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Can Annihilation be Hell?

Can Annihilation be Hell?

by Mike Duran · 29 comments

With all the recent discussions about hell — from Rob Bell’s implied universalism in Love Wins to Francis Chan’s response in Erasing Hell — I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the subject. Like most normal people, the concept of eternal suffering is awful to contemplate, both from a physical and moral standpoint. I mean, does 70 or 80 years of immoral living on earth demand a gazillion-plus years of writhing in non-stop agony?

Before you hit the heresy button, I’m a traditionalist regarding the subject, believing that hell is (1) a real place, that (2) involves suffering of some sort, which (3) goes on forever. Nevertheless, I’ve struggled immensely with the concept.

So lately I’ve been researching Annihilationism. Simply put, the Annihilationist believes that immortality is conditional. That only souls that believe, Live; the rest are destroyed. Annihilationism has a long history and is not exclusive to theological fringes. Several early church fathers floated the concept, as well as some significant others. From Wikipedia:

Some well respected authors have remained neutral. F. F. Bruce wrote, “annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages … For myself, I remain agnostic. Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God.” Comparatively, C. S. Lewis did not systematize his own views. He rejected traditional pictures of the “tortures” of hell, as in The Great Divorce where he pictured it as a drab “grey town”. Yet in The Problem of Pain, “Lewis sounds much like an annihilationist.” He wrote:

“But I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity usually emphasises the idea not of duration but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say.”

An important addition to this list is N. T. Wright, popular author and theologian, who rejects eternal torment, universalism, and apparently also annihilation; believing instead that those who reject God will become “dehumanized,” and no longer be in the image of God.

All that to say, Annihilationism is not as fringy as I once thought.

But there’s a single reason I do not seriously consider Annihilationism. It’s this:

Annihilationism does not seem to provoke eternal urgency.

And Jesus oozed eternal urgency.

When the Bible speaks of hell it’s always with a grim, relentless tone. You do not want to go here. And if the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is any indication, if you did go there, you would want to rush back and beg your family to avoid that place at all costs. Annihilation doesn’t seem to have such a compulsion. I mean, if the worse that’s going to happen to me is that I’m going to… disappear, why not eat, drink, and be merry?

If the punishment for not surrendering to my Maker is that I’ll just be erased, then why not live the way I want? Sure, eternal life might be better. But if I’m not around to even know the difference, who cares?

What do you think: Does Annihilationism really provoke eternal urgency?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Day Gilbert April 15, 2012 at 6:52 PM

Wow, this is the stuff I could discuss for hours w/my husband. I’ve actually been contemplating hell recently myself, oddly enough. N.T. Wright’s hypothesis really intrigues me. Not in the image of God…so more like demons? I get your hangups on the lack of eternal urgency with the annihilation theory. Why did Jesus bring it up so much?

Truly no answers till we’re on the other side, I believe. Just like we can’t understand everything about heaven yet. But one thing I do know–even though hell is often joke fodder, it’s very real and not a place we would wish anyone, if we knew what it was like.

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R. L. Copple April 15, 2012 at 7:18 PM

I guess I’m out of the loop on the discussions, but I will say this from an early Church perspective. You stated that:

Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God.

I would suggest that it is specifically because of God’s character that Hell exists. That is why He remains hidden, because without being united to the life of Christ, we cannot bear His presence. This is echoed in many Biblical verses, but the following one makes if fairly clear:

As smoke is driven away, so drive them away:
as wax melteth before the fire,
so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
But let the righteous be glad;
let them rejoice before God:
yea, let them exceedingly rejoice.
(Psalm 68:2-3)

And God is frequently described as an “Unconsuming Fire” as reflected in the burning bush Moses encounters.

IOW, it is from God’s love and presence itself that creates Hell for those without Christ, and why we are given this time in this life to be united to Him.

