Hell: endless conscious punishment or final annihilation? What are and are not the issues?

The nature and purpose of hell have been items keenly discussed within the church throughout its history. The three major alternatives which arose early in Christian theology are still alive and well, both inside and outside of evangelicalism. Though many Christians wish that universalism were true, it is affirmed by only a small minority of evangelicals because it entails post mortem evangelism, and because Scripture’s testimony to the final judgment of some unrepentant sinners is just too clear to most who accept the Bible as authoritative. So the major discussion or debate now goes on between traditionalists (believers in endless conscious punishment) and annihilationists (believers in the final, literal destruction of the wicked).

I think that this is an important issue and I have read quite a bit of the literature from both sides of this debate. It is my opinion that a number of the issues which are put on the table in these conversations are red herrings, and that only a few key items are legitimate matters regarding which one’s conclusion will lead to affirmation of one or the other of these alternatives.

From my earliest memories, I was taught that hell is the place where God endlessly punishes those who died having consistently spurned his grace to the end of their lives, and that they are conscious of that ongoing punishment. I don’t remember when I first heard about annihilationism, but my first serious encounter with it came through the reading of Edward Fudge’s masterpiece, The Fire That Consumes when I was teaching theology in the Philippines, sometime in the mid 1980’s soon after the first edition appeared. I have also read the second edition but not the third, which is bound to be a reference point for students of annihilationism for many years to come. I commend Edward for his very careful work and I think that he makes an extremely strong biblical case for his position. The weight of tradition hangs heavily upon me, and I have not become an annihilationist myself, but I continue to study the issue and I can not predict where I will eventually land on this matter.

As in most theological debates where people feel very deeply about the correctness of their own understanding, misrepresentations and irrelevancies abound in the heated conversations that occur regarding this topic. In this post, I want to share my own perception of which issues are not important (though some from one side or the other sometimes suggest they are), and to identify the key issues to be considered in reaching a conclusion regarding the nature of hell.

I should say at the outset that my opinion about which issues are critical reflects the particular version of the traditionalist position which I now hold  and the version of annihilationism that I would affirm if I concluded tomorrow that it better represents the teaching of Scripture. Obviously, there are differences among the defenders of these two positions, and I do not expect that all annihilationists or all traditionalists will agree with me at every point in my analysis. But spelling it out is a good exercise for me, and I think that it is a good way to stimulate a reasonable and productive discussion.

For the sake of time and space, I will make my observations without reference to any of the literature. To do that would take a book, and this is a mere blog post. I will first clear the table of the spurious issues that often come up, and then identify the real issues, but the order in which I present issues within these two categories is random.

The issue is not:

the reality of hell

Occasionally, I have heard traditionalists assert that annihilationists do not believe in hell. This spurious proposal obviously arises because the traditionalist equates “hell” with “endless conscious punishment,” so any other understanding of the nature and purpose of hell is a rejection of the doctrine. Even universalists believe in hell, unless one’s definition includes the conviction that hell entails the permanent separation of some people from God.

the endlessness of divine judgment

Traditionalists sometimes portray annihilationism as a denial of the eternity of God’s judgment of sinners. But this is a critical difference between universalism and annihilationism. Both annihilationists and traditionalists believe that those consigned to hell will never get out. Their condemnation is endless and irrevocable.

evangelism or apologetics

Quite often, adherents to both positions argue that the evangelistic and apologetic work of the church would suffer if people believed the other alternative. I have heard testimonies of people who were repulsed by traditionalism and became Christians only after some one assured them that annihilationism better represents the God whom Christians worship. More commonly, however, I have heard traditionalists argue that Christians would be less motivated to evangelize the unsaved if they “only” risked extinction rather than endless conscious punishment.

In principle, this can not be an issue, because we have to declare the truth as we understand it regardless of its perceived usefulness in our tasks of evangelism and defense of the truth. The God whom we have come to know through his revelation through the Scriptures, is the God whom we must invite people to know and love, and we know: that the gospel entails a necessary offense, that Jesus is a rock over whom many people stumble, but that he is the only sure foundation upon which a human life can be built.

More pragmatically, however, I deny that either of these positions (as I construe them) has an advantage in regard to either evangelism or apologetics. Hell is a favorite topic for atheists and anti-Christians, but many annihilationists (correctly) acknowledge that sinners suffer consciously in hell prior to their extinction, and the extent to which this occurs is justly determined by God. From the standpoint of apologetics, the justice of the annihilationist God is very minimally easier to sell to opponents of Christianity than is the justice of God in the best portrayals of ECP on offer. Even an evangelical form of universalism, where people only come to repentance and faith after the suffering entailed in a purgatorial process (whose length we do not know) is abhorrent to Christianity’s dectractors.

