This morning, I received a short letter which raised a question that comes up quite often, so I thought I’d post my response for a wider readership.
The letter said:
I had someone say to me in regards to the Annihilationist view that, any view that undermines our desire to see the lost saved is a bad move. In other words, he’s saying that Annihilationism decreases the urgency for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
How do you, as a person with missionary experience, respond to such a claim?
I answered as follows:
I have heard that question raised before, but I confess that it always mystifies me.
Can the questioners be serious? Are there really traditionalist Christians who have a concern for the lost who would be less concerned about them if they did not believe that the fate of the wicked was eternal conscious torment?
I think of the people I love, about whose salvation I am unsure, and I can honestly say that my concern for them was not the least bit diminished by my coming to believe that God will ultimately destroy the wicked rather than keeping them alive endlessly to torture them.
By definition, evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel, which is the good news concerning God’s work in Jesus, the only one who can save people from the consequences of their sin and reconcile them to God. I don’t see how this could be deemed less good as news if what unrepentant sinners will suffer is destruction, eternal punishment (Mt. 25:46), and the loss of eternal life in the joy of God’s presence.
I think that anyone whose motivation to declare the gospel would be diminished, if they discovered that hell is not eternal conscious torment, has terribly undervalued the wonderful life that awaits those who have trusted in Jesus. The loss of that life is far more serious than whatever is experienced instead, though the latter is awful to contemplate. I think of the sobering words of Jesus in Mt 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” There will be some who had prophesied in Jesus’ name and even cast out demons in Jesus’ name, to whom Jesus will say: “I never knew you: go away from me, you evildoers.” What terrible words!
I read Rev 21:1-22:7, and I long for the day when God will finally renew the heaven and the earth and dwell among us as our God, when “he will wipe away every tear” from our eyes, when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Then we will live in a city which has no need of the sun or moon because “the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb,” where there will be “nothing unclean, . . . nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
To us, the followers of Jesus, God has entrusted the proclamation of the good news that anyone who truly believes in Jesus will live in that wonderful city forever. Whatever it is that those who persistently choose not to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord will experience, it is relatively insignificant by comparison with what they will not experience; and the decisions they make in this life are of eternal significance.
Everyone knows that the world is a mess and that we are too. No one has a completely clear conscience, and we all have a sense that we must one day give account for everything we did which we believed to have been morally wrong at the time that we did it. It is no wonder that people naturally fear death, even when they have a very fuzzy idea of what comes next. But we know what comes next, and we have the immense privilege of telling people about Jesus, who willingly allowed wicked men to crucify him, so that “he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:14-15). Praise God, Jesus did not stay dead. God raised him from the dead, declaring him “to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness” and, like Paul, we have all been commissioned to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (Rom 1:5). It is our joy and privilege to inform people that Jesus made “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” and that he is now “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God,” who is able to help us as we struggle with trial and temptation, until the day when we who believe in Jesus will be raised with him to new life and be put beyond all possibility of suffering and sin.
Why would annihilationism dull our desire to share this great news? That is what I wonder.
Let’s take a look at the apostle Paul’s motivation for mission.
The apostle Paul is certainly an example of someone with tremendous missionary drive. It was Paul who wrote that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Doubtless, Paul had in mind God’s original warning to Adam and Eve in Gen 3:3. Traditionalists might assert that “death” is simply a euphemism for “eternal conscious torment,” but that would need to be demonstrated. Paul’s major contrast is between death and life, not between endless torment and endless blessing. It was death that came through sin and spread to all because all sinned (Rom 5:12) but, “if, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). Perhaps we can hold off on our examination of what Paul expected to happen to the wicked, however, and consider what motivated him to make such remarkable sacrifices in his missionary activities.
John Ellenberger neatly sums up the factors that “stirred Paul to invest his life in world evangelism” (“Is Hell a Proper Motivation for Missions?” in Through No Fault of Their Own?, p. 221).
