Seven Theses on Annihilationism

1. Annihilationism does squarely face the problem of God's loving justice in the traditional doctrine of hell: The monstrous notion that God will inflict extreme conscious pain upon the "lost" for all eternity.

2. However, annihilationism is, at root, an ad hoc doctrinal patch. That is, annihilationism leaves a deeply problematic soteriological system firmly in place.

3. For example, annihilationism fails to positively address the issue of moral luck, that our moral and religious lives at the point of death are a highly contingent and largely out of our control.

4. Annihilationism also fails to address the problem of horrendous evil. Denying life and resurrection to the "lost" annihilationists admit that, for billions of men, women and children across history, the final experience on earth, often while crying out to God, is one of terror, pain and god-forsakenness. For the Jews who stared up at the shower heads in Auschwitz as Zyklon B poured forth, this would be, according to annihilationists, the final moment of their biography with God. Praise be to God?

5. In short, annihilationists replace a God of horror with a God of cold cruel indifference. They trade God's sins of commission for sins of omission.

6. Annihilationists fail to understand God's covenant relationship with his creation. The soteriology of the annihilationist is the thin notion of "going to heaven." Thus, annihilationists fail to understand the cosmic ambitions of God's love. How "all things" were created by the Word (John 1.3) and how the Word will bring "all things" back into into harmony and peace (Col. 1.20).

7. Annihilationists fail to understand Christ's victory over the power of Sin and Death. The annihilationist admits that the vast majority of humankind will die in sin and death, never to live again. Death and sin retain their sting. This is God's Victory? To save a few from the wreckage of death in a tiny lifeboat of grace while His Creation fades away into silence, sadness or horror? No! This is not good news! Nor is this the God of Jesus Christ our Lord! Sin and death were defeated on Easter Sunday. As the Scripture declares (1 Cor. 15.25,28)

For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death...When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

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26 thoughts on “Seven Theses on Annihilationism”

  1. Annihlationists are realists, not idealists. They know that the ones who hold the power to determine the course of history are the ones that will determine who lives and who dies. Humans are at the mercy of those in power. Therefore, to speak of idealistic dreams of utopia, I think is mis-guided. There are too many contingencies and probabilities, that are unknown or beyond our control...much less, the differences of cultural values and individual differences within these....beyond complex...

  2. I don't see how Angie's comments actually addressed annihilationism at all... what does humans being at the mercy of those in power, or the impossibility of a utopia, have to do with whether souls are snuffed out of existence rather than tormented for eternity?

    But to the point of your post, Richard: you seem to be assuming that annihilationism entails that one's fate is sealed at death, and this seems to me incorrect. An annihilationist might posit something like a kind of purgatory, an after-life experience in which one is given perhaps more absolutely and less contingently the choice of which direction to go. I think this is more or less what C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce" presents. I think that point would blunt much of your criticism here.

    I also don't think it's necessarily ad hoc. It's easy enough to get the idea from scripture (e.g. the idea of the "second death"). It doesn't arise only as an answer to problems with the doctrine of Hell.

    I still think it amounts to God letting (parts of) creation fail, but I don't think it's quite as bad an option as you've painted it here.

  3. Though I do find Lewis' version (described by Spaceman) of to be the most palletable variation, I find annihilationism to be more problematic than universalism from the standpoint of the Biblical text. As best I can tell, most of the Bible writers think that (a) resurrection is universal, and that (b) eschatological judgment follows resurrection.

    The need for eschatological judgment/exclusion is, to me, more practical than moral - how is God going to deal with evil? Oppression and Empire can't go on forever, and they are inconsistent with God's reign. The excluded state in which some then find themselves seems inevitable.

    My question is - is that judgment then the final word or not? Universal reconciliation could still follow. My favorite image is of the kings of the Earth, condemned to the lake of fire in the middle part of Revelation, streaming back into the New Jerusalem in its closing chpaters.

    I'm reading/reviewing McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity on my own blog. He is eventually going to get to just this issue.

  4. One other comment - the fact that God raises even the "Kings of the Earth" - who conspire with the Powers to destroy and oppress the Earth, tells me that God himself has hope/plans to ultimately reconcile even them.

