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?