence our willingness to share this letter here.
I hope you find it useful.
Sorry for taking so long to respond. I hope that the three week time lag between your email and my response communicates “I respect you enough to take the time to make a thoughtful, reflective response” rather than “I have better things to do than answer your questions—like watching Colin Firth films and going sledding.”
First of all, thank you for your openness. I’m glad you feel comfortable asking these kinds of questions. It gives me a more accurate picture the issues you wrestle with. Never be afraid to ask honest questions. When our burdens are intellectual and thus invisible, we have to share them before others can help us bear them.
You specified that you wanted my “true opinion.” Well! If you think I’m such a sinful scoundrel that my honesty could actually be swayed by factors like your being my friend and my knowing what you’d like to hear, then all I can say is you’re absolutely right. Nevertheless, I trust God will give me grace enough to keep me from being a man-pleaser (or in this case, a woman-pleaser). Plus, I speak to you knowing that I will one day answer to God for how I answer you. So, God helping me, you will get my true opinion.
Your Question and My Answer
So your question is: “Can a Christian reasonably hold the doctrine of annihilationism?” I’m assuming that what you mean is not “Can I still be a Christian and consciously reject the Bible’s teaching on hell?” but rather “Can the Bible be legitimately interpreted to teach annihilationism?” If so, then the answer to your question turns on the meaning of the words “reasonably” and “legitimately.”
Can you or I reasonably hold to annihilationism? My answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ ‘Yes’ in the following senses:
(1) I know reasonable Christians who hold this view (e.g. John Stott, John Wenham, Philip Hughes)
(2) I can understand why a Christian would want to hold this view.
(3) I can understand the biblical arguments that are put forth for this view.
With regard to the three men mentioned above—Stott, Wenham, and Hughes—I think it important to note that, as far as I know, all of them believe(d) the Bible to be completely inerrant and authoritative, which cannot be said for all evangelical theologians who held to annihilationism (e.g. Clark Pinnock in his later years).
John Stott (1921–) is probably annihilationism’s highest profile evangelical proponent. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Stott. He’s an evangelical Anglican, a lifelong bachelor, and former curate and rector of All Soul’s Church in London. I read his outstanding book The Cross of Christ for Systematic Theology class last semester, and would recommend it to anyone, including you. So when John Stott speaks, I listen (even if I don’t always agree). That being the case, his following confession is crucial for maintaining biblical fidelity on this subject:
Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it . . . my question must be — and is — not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?
I agree with that second sentence wholeheartedly. And here I want to pause and stress this to you: if you, as a Christian choose to hold to annihilationism, it must be with this attitude. It must be in conscious submission to God in his word, and in a humble desire to believe whatever he says. Unless Scripture holds this position in our hearts and minds, we will be destabilized every time we encounter a difficulty in the Bible. This doesn’t mean we should ignore biblical difficulties or that we won’t struggle with them. But it does mean that we deal with them within a framework of trust. It means that we give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, recognizing our own ignorance and finitude.
So, back to Stott’s statement. Stott’s methodology throws this question back onto biblical exegesis, which is where it belongs. Which brings us back to your original question, “Can the Bible be legitimately interpreted to teach annihilationism?”
And here’s where the ‘No’ part of my answer comes in. While I can happily agree with Stott’s methodology, I must sadly disagree with his conclusion. Instead I believe there is a good reason why Stott finds himself in the minority on this point; not only amongst his fellow Anglicans historically, but also amongst the Christian church as a whole for the past 2,000 years. As uncomfortable as it might make me, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the biblical authors—and through them, Jesus himself—affirm the reality of eternal punishment, and therefore deny annihilationism.
I have nothing new to say in defense of this view; nothing that hasn’t already been said by others older and wiser than myself. I trust that in your reading of Clotfelder and other articles that I’ve sent you, you will become familiar with the arguments on both sides. What I would like to do, however, is share with you the texts and arguments that I personally find the most compelling. For the next several paragraphs I will cite biblical texts and endeavor to explain them. I would encourage you to look them up and read them in their contexts (since all quotations are—by definition—taken out of context). My goal at this point is not to deal with the emotional difficulties created by eternal punishment, but to show why I think the Bible teaches eternal punishment (and thus excludes annihilationism).
The Parallel Between Eternal Life and Eternal Punishment in Matthew 25:46
Jesus concludes his narrative of the final judgment with these words:
And these will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life.”