Whether that agony ends someday or is eternal as is often believed, is perhaps debatable. Though from the Scriptures I mentioned, it would seem to denote an eternal condition of the soul before God, and won’t end. But if it doesn’t, as is generally taught, it is because of His character that it happens, not in spite of it.

And that is why He wills that all be saved, because He doesn’t want them to end up there anymore than we would. But at some point, we will all see Him “face to face” and will be put through the fire to test our works and foundation. And those with Christ, will find God a pleasant joy and blessed light, as did the three children in the fiery furnace.

That’s my take on it, anyway.

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Mike Duran April 16, 2012 at 4:29 AM

Rick, for clarity: the quote “Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God” is from the Wikipedia article citing F.F. Bruce. You suggest hell is “an eternal condition of the soul before God,” which seems to be what Lewis was saying: “the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude.”

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Ronnie April 16, 2012 at 10:13 AM

And God is frequently described as an “Unconsuming Fire” as reflected in the burning bush Moses encounters.

In fact, Scripture explicitly teaches that the unrepentant will be consumed:

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. Hebrews 10:26-27

Not to mention Matthew 3:12, Matthew 13:36-43 and Malachi 4:1-3. If you’re interested, I recently debated this issue. Here is a five minute clip where I address the biblical language of consumption. http://conditionalism.net/consume.mp3

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Barb Riley April 15, 2012 at 8:23 PM

What a macabre blog photo!

No, annihilationism doesn’t promote eternal urgency. But I don’t think it fits the character of a God whose love never fails, either. As I understand Scripture, God’s consuming fire is symbolic, as is much of the Bible. His love will eventually purify (hence, the fire) each of His children. It doesn’t mean there won’t be judgment (that is a very common & inaccurate assumption: if you don’t believe in eternal torment or annhilation, you don’t believe in justice), but rather it will play out in different stages at varying levels. I don’t think God is as hands-off and dependent upon people evangelizing the Good News as some believe. Just my opinion of course, but I think God, in His sovereignty, will reconcile every one of us to Him in His perfect timing. Then He will be all in all.

Since you’ve read Love Wins and Erasing Hell, if you continue to find yourself thinking about the subject of hell, I highly recommend Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda for a thorough examination of the topic. Reviewers have said Rob Bell’s book is the glass boat tour, but Julie Ferwerda’s book dives in deep.

http://www.amazon.com/Raising-Hell-Christianitys-Controversial-Doctrine/dp/0984357815/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1334544202&sr=1-1

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Mike Duran April 16, 2012 at 4:37 AM

Barb, if you’re suggesting that everyone will be saved, I believe that is even less compelling or urgent. There simply is NO reason to accept Christ or do good deeds — all will be purified! (See my post: 13 Problems with Universalism).)

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xdpaul April 16, 2012 at 7:03 AM

Suffering through this world and then disappearing forever was a terrible childhood fear of mine – primal and tormenting. So, simply as a concept, for me it is terrifically urgent. That doesn’t make it a true doctrine, but, for me, if it were true, it would be an urgent idea.

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Mike Duran April 16, 2012 at 7:12 AM

Dan, I agree that being “undone” or “disassembled” — becoming Nothing — can be horrific to think about. So being saved would really be choosing to Exist Forever. However, wouldn’t you agree that without a sense of impending punishment, or some significant consequence, annihilation can be viewed an “easy out” for those inclined to reject God? In other words, if a soul simply disappears, they are not there to experience any horror, much less the horror of their own non-existence.

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xdpaul April 18, 2012 at 7:57 AM

I dunno about that. All I know is that even corresponding about annihilation is completely freaking me out. I’m not joking one bit when I write that I hope God is merciful enough to allow for hell to be an eternal torment.

Again, just to be clear: hell doesn’t depend on what I want it to be – it is what it is. But, from my limited view, an eternal hell of torment would be preferable to one that causes me to come to a permanent end.

