A prominent Liberal theologian once quipped that he did not concern himself with the furniture of heaven, or the temperature of hell. Perhaps he should. Perhaps we all should.
On March 29, 2018, the Catholic News Service reported that the current supreme bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, told his longtime atheist friend, Eugenio Scalfari, that hell does not exist. Condemned souls just “disappear.”
The annihilation of the ungodly is an intriguing concept. Many hope it is a true understanding of Scripture. Those who embrace, advocate, and advance annihilationism may be doing humanity a wonderful service if their position is true. They may also be doing unimaginable harm if they have misunderstood what the Bible teaches about the eternal age to come.
In order to advance the discussion, the position of the annihilationist should be heard. Robert Peterson notes six main arguments set forth by those who believe that lost people will be exterminated after they have paid the divine penalty for their sins.
First Argument: The Fire That Consumes
Fire consumes what is thrown into it, and so it will be for those cast into the lake of fire—the fire will burn up the wicked so that they no longer exist. The fire of divine wrath on the wicked is a fire that consumes.
A Biblical Response: The Fire That Does Not Consume
Jesus spoke of a fire of divine design that does not consume. Such a thought can be a comforting thought when viewed as the Lord’s protection. “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” (Isaiah 43:2) Shadrach Meshach and Abednego experienced this promise of God, literally. (Daniel 3:16-18)
However, the fire that does not consume hurts when divine protection is removed. Jesus spoke of a place where “the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:44) That is a terrifying fire. Jesus described such a terrifying fire in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of torment (Luke 16:28) involving anguish in flames (Luke 16:24) that were not consuming flames. In the Revelation, the flames of hell are not consumptive flames. The text says the lost will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of holy angels and in the presence of the Lord. And the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11)
Second Argument: Those Who Perish
There are several Biblical texts that speak of the lost perishing, or being destroyed. It is believed that the perishing, the destruction of those who are lost, is complete, to the point of termination. Like a piece of paper that burns until it is consumed, so are the wicked. They suffer divine wrath until they completely perish. They are totally consumed, and are no more. They are destroyed. In contrast, the righteous do not perish, they are not consumed. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The Annihilationist says that while the punishment is eternal, those who suffer the punishment are not continually conscious of that fact.
A Biblical Response: An Impossible Reconciliation
There are some Biblical passages which are impossible to reconcile with the view of annihilationism. Paul describes the fate of the lost as suffering the punishment of eternal destruction. “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: 9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;” (2 Thess. 1:8-9) In like manner, the Beast in the Revelation is cast into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur, along with the False Prophet, and all idolaters,. (Rev. 19:20) They are tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev. 20:10) They might wish to be annihilated, but they are not.
Third Argument: The Word Eternal
There is an argument based on the meaning of the word eternal. In hell passages, it is claimed, eternal means only pertaining to “the age to come”, and not “everlasting.”
A Biblical Response: Our Eternal God – And the Age to Come
It is true that, in the New Testament, eternal means “age long”, with the context defining the age. In those texts treating eternal destinies, eternal refers to the age to come. The age to come will last as long as the life of the eternal God. Because He is eternal, because He lives for ever and ever (Rev. 4:9; 10; 10:6; 15:7), so is the age to come. Jesus spoke of those who will go away into eternal punishment, while the righteous go into eternal life. (Matt. 25:46) The life of the lost in hell is declared by Jesus to be as co-extensive as the joy of the righteous in heaven, both are everlasting.
Fourth Argument: Between Time and Eternity
Annihilationism makes a distinction between time and eternity. Annihilationists ask: “How is it just for God to punish sinners for eternity when their crimes were committed in time?”
A Biblical Response
It is presumptuous for anyone to tell God what is just and unjust. We do not stand in judgment upon God, but He judges us. Jesus will one day say to the lost, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” (Matt. 25:41) John defines the departure of a soul from God to be an eternal and conscious punishment in the lake of fire for the Devil. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10) Unsaved humans will share the fate of the Devil. “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:15)
Fifth Argument: No Happiness in Heaven
It is assumed that God Himself, and His saints, would never enjoy heaven if they knew some human beings, let alone loved ones and friends, were perpetually in hell.
A Biblical Response
In the resurrection, the bodies of the saints will be radically different than what they are now. However, there will be some similarities. There will be the ability to cry, which is why there is the promise of Revelation 21:4. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” There will be no tears in heaven. “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.” (Isa. 65:17)
Sixth Argument: Victory of Evil
It is contended by Annihilationist that an eternal hell would tarnish God’s victory over evil. Scripture declares that God will be victorious in the end; He will “be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). We are told that this idea seems hard to reconcile with human beings suffering endlessly in hell.
