Sunday, 29 November 2009

Out of the Theological closet: I am an Annihilationist (Pt.2)

So what are the key passages? I shall mainly be sticking to the NT as the OT is at best vague, although there are a few passages. Sheol seems to be completely interchangeable between a literal place, and a grave. Pretty much all of our understanding of Hell comes from the NT, and we use the OT as a secondary source, interpreted from the NT. I shall start by referring briefly to various OT texts before moving on to looking at specific NT texts.

Psalm 9:17, along with various others seem to suggest that Sheol is the place of the wicked. However there are other texts that suggest that the righteous are there too, for example: Psalm 16:10; Psalm 86:13. The issue then is not whether the righteous go to Sheol, but rather where is their final resting place.

Rev 20:11-15: Odd place to start? Maybe, but what this text say is that Hades gives up the dead and if their names weren't found in the Lamb's book of life (implies some names were) then they were cast into the lake of fire [Gehenna?]. What is interesting however is that Hades is also cast into the lake of fire, the second death. This proves that it cannot be the same place as Gehenna [Hell] as it is temporary and destroyed.

Matt 10:28: We all know the passage yet we seem to skim over the obvious interpretation for one that fits our preconceptions: "Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna]" God will destroy those who do not fear him. That is what fire does; destroy. One doesn't throw wood (Matt 7:19), chaff (Matt 3:12) or weeds (Matt 13:40) into a fire and expect them to burn forever, rather that they be destroyed. There are loads of verses that talk about God destroying the wicked, overwhelming amounts in fact. Look here for examples(although not all applicable). We will address the criticism to this in a moment.

Mixed images: This is not one passage but rather a criticism from various passages. If one is to take the literal view then how can Hell be both darkness (Matt 8:12) and have fire (Matthew 5:22)?

Obviously these are just a few examples, and there are as many as there are mentions of hell, as obviously the Annihilationist uses the same passages as all other interpretations. I would just like to address one moral question before we go onto address those passages which are often used to counter-act Annihilationism. My question (which I like to note can up after I held this doctrine) is this: If God punished sinners for all eternity is he just? Obviously there is a punishment to fit the crime, but once their punishment is dealt out is it just to continue. There are generally two rebuttals to this: 1) Sin is so bad that there is no end to the punishment. Is this however consistent with the picture of God as a just judge? 2) People continue to sin in Hell and therefore heap up unending punishment for themselves. Is God unable therefore to punish fast enough to end it or his he prolonging it out of spite? With that said, let us address some of the texts set against Annihilationism, and afterwards address any other criticisms facing it.

Luke 16:19-31: Often known as 'The Rich Man and Lazarus' we see a description of the rich man in torment (of fire) in Hell [Hades]. Surely this shows an eternal Hell? Well there are a few things to be said here: 1) It no-where says his torment is eternal, 2) He is in Hades, which we have already seen is destroyed, 3) I have already stated that there may be temporary torment in Hades, 4) It is a parable meant to encourage one to listen to the prophets and therefore look after the poor. (It is also possibly a cheeky mention of Jesus' resurrection, "they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.") There is no reason why this should be taken literally. Does this go against Annihilation? No, if anything it is against the 'traditional' view.

Luke 3:17; Matt 25:41; Isa 33:14: Unquenchable, eternal, everlasting fire. Surely these images prove that the punishment is eternal/forever? Well, oddly enough no. This was something that shocked me when I came across it too. Firstly, all these verses talk of the fire, not of the punishment. Secondly, these words are misleading in the English. Unquenchable is quite literal: Cannot be put out. Possibly denoting an eternal fire (See revelation), or possible a strong fire. Eternal is more interesting. We use it generally as a synonym for everlasting/forever, however it has more then one meaning in the Greek. It can also mean complete or strong. You will have to look that up yourselves as I don't have the space to use here. It is worth noting Jude 1:7 which says, "just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire."(ESV) Here it says that they underwent an eternal fire (obviously we know that since Sodom and Gomorrah aren't still burning) that this isn't used in the way we do. It is also worth saying that the word used here in these examples, as in some other examples, is 'Aionios'(Gk), lasting an age, literally 'age to age'. Eternal is a metaphorical interpretation and not literal. Similar can be said of 'everlasting fire'. Everlasting in this case is 'olam'(Hb), lasting an age. Everlasting is an interpretation and not literal.

Rev 14:9b-11:"If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." Here we see a warning that those who conform to the beast, etc, shall face God's fury and be tormented, the smoke of which shall rise for ever and ever. There are a few things to note: 1) Revelation is cryptographical. That is it uses encoded images to covey messages. It is not to be taken literally e.g. Horsemen, lamb, sword from mouth, 144,000, etc. This suggests that the image of smoke rising for ever and ever is also a picture. The use of the concept of smoke rising for ever and ever is used else where in the Bible where the literal meaning is not intended. For example Isa 34:9-10 where Edom's smoke is said to raise forever, when it obviously doesn't. I would like to suggest that this too is a picture stating the justice will be served and that it will never be forgotten that God is just. 2) Even if it were literal the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, it never says that the actual torment does. (On a side note I take the Beast to be Nero, the image to be a bust of him and the mark of the beast to be the document that proves you worshipped him.)

Rev 20:10: "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." Here we find an odd mix. Firstly, we must again note the Cryptographic nature of the book and therefore not take the images literally. Secondly, it is the devil, the beast and his false prophet that are 'tormented day and night for ever and ever', and not the average non-believer, however (as you can see from my interpretation above of whom the beast is) it is still people being tormented. I take this, as above, to be symbol of God's justice.