I’m very weird though: I was more worried about being hit by a bus and becoming an insect out of time than I was about having to endure pain and shame and what might have been.

In other words, being “disappeared” gives me a grave sense of impending punishment.

I’ll put it another way: if given the choice of being bound and tortured or being among the Desaparecidos, it is the latter that makes my guts go cold. I’m perfectly willing to accept that I may have become calloused to the prospect of torture and punishment, but it isn’t like I haven’t thought about it, either.

The one thing I’ve learned about punishment is this: it is never sufficient. An eternal hell will be, by definition, a place of insufficiency. The finality of annihilation will be sufficient to blot out the sin along with the sinner. Again, I’m not saying annihilation is theologically correct: there is a form of strange poetry in an eternal hell, after all.

By grace, for me, it is not a (literal) grave concern. The fact is that neither one of them are good, and ultimately, the hell and death of personal sin are sufficient shackles to show the unsaved their need for the promised Savior.

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clive September 2, 2014 at 6:53 PM

How can you say that!!
You really want to suffer for ever in hell ??
I hope that you are correct about your salvation.
Punishment is never sufficient???
I think you are mentally ill or a masochist
Take a moment to think about what you are saying !!
You don’t care about any who go to ‘your’ hell?

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Lyn Perry April 16, 2012 at 7:11 AM

What one deems “urgent” shouldn’t be the standard by which we judge a doctrine. What seems urgent to you may not be urgent to others. The bar has to be what the bible reveals about the topic. I won’t go into the issue of hell, per se (as most of us are familiar with the proof texts). But another aspect to consider is the makeup of our creation. And it seems the scripture is clear – we are not created as eternal beings (a Greek concept) – we are conditionally eternal. Adam and Eve could have eaten from the Tree of Life and lived forever, but they weren’t immortal at their creation. Believers will eat of the Tree of Life upon our resurrection and thus live eternally with God. Nonbelievers will not have that opportunity. And so their judgment is death.

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Mike Duran April 16, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Lyn, “urgency” seems part and parcel of the Gospel. The stakes are not marginal. The person who doesn’t think that a fire on the first floor of their apartment is “urgent,” has big problems. I was thinking about Jesus’ admonitions in Mark 9:43-48 (NLT):

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, ‘where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.’”

I dunno, but this smack of urgency.

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Jill April 16, 2012 at 8:55 AM

This is a really hot button for me, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t stand debates about this topic. However, I’ll bite and say that I believe annihilation is the only logical conclusion to reach after reading scripture. And if you want to debate that, I will.

For now, I’ll just leave you with this. We as humans don’t believe torture is just. The death penalty is the highest measure of punishment allowed in our land (and not all states use the death penalty). And even when we do fall to our worst temptations to torture, the torture has an end. It never goes on forever. Do you believe that God is more just than we are and, therefore, tortures his creation w/o end? Or is he less just? This all goes back to the nature of God.

Also, you have to remember that these two concepts–not existing (death of the soul) and a place of eternal torment–are both abstracts that our finite brains can’t fathom. Why is eternal torment more frightening? It’s more appalling, but how could it be more of a deterrent? Can you imagine not existing? That gives me the chills, as well as being incomprehensible.

One more thing–the concept of the eternal soul isn’t a Hebrew one. Hebrew culture had little idea of what would happen after death, but they certainly didn’t believe in a place of eternal torment. The eternal soul/eternity in hell largely came from pagan cultures. I’m not saying that because it’s because it’s also untrue–clearly, pagan peoples have always had pieces of truth. What I am saying is that the eternal soul doesn’t seem consistent with scripture, nor Israelite belief/philosophy, or God’s curse on mankind. The wages of sin is death, not eternal life in hell.

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Jill April 16, 2012 at 8:58 AM

*I’m not saying that because it’s pagan it’s also untrue. Yikes, that was a little confusing.