A Biblical Response
If this argument were valid, it would equally apply to the Universalists who teach that everyone will be saved, including Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Mohammed, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Un, and the Devil himself. The Bible teaches that every person will go to their own place, like Judas Iscariot. (Acts 1:25)
A Final Argument: Platonic Philosophy and Christian Theology
There is one other argument set forth by the Annihilationist. They contend that between the Old and New Testaments, Greek, Platonic philosophy infiltrated true Bible doctrine, and entirely new concepts were introduced to replace the old beliefs about the soul and punishment. Annihilationist apologist Edward Fudge explains.
“Between the Testaments a tendency arose in Jewish literature to relate visions of last things to names and persons from the Old Testament. Armageddon, Jerusalem and the Garden of Eden all became stylized descriptions of things to come. So did the Valley of Hinnom-gehenna.
The thought of Gehenna as a place of eschatological punishment appears in intertestamental literature shortly before 100 B.C., though the actual place is unnamed.
Gehenna became “this accursed valley”. “Then Uriel, one of the holy angels who was with me, answered and said: ‘This accursed valley is for those who are accursed for ever: Here shall all the accursed be gathered together who utter with their lips against the Lord unseemly words and of His glory speak hard things.” (1 Enoch 27:2, 3)
Gehenna became the “station of vengeance” and “future torment”. “And the mouth of Gehenna, and the station of vengeance, and the place of faith, and the region of hope: And the likeness of future torment, and the multitude of innumerable angels, and the flaming hosts, and the splendor of the lightnings, and the voice of the thunders, and the orders of the chiefs of the angels, and the treasuries of light, and the changes of the times, and the investigations of the law.” (2 Baruch 59:10,11)
Gehenna became the “furnace of Gehenna” and “pit of torment”. “The pit of torment, the fires of hell, will appear, and opposite them the Paradise of joy and rest.” (4 Esdras 7:36)
Gehenna became the “pit of destruction” according to the Pirkei Avot. The Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims passed down to the Rabbis from the third century BC to the third century AD. It is part of didactic Jewish ethical literature. Pirkei Avot 5:19 says in part, “What [difference] is there between the students of Abraham, our father, and the students of Bilaam the evildoer? The students of Abraham, our father, eat in this world and possess the next world, as it is stated (Proverbs 8:21), ‘There is what for those that love Me to inherit, and their treasuries will I fill.’ But the students of Bilaam the evildoer inherit Gehinnom and go down to the pit of destruction, as it is stated (Psalms 55:24), “And You, God, will bring them down to the pit of destruction; the people of blood and deceit, they will not live out half their days; and I will trust in You.” (The Fire That Consumes, Edward W. Fudge, Annihilationist, p. 161)
Edward Fudge Continues
“The Babylonian Talmud had the worst Jewish sinners sentenced to Gehenna for 12 months. Then “their bodies are destroyed, their souls are burned, and the wind strews the ashes under the feet of the pious.” All who enter Gehenna come out, with three exceptions: those who committed adultery or shamed their neighbors or vilified them. In the end, God would take the sun from its case, and it would heal the pious and punish the sinners. There would be no Gehenna in the future world. [“Ge-hinnom,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 5, cols. 581-583]
Some rabbis were sympathetic; others were harsh. One can find quotes of torment by snow, smoke, thirst and rebellious animals. Others speak of the righteous observing the torments of the damned, “tossing in their pain like the pieces of boiling meat in a cauldron.” Still others, more benevolent, said light flooded even Gehenna each Sabbath, and the wicked, too, had a day of rest. On the duration of the punishment, the rabbis contradicted each other. Some believed that the pain would continue forever with or without Gehenna, while others ended punishment with the last judgement. Whether this last view allowed a future life for the wicked or looked for their total annihilation cannot be determined conclusively.” (The Fire That Consumes, Edward W. Fudge, Annihilationist, p. 163)
A Biblical Response
What is lacking by Annihilationist who appeal to the Platonic influence on Hebrew culture and Christian theology is any evidences of controversy. In other words, Jesus was certainly not ignorant of what Gehenna meant to the common people of His day. Nor was Jesus hesitant in using the rabbinic descriptions of Gehenna. He offered no correction, or rebuke to the Rabbis.
Jesus incorporated the rabbinic language associated with Gehenna, such as “unquenchable fire”, and “where the worm never dies”, in a deliberate way to impress upon those who heard Him teach, that eternal punishment waits for the wicked after the general resurrection of the dead.
In the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus about the existence of the soul after death, and eternal punishment of the wicked, is stated with no introduction, which would be required by a new teaching, as when Jesus contrasted what He taught with what the people had heard. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt. 5:43-44)
If the position of annihilationism is wrong, if people will be eternally judged for their sins in a conscious state of torment, there is an alternative that should be told. No one has to go to hell. Every person can drink of the water of life. Put your trust in Jesus Christ. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev. 22:17)