Hi! So I have something a little different for you guys today.
Usually, I either blog on something Apologetics related or on a pro-life issue (and link to my podcast). Today, I want to toss my hat in the ring regarding an internal theological discussion surrounding the doctrine of hell. After all, why not talk Theology on a website called Theology Mix, right?
I do not hold to the ‘traditional doctrine’ of hell–the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. I am an advocate of “Annihilationism,” otherwise known as “Conditional Immortalily.” My disbelief puts me in a minority amongst Christians, but I don’t exactly know why. I think all evangelicals should hold to Annihilationism, and my hope is that this post will be the first step in your embracing Annihilationism. And, for what its worth, it is called “Conditional Immortality” because we believe that our immortality is conditional upon God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. It is referred to as “Annihilationism” because we believe that those without God’s gift of salvation through Christ eventually cease to exist (they are completely annihilated).
For those of you new to this discussion, the advocates of the ‘eternal conscious torment’ view of hell are known as ‘Traditionalists’. The advocates of Annihilationism are usually known as Annihilationists or Conditionalists. Additionally, before I am called a “heretic” by those who hold to Traditionalism, Conditionalism is not a heretical position. It falls within the parameters of the historical Christian faith. Some may consider it to be heterodox, but it is certainly not a heresy.
A few years ago, a group of friends and I ordered some pizza, hung out for a while, snagged a movie off of Amazon and sat down to watch it. This movie was Hellbound, and it was a fairly decent examination of the doctrine of hell and the various views on it. If you haven’t seen it, It seemed to be primarily focused on the debate between ‘eternal conscious torment’ (ECT) and Universalism, brought about by Rob Bell’s statements questions about the existence and/or nature of hell. While Annihilationism was given some time in the movie, it was largely unconsidered and left as something worth thinking about… but less interesting than the other two options. It wasn’t off the table, it was just somewhat pushed aside.
With my minimal online influence, I’d like to place Annihilationism back in the middle of the theological table, to be considered with the other two. I am confident that Annihilationism will emerge on top as the most biblically, theologically, and philosophically accurate understanding of the doctrine of hell.
Small caveat: This blog post is not meant to be a full treatise of the doctrine of hell. While theology is certainly an interest of mine, I make no claims to be an authority. The purpose of this post is to be a jostling of your current theological apple-cart, if you will. I challenge you to study this issue for yourself. I believe Annihilationism to be correct, but I could be wrong.
To quote John Stott: “I do not dogmatize about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. but I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to eternal conscious torment.”
I can almost guarantee that many people reading this will try to infer something about my motivations for embracing Annihilationism.Please don’t do that. My motivations are irrelevant to the discussion about the biblical warrant for eternal conscious torment. However, if you would like to discuss my motivations I can assure you that it is not because I am morally repulsed by the traditional view, or because I can’t handle eternal conscious torment, or because I “hope” Traditionalism isn’t true. I am an Annihilationist because the biblical arguments for it are strong and the biblical arguments for eternal conscious torment and Universalism are weak at best. That being said, there will undoubtedly be a handful of people who ignore the Conditionalist arguments and point to made-up and/or irrelevant nefarious motivations.
…oh well. I guess I can’t force everyone to wrestle with the arguments.
–God is the Creator and Sustainer of life, and the result of salvation is eternal life. –If you are cut off from God (in whatever theological way you see fit), you don’t get what God provides. –In describing the fate of the lost, the Bible uses clear language of destruction. –Those who do get eternal life, live eternally.Those who do not get eternal life, do not live eternally. The Bible presents a consistent ‘eternal life vs. not eternal life’ theme.
Lets look at some Bible passages.
Just a handful—this isn’t a full book, man! My goal here is to use so-called ‘proof-texts,’ but in a way that is faithful to the context because we like proper hermeneutics. I encourage you to examine the context surrounding these verses. All verses are in ESV (because all the cool kids use ESV). I did not choose the ESV because it provided more Conditionalism-friendly translations. I am certain that any version of Scripture will reveal the same conclusion. Additionally, this is not mere proof-texting. I believe the whole Bible reveals a Conditionalist understanding of the doctrine of hell:
“…for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
“ Let [the Lord] rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (imagery used from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19)
“When the tempest passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is established forever. Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him. The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short. The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish. The way of the Lord is a stronghold to the blameless, but destruction to evildoers. The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land.”
