Hell and Annihilationism

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.

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12 thoughts on “Hell and Annihilationism”

  1. Interesting reflections, although I must respectfully question the exegetical basis in Scripture for universalism.

    Apart from Scripture, this question: Since human beings do not exist unless God calls them into being, and since they continue to exist only insofar as God sustains their being, how does it "represent a victory for the forces of darkness" or allow evil to "have the last word" if God should allow those who want nothing to do with Him to be entirely cut off from Him--the source of their existence--so that they cease to be?

  2. Dr. Beck,

    This idea of no eternal hell is fairly new to me. To me it's not just one of many theological issues Christians disagree about. It seems that it is central to who a person believes Jesus is. I badly want to believe in your version of Jesus but I'm still sorting through it all. I really don't know if I can understand or want to continue with the other Jesus. Why would anyone, God or human, submit anyone to eternal punishment. God is God and he doesn't need my permission for anything, but it just doesn't seem like truth to me.

    Thanks for your blog.


  3. Hi Edward,
    I think one problem comes from your statement about "those who want nothing to do with Him." That statement hints at an anthropology that creates all sorts of theodicy problems. Eschatologically, and this is what drew me to your position in college, annihilationism has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, for me at least, it fails to address a variety of theodicy issues the way universalism does.

    Hi Waylon,
    I understand exactly what you are saying. I've walked through the same set of questions.

  4. Annihilationism doesn't just suffer from theodicy issues. As you at least seemed to hint, it makes the Incarnation and Resurrection ... less to the extent that it changes what they mean.

    However, I find the description of the concentration camp where God willfully tortures some people forever for their sins while offering mercy to others as the "traditional" view of hell less than correct. It's certainly not the picture you get if you read many of the writers of the first thousand years of the Church, at least if you read broadly rather than small excerpts. So I think I would start by arguing that what most people seem to mean by "traditional" view of hell only became "traditional" relatively recently (as in the last thousand years or so) and hardly universally.

    I lean toward a sort of universalism myself, but not the sort where God either doesn't care what people do or where he coerces them whether they want to be "saved" or not. I lean toward the sort you find in St. Gregory of Nyssa or St. Isaac the Syrian, which is a form of incredulity that the love which is God, especially when it is all and all and inescapable, could not eventually warm the heart of even the most incorrigible human being.

  5. More appealing to me is C. S. Lewis' notion in his The Great Divorce where he depicts Hell as a place where cold and lifeless boredom and repetition is chosen over ongoing and overflowing love and life in unimaginable abundance. Such leaves room for Gregory's and Isaac's (and my) hopeful belief. God as cosmic sadist or destroyer is not what Jesus's life, murder, entombment, and resurrection reveal to us about God. Or the new Heaven and new earth that is coming.

    And personally, I have come to regard attempts at theodicy as theologically abstract and devoid (avoidant) of pastoral compassion. Explaining why God permits suffering doesn't mitigate suffering and isn't satisfying to the mind.


  6. Considering these possibilities - traditional hell, annihilation, and universal salvation - brings to mind for me this verse from 1 Corinthians 5:19

    "...that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them..." NRSV

    That seems to be counter to traditional hell, which would rather say something like "God reconciled himself to the world." That is, God would have to sort of "make peace with Himself" about the reality of sin and just accepted the fact that some people won't be saved no matter what.

    It also seems to run counter to the annihilation idea, which could hardly be seen as any kind of reconcilliation.

    Rather, it does seem to lean into the universalist perspective, envisioning that somehow, God is able to affect change in the world that results in it being reconciled to Him. And certainly one aspect of that is the wholesale forgiveness of all people without exception, "...not counting their trespasses against them..."

    That also resonates with the "new creation" idea mentioned in verse 17, where the image has more to do with a new beginning for all people rather than a final disposition for some as opposed to others.

  7. Buddhism has a much more approachable conception of Hell - Hell is an intrinsically internal condition which results from immersion in the spiritual world. No one stays in Hell eternally, because nothing in Buddhism is eternal. Everything which exists is subject to a constant change in circumstance. So even Hell must be finite and limited in character.

    Also, I have to point out that one man's Hell is another man's Heaven. A casual perusal of the internet demonstrates that what horrifies one, excites another.

  8. Waylon's post is interesting because it represents a central attitude among most brands of Christians: "hell is central to who Jesus is."

    And I assumed that for many decades myself. The interesting thing, though, is that there isn't a single clear reference in the entire bible to souls going to "hell" after they die. Not a single one. Anywhere. In. The. Entire. Bible. We just assume what we are taught is actually there.

