Sunday, November 13, 2005

Hell Hath No Fury? Annihilationism Considered

Question: "Do the finally impenitent suffer everlasting, conscious punishment (in body and soul, either literally or metaphorically), or do they go out of existence in the second death?" (Asked by Clark Pinnock in Four Views on Hell, p 142, part of the Counterpoints Series published by Zondervan, 1996)

Answer: See below. But before you scroll down, let's interact with two practical and preparatory concerns.
1) Why does the question matter?
2) What are the possible theological and scriptural alternatives?
After a brief overview we should then be able to consider the biblical case for conditional immortality.

Why does the question matter?

Hell's been getting a bum wrap. In either of two ways. On one extreme, it is being ignored. For many years now churches and preachers have been shying away from the topic because it is uncomfortable to talk about. After all, who enjoys contemplating and discussing an eternity of pain and suffering? But hell is also often neglected because many sensitive Christians are worried that a steady diet of hellfire and brimstone can make God look like a sadistic ogre. As believers we don't want to unnesessarily push people away from Jesus Christ.

This is a valid concern and is actually the other extreme that is giving hell a bad reputation. Some fundamentalists, who are not shy when it comes to preaching eternal damnation, in their zeal often overstate the case and actually mistakenly proclaim that God takes pleasure in the demise of the wicked. As a result, effective evangelism suffers.

So as to why this question matters: Understanding the nature of hell is important because the effectiveness of evangelism is at stake. On the one hand, we don't want to lose our urgency to witness to lost friends and family by being nonchalant about hell. A person's eternal life is hanging in the balance. Yet on the other hand, we don't want to run the risk of turning people off by misrepresenting a doctrine that is already a sticking point for many.

What are the possible scriptural alternatives?

So what are some possible views on hell? How are we to understand this hard teaching? One response is to abolish it by trying to make a biblical case for universalism. That is, ultimately all will be saved. This is not just a "liberal" attempt at downplaying a distastful teaching. It stems from Origen, an early church father, who viewed hell as "a purging and refining fire that finally deposits all its inhabitants in heaven." (Pinnock, p 141) Hell is a temporary but real condition that takes the offense of sin seriously while affirming God's ultimate victory over it. Scripture texts include John 3:16, Philippians 2:10,11, and 1 Timothy 2:3,4.

A problem stems from the possibility that all may not want to be saved. That may be God's intent, but can God predestine a person's free response to his grace? That doesn't make sense. While I affirm that God's salvation is by grace alone, it is also through faith alone. And while even faith is a gift, we must respond. If we reject God, God will honor our request. (This issue involving predestination is too broad to be covered here. Suffice it to say that if asked, "Were you pushed or did you jump?" I'd have to answer yes.)

A second possibility is the traditional, or what some may call the literal, view of hell. This teaching was developed by Augustine, another early church theologian, who in The City of God argued that hell was a condition of endless conscious torment in body and soul. The problem: How can one continue to be exposed to burning flames without burning up? Augustine's response was that "God has the power to do miracles which transcend ordinary nature and that he will employ his power to keep sinners alive and conscious in the fire." (Pinnock, p 139)

What? How does Augustine come to a biblical conclusion that God is a God that tortures people forever? His literal reading does an injustice to the plain implications of the words employed. Far be it from me to enter the ring against such a heavyweight theologian, nevertheless, might it be that, like his doctrine of the millennium or the practice of infant baptism, Augustine got this one wrong as well?

A third view is a revision of the traditional position. Instead of physical pain caused by actual flames, the suffering is mental and emotional. Here the fire is simply a metaphor. And although some might want to entertain as more palatable the notion expressed in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit where hell is other people or the idea expressed in C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce where hell is absolute lonliness, these pictures are just that. The committed traditionalist might even accuse those of holding the metaphorical view as softening the severity of hell's punishment. Now I probably wouldn't see it that way, because I'm wondering if this latter position is actually any different in practice than the literal view. Isn't God still a God that tortures the wicked endlessly, albeit emotionally?

More importantly, is this really what the scripture means when it refers to hell?

So now we turn to the biblical case for conditional immortality, or as some refer to it, annihilationism. I want to address two main issues: The clear implications of the words used to describe hell and the biblical understanding of the nature of the soul.

