On Hell and Holocausts: Comparing Annihilationism and Universalism

In yesterday's post I talked about cherem in the Old Testament. Cherem was the command in various books of the OT for the Israelites to kill all living things within a conquered city, all men, women, children and livestock. As I noted in yesterday's post, cherem was a form of sacrifice, a holocaust, a burnt offering to God.

[Note: holocaust means "burnt offering."]

As we all know, the cherem texts are some of the most difficult texts in the bible. They make God look like a genocidal monster. Which is why I offered a different, non-violent reading of those texts in yesterday's post.

For today, however, I'd like to make a comment about cherem and annihilationism.

Annihilationism is the view that hell isn't eternal conscious torment but is, rather, the destruction/annihilation of the wicked on Judgment Day. That is, the fire of God doesn't torture/burn people in hell forever and ever. Rather, the fire of God consumes and destroys the wicked. The wicked cease to exist--that is their punishment--and don't enjoy the blessings of eternal life.

While I do think annihilationism is a better view than eternal conscious torment, I have a few, pretty big, objections about annihilationism. And the biggest one is this:

Annihilationism is cherem.

And this isn't hyperbole on my part. I'm not trying to provoke. Defenders of annihilationism themselves point to cherem in the OT as a model for how to understand God's "consuming fire."

Annihilationism is cherem. Annihilationism is holocaust.

And that's why I recoil with a bit of horror at annihilationism. Really? I think. Holocaust is your view of God? The most monstrous texts in all of the bible are the texts you want to build your theology around?

For my part, as regular readers know, I believe in the ultimate victory of God's love--a love that will involve judgment and a moral reckoning. I take the hell passages very, very seriously. I also believe in holocaust.

But this holocaust is the holocaust the Christian mystics spoke about: The holocaust of God's love. This is the purifying and refining fire of God, the holocaust of God's love that consumes sin.

As I argued in yesterday's post, the practices of cherem were judged when the prophets began to reject the holocaust tradition. Or, rather, when the prophets began to radically reinterpret the burnt offering tradition. A reinterpretation that culminates in Jesus. God wants a holocaust of the heart. That is the burnt offering that God desires. That is the holocaust that God will bring upon us.

A holocaust that consumes sin, not human beings.

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23 thoughts on “On Hell and Holocausts: Comparing Annihilationism and Universalism”

  1. A qualified absolutely, yes! And I think this matters a lot ... I think we become like the God we worship, at least in some ways, and I can't bring myself to worship the cruel entity that I think some people have constructed from bits and pieces of scripture, and called God. Some thoughts on how I see this shaping up in a Catholic context: Hans Urs Von Balthazar suggested an increased reliance on God's mercy, including God's capacity to save through non-normal means (i.e. to save those not baptized), and this was taken up by Pope Benedict as a central theological theme. Here is a small example of the impact this has had: on WTN (the hyper-conservative Catholic station that I listen to out of a combination of masochism and respect), there was a discussion of Limbo yesterday. The Catholic Answers host explained that limbo was a long-held position of many important figures in the Church (ie, the idea of limbo suggests that unbaptized babies end up in a happy place that isn't quite heaven), but that Benedict suggested that instead of thinking about limbo so much, Catholics should trust in God's mercy, even God's mercy beyond the normal means the Church has been given. A couple of things fascinate me about this approach, over and against any of the systematic group names (like universalism) that are used to order the discussion here. (1) The unit of analysis and critique is an idea (limbo) and not a system (limboism). I think this better reflects the huge playground of ideas that is theology, and helps us see our opinions about these ideas as opinions, rather than identity markers. I.e. I don't quite buy into limbo, vs I'm not a limboist. I think this makes it easier to achieve critical distance from the topic of discussion. Maybe because I am uncomfortable with the way identity markers create needless divisions on matters of opinion, I often adopt the identity-marker of whoever I am talking to, or whoever is being excluded in a given conversation. So here, let me be an annihilationist, by which I mean the sarx-self is annihilated, and the soma-self, taken up in the body of Christ, endures without end, in this aion and the aion to come. (2) When an arch-conservative Catholic takes her, or his, systematic theology and ecclesiology seriously, it creates a situation in which this sudden, unexpected appeal to mercy really does seem as transformative, strange, dangerous, risky, bold and unimaginable as I think this sort of mercy really must be to us. When that mercy has become internalized into our routines, habitus, systems, etc, I think it can lose its transformative sting. Producing a real, lived experience of shocking mercy is an important part of what I think theology should convey. As I understand Barthes, he refused to be labeled a universalist on the grounds that it also systematizes and limits God, but if you were forced to classify him, I think he'd come out as a "universalist." Barthes can take our Reformed friends to a similar place, which isn't really surprising because Barthes was such an influence on Hans. (3) I find it encouraging to see that the unpopular, stinky old intellectual Pope Benedict (who certainly had his flaws) was actually something of a radical when it came to some of the most fundamental aspects of Catholic theology. This is also what James Alison appreciated about him. If you aren't familiar with James Alison, I'm pretty sure you'd love this Girardian fellow-traveler. I'd also note that this emphasis on mercy can, perhaps, go awry in horrifying ways: I think that it, combined with horrible advice from psychologists, joined with the Church of Peter's authoritarian tendencies to help perpetuate modern child abuse. This kind of "mercy", especially when directed selectively to the powerful, can be a horrifying thing. Food for thought, and a case for maintaining the tension that I think we all value, but that settled identity terms like "universalism" and "annihiliationism" can tend to dissolve.

