I just read an interesting article by Nik Ansell (dated April 20, 2009) at The Other Journal entitled Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?
The conclusions of the article are broadly in sync with my own views on hell. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of annihilationism. During my college years, when the traditional doctrine of hell became untenable for me, I briefly flirted with annihilationism after a bible professor handed me, in my hour of crisis, Edward Fudge's book The Fire that Consumes.
Annihilationism has much to recommend itself. The notion that the "lost" are either destroyed or denied immortality/resurrection (the view called "conditional immortality" where the "lost" just die with no hope for a future resurrection) seemed, for a time, to get me around some of the most difficult problems I was having with the traditional view of hell. But at the end of the day I rejected annihilationism for my current universalist position, largely for the reasons Ansell describes in his article:
Both positions [regarding hell, traditional and annihilationist], I suggest, must be rejected for at least two reasons, both of which call out for the development of a new theology in which Hell is no longer the nemesis of hope.
Firstly, both views allow evil to have the last word. As annihilationists have been quick to realize, the hell of traditional orthodoxy cannot do justice to the vision of Habakkuk 2:14 in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” or to the New Testament expression of this hope found in the promise that God will become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). The traditional claim that the eternal suffering of the impenitent serves to glorify God by revealing his justice reduces the revelation of God’s glory to the restoration of God’s honor, thus separating the glory of God from the glorification of creation. Justice conceived as retribution closes down redemption and blocks the dawn of the age to come. In traditional eschatology, sinners no longer have the power to sin after the final judgment, yet they remain sinners. If they are to be everlastingly punished for the sins of the past, and for their impenitent condition, how is evil not still present in the world?
Although the annihilationist attempt to find eschatological resolution beyond the confines of traditional orthodoxy is certainly justified, their own position has serious problems of its own. It is worth reminding ourselves, especially in this age of ecological violence and crisis, that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment, evil still has the last word.