Question of the Week: Is Annihilationism Biblical?
The short answer is no. The long answer requires a clarification on the Biblical definitions of Hell, Justice, and Mercy. The reason why these terms need to be clarified is because of what Annihilationism claims. The problem isn’t in what it claims, but how it misunderstands the terms it is trying to reconcile with the nature of God. Under normal circumstances, this would be an entirely reasonable thing to do. If a conclusion we make from scripture conflicts with other plain truths about God, I test my conclusion in light of other Biblical truth claims. The Annihilationist claims that the doctrine of eternal Hell is unbiblical because it makes God out to be a sadistic and cruel torturer of sinners rather than a loving redeemer of the lost. In order to rationalize God’s merciful and forgiving nature with the concept of eternal Hell, they throw out the latter entirely. Instead, they would interpret the texts that mention Hell as synonymous with annihilation. Those who die apart from salvation merely cease to exist according to the Annihilationist view. The problem with this claim is three-fold. It fails to understand what Hell is. It misrepresents the concept of justice. And it ends up eliminating the concept of both justice and mercy entirely. We don’t diminish the wrath of God in order to glorify the mercy of God. Both have to be in place for either to mean anything.
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched.’
Mark 9:41-48 (NKJV)
“And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Isaiah 66:34 (NKJV)
Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Revelation 14:9-11 (NKJV)
Problem #1: The Definition of Hell
Hell is often depicted as a place that is the equal and opposite of scope and influence as Heaven. Popular media and art portray it as a place where the Devil rules as the Anti-God and supervises a wide span of bizarre and ironic punishments taken out of the Theogony. Those who are more biblically literate would understand that the Devil isn’t in Hell presently and will be just as much a recipient of God’s wrath there as anyone else. However, a little knowledge ends up being a dangerous thing because it paints an equally incomplete picture. The Annihilationist view portrays Hell as contrary to God’s nature because it is such a cruel place of torture and evil. If God were to make such a place, it would reflect poorly on His character. The way He’s often portrayed by Atheists and Muslims is a sadistic and cruel God for sending people to a place of unimaginable suffering for even the smallest of infractions. However, even a cursory reading of a single passage that discusses what Hell is wouldn’t come to any of these conclusions. Not once in the entire Bible is the word “torture” used to describe the experience of Hell. Likewise, the definition of Hell is separation from God. Because God is the source of everything good and perfect, (James 1:17), then separation from that source would be one of deprivation and torment. What is the difference between torture and torment? Torture is external. Torment is internal. The reality of Hell is that it is everything people who reject God have always wanted. An existence apart from Him. God isn’t going to force anyone into Heaven, which means being with Him forever. (Revelation 21:22) He has given every possible means of making clear how to avoid separation from Him, but allowing the existence of an alternative to Him isn’t cruelty. It is respectful. The Annihilationist view has to subscribe to a false view of Hell where God is the cause of all suffering in Hell. When the opposite is the case biblically. Heaven is a paradise because of one reality. God is there. Hell is a place of torment because of one factor as well. God has separated Himself from those who have consciously chosen to be so forever.
Problem #2: The Definition of Justice
A philosopher from the Baltic States in Eastern Europe once observed that the idea that of eternal punishment being unjust could only have come from a cole de sack in Western Europe. His point is telling. As a man who lived in a region of the world that knew war and the cruelty of man like most would know the weather, the kind of people who diminish the necessity of punishment are those who have never really seen evil before. The kind of person who has seen the worst of mankind in the form of being cut off in traffic or lied to about a bill may entertain the thought that God could wave those things aside if that’s the worst He has to deal with. People who work in police departments and the military are of a far more conservative opinion about the matter. Why? It isn’t because their perspective is cruel. It is informed. All over the world, there are people who live without any deterrent towards their behavior. When the word “lawless society” is spoken, we don’t think of a paradise. We imagine crime, evil, and injustice left unanswered at every corner. The reason for this is because there is a real need for justice. Our ignorance of its necessity is a mark against us.
In the system of biblical Justice, wrath of God is met out on those who violate God’s perfect nature in any way. This is often caricatured to be a situation where God punishes a jay-walker the same way He would a mass murderer. Like prior annihilationist misunderstandings, the term “consequence” is conflated with justice and these errors in language end up producing a faulty picture of what is actually happening. The consequence of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) The consequence of jay-walking is getting hit by a car. The judge doesn’t punish the jay-walker the same way as the mass murderer. They are both identified as law-breakers because they both involve behavior that can cost the life of a human being. This is why the Bible identifies sin categorically as deserving of death (Romans 1:32), but punishes specific sins in different ways when the law of Moses was given to Israel. Exodus 20-23 doesn’t judge a murderer the same way as a liar. Not because God is inconsistent, but because of the system of Punitive Justice. If we aren’t aware of there being serious consequences for certain behaviors, those who want to perform them will do so with impunity. In a horizontal sense, the Bible acknowledges there being a valid approach in deterring criminal behavior this way. A perfect example is the account of Ananias and Saffira. (Acts 5:1-6) Their willful lying to God and stealing money from the church was severely punished. This was not only because they had seen the miracles that verified the Apostles really were speaking for God, but also knew in the text itself what they were doing before God. They were held accountable for what they knew, and the church as a whole learned that they ought to avoid committing the same crime they did. (Acts 5:11-16) We can give a variety of examples in modern society, but the point has been made. The fact that there are deterrents legally for the crimes we commit against one another only exist because they are drawing attention to the severity of their consequences. If God provides a serious deterrent against separation from Him, it only demonstrates that the consequence of sin is just that severe. It’s not unjust for God to take sin more seriously than we do. Whether we see our sin as jay-walking or mass murder, He’s just trying to keep someone from getting killed.
Problem #3: The Consequence of Annihilationism
The greatest casualty of Annihilationism is that it ultimately ends up throwing out what they’re trying to preserve. The goal most are trying to achieve by adopting this doctrine is to avoid diminishing God’s mercy. The ultimate consequence of those who reject a relationship with God merely cease to exist according to this view. Apart from the passages that directly contradict this conclusion, understand what that ends up doing to the character of God. While most may put themselves above mass murderers like Stalin or the Columbine Shooters, these men believed the same thing the Annihilationist view supposes. When they die, there is no answer for their crimes. They simply cease. There is no conscious answer for the lives they destroyed. There is no retribution for the actions they’ve committed. In the end, they won. They got away with literal murder and the God of the Annihilationist set up a system where that would always be the case. The hope of the victim is not only for comfort from how they’ve been hurt, but for the cause of their hurt to answer for it. When Jesus experienced the Wrath of God, He wasn’t unconscious. When the Annihilationist describes the reward of Heaven, it isn’t unconscious. When scripture describes for us the severity of sin, we were shown the price that was paid to free us from that consequence. If the reality of punishment is to merely give the sinner freedom from consequence, then the price that was paid on the cross to redeem us from it was equally inconsequential. Any teaching that diminishes the severity of the Cross of Christ is not glorifying God’s mercy. They are merely misrepresenting it. In Annihilationism, there is nothing to forgive because there is nothing that would have been punished. In the Cross, the Severity of Sin is judged in its entirety so we don’t have to experience the very real consequences that await those who reject a relationship with God.
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