  5. In Great Divorce, Lewis's Teacher character is George MacDonald, who, as Lewis mentions in the dialogue of Ch. 13, was a universalist. The observed characters annihilate themselves, refusing to let go of their pettinesses until there is nothing left of them except the pettiness itself. In MacDonald's own writings, he talks about how love loves unto purity, that God, as a consuming fire, is not about destroying person, but that which within the person keeps him selfish, petty, and diseased. "... if possible, that the hater should be delivered from the hell of his hate ... The man would think, not that God loved the sinner, but that he forgave the sin, which God never does [i.e. What is usually called "forgiving the sin" means forgiving the sinner and destroying the sin]. Every sin meets with its due fate -- inexorable expulsion from the paradise of God's Humanity. He loves the sinner so much that He cannot forgive him in any other way than by banishing from his bosom the demon that possesses him." From Unspoken Sermons I, "It Shall Not Be Forgiven"

  6. Annihilationism is wishful thinking on the part of civilized people who want to believe in the bible but don't want to believe that god is as he is seemingly presented. Sort of like those scholars who want to turn Jesus into a modern-=day liberal.

    It's a nicer thought than the idea of eternal torture, but it isn't really supported by the weight of scriptures.


  7. Yeah, in The Great Divorce I think Lewis is wrestling with MacDonald a little bit, since MacDonald was such a strong influence on him and he found his writings so moving but still (I think) wasn't convinced on universalism.

    Like Richard and Matt, I tend towards universalism myself (and I do think it can be supported by scripture at least as well as either the "traditional" view or annihilationism). Richard has given good arguments for universalism elsewhere.

    I simply don't want other views to be dismissed unfairly.

  8. Point number 4 assumes that all annihilationists have an exclusive rather than inclusive view of salvation. This simply is not correct. It has been years since I read Edward Fudge (and he did not convince me), but if I remember correctly, his own view is that the atonement was a universal act for all people regardless of time, place, or knowledge. From that perspective he concludes that most people will be saved and that only those few people who spend their lives actively rejecting God will be annihilated. That does not answer all of your objections, but it at least puts annihilationism in perspective. BTW - Thomas, you should read Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes. It may not convince you, but I think you'll be surprised at how much scriptural support Fudge marshals.

  9. Regarding some of the comments and clarifications above:

    If the annihilationist is positing postmortem salvific work (e.g., a purgatory, or C.S. Lewis Great Divorce scenario) then, yes, much of my criticisms are blunted a bit.

    But this creates a different set of questions. For example, why and when does God "pull the plug" at the point he does? Would God not wait one more day if that would save one more soul! And so forth.

    If it is a Great Divorce type situation (a kind of permeable barrier between a Sheol-type existence and heaven) you have to posit a host of mechanisms to manage the immigration back and forth across this boundary. That, to me, seems messy (theologically speaking) and anthropocentric.

  10. Richard, thanks for the posting.

    I had been an annihilationist myself, and Fudge's book mentioned above is as good an exposition of the position as there is out there. This idea tries to bridge the idea of justice and mercy, though placing the emphasis on the justice side. I must admit that I ended up with an inclusivist position, believing that in the end, God will reconcile all to God's self. Still, it is an attempt to deal with the problems inherent in the proposition that God is love and that God judges -- eternal punishment simply doesn't seem to go well with love, though exclusion doesn't seem to do so either.

  11. It seems to me that the issue of when God pulls the plug is a problem for any eschatology that has a definite endpoint. Even with Universalism, it seems typically assumed that at some point "everyone" is saved, and "everyone" is some fixed number. Why this number? Why not let more and more souls come into existence to be saved? And I have to say, The Great Divorce deals with this in a way that seems as satisfying as it could be on that particular issue. Sure you have to posit mechanisms, but I can't imagine any robust eschatology that doesn't.

    Anyway, I still tend towards universalism, I just think the central question is about whether God is able to non-coercively bring about salvation for all of creation of just parts of it.

  12. Spaceman,
    I agree about the non-coercive facet. I think the integrity of the self has to be maintained.

    My main problem with Lewis' vision is the the anthropology involved. Human volition is highly contextual. We aren't radically free. Thus, the notion that God just lets our wills drift off to create our own environments seems dubious to me, on both psychological and theological grounds. To let a human's will drift free with no redemptive traction seems, well, to throw up a lot of the theodicy problems we've discussed.

    More, there needs to be a justice and forgiveness component as well. The blood of victims cries out. Perpetrators cannot "repent" without making amends to victims. In short, the volition-based passivity of Lewis' vision in the Great Divorce seems too bland for me. It doesn't do anything but preserve an (largely illusory in my view) notion of human "choice." This is a worthy goal, but a whole lot more is at stake--for God, humanity and all of creation.