A sense of obligation to God
A trust committed to him (1 Cor 9:16-17)
Obedience to the divine commission (Rom 1:1, 5)
Fear of disappointing his beloved master (2 Cor 5:11)
Speaking in God’s stead (2 Cor 5:20)
Reward for labor (1 Cor 3:8-9)
A desire to increase God’s glory (2 Cor 4:13-15)
The rule of God’s love in his life (2 Cor 5:14-20)
A sense of obligation to people (Rom 1:14-15)
A sense of urgency because of the shortness of time (1 Cor 7:29-30)
Of these Pauline motivations, Ellenberger considers the third, “the rule of God’s love,” to be primary, because the first two “are an expression of gratitude for Christ’s love,” and the last two “express love in dedicated service” (“Is Hell?,” 221). In this regard, Paul was following the lead of Jesus himself for, as John so beautifully says, it was because God loved the world that he sent his Son to die, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Whereas the focus of Ellenberger’s study was Paul’s explicit statements regarding his reasons for evangelistic activity, others have noted the importance of the gospel to Paul, and they have argued that “the dynamic nature of the gospel is key to understanding what motivated the church to engage in mission” (Robert L. Plummer, “A Theological Basis for the Church’s Mission in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 64/2 (Fall 2002): 255. Plummer also lists other studies which have taken note of this theme (p. 255, fn. 11).
I have focused on the nature of the gospel, in the doubts I expressed above that annihilationism diminishes missionary motivation, but let’s consider Ellenberger’s analysis of Paul’s motives. If Paul had been a traditionalist, and if he had become an annihilationist, can you see any reason for believing that any of Paul’s stated motivations for his missionary zeal would have been diminished by that change of eschatology? I can’t.
Might it be that annihilationism could actually make a Christian more, not less, eager to tell the lost about God’s love for them?
I’m thinking of the experience of John Stott, a wonderful man well known for his compassion for the lost. In his dialogue with David Edwards, a fellow Anglican minister, but one who was theologically liberal, Stott was pressed to declare: “publicly whether I think hell, in addition to being real, terrible, and eternal, will involve the experience of everlasting suffering” (cited in Rethinking Hell, p. 50). Stott admitted that he found the traditional concept of hell as eternal conscious torment “intolerable,” and that he could “could not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under strain” (Rethinking Hell, 51). But Stott was thoroughly evangelical, and he knew that his question must be “not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s Word say?” (51). So he goes on to state concisely four arguments, related to language, imagery, justice, and universalism, which led him to the conclusion that annihilationism is “a legitimate, biblically founded alternative” to eternal conscious torment (55).
Stott was very “hesitant to have written these things,” partly because he had “great respect for longstanding tradition that claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture” and he did not “lightly set it aside,” and “partly because the unity of the worldwide evangelical constituency has always meant much to” him (55). But he considered it an “issue too important to suppress,” and so he was “grateful to [Edwards] for challenging [him] to declare [his] present mind” (55). A part of what pressured Stott was his observation of how the traditional understanding of hell appeared to Edwards, who saw it as a description of God as “the Eternal Torturer” (50). And this is what leads me to raise the question I have stated above.
Stott was keenly aware of the strength of conviction that reigns in the evangelical tradition regarding hell as eternal conscious torment, and hence he was personally reticent about his own understanding. But his conversation with Edwards made him aware also of the scandal caused in the minds of non-evangelicals, and certainly of many non-Christians, including atheists, by the traditional portrait of God’s punishment of the wicked. In face of that stumbling block to the evangelistic work of traditionalists in the western world, might it not be, therefore, that an annihilationist understanding would be considerably less scandalous, and therefore that Christian annihilationists would find themselves more eager to share the good news of Jesus’ saving work, and less reluctant to describe the consequences of rejecting Christ?
Well, this letter has gotten to be a long one, but your question is immensely important, and I wanted to take the opportunity to enunciate clearly my own response to that question. I’ll redeem my time a bit by posting this to my blog for the hopeful benefit of others.
Blessings on you as you continue to pursue an understanding of what God’s word tells us about the fate of the wicked. I think I can honestly put to rest any fears you might have that, if you were to become an annihilationist, you would be less motivated to do evangelism.