Certainly hell is a real reward for the wicked. As Christians we must engage God's word on the matter. But as to it's exact nature, I agree with Clark Pinnock who writes (far better than I):
From the threat of hell, we may not be able to derive precise knowledge about its nature, any more than we can grasp the nature of heaven from the promises God gives us regarding it. Nevertheless, the Bible does leave us a strong general impression in regard to the nature of hell - the impression of final, irreversible destruction, of closure with God. The language and imagery used by Scripture is so powerful in that direction that it is surprising that more theologians have not picked up on it before now. The Bible uses the language of death and destruction, of ruin and perishing, when it speaks of the fate of the impenitent wicked. It uses the imagery of fire that consumes whatever is thrown into it; linking together images of fire and destruction suggests annihilation. One receives the impression that "eternal punishment" refers to a divine judgment whose results cannont be reversed rather than to the experience of endless torment (i.e., eternal punishing). Although there are many good reasons for questioning the traditional view of the nature of hell, the most important reason is the fact that the Bible does not teach it. Contrary to the loud claims of the traditionalists, it is not a biblical doctrine. (p 144)
This essay has gone on longer than expected, so I will probably examine some key scriptural texts in the Q & A to follow (if there is any :-) . But a sampling includes Matthew 3:10-12, 13:49,50; Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 6:7,8; Philippians 1:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 10:39; 2 Peter 3:7; Jude 7; Revelation 20:14,15. A fair reading of these passages can lead to a reasonable conclusion that the bible teaches the final destruction of the wicked. This is not a dumbing down of the scripture but an interpretation that is plausible and has integrity.

Let me briefly address a second issue and wrap this up. And this has to do with why the traditional view is so entrenched as "the" evangelical option today. It has to do with a mistaken understanding of human nature. A hellenistic belief about the immortality of the soul "has dominated Christian thinking about eschatalogy almost from the beginning." (Pinnock, p 147) In other words, the bible does not teach the inherent immortality of the human soul. Rather it points to the resurrection of the body as God's gift to believers. God alone is immortal. We are conditionally so. We acccept eternal life and enter into an eternity with God. Those who reject this offer can not enter into eternal life. Their fate is seperation from God forever. Hell.

Hell does have a fury. It will be unleashed on those who are impenitent. It is a permanent, irreversable state. Hell is a doctrine that is sobering and shocking to contemplate. And one which begs for an urgent response. We can no longer neglect the teaching of hell, nor can we afford to mistakenly assign God's pleasure to the torturing of his creation. Let the message of hope and salvation overcome our hesitancy to proclaim the full gospel of Jesus Christ.

(For more information on Clark Pinnock.)


Lyn said...

For a well-reasoned response to this post and to my initial response to Mark, visit Runalong with Pastor Mark at

Let me start by saying that I enjoy this type of dialog and commend what Mark has said about modeling respectful disagreement. I think we can as believers - on many topics including the nature of heaven and hell - agree to disagree yet remain steadfast friends and colleagues in the kingdom. Especially when we are both taking our cues from the bible.

I do want to clarify, however, that I don't disagree with Mark regarding the serious nature of this topic. I get the impression that he thinks I'm trying to water down the doctrine. This is a common misunderstanding that the proponents of the literal and metaphorical view have. It's not that I find the belief in hell too repulsive or undignified that I'm looking for a loophole. I truly am coming from a scriptural position that, although a minority, is held by many solid evangelical leaders, including Clark H. Pinnock, John R. W. Stott, Edward Fudge, Philip E. Hughes, Stephen Travis, and Michael Green.

So I affirm with Mark: "We must never let our concern for whether people find a doctrine palatable or not to steer our interpretation of Scripture." The intent of my post was not "Less Hell = More Converts" as if making hell more palatable to unbelievers were a laudable goal. My point in the paragraph he quotes is that the preaching of hell is neglected because many Christians shy away from it due to the unfortunate overtones provided for us by Dante and other medieval writers. Deep down many understand that this holdover teaching of "hellfire and brimstone" is not a true biblical representation of the seriousness of hell. My concern - while keeping the non Christian audience in mind (we all do this whenever we witness, it's called contextualization) - is more to help believers regain the urgency to evangelize based on scripture, not scare tactics. This is what I mean when I talk about the effectiveness of evangelism being at stake.