Mark 9:47b-49:" ...thrown into [Gehenna], where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched". Again this passage is used often to counteract this view. We have already looked at the concept of unquenchable flame to a point but I would like to look at it a little further and also at the worm. Remember what Gehenna is. Here Jesus is using the image of a rubbish tip: worms eating your flesh and fire burning your remains. It is an image, not literal. What is often missed here is that Jesus is quoting the OT: Isa 66:24, "And they [believers] will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind." So those whose 'worm will not die, nor their fire be quenched' are dead bodies, not eternal living, tormented peoples. They are an everlasting sign of Gods judgement, not of torture.

Matt 14:42: "...there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." I think this phrase is often miss-understood as meaning that the people are in pain. I was always taught this and thought so, however when I look at how the Bible actually uses the phrase it gives a completely different story. Look at the following: Job 16:9; Psa 35:16; 37:12; 112:10; Lam 2:16. In each of them the phrase is used not of torment and agony but rather anger, disgust or contempt. It makes sense that those who God casts out will feel anger, disgust and contempt for God.

Ok so those are the passages but what about further, logical criticism:

Does fire always destroy?: It is often said, and rightly so, that fire from God doesn't always destroy. Also, God is described as a 'consuming fire', yet we aren't consumed. So, in theory, the eternal fire could torment people forever without them dying (Ex 3:2; Dan 3:25; Heb 12:29), however the problem that this interpretation has is 1) In all the case that fire doesn't destroy it is either symbolic of God's power and justice, where people either are destroyed or are amazed they have survived: Deut 5:26; Isa 33:14;Heb 10:27;Rev 1:14. 2) Or it generally saves: Dan 3:25; 1 Cor 3:13. What I am getting at here is that one must take each case at a time: Where fire is used upon the wicked it destroys, where it is used against the saints, it refines.

Annihilation is good news for the wicked and prevents effective evangelism: Is it better news then eternal torment? Probably, but we must remember that God is just and fair! Is it good news however? Certainly not. How is an eternity without God good news? We have already seen that those cast out from Gods presence will gnash their teeth (anger and contempt) and weeping (extreme sadness). As for its effect on evangelism the 'Turn or burn' approach only really works if the person believes in hell in the first place. Secondly, aren't we calling people out of darkness and into light. Isn't it a relationship with Jesus we are after rather then an escape from hell? Imagine a wedding where the vows are being said, and after the groom has talked about his love for his bride, his bride turns as declares that it’s better then not being married. I find evangelism is much more effective if we preach that God has come to save us and redeem back to how it's meant to be, rather then that you're going to burn for all eternity unless you submit! Also, what has effectiveness to do with truth?

I think this will have to do for now. I have gone on too long already, however if you want to read further then I suggest this online article, "Why hell is not eternal torment. Why the "Conditional Immortality" doctrine is true and biblical." as a good starting point. It also contains further suggested reading.

Till Next Time!


  1. D;oh just deleted my comment.

    Hi Pete.
    Merry Christmas
    I am not trying to start a blog spat here, but cos I want people to challenge me if they think i am not understanding the Bible properly, I'd like to ask what you do with Matthew 25: 46 "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life"
    or 2 Thess 1: 9 "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,"

    Finally might the Jude use of the words "eternal fire" be referring to their time in hell, as opposed to the fire they endured as Lot fled Sodom.

    I have several major concerns with annihilationism from a systematic and biblical theology viewpoint - but it's gone 11 and one theme is enough per comment I reckon!
    God bless.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I do appreciate you taking the time.

    I hate when that happens. You have my empathy!
    Good to hear from you again.

    Merry Christmas to you too brother. I hope that your time is restful and that you come out the other side closer to Christ and his people.

    Certainly not a spat but friendly discussion between brothers. Perhaps you might think about writing a post on you concerns with Annihilationism at a more reasonable hour of the day?

    Right, on to the passages:

    Matt 25:46 ~ I think there are a couple of things to take note of here. 1) Genre: It's apocalyptic therefore not to be taken too literally (i.e. Not actual sheep and goats). 2) It doesn't mention what the punishment is. Now that could be torment but is just as likely to be destruction (i.e. the punishment is eternal/ not ever revoked/ final)

    2 Thes 1:(8-)9 ~ Paul et al note that when Jesus returns he will give relief to those who believe but will punish those who do not follow God. This punishment will be eternal destruction, which we could translate annihilation. I personally think this verse is on 'my' side of the discussion.

    Jude ~ You are right that the 'eternal fire' in Jude could refer to 'Hell' but I think that the context seems to refer to it happening or happened already. Jude is warning people not to listen to the false teachers who use the Gospel as an excuse to be immoral (V4) as they will be condemned.

    He gives 3 examples to make his point that God judges the wicked:
    1) After God saved some he destroyed the non-believers (V5)
    2) The Angels who rebelled God has kept locked up till the great day (v6)
    3) Sodom and Gomorrah (who like the false teachers) indulged in immorality and under went eternal fire. (v7)

    It seems to me then that the 3rd example therefore is also past tense. Of course the point here is that God punishes the wicked so don't be wicked. The point on what the punishment is, in this case, seems irrelevant. Also just a thought I just had and haven't really thought it through properly but if you take it as 'Hell' then aren't you saying that people are in 'Hell' now, before the judgement on the last day?

    Anyway, I'll leave it there for now. I too wish to understand the Bible properly and I feel a discussion between brothers is a good way to do that.

    Once again, have a merry Christmas.

  3. pretty much all my commentaries and reference books are at uni... d'oh! Ill get back to you in a week or two!

  4. Hi Peter,
    my reply is too long for comments. I have posted it at my blog where you're welcome to comment on it - or post a reply on your own blog if you so wish.