  13. I believe the mystery and intrigue of UR is that God is ingenious enough FIND A WAY to "convince" EVERYONE of their wrong and "change their mind and heart" (metanoeo). Perpetrators "come to" and are convinced to provide a satisfying retribution to their victims, the victims being satisfied enough to fully forgive. For those who never heard of Jesus Christ (i.e third world tribes), they are simply presented Christ Himself in person very first thing after death, Christ says I am He, and the person simply goes Oh ... OK I clearly see You are THE loving Christ and I joyfully bow down to you - thank You. The tough ones are probably going to be the Judeo-Christian religous leaders throughout history (the Pharasees, the older brother of the prodigal son, the early morning workers in the field complaining about receiving the same pay as the those who were employed at the final hour,
    hmmm maybe today's ET perpetuators, etc).

    Phillipians 2:10-11
    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    The traditional doctrine of Eternal Torment presumes that God the Father gets glory for "busting" 97% of humanity for NOT "believing" in Christ. The Annihilationism scenario doesn't seem to "glorious". If UR were true, then God convincing and winning every heart to bow down to Jesus (without coercion) would truly be glorious.

    I am continuing to muse (and hope) this over as we speak.

    Gary Y.

  14. I don't get the idea of post-death choice. If I understand correctly, some believe God will give people another chance to repent after death.

    But who would reject god after they are dead and are presented with a choice between heaven and hell (or nothingness)? That's not really a choice.

    Any then it matters not a whit what one does on this earth.

    Doesn't make much sense.


  15. The imagery of the small boat of grace carrying a few off into the sunset did it for me. Sometimes I think my mind is numb from all academic speak, all the ologies. I like the images these days, the comparisons, the pictures to our theological pretenses. How funny to think so many of us Christians have reduced salvation to this boat that holds a few. Nicely put!

  16. PF,
    It doesn't make sense only if you hold to the unbiblical idea that when you die you immediately go to heaven or hell. The Scriptural understanding is very clear that when you die, you are asleep until Jesus returns, at which point all will be raised and then judged.

  17. hi richard, love what i've read on your site so far....should i infer from this post that you lean towards a "universal salvation?" if you've written more about this on the site somewhere, please direct me there! cheers

  18. Richard,
    I thought part of the beauty of Lewis' presentation is precisely that people who did wrong that led to spiritual damage to others *were* in fact able to make amends even to the "border", so to speak, of heaven and hell. And at the very least it has to be said that for Lewis, we God doesn't let us go create our own environments without pursuing us.

    I don't think it works as a technically comprehensive description, but it at least imaginatively points to the possibility of resolving the contingencies of our current experience of choice into some more absolute kind of choice, and included in that is the suggestion that people could seek out those they had wronged and try to make things right as a part of their journey into heaven. (This idea of heaven as a progressive journey of transformation is also a really beautiful one.)

    In any case, as I said, I tend to agree with you on the whole. I simply don't think it's so easy to dismiss out of hand the possibility that God, being God, could arrange it such that our fate *ends up* being in a real ontological sense our free choice (between life in God and nothingness) despite the fact that choices in this life are heavily constrained. It still appears to me that this idea is fundamentally unjust and imagines a God who is less loving, less just, and ultimately less powerful than the God who could and would non-coercively reconcile all of creation, and so I tend towards universalism. But due to the limitation of my own perspective, I grant the possibility that I've misunderstood justice, love, and freedom, and leave it open that God could do something else and it be just.

  19. Spiff,
    Hey, I love Lewis' vision. The Great Divorce is really what got me started down this path. That and his pointing me to George MacDonald (as Patrica points out). Like Patrica, once I encountered MacDonald I was changed by his view of the purifying love of God.

    So I love the Great Divorce and think it actually comes closer to the universalist view than the annihilationist. The openendedness of the Great Divorce makes me think this.

  20. late entry, but this is a compelling topic for me.

    The concepts of universalism and exclusive blessedness both stem from the concept that we come into the world as immortal souls. It is this fundamental idea which suggests that we must face either an eternity of 'reward' or an eternity of 'punishment' or a combination of punishment-followed-by-reward (purgation).

    This idea of native immortality is the notion that conditional immortality challenges. It argues that, if there is nothing coming to us from mummy and daddy (or immediately from God) that grants us a native right to immortality, then we must attain to immortality by some condition. It must be realized or appropriated by response to grace - a personal relation with divine reality.

    The inclusivity of conditional immortality cannot be addressed from a strictly Christian perspective. But the Jews in your fourth thesis are not condemned to annihilation except under the exclusivist Christian concept which denies access to the God-relation except through Christ. In my view, all that can fairly be required is that someone have some mustard seed relation to divine reality (ie., that they are not outright atheists).

