I hope these posts about universalism don't tire too many of you or rub you the wrong way. I'll try to post stuff in between these posts to give you a break. But I have bunch of stuff to say and, thus, quite a few posts planned. However, I'll try to give you a break from time to time.
Further, while I have pretty strong opinions about all of this I'm an inclusive fellow. So let's all feel free to disagree. Christians haven't agreed on much for over 2,000 years so I don't expect that to change today on this blog. Christians just have different views about heaven and hell. There will never be a consensus within the Christian communion on this topic. But I expect for many people the great diversity of the Christian faith--from Catholic to Protestant, Mormon to Greek Orthodox, Reformed to Universalist, Jehovah's Witness to Pentecostal, Lutheran to Anglican, Evangelical to Anabaptist, Presbyterian to Non-denominational--is a data point they can't wrap their heads around. So it's okay if you conclude that I'm a heretic. That, it appears to me, has been the status quo within Christianity for quite some time.
In light of this diversity, and on the subject of hell in particular, I'd like to tell you why I once believed in annihilationism and why, ultimately, I rejected it.
When I was in college I started struggling a lot with what I learned in Sunday School. As a child I was told that when you die there would be a Judgment Day. And on that Day you would find out your fate for all eternity. Some of us, those who were Church of Christ, would get to go to heaven. All others would go to hell. And there the lost would undergo never-ending torment.
This Sunday School vision of heaven and hell worked pretty well. The simplistic reward-punishment vision of morality fit my young mind. Plus, I'm sure the threat of hellfire kept me out of a lot of trouble as a teenager.
But as I grew up, and as my cognitive abilities matured, this Sunday School vision of heaven and hell started to worry me. A host of questions kept me up at night. Johnny's a Baptist and a better person than I am--a better Christian--but Baptists are going to hell. And how about Catholics? Good Lord will they burn!
In light of these questions I grew a bit more ecumenical. Well, maybe all Christians I concluded, even Catholics, will get to heaven. But how about someone like Gandhi? He's going to burn for eternity, right? And how about all those Jews who died in the gas chambers? Their Christian neighbors shipped them off to Auschwitz where they inhaled Zyklon B and woke up in hell, right? One torture chamber to the next? Only the second one is forever. And run by the Almighty.
So I had a faith crisis. How could I believe in and worship a God I viewed to be monster?
Desperate, I went to my bible professor and spilled the beans. I said, through tears, if I have to believe in the hell I was taught in Sunday School then I'm out, I can't obey or worship that God. This is the end of the line. And here's the kicker: I believed in God. I looked at my bible prof and said: I'd rather go to hell than worship that God. Let me be damned, but I can't go further. I want to be with those Jews from Auschwitz. And if God isn't with them then what hope is there for my faith?
My professor smiled. He understood where I was coming from. And for the rest of the semester he pointed me to a variety of resources about the doctrine of hell. He basically introduced me to the diversity of the Christian faith. Apparently, I discovered, Christians disagreed a great deal about hell. I thought hell was a one-size-fits-all doctrine. But I discovered there were all sorts of visions on offer. That semester we read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. And I read Edward Fudge's The Fire that Consumes. And for a time, I became an annihilationist.
The basic idea of annihilationism is that hellfire doesn't torture people for eternity. Rather, hellfire, per Fudge's title, consumes the damned. The lost cease to exist, they are annihilated. This, in the word's of Jesus, is the second death:
Matthew 10.28According to annihilationism there are two deaths. The first death ends your physical existence. The second death ends your spiritual existence.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Critical to this view is how it pushes against the latent Platonism in how many Christians view immortality and the soul. Many Christians think the soul is intrinsically immortal. That immortality is a property of the soul. And if you believe this, the notion seems nonsensical that the soul could be "killed" (as Jesus states in Matthew 10). Souls are immortal, they can't be killed.
But that view isn't biblical. It's a belief we've inherited from Greek philosophy, Plato in particular. The bible is very clear that only God is immortal (1 Tim. 6.16) and that the saved, who are mortal, must "put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15.53-55). Immortality, in short, is a gift. And only the saved get it. If you are not saved you do not get to share in God's immortality. Thus, your life will end. Body and soul.
Early on this view helped me a great deal. Annihilationism helped me deal with the most pressing problem I had, that God would torture people for eternity. Now, according to annihilationism they just ceased to exist. Which is an improvement.
Unfortunately, this situation didn't last and I grew increasingly disillusioned with annihilationism. I ultimately rejected it as wrong. Well intentioned, but wrong. Let me give a few reasons why I reached this conclusion.
To start, let's get the cards out on the table: Is annihilationism murder? It is, after all, called annihilationism. And if I annihilate a group of people we know that I've murdered them. So while annihilationism might seem more humane than the vision of God roasting people for eternity we have to wrestle with this notion that God is terminating a human life. Humans call that murder. So, is the God of annihilationism guilty on this score?
Well, maybe not. Despite the title of Fudge's book, we don't have to think of God as actively killing (consuming, annihilating) people. Perhaps God simply removes his life-giving presence from these people. In certain medical situations we allow life-support to be stopped and we don't consider that to be murder. Maybe that's what happens in annihilationism?
The trouble with this view is that we only allow the plug to be pulled when people are brain dead, when they are not conscious and they have no way, biologically speaking, to carry their biography forward. But that's not what is going on in annihilationism. The damned are, presumably, conscious and want their lives to continue. They may even be begging for mercy. And yet, God pulls the plug over their protests, petitions, and screams for mercy. And that, it seems to me, is murder. Annihilationism and Fudge's book, I concluded, were well named.
But the fact that annihilationism is murder isn't what ultimately changed my mind.
The deeper problem I had with annihilationism is that it didn't, ultimately, answer the questions I was really struggling with. The same questions that bothered me about the Sunday School hell were also bothering me with annihilationism.
Here's the deal. Annihilationism is a doctrine about hell. It's not a doctrine about God. Annihilationism answers a very specific question: Will hell last forever? It answers, no, it won't. Hell is just the cessation of existence. God won't torture people forever.
Again, this is an improvement. But this theological patch on the doctrine of hell doesn't get at the deeper issue about who God is. Is God loving? Is God just?
Think of those Jews looking up at the shower heads in Auschwitz. Maybe they don't get tortured for eternity in the next life. Maybe, Fudge suggested, they just die, right there or maybe later. Regardless, the last act in the drama of their life is breathing in the gas as they scream and cling to their friends, family and children. Too bad they didn't accept Jesus in this life! Too bad they didn't attend that nice, welcoming German bible study down the street!
In short, while annihilationism allowed me to believe that God isn't a sadistic torturer it didn't allow me to answer the questions I really needed to answer: Is God just? Is God loving?
And so, I eventually left annihilationism behind. The view just tweaks the doctrine of hell. And that was, for a season, helpful. And I still believe most of what Fudge writes in The Fire that Consumes. His analysis of immortality is awesome and his word study of the word "eternal" is wonderful. But I needed more. I didn't start this search looking for a better doctrine of hell.
I was looking for God.