As to evangelism, I am unaware of any study that has demonstrated that someone became more or less motivated to evangelize unbelievers after having changed their mind about which of these understandings of hell is true. The biblical descriptions of the end of God’s enemies are terrifying, and I can not conceive of how a Christian could be more or less motivated to evangelism for believing that hell is as understood by either of these two positions.

penal substitutionary atonement

Not everyone in either of these two eschatological camps believes that Jesus atoned for our sins through  penal substitution. But many evangelicals in both groups do. I have heard representatives of both perspectives argue that their view better portrays the substitutionary act of Jesus. I do not think that either position has an inherent advantage over the other in this regard. Both have to work at explaining how it is that Jesus experienced hell on behalf of sinners through his death, including in it all that Jesus experienced that led to his death, all that occurred in his relationship with the Father during that process, and his situation  from the moment of his death until his resurrection, when he “descended to the dead” (Hades), as we confess in the Apostles Creed.

For traditionalists, the challenge is to explain how Jesus could have experienced the hell of endless conscious punishment in the space of three days. But the challenge faced by annihilationists is no easier, for they must explain how Jesus experienced personal extinction, without dissolving the incarnation or disrupting the triunity of God.  I think that this challenge can be plausibly taken on from either perspective, but I think that it would be futile to attempt to demonstrate that one of these gives us the description in which the death of Christ most precisely equates to the judgment which the wicked will experience in hell.

substance monism/dualism

This may be a good time to assert that substance monism/dualism is not the issue. I know that a number of evangelical annihilationists are materialists in regard to human being. But I do not see an essential connection between one’s perspective in  anthropology and one’s eschatological position. As a substance dualist, however, I suggest that the death of Jesus, the incarnate Word, is the largest problem faced by a materialist, however non-reductive the materialist construct. That being said, I deny that either of the eschatological positions naturally entails a particular anthropology or vice versa.

inherent immortality

I think it is possible that a Platonic understanding of the human soul as metaphysically indestructible contributed to the establishment of endless conscious punishment as the dominant understanding in both the eastern and western church. But that connection is no longer at work. It is hard to find an evangelical theologian who asserts that souls cannot be destroyed, or who makes this an argument for believing that the wicked must suffer consciously forever. It is very widely acknowledged that God could destroy souls as well as bodies if he chose, but annihilationism does not necessarily follow from this fact.  Traditionalists believe that Scripture teaches that God has chosen to keep the resurrected wicked alive forever, in body and soul, though they are quick to follow that statement by an analysis of the senses in which Scripture uses the terms “life” and “immortality.” More on that later.

orthodoxy

Traditionalism is sometimes asserted in the statements of faith of evangelical institutions, but it does not have the status accorded to truth which the church universally affirms. Annihilationism is not a heresy, though its affirmation may create difficulty for the employees of some evangelical organizations.

implication from monergism or synergism

The fact that some open theists have also affirmed annihilationism has been cited by monergistic traditionalists as evidence of the dangerous implications of open theism. But since the majority of Christians worldwide is synergistic but also traditionalist, there is clearly no obvious relationship between synergism and annihilationism.

the attractiveness of either position emotionally

Hell is perhaps the most difficult issue facing Christians who ponder the existence of evil in the world created and governed by the good and almighty God, which is why it is so often put on the table in discussions with atheists. I do not deny that universalism might make Christian theodicy easier, and I think that annihilationism is also less abhorrent to critics of Christianity (or of evangelicalsim) than is the belief that God torments sinners endlessly. So it is true that some Christians have chosen their doctrine of hell primarily on emotional grounds. But this is not the case for evangelical theologians in general. Regularly, evangelical proponents of all three of these positions assert that our doctrine must be decided by Scripture, not by our feelings or wishes.

The “nature of God” is certainly a factor mentioned by theologians describing their understanding of hell. But this is a legitimate part of the way theology is done evangelically. Doctrinal construction is not simply a matter of accumulating relevant biblical verses, it entails a quest for the coherence of revealed truth as a whole. Consequently, if we think that a particular verse asserts something that is inconsistent with the nature of God as he has revealed himself, supremely in Jesus as made known to us through the Bible, we will be challenged to reexamine our understanding of that verse. But, in a hermeneutical circle, we must also be prepared to reexamine our sense of the whole, in light of what we find in the parts. So, I do not deny that idolatry is a grave threat for all of us, that we are all in danger of defining God as we would like him to be. But, recognizing this danger, though we should not ignore our feelings we can not let them be an authoritative source of the truth that we confess.

The issue is:

the meaning of “immortality”

In recent debates between annihilationists and traditionalists, I have heard annihilationists assert that traditionalism can not be correct because it entails God’s giving of everlasting life to the wicked. In response, the traditionalist has sometimes denied that “life” is the proper way to describe the condition of residents of hell. On the one hand, it would be silly for traditionalists to deny that there is any sense in which the residents of hell live endlessly, since this is implicit in “endless conscious punishment.” But the issue is not that simple, and traditionalists are right to point out that “eternal life,” as Scripture speaks of it, is distinctively God’s gift to those who believe. That quality of life is also spoken of as a gift of “immortality,” but this is not simply the gift of endless existence, it is the blessing of being indwelt by God’s Spirit, alive in Christ; it is “abundant life.”

That is how the situation looks to me, in my present traditionalist perspective, but I see this as an issue that needs to be studied with exegetical care. I doubt that what we conclude regarding immortality relative to the wicked will determine our choice between these two perspectives, but it will inform our manner of speaking, and it may incline us more strongly in one direction than the other. That naturally leads us on to the next critical question.

which biblical terms should be read metaphorically?