    Atheists have no problem with the concept of their own annihilation, as far as I can tell. And there can be no memory of the event anyway, and therefore no "final moment in their biography" - they simply become as if they never were (except in the memory of those remaining on Earth after them). Isn't this what they preach anyway?

  21. Your theses suffer from the assumptions on which they rest. For example (re #2), Annihilationism (a broader term than Conditional Immortality, which is one form of it) does not assume or require any particular soteriological system, but is found among Calvinists and non-Calvinists, inclusivists and non-inclusivists alike.

    The conclusion (#3) that our moral and religious lives (at the point of death or otherwise) are "highly contingent and largely out of our control" seems to eliminate any notion of personal responsibility and therefore accountability.

    Re #4. annihilationists (at least neither I nor the ones I know around the world) do not believe that the "lost" die on earth and that is their eternal end, but rather that they will experience a resurrection unto judgment, at which time they are raised mortal, give account in the divine court of perfect justice, and then are given their lifelong choice of total separation from God which, (since God is our only ground of being) results in their eventual
    disintegration and annihilation.

    As for Jews or Gentiles either, who die while crying out to God in terror, pain and god-forsakenness, my view does not assume their condemnation by God who knows the hearts and who judges every person by his/her available light. For which, YES-- praise be to God!

    Re #5, your thesis that annihilationists replace a God of horror with a God of cold cruel indifference lacks any basis except someone's own narrow assumptions.

    Re #6,the soteriology of some annihilationists might be "the thin notion of 'going to heaven,'" but I teach a cosmic salvation, albeit not universalism.

    So also #7 is the predetermined conclusion of a universalist, but it is not the logical outcome of what many Annihilationists actually believe. Many Annihilationists deny that anyone will "die in sin and death, never to live again." And they do not necessarily believe "that the vast majority of humankind" will finally perish.

    Your metaphor of a "tiny lifeboat" is a clever rhetorical device, but neither it nor a few universalist proof texts justify these overbroad theses. Readers who prefer comprehensive biblical exegesis are invited to visit my website at .

  22. Edward,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I doubt you and I will change each other's minds about all this. However, I do like the conversation.

    Regarding my thesis #2: I agree that annihilationisim can be "added onto" various soteriological systems. That might be a feature. But I see it as a bug. Annihilationisim might fix a nasty aspect within these particular soteriologies (e.g. Calvinism), but it fails to deal with the larger difficulties within those systems. Thus, it's a "patch" that fixes a snarl in a larger, unworkable theory.

    Regarding #3: Yes, I am circumscribing the powers of volition. As any modern psychologist or brain scientist (or any scientifically literate person) would do. "Will" cannot override everything. Not in this lifetime. So you can't escape this criticism so easily. If you cannot account for moral luck you aren't talking about a world that we recognize. In short, tell me how you handle moral luck. I'd like to know. And, to be totally honest, if you had a good explanation I might be swayed on all this.

    Regarding your response to #4 and #5 I think you are just dodging the question. My biggest criticism about annihilationisim has to do with theodicy. And you don't address these theodicy problems at all. You never gave me an answer for Auschwitz. And if you can't, what good is your theology? I'm not saying I have any wonderful answers either, but at least universalists are trying to take Auschwitz seriously (see the book Christ and Horrors on this point).

    Regarding #6: Your salvation isn't cosmic if the vast majority of humanity (a part of God's creation) is never redeemed. How is this partial and tragic vision "cosmic"?

    Regarding #7: Help me with your math. Do you agree that the "vast majority" of humans who have ever lived will die without accepting Christ as their savior? If not, how many are we talking about?

    Finally, the "tiny lifeboat" isn't a rhetorical gimmick. It goes to your view of God, the most critical theological issue behind this debate we are having. And exegesis can't fix that. As Jesus said about the Pharisees, they "searched the Scriptures" but couldn't get their heads around a God of radical love.

  23. Surely this blog entry confuses annihilationism simpliciter with annihilationism-combined-with-a-given-stance-on-inclusiveness. Annihilationism on its own does not commit one to a partciular belief about how "large" the flock of the saved will be. It leaves open the inclusivist/exclusivist question.

    It's also not particularly fair to deny that redemption is cosmic for an annihilationist ont he basis of the fact that there will be - int he past - some instances of non-redemption. That's not what cosmic redemption invovles. Cosmic redemption just means that the universe exists, and everything in existence is in harmony with God.

    Thesis #3 would also be false if one were a Calvinist, but then, that might trouble you for a whole other reason!

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