  2. Yesterday's post was one of the most eye-opening articles I've read in many a moon. It all makes sense now! Thanks. I look forward to reading this one.

  3. What would you think of the view that we are not, by nature, eternal beings, but that in Christ we get the priveledge of a resurrection and perfected body, rather than a continuance of some ephemeral soul? Wouldn't this just make those without Christ rested within their then-correct assumption (which most seem comfortable with) of death being the end of consciousness as opposed to somehow holocausted?

  4. I do think mortalism (that "the lost" when they die just die and that's it, there's no Judgment Day or "consuming fire" just death with no life afterwards), steps around the criticism of annihilationism I give in the post.

  5. I tend to agree with you on this. Although, If I pull in a whole bunch of other concepts from outside Christianity, it could get really complicated!

    But from a purely Western, Christian perspective, I tend to see it this way (via Meister Eckhart): ""The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love." So when our current physical/mat existence ends we elect to a union with God. And those that don't, don't.

  6. Weren't holocausts enacted by the commandment of God?

    1 Samuel 15:2-3

    2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”



    Are you suggesting that God's actions in this passage were later judged and rejected by the prophets?


    Or are you suggesting that this passage not be taken literally; that God didn't really command the destruction of the Amalekites - and that it is the human writers of this passage who are judged and rejected by the prophets?

  7. When love actually takes deep root in our hearts, nothing torments us for a time like ourselves; we experience hell when we recognize the hell that we once created for others as well as for ourselves.

    There are two happenings in my life that tormented me most, that could not be recognized for what they were, and could not be lived with, without the birth of love.

    The first was when I was a strapping young legalist. I had a good friend who was going off to school to become a Methodist minister. So, a couple of nights before he was to leave I invited him over for dinner. He thought he was going to dine at a friends house; I was thinking I was going to convert him. He left the house that night, feeling very hurt, but this hard mind could not see it. The second time was when I THOUGHT I was a progressive. I ridiculed a young lady who believed in the spiritual gifts. She cried. Again, I could not see.

    This was my problem. I first was a person who believed in reason in order to know and defend the right doctrine. Then I became the person who believed in reason in order to tear everything down. But somewhere along the way, not sure when, I cannot point to a calender and say there, the sense of all of being filled with and embraced by God, the love of God, many years later, plunged me right into the middle of the burning pain I caused those two sweet individuals. It had to be. I needed love to recognize hell, I needed hell to be consumed and reborn, one with God and one with God's children.

  8. Richard,


    I just want to say that I love your blog. I've been lurking around here for awhile now and something about this post made me feel like saying "Thanks." In a year I'll be a psychologist. I'm glad to see there's psychologists like you grappling with ideas like these. Very inspiring!

  9. The question is, what does inspired mean. Is it the literal action or the theological meaning? Is God really speaking in the first person or is the scripture reflecting the understanding of God's people at that time, an understanding which God used to begin revealing himself. It's a basic principle of teaching that you have to start where people are at, and God started with a culture that believed in Cherem.

  10. Mark, this seems like a confusing understanding of inspiration. How does one get theological meaning from a scripture that portrays God acting in a manner that must be rejected? I can completely understand this passage as an ancient view of god espoused by the original human author. But wouldn't one have to jump through theological circles to understand how God would inspire such a writing, unless he agreed with it? Isn't it the notion of inspiration itself that causes a problem here?

  11. I think the writer is speaking for God as it was understood by the writer at that time. The inspiration comes from the meaning that is being attached to the text as part of God's progressive revelation. God had to start with the level of morality and thinking at present at the time. I agree it's not as straightforward as a surface reading of inspiration but I think you understood what I was suggesting.

  12. Maybe I am a little unschooled in this, but, no, I really don't understand what you or Richard are suggesting. I get the suggestions from writers that progressive revelation is a supposed to be a more nuanced way of viewing scripture, but I have no idea what progressive revelation really means. It seems inconsistent and amorphous in application.

  13. Thanks, Richard. One more confirmation of something fun I learned about from reading George MacDonald: universalists aren't actually squeamish talking judgment. On the contrary, it's (many of us) who believe in hell who are squeamish talking judgment, because the end of that road is something we really do think may be indefensible (eternal torment by a vengeful God).


    The best universalists don't believe that everyone's O.K., and divine judgment unnecessary. On the contrary, they believe everyone is in trouble, and the true divine judgment is the holocaust of the heart, the radical painful reorientation that God forces on us--not against our wills, but transforming our wills through the crucible. That's a vision rooted in love, and so it's a vision we don't have to shy away from preaching and teaching. It's a vision that's fully compatible with everything we want to say about God's infinite love.