(Matthew 25:46 ESV)
Punishment and life. Two different destinies. But the similarity between them is found in the common adjective: “eternal.” Just as the life is eternal, the punishment is eternal. No doubt we find the prospect of eternal life more pleasant than eternal punishment (as well we should—one of the main functions of the doctrine of hell in Scripture is to make us flee from the wrath to come), but we have no more right from this text to make punishment temporary than we do to make life temporary. Now of course no one, annihilationists included, has ever attempted to deny that eternal life is unending. But I fear that the reason we all want eternal life to last forever is the same reason some want eternal punishment to be temporary: because we find both eternal punishment and temporary life unpleasant.
But we must remind ourselves that reality does not bow to our sense of displeasure. Heaven does not run on the fuel of our wishes and neither can hell be extinguished by them. As it stands, the only way we can know if heaven and hell are unending is if God somehow reveals it to us. And if God has revealed to us that this is indeed the case (as I believe he has), then we can only harm ourselves and others by living as though it were not.
The Combined Witness of Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 20:10-15
These two passages point to the same reality: that both unrighteous humans and demons will share the same basic punishment: unceasing torment in an eternal fire.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41 ESV)
We just looked at verse 46. Verse 41 and verse 46 are basically the opening and closing sentences of the same paragraph (the ESV reflects this in its structuring). So all would agree that the “eternal punishment” of verse 46 is the same thing as the “eternal fire” here in verse 41. In short, eternal punishment involves eternal fire.
The text also claims that unrighteous humans will will be thrown into the same eternal fire that was originally prepared for the devil and his angels (i.e. demons). This shared fate is echoed by the description of hell given in Revelation 20:10-15.
“…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 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. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10-15 ESV, emphasis mine)
Here we read that not only will the fire be unending, but so will the torment. Day and night forever and ever. In harmony with the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:41, 46, the Apostle John affirms that unrighteous human beings will be cast into the same fire as the devil (Rev. 20:14-15). At the very least, based on Revelation 20:10, I find it impossible to argue that the devil will be annihilated. And I can find nothing in the surrounding context to suggest that those who share his fate in the lake of fire will be annihilated either. Commenting on this passage, D.A. Carson says,
Stott does not side with those who depersonalize the devil. Thus Satan constitutes at least one sentient being who is clearly pictured as suffering conscious torment forever. We may not feel as much sympathy for him as for fellow human beings, and we may cheerfully insist he is more evil than any human being, but even so, it is hard to see how the arguments deployed against the notion of eternal conscious suffering of sinful human beings would be any less cogent against the devil. Conversely, if this text demonstrates that there cannot be a sound argument in principle against the eternal suffering of a sentient being, it is difficult to see why humans should be a special case. Stott does not mention verse 15: “If anyone’s name [not just the beast or the false prophet, or even the devil himself] was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” In this context, why should it be thought that they would be consumed when the same fire does not manage to consume the devil, but only to torment him ‘day and night forever and ever’” (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, p. 527-528)
This is also reflected in the statements of Jesus about hell in Mark 9:42-48, that hell is a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
The Description of Revelation 14:9-11
The argument implicit in Revelation 20:10-15 (that unrighteous human beings share the same unending punishment as the devil, the beast, the false prophet) is strengthened even further by the explicit statement found in Revelation 14:9-11.
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11 ESV, emphasis mine)
Some have objected that only the smoke is said to continue forever and ever, while the punishment of the wicked may not. This will not work, for two reasons: (1) it is the smoke “of their torment” that is said to go up forever and ever, (2) this phrase is immediately followed and explained by the phrase “and they have no rest, day or night.” As painful as it is, I do not believe we can escape the force of John’s words. Indeed, I think we must ask ourselves “If John had wished to describe eternal conscious torment, how could he have done so more clearly?” Conversely, if John had wished to avoid giving the impression that hell was unending, would he have not been more careful?
These are the passages I regard as the strongest against annihilationism and for eternal punishment. Exegetically, I do not think they leave any room for the idea that the duration of eternal punishment will be any less than the duration of eternal life. Therefore, my true opinion has to be “No, I do not believe that a Christian can reasonably hold to annihilationism and at the same time do justice to the biblical data.”
To be continued…
John Stott, whom I mention above, was alive at the time I wrote this letter but has since gone to be with the Lord. I have left my references to him unaltered to preserve historical integrity.
My mention of “Clotfelder” is a reference to David Clotfelder’s excellent book Sinners in the Hands of a Good God.