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Mike Duran April 16, 2012 at 9:14 AM

Well, I agree with you for the most part, Jill. But I can’t seem to get over that one hurdle. You said, “Can you imagine not existing? That gives me the chills, as well as being incomprehensible.” It’s disturbing, no doubt. Scripture seems to speak in dreadful terms about an afterlife w/out God. But if you don’t exist, there is nothing to dread. In theory, a person who believes in annihilation can rape, kill, torture, cheat, and gorge themselves on earthly delights w/out fear of real punishment. They won’t be around to know they’re being punished. That’s the hurdle I can’t get over.

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Jill April 16, 2012 at 10:21 AM

Fear is a limited motivating factor for the prevention of sin. Does fear prevent you from doing wrong things? It does me. . .sometimes. My conscience combined with the Holy Spirit are much better motivators. What happens when demonic spirits are motivating mankind? I would say lying spirits boost a false sense of confidence, regardless of known consequences.

Also, I have this sinking feeling we’re all going to be incredibly ashamed when we go before God’s judgment. And death in a fiery lake, as described in Revelations [where it says, "this is the second death"] does not sound fun.

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xdpaul April 18, 2012 at 8:06 AM

I think of it a different way: on the one hand, since I will be naturally punished by hell anyway, it is like a credit card to do what I want now. (Obviously this is the twisted logic of the damned.) On the other, if I die and stop existing, the only thing I can do is leave a memory. If the legacy is one only of people hating me, I’m motivated to do some good. Sure my mind will be wiped at death, but is that any less motivational than sitting in hell for eternity and thinking about how naughty I was?

Seriously, for some people, their sins are so freaking boring that they’ll be engaged in understanding the gravity of their damnation for about 15 minutes, and then then they’ll have infinity to spend, mostly annoyed and uncomfortable. I would think for those folks, annihilation would be worse.

Ye cats, this is a weird idea you’ve brought up.

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Ronnie April 16, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Scripture likens final punishment to being burned up by fire. That absolutely provokes a sense of urgency—to me at least.

A better way to approach the issue might be something like this: Jesus spoke about final punishment with a sense of urgency. Jesus described final punishment as a violent, final, and irreversible destruction. Therefore, this destruction is sufficient to evoke a sense of urgency.

Whether or not the prospect of being tormented forever evokes more urgency seems to be besides the point.

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Charlie April 16, 2012 at 8:50 PM

I’ve never leaned toward annihilationism and am inclined to agree as you say, that it inspires no immediacy at all. Though the best “answer” may be a mixture of all the ideas involved.

I think that we may not even be able to grasp the far reaching extremes here; our minds may not be capable of fully understanding (in a rational way) all the complexities involved.

I’ve been told many times that we can’t fathom how great Heaven will be and what it will feel like to bask in the full, unadulterated presence of God. I’d say this theory applies to Hell as well. We can’t fathom just how bad it will be.

But why is it bad? That’s probably the real question here. Is it because we’re annihilated or tortured? And can they be urgent?

For me, I’ve always thought of Hell as the opposite of Heaven. Where Heaven is being with God, Hell is being without God. If we are creatures made in his image and even told that God is always with us (all of us at all times) and we can play with the idea that Hell is our removal from Him; I don’t think we can fully grasp what that would be like.

For the part of us that “was” God to be ANNIALATED, the removal of any portion of God from our soul (something we were made with) and yet the rest of our soul remains; what will that feel like? Will it feel exactly like being burned by an eternal fire? Exactly like wheeping? Exactly like gnashing teeth? It could be that this one event, our removal from God, would be all that is needed to torture our souls for eternity and in that way God doesn’t “torture us” or even “allow us to be tortured”. The empty husk of a soul that once contained some portion of God tortures us…We torture our self.

This idea is probably enough to inspire more headaches than revelations. But it’s only an idea. Flog it as you see fit.

Of all the things we don’t know; I do know this for certain: I have no desire to ever learn what Hell is really like first hand.

How’s that for urgency?