  14. I would add that educators generally teach through progressive 'revelation': you learn the basic elements in a field, and then later you learn that those basics had all kinds of gaps, flaws, overgeneralizations, etc. But we are not yet, in any major field of inquiry (science, math, logic, etc) to anything like a point where our current understanding could be considered complete; all learning is a sort of progressive revelation, a process of becoming less and less wrong. We shouldn't expect our process of learning about God to be simpler than our process of learning about, say, cooking. Aside from this, Christian scripture simply can't make sense without progressive revelation, in at least some really basic sense: before Jesus, no one had seen the person Jesus, and so our image of God was incomplete in this way. In light of Christ, our previous understanding of God comes to look like a shadow pointing toward Christ. Paul is explicit about this in Colossasion 2:17-18 "Colossians 2:17-18: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

  15. Dan that's good way of putting it. I'm a high school teacher and I often have to decide what to leave out when I am teaching a new skill or concept, other wise you overwhelm the student. Then the following year you might abandon the old method or idea for a higher level approach, which is I think what God did in Jesus. We see this is Jesus's conflict with the Pharisees and his approach to the law. They were on the old system and could not accept Jesus hanging out with sinners or failing to was his hands before eating because their view of holiness was external separation while with Jesus it was the heart that made you unclean.

  16. Sort of beside the point, but I have always found Annihilationism to be somewhat superficial and self-centered. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems like we’re squeamish about the idea of millions of kind, nice people being burned alive forever, so we’d rather they just—poof— vanish. I understand the various arguments for Annihilationism over and against the ‘eternal conscious torment’ view, but in the end I don’t see the practical difference.


    The ‘eternal conscious torment’ perspective always brings to mind that of Jack Handey’s parody in the New Yorker—My First Day in Hell. There he divines that most of us, after existentialism, figure hell would just become boring after a while…for some quicker than others.

  17. Teaching is an interesting analogy, but still doesn't clear up progressive revelation to me. Teachers may provide their students with simpler methodologies or lower level concepts when they are not ready for more complex concepts, but they don't give students incorrect information or conceptual ways of thinking that would lead them to harm or hate others. Yet this is what we find in scripture.

    Maybe the idea of progressive revelation implies that the OT does not represent the Teachers lesson plans, but rather the error-ridden essays of His less-gifted students. But this just begs the question, what sort of teacher lets His students kill or enslave the neighboring classrooms?

  18. Jesus said some were going to suffer in hell for eternity... so Jesus did NOT teach people would cease to exist... they gonna be very much alive in hell forever!

    Time to get born again folks and live IN Jesus Christ and allow Jesus Christ to live IN you!

  19. Estimating from 8,000 years until now, 109 billion people have lived. Narrow is the gate to salvation and eternal life but wide is the gate to destruction. This means the majority won't have 'eternal non punishment' according to you. You say millions of kind people suffering anguish unimaginable. It's not millions, but at LEAST 54 BILLION people suffering for eternity. There's your god's love. Why would Jesus say that God can destroy your soul in everlasting fire, if he never would? Universalists say God throws empty threats around. Traditionalists say sucks to be you to have only heard about Jesus in passing and have exactly zero reason whatsoever to believe in him, you're going to hell forever, so long sinners who I am better than.

  20. You are way too linear in your thoughts behind God's reasoning. Some peoples He had wipe out, others He did not. Those he told the Israelites to destroy and didn't, such as in the time of king Saul, they came back and nearly destroyed the Israelites. And it happened more than once. To say that the "lake of the fire" destroys only sin, but that everyone in the end will have eternal life in the kingdom of God is to take too many scriptures out of context to be taken seriously.

  21. SOME. The bible explicitly states the devil, the false prophet, the fallen angels, the antichrist, and those who willingly take the mark of the beast and voluntarily follow him will be cast into the lake of the fire. Death and hell are not tormented forever. When they are cast into the lake of the fire they are completely and unequivocally destroyed forever. Everyone else is up for interpretation. Nice to see you condone at LEAST 54.5 billion (half the people who ever lived from an 8,000-10,000 year standpoint) suffering torment unimaginable and without end. Jesus told parables as a way of teaching not everything the bible says is to be taken literally, but requires intense study and devotion to uncover the figurative from the literal by studying all of the scriptures and making sure no interpretation contradicts what the scripture says elsewhere. Just because Jesus used names in one of his parables, that does NOT make the story the literal truth of what happened. The bible speaks several times that before Jesus died and was resurrected, the dead knew nothing, had no awareness, and were in a state of non being, or soul sleep. This is one reason why necromancy and talking to the dead is so anathema to God, case in point being when Saul brought out the prophet Samuel out of rest to help him, he was told by God through Samuel's awakened spirit that he would be dead the very next day. If you look at it logically, the story of the man suffering in hell talking to Father Abraham could not be taken as a factual account of events.

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