While many people have been frightened into heaven, isn't it true that running from hell is, at best, a poor motivation and ultimately shallow reason for accepting the Good News of Jesus Christ? Yes, warnings have their place. Consequences must be spelled out. And for this reason, hell is an important part of the message. But shouldn't we first and foremost proclaim to the lost, like Paul (Rom 2:4) "that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" God is love; but never does the bible say that God is wrath.

In the end, I believe Mark and I end up at the same place - we both hold that Hell is an irrevocable and terrible fate. I think that we will probably need a true conversation one day (as in face to face interaction) to fully explore a couple of our differences, including 1) his dissatisfaction with my handling of words like eternal and texts like Revelation 14:11; and 2) my dissatisfaction with his dismissal of the biblical teaching that our souls our conditionally immortal, not necessarily so, which implies that without the free gift of eternal life, our natural fate is extinction, death, which is exactly God's penalty for sin (proclaimed in Gen 2:17 & Rom 6:23).

Let me conclude again with my last paragraph of "Hell Hath No Fury? Annihilationism Considered" at Thought Renewal:
"Hell does have a fury. It will be unleashed on those who are impenitent. It is a permanent, irreversible state. Hell is a doctrine that is sobering and shocking to contemplate. And one which begs for an urgent response. We can no longer neglect the teaching of hell, nor can we afford to mistakenly assign God's pleasure to the torturing of his creation. Let the message of hope and salvation overcome our hesitancy to proclaim the full gospel of Jesus Christ."

Alexander M Jordan said...


Your posts and those of Mark have been very interesting and challenging. I admit that the annihilistic view of hell has some appeal but I'm not convinced of it Scripturally.

How do you read, for example, Luke 16: 19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?

Is Jesus simple telling a story there that bears no resemblance to the nature of hell in reality?

Thanks again for your well-researched and well-expressed posts on this subject.



Bible student said...

As a bible studet i have noticed scriptures that support the non existance of a burning hell. Acts 2:31 states that Jesus resurrected from Hades(hell in Greek). Job in the Hebrew Scriptures asked God to sent his soul to Sheol(Hell in Hebrew) for he didnt want to keep on suffering.(something that he wouldnt of asked if he knew Hell was place of suffering.) Job would of wanted a finally rest in death. As for the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It was just that a parable. Other scripures that seem to support a hellfire like the book of Apocalypse that states a lake of fire. Notice that abstract things were to be thrown in there like death. Interestingly that Hades(Hell in Greek) was to be thrown also into that lake of fire to burn forever. Contradiction or could it mean destruction. Hell has often been used by the clergy to move the masses into church or risk going to a fiery hell. But reading the entire Bible you find out that that is not necessarily what the Bible teaches.

Lyn said...

Thanks Bible Student for your comments. I'm with you in a number of areas. My one concern though is that we never dismiss the reality of hell - and that preachers can "scare" us into heaven isn't necessarily always wrong. Hell is worse than we think, especially if we understand the bible to teach total destruction of the person. lgp

Glenn said...

I couldn't agree more with the complaint that so often annihilationists are unfairly portrayed as being repulsed into their position by their dislike of th doctrine of eternal torment. Don't get me wrong - I don't like it! But before I came to hold an annihilationist view I felt differently about it. It was only after I came to understand the Scripture as teaching the final destruction of the lost that my feelings began to change on the matter.

If anything, I find more and more that emotional and pragmatic reasons are given for proclaiming the traditional view - we are told that we need to teach it to make people see how serious sin is, or we need to do it so that people don't underestimate the danger and they come to Christ. But neither of these are exegetical considerations.

I suspect you might find a published article of mine interesting. It's a critique of the arguments of Robert Peterson against annihilationism. It was in JETS earlier this year, but you can find it, along with his response (and my comments on that response) at

I like the blog, keep it up!

EJ Hill said...

Oh wow ... you guys made my day! What a wonderful thing to discover some enlightened Christians. I myself studied Theology at a Bible School which held to Eternal Torment, yet nowhere in Scripture could I find it. But Annihilationism, however, is everywhere.

Anonymous said...
This is one of the best books ever written on the subject and it is purely Sola Scriptura.