I think that this is where the rubber really meets the road. There are a great many passages which speak of the end of the wicked as “death, perishing, ruin or destruction,” and if these are read in their natural sense, they will lead us to conclude that the “second death” is the end of personal existence. Traditionalists read these terms metaphorically, because of a few texts which speak of the state of the wicked in terms which, if taken literally, portray the life of the wicked as endless or eternal, in parallel with the eternity experienced by the righteous, as to its duration, though it differs vastly in its quality.

Relatively speaking, the texts which speak of the existence of the wicked in terms also used of the righteous, are extremely few by comparison with those which speak of life as God’s blessing for the righteous, and of death, destruction and perishing as the fate of the wicked. Proponents of both positions acknowledge that the Bible describes hell with the use of many metaphors. Even the key biblical term for hell, used most often by Jesus in the Synoptics, “gehenna,” has reference to a physical reality. The valley of Hinnom is remembered as a place where Baal was worshipped and children were sacrificed to Molech, and hence came to represent a place of shame and punishment. Taken literally, some of the biblical metaphors are self-contradictory, such as the depiction of hell as a fierce fire and as terrible darkness. So theologians of all perspectives work to understand what God is telling us about the state of the wicked in hell by means of the variety of metaphors used of it in divine revelation.

It is here that the critical differences have arisen between traditionalists and annihilationists. By emphasizing texts which appear to traditionalists to state that the ongoing conscious punishing of the wicked is as endless as the ongoing conscious blessing of the righteous, they are forced to treat the terms “death,” “perish,” and “destruction” as metaphorical. Annihilationists, on the other hand, see no reason to take these terms in anything other than their natural sense. They explain the key traditionalist texts by reference to the Old Testament texts and incidents which inform the language used in those texts, so that they are not saying what the natural sense of the words might otherwise have indicated.

the nature of God, particularly in regard to his justice

[added on 13/10/27]

When I spoke about the emotional attractiveness as not a legitimate issue, I observed that the nature of God is something which we must consider seriously in our coherent reconstruction of the truth revealed to us by God concerning his treatment of the wicked. Obviously, nothing in our doctrine of hell should be in conflict with any of the moral attributes of God. For annihilationists, the question of proportionality is a major issue in regard to eternal conscious punishment, since none of the traditionalist explanations seems to them to be adequate. If I were fully satisfied with the traditionalist response myself, I could put “proportionality” in the list of non-issues, but at this time, I find this a matter still needing satisfactory resolution, and I can see how many other traditionalists might find this a point at which annihilationism offers an option deserving serious consideration.

the weight of recent tradition

As evangelicals, we are fearful of traditionalism, but we value tradition, understood as the grand consensus of Christian belief through centuries in which godly people have studied Scripture  submissively and sought to express its teaching coherently. Personally, I am suspicious of theological innovation and I attend carefully to the work of Christian theologians who have gone before me. Yet, as heirs of the Reformation, we know that the church can go badly wrong, and that beliefs and practices can become entrenched and passed on from generation to generation, even when they were not well grounded in Scripture at their inception.

Many Christians (like me) have grown up under the teaching that Scripture teaches that God consigns the wicked to endless conscious punishment, and rarely encountered people who thought otherwise, though their teachers may have warned of some who “err” in this regard. So widely held is this view within the Christian church over many centuries that a powerful inertia inevitably sets in. To question something so widely affirmed seems dangerous, and observing the treatment of people who disagree breeds caution. I recall the backlash that occurred when it became known that John Stott considered it very possible that annihilationism is true. I know of teachers who then refused to assign or recommend any of John Stott’s writing, despite the fact that this issue was not addressed in any of those works.

An issue that I think warrants study is how and why the belief in endless conscious punishment became traditional. In the first centuries of the post-apostolic church there was not consensus on this issue. How did one position become so dominant in the church for so long a period? To traditionalists, the answer may seem obvious: “truth will out!” Over time, the church studied Scripture more expertly and eventually a consensus emerged. Annihilationists give a different account, one in which philosophical influences were more weighty than biblical ones. From that perspective, a picture emerges which is not uncommon in doctrinal formation. Errors from the context of the church in a particular time can seep into the church’s theological formation. Later on, those errors (such as the Platonic view that souls are inherently immortal), are widely recognized as unbiblical, but the effect they may have had on the formation of other doctrines is not examined, and so those doctrines survive, even though some of their original pillars have been removed.

As we reach conclusions about the nature of hell, we must give Scripture supreme authority. In doing so, however, we place upon ourselves the weight of reexamining beliefs we have inherited, no matter how widely those have been shared. Studying the formation of Christian traditions thus becomes an important part of our work as each of us seeks to discover God’s truth, as he revealed it in Scripture, without ignoring the illumination of that Word by the Holy Spirit in the generations that have gone before us, but without giving the church’s theology unwarranted authority. It can be a perilous path, as church history reveals, but we should all be grateful for those who had the courage to disagree with the consensus when the church had gone astray.

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