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Bob Avey April 17, 2012 at 3:05 PM

This is an interesting post, with thought provoking comments. I tend to agree with Mike. If annihilation were to be long and painful, that would be a deterrent, but not as much of a deterrent as eternal damnation. And if one simply disappeared or ceased to exist, that would be much easier than eternal damnation. And I believe the Bible is pretty clear on the idea that not everybody will be saved.

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xdpaul April 18, 2012 at 8:10 AM

Again, I’m just going on feelings. It might be easier, as a practical matter, to experience annihilation. But as a deterrent, annihilation is much more powerful to a person like me.

So which is God more interested in: making a place of damnation that is practically more damaging and psychically/spiritually scarring, or making it a place that guys like me really, really don’t want to be?

I’m glad I don’t get to ever find out!

On a somewhat related issue, I think it is notable that hell isn’t made for us: it was made for the angels (the fallen sort). Does that affect hell’s qualities?

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Skadi meic Beorh May 5, 2012 at 1:32 PM

Found this. Hope it adds to the post.

http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/hell.htm

I have far too many thoughts on Hell to add anything just now.

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collin July 9, 2012 at 1:39 AM

hei be it that we can disagree to agree or agree to disagree the hell iz there & the paradise is also there .it’s time of th end what is needed now is to recall & repent so that whn you die you don’t go to hell becoz it exits .isia 66vs1–25

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Jeff August 30, 2012 at 7:57 PM

If hell were simply the erasure of life, I’d put a gun to my head today and be done with it. The pain stops.

however, the Bible is clear that there is weeping and GNASHING OF TEETH. Erased persons don’t do that sort of thing. Alive persons in mental agony do that sort of thing – I’ve been near that hell here in this world at times.

I think that you could make a very strong biblical case that there are varying degrees of hell. It seems clear that God is a Just God. Hitler’s murder of 11,000,000 other humans does not equate to some kid who gets drunk and accidentally runs over some girls cat and then dies a few days later in a diving accident. I think that it is even possible that both Eternal Hell and are both true – just as Predestination and Free Will are also both true in God’s economy. We know that the false prophet does ETERNALLY suffer – Revelations says so but there is another verse that says the wicked will be ashes under the feet of the righteous.

One possible explanation – you suffer equivalent to your sin (Jesus suffered equivalent to the believer’s sin for the believer) and then, you no longer exist. Persons who are willfully and hatefully against the God who made them seem to rate eternal suffering.

Who knows. Either way, the motivation for urgency should be from a craving to have the friendship – real and abiding – with Jesus Christ. “I am the way the truth and the life” – Jesus IS eternal life. Friendship IS life somehow. The fact that you end up in hell is not the primary reason for seeking God. If that’s your only reason, guess what? You’re not saved anyway!!!

It’s about the relationship with Jesus.

Good discussion everyone! BTW, I was raised with Annihilist theology and I am certain that it is not correct – at least not in the it’s one or the other idiology.

jdl

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Jeff August 30, 2012 at 8:03 PM

Oh, Annihilist theology cannot be true based on one thing: God is Just!

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Elizabeth Seckman November 2, 2012 at 6:31 AM

I am a former social worker, so I used to have this hope that maybe hell was like reform school and people would get a re-do after a bit of “eternal feeling” torture. I mean He should have done away with us when we disobeyed in the Garden of Eden. He gives us chance after chance and seems to have eternal patience…but…I’m not going to personally test His patience. I try to keep my mind and heart open to His direction and try to live my personal life in a way that will make Him proud.

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michael February 12, 2014 at 8:22 AM

“Annihilationism does not seem to provoke eternal urgency.”

I believe the only reason Annihilation wouldn’t provoke eternal urgency is because of our lack of comprehension of eternal glory in the presence of God.

eternal bliss beyond comprehension vs. going into a lake of fire and ceasing to exist…. seems pretty urgent to me!

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