Over the weekend I was thinking about annihilationism and how it contrasts with a view called mortalism.
I'm weird like that.
If you don't already know, annihilationism is the view that the unrighteous are not consciously tormented in hell forever and ever. Rather, the fire of hell refers to the destruction of the unrighteous. Upon being judged or thrown into hell the unrighteous cease to exist. They are--thus the term--annihilated. In this view, hell, geographically speaking, doesn't exist. Hell isn't a noun. It's a verb, a verb describing an act of God (i.e., the destruction of the ungodly).
The best introduction of annihilationism is Edward Fudge's book The Fire that Consumes, recently republished in a third edition. I highly recommend it. One of the more prominent evangelicals who endorsed annihilationism was the late John Stott.
What is the biblical basis for this belief? It comes from a many places. For example:
Matthew 10.28The picture you take away from passages like these is that the lost "perish" (i.e., cease to exist). This happens in the following way. To start there is our "first death," the death of the body. This is followed by Judgment where the unrighteous face a "second death" where God "destroys the soul" in hell. After this act of Judgment the only people who exist are the righteous who inherit eternal life.
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.
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
To be clear, this understanding isn't the only way annihilationists interpret these passages, but it's a common view.
For my part, I think there are at least two problems with the God-destroying-souls-in-hell picture. The first is a theological problem. The second is an anthropological problem.
The theological problem is easily stated. In the God-destroying-souls-in-hell view you have God annihilating people, actively killing them. To be sure, this isn't much of a biblical problem where we see God kill lots of people. But these deaths could be viewed, theologically, as forms of punishment and not annihilation. That is, after the physical death we can posit continued (even if tortured) existence, second chances, and hope. But with the God-destroying-souls-in-hell view God is understood to be finally, irrevocably, and irrecoverably snuffing out human existence. In short, God's a killer.
As I've written about before, I worry about this view of God. Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father's face hearing his whisper "No."
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No........
Each flame snuffed out. One by one by one. Until the last candle is extinguished. The last life--with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes and dreams--finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke.
As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being "good" if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.
A second problem with the God-destroying-souls-in-hell view is with its anthropology.
The God-destroying-souls-in-hell view presupposes a Platonic anthropology that is untenable on both scientific and biblical grounds.
Specifically, what we find in many annihilationist positions is a dualism where the human person is composed of a body and a soul. From here the first death is believed to involve the body with the second death involving the soul. The notion here seems to be the Platonic idea that once your body dies your soul goes somewhere to face the Judgment. The soul discards and leaves the body behind. The body is a shell the soul escapes, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon.
This dualistic vision is supported by an additional Platonic notion, the belief in the immortality of the soul. The reason the soul floats off from the body after death is due to the fact that the body, being made of physical stuff, is mortal and degradable. The soul, however, being made of spiritual stuff, is intrinsically immortal and immune to the forces of entropy and decay. Thus, for the soul to "die" something more than the death of the body is required. God has to kill the soul. This would be the "second death," God "destroying both body and soul in hell."
In summary, certain visions of annihilationism--generally the God-destroying-souls-in-hell view--are built upon a Platonic anthropology: 1) belief in body/soul dualism and 2) belief in the immortality of the soul.
The trouble with this anthropology, and any view of annihilationism built upon it, is twofold. First, while many of the ancients and many modern Christians subscribe to this Platonic anthropology, these beliefs are increasingly untenable in this age of neuroscience and brain imaging technology. Trying to convince people of this vision of personhood is increasingly like trying to convince people that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
But the more pressing problem has to do with how the Platonic anthropology fails to jibe with a biblical anthropology, an anthropology more influenced by the ancient Hebrews than by the ancient Greeks.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 15, the longest and most detailed description of the resurrection in the New Testament, Paul never describes the soul taking a Gnostic flight from the body. Rather, Paul envisions an embodied resurrection. The resurrection isn't a Platonic soul-flight but is, rather, an event where the mortal body is changed into a resurrected body.
More, the bible never teaches that the human soul is immortal. In fact, the bible pretty clearly teaches that only God is immortal:
1 Timothy 6.15b-16aOther passages make it clear that humans aren't immortal (e.g., 1 Cor. 15.53-54) and that immortality is a gift rather than an intrinsic feature of the soul (e.g., 2 Tim. 1.10).
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal...
In short, the anthropology supporting annihilationism is suspicious on both scientific and biblical grounds. The souls of the unrighteous don't leave the body to a face a Judgment where God then annihilates them.
Given the biblically suspicious anthropology supporting many annihilationist scenarios a view called mortalism (or conditionalism) emphasizes the biblical teaching that humans are thoroughgoingly mortal and that immortality is a gift given only to the redeemed. In this view when we die we die. And that's it. Consciousness ceases. There is no soul-escape to another realm. We just die. Body and soul. (This is, you might notice, a very naturalistic description of death. Mortalists, thus, see death the same way a biologist would.)
Resurrection, according to mortalism, is God bringing the dead back to life at the resurrection. At the resurrection the mortal becomes immortal allowing the soul to enjoy the New Creation with God. The unrighteous, in this view, are simply not brought back to life, not raised from the dead, not given the gift of immortality. The life of the unrighteous, then, is simply the mortal life. Cradle to the grave. For these there is no resurrection.
Now what I find interesting about all this, and what I was pondering over the weekend, is how mortalism overcomes the two problems noted above about annihilationism.
First, in mortalim God is not "snuffing out" life. God is not actively annihilating or killing souls. Rather, God is limiting the scope resurrection. And while I have issues with a limited resurrection (rather than a general resurrection), I find the view of God in mortalism less problematic than the view found in annihilationism.
Second, the anthropology of mortalism is better positioned, scientifically and biblically. Mortalism rejects the Gnostic and Platonic anthropology supporting many annihilationist accounts. Again, I find this to be an improvement.
Thus, though I personally don't subscribe to either view, if I had to choose between these positions mortalism seems to me to be a more cogent theological position than annihilationism.