“…many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
“…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“…[the cursed (v. 41)] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9
“[Those who do not know God (v. 8)] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…”
2 Peter 2:6
“…turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…”
2 Peter 3:7
“…the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
Hebrews 10:26-27 “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
1 John 5:11-12 “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whowever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
Revelation 20:13-14 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
There you have it! Seventeen verses that seem to clearly indicate the fact that eternal life is given by God, the fate of the lost is the opposite of life. There are more, but I chose the ones that I like because of how straight-forward they are. And again, I encourage you to examine these verses in their context and in the original language, if required. I have nothing to hide by pointing to these verses specifically.
I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah okay, but traditionalists have some proof-texts too.” I know they do, and I am not unwilling to address these. I believe a proper, Biblical understanding of these verses almost always make these ‘pro-traditionalist’ verses into pro-conditionalist verses. Some are legitimately [slightly] challenging, but not many. But responding to those is for another post.
When discussing this issue, many Traditionalists and Conditionalists point to the same text and say it supports their view, however, a single text could not support both views. A single text cannot support both views, unless there is a misunderstanding of the text. It seems that this confusion happens because we both agree that the punishment of the lost is eternal, everlasting, etc., so we point to verses that say ‘everlasting punishment’ to support our case. The disagreement sets in when we make the distinction between the effect of the punishment and the act of punishing. It is vitally important to note that Conditionalists do not believe in a temporary punishment, as many critics of Conditionalism claim.
So which is it?
Does the act of punishing continue for eternity (Traditionalism), or is the effect of the punishment eternal (Conditionalism)? Both seem to be possible ways of understanding the words eternal, everlasting, etc. Let’s consider additional Bible passages! After all, when there is a possible ambiguity, we should use the Bible to interpret the Bible when possible, right? Hashtag hermeneutics.
Mark 3:29 “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
“… And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…”
Hebrews 9:12 He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
These verses use the word “eternal” in a way that is inconsistent with the act of sin/salvation/redemption being eternal, but is perfectly consistent with the effect of these things being eternal. Additionally, what would ‘eternal destruction’ mean if it the act of destroying was eternal? That would have to mean that the destruction was never accomplished, which is clearly in direct conflict with many of the verses [listed above] that indicate the ultimate ‘fate of the ungodly’ is destruction.
And when the Bible consistently dichotomizes “eternal life” with ‘death’, ‘destruction’, etc., the Conditionalist interpretation comes out on top on this one. It seems to me that in order to get eternal conscious torment out of the Bible, you must interpret:
-‘death’ to mean ‘not death, but eternal life in torment’
-‘perish’ to mean ‘not perish, but remain in existence in torment’
-‘destruction’ to mean ‘torment that never actually results in destruction’
-‘extinction’ to mean ‘not really extinction because they still exist’
The last point I’d like to make is this:
If the Bible meant to convey the doctrine of Annihilationism, it has done a really great job in doing so. Rarely do I find a passage of Scripture that seems to indicate anything other than the ultimate non-existence of the unsaved. However, if the biblical writers wanted to convey eternal conscious torment as the ultimate fate of the lost, how else could these passages have been written? All that you’d need is a simple change of wording. A change in wording that we do not see. Destruction? No; torment! Extinction? Perish? Death? Just kidding; eternal existence!
After coming to this conclusion, I did a bit of reflection on Traditionalism/Annihilationism and the character of God, and I have found significant apologetic value in it. One major objection from skeptics is that God is behaving immorally for “sending unbelievers to be tormented eternally for non-eternal sins.” It seems to me that if Conditionalism is true, then this objection loses most, if not all, of its persuasive power. And because I believe that Scripture teaches Conditionalism, I find comfort in the fact that those who are not in heaven will eventually no longer be in torment.
Just to be clear: the apologetic value or my personal comfort have nothing to do with whether or not Conditionalism is true, and it had little to do with my acceptance of it as biblically sound.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments, questions or an opposing view, feel free to leave a comment below, or find me on Twitter!
And now, some resources!
Here are some of my favorite online articles dealing with Conditionalism:
Many times, Traditionalists will appeal to church tradition as one way to justify eternal conscious torment. So, if you’re wondering what a handful of the early church fathers thought of hell, here is Glenn Peoples on the topic:
Elijiah Thompson is a Christian, father, blogger, armchair philosopher/theologian, podcaster, and aspiring scientist. He graduated with a Bachelors in Biology in 2013, and regularly writes on apologetics, science, and the practical applications of well thought-out philosophy at ElijiahT. As humans created in the image of God, Elijiah believes that we ought to critically examine all aspects of our lives, even [especially] the areas that may make us uncomfortable. He may be constantly flirting with heterodoxy, but that is only to discover what is true about God and his creation. Follow him at @ElijahT_87.