    For one thing, the word "soul" as we use it is in direct conflict to the way it is meant by the biblical authors. Jews in antiquity thought of the soul as a word referring to the entire being of a person, not something separate from the body. The book of Genesis refers to animals as "souls," although true to the dishonest nature of biblical translation, the word is rendered different than when it is used in relation to humans.

    Soul the way we use it is a Greek concept, reflecting the impact of Plato into theology.

    Another thing is that this is another area in which there is clear development of theology within the bible. It is not even controversial to note that the idea of an afterlife in antethical to the early books of the OT.

    The idea that the righteous dead will be resurrected comes into play in the later OT books and I think is the central belief of the authors of the NT. But despite this, nowehere does any biblical author display even a hint of belief in the immorality of the soul. Only God is immortal, the bible says, so why do christians believe that humans are?

    If God really has unconditional love for us, why would he condemn us forever? Because that is the opposite of unconditional, unless we take an up-is-down approach to language. I love my kids, I would never banish them, no matter how much they trouble me.

    Of course, what the bible says about the afterlife (in all its diversity) is not the same thing as what actually will happen to us, which I suspect is nothing.


  9. Dr. Beck,
    given your (agreeable) ideas about hell, how do you feel about books like "23 minutes in hell" where the author claims to have been sent to hell by God in order to warn the world that at the center of the earth resides an eternal abyss created by his aforementioned loving god?
    How can Christianity reconcile god's eternal charcter (love, I'm told) with such a barbaric notion of punishment? Clearly annihationism and universalism attempt to do this. But what would you say to a person like the author who believes in a literal, scorching hell? How can you reason with such people? As was mentioned above, is there even grounds for thinking the human "soul" is eternal?


  10. It is funny, as an atheist, I don't care how you get there (what turn of scriptures or theology you use), but your view of hell seems to be one that allows a believer to most fully love others and themselves most consistently. I appreciate Christians holding this stance. I feel it is with this sort that I can hold a true and meaningful relationship despite of our difference.

  11. Jordan, I saw that book one day in Borders and I was shocked something so cheesy could get in print. I assume the author is some sort of dime-a-dozen freak show carnival barker laughing as he rips off rubes.

    Either that, or he has a serious drug problem and he found a creative way to fool his wife that morphed into a profession. Or he is a total nut.

    I guarantee it isn't real.


  12. About Bill Wiese's "23 Minutes in Hell".

    I read it about 5 years ago or so.
    Bill a real estate agent here in SoCal. His book received great buzz from TBN (which I never took seriously). However, this book was also enthusiastically endorsed by Calvary Chapel. In fact, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (Chuck Smith's church and the grandmother of all Calvary Chapels in the world) invited Bill to share this testimony.

    Furthermore, my wife (about to be ex-wife) met Bill in a small fellowship there and my daughter who worked in a local Christian bookstore also met Bill. According to my wife and daughter, Bill is intelligent, low-key and unassuming and easy going.

    Anyway, I was beginning to enter a crisis of faith as it was, then after reading the book,
    that actually provoked me to look at God/Christ in the eyes and come to the conclusion that
    there would be no way I could ever GENUINELY love Him with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength. I left Calvary Chapel (and church in general) although my ex-wife continues to fellowship there. Finally, after passing through a very traumatic Ex-Christian phase for a short time, I was very fortunate to stumble into Christian Universalism. I'm only 75% convinced of it, but too far into it to go back to traditional doctrine.

    I battle with the same question that Jordan presented. According to Bill Wiese, it's as if God/Christ Himself validates or certifies his witness as a proof of torturous Hell.

    The only thing I can say to provide rationalization (being in the Calvary Chapel system for nearly 20 years) is the FRUIT
    (we'll know them by their fruit). Sad to admit,
    my wife is strong in prayer and supposedly "hears from God in her spirit". But on the other side, many of her traits are extremely irresponsible. Her reaction to
    the proposal of UR - she went absolutly bezerk.
    Though she has a reputation for being very loving and forgiving, her first knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of UR was something like this (paraphrased) - you mean I've been doing all of this (good works) for nothing?

    I left her with the rhetorical question - didn't you choose to "behave" in a "Christian" manner because you love God vs. being coerced by the threat of hell?

    God seems to pour blessing upon these people.

    Sorry for the long-windedness but I hope that helps. I sure understand your question though.

    Gary Y.

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