As its mission Got Questions Ministries [http://www.gotquestions.org] “seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by providing biblical, applicable, and timely answers to spiritually related questions through an internet presence.”1 By and large they succeed in that mission. I have turned to their website many times since becoming a Christian for help answering my questions, and I don’t hestitate to recommend it as a reliable resource.
However, as is the case with any human endeavor, sometimes Got Questions Ministries (GQM) gets it wrong. Their article, “Is annihilationism biblical?”2 ranks as one of the top search results for the keyword “annihilationism,” but the answers they provide to that subject fall short and we here at Rethinking Hell desire to provide answers that we think are more biblical.
GQM‘s answer to the question is comprised of six paragraphs, which we’ll look at one by one. The first, introducing annihilationism to its readers, begins by stating,
Annihilationism is the belief that unbelievers will not experience an eternity of suffering in hell, but will instead be “extinguished” after death. For many, annihilationism is an attractive belief because of the awfulness of the idea of people spending eternity in hell.
Whether intended or not, this definition might give readers the impression that all annihilationists believe the unsaved will be extinguished immediately after death; while that may be true of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s not true of evangelical annihilationists (also known as conditionalists). Rather, whatever we believe about the intermediate state—between death and resurrection—conditionalists believe that annihilation follows after the lost are raised to face final judgment and punishment.
As for the claim that annihilationism is attractive to many because of the “awfulness” of the traditional view of hell, it is true that many conditionalists first reconsider the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment (ECT) because they intuit that it is disproportionately severe and therefore unjust. However, this is neither the sole nor even primary reason they go on to embrace conditionalism. Upon re-examination of the biblical data they discover it teaches that the punishment awaiting the unredeemed is annihilation, and they embrace conditionalism because their authority is Scripture. They may be relieved because annihilation is, in their eyes, a more equitable punishment than unending torment, but it is their commitment to the truth of the text that makes them conditionalists.
Suggesting that annihilationism is embraced because it may be emotionally attractive can come across as attempting to “poison the well,” implicitly encouraging readers to think of annihilationism as something believed only by those who can’t stomach the traditional view of hell. It also borders on committing the genetic fallacy by implying that conditionalism is wrong because those who believe do so only because they are first repulsed by the thought of eternal torment. Imagine, for example, if an article critical of eternal torment were to open with, “For many, traditionalism is an attractive belief because it has been the dominant view amongst Christians for many centuries, and those who promote alternative views often face harsh criticism from their peers, even exclusion from employment in ministry and academia.” While this and similar statements like the one made toward the beginning of GQM‘s article may be true, they do not lend themselves well to encouraging students of Scripture to exercise biblical discernment in testing competing views of final punishment.
The introduction continues,
While there are some passages that seem to argue for annihilationism, a comprehensive look at what the Bible says about the destiny of the wicked reveals the fact that punishment in hell is eternal. A belief in annihilationism results from a misunderstanding of one or more of the following doctrines: 1) the consequences of sin, 2) the justice of God, 3) the nature of hell.
Those familiar with the ongoing debate between traditionalists and conditionalists will note by the time they’ve finished reading the GQM article that it is anything but “a comprehensive look at what the Bible says about the destiny of the wicked.” I don’t think it sets itself out to be, but just a small handful of biblical passages are cited as prooftexts in support of ECT. In contrast, the positive case for annihilationism, as presented by Dr. Glenn Peoples in Episode 4 of the Rethinking Hell podcast, is a much more comprehensive biblical case, comprised of three distinct and thematic arguments, each based on multiple biblical texts.3 Also notable in Dr. Peoples’ treatment is that he affirms the eternal consequences of sin, and does not argue for conditionalism from a perceived injustice in eternal torment but from a purely exegetical framework. This creates doubt about the claims of the GQM article that annihilationists misunderstand the consequences of sin, the justice of God, or the nature of hell.
With that introduction out of the way, the GQM article’s second paragraph begins to explain how annihilationists allegedly misunderstand the nature of hell.
In relation to the nature of hell, annihilationists misunderstand the meaning of the lake of fire. Obviously, if a human being were cast into a lake of burning lava, he/she would be almost instantly consumed. However, the lake of fire is both a physical and spiritual realm. It is not simply a human body being cast into the lake of fire; it is a human’s body, soul, and spirit. A spiritual nature cannot be consumed by physical fire.
Fire: Physical? Spiritual? Literal?
On the one hand, GQM claims that the lake of fire is both physical and spiritual, and on the other hand that a spiritual nature cannot be consumed by physical fire. But if the nature of the lake of fire is not limited to the physical—which must be the point of contrasting it with a lake of burning lava that would consume a human being—then even if physical fire cannot consume a spiritual nature, could not a physical and spiritual fire consume both a physical nature and a spiritual one? This argument seems confused and contradictory.
More importantly, the fact that the lake of fire is treated as if it’s a literal lake of fire, albeit both physical and spiritual, suggests that it is in fact the GQM article which misunderstands the meaning of the lake of fire, rather than the annihilationists it critiques. In Revelation 19:20, John saw the beast and false prophet thrown into this lake of fire, but consider how these creatures are elsewhere described. In Revelation 13 the beast has ten horns and seven heads, and on its horns were crowns, and on its heads were written blasphemous names (Rev. 13:1). It has the appearance of a leopard, with feet like a bear and the mouth of a lion (Rev. 13:2). The false prophet John sees is a second beast having two horns like a lamb (Rev. 13:11). What John sees thrown into the lake of fire, then, is two terrifying beasts which serve as symbols, clearly not to be taken literally. In fact, the angel explicitly states that the beast is a symbol in Revelation 17:7-13, telling John that the heads represent hills and kings.
Consider also that in Revelation 20:14 death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire. Earlier in his vision, death appeared to John as a horseman riding a pale horse, and Hades followed him (Rev. 6:8). Again, what John sees thrown into the lake of fire are symbols representing death and Hades. The realities behind the symbols, death and Hades, are impersonal abstractions and could not literally be thrown into a lake of fire and be tormented there to begin with.
GQM ‘s article, then, starts off on the wrong foot, treating the lake of fire literally rather than as symbolic imagery. The question of the imagery’s meaning cannot be answered by simply considering what fire is capable or incapable of doing to the spiritual nature of human beings. Rather, the question must be answered by careful exegesis, which we’ll attempt below.
Resurrected Bodies: Mortal or Immortal?
What GQM says toward the end of this second paragraph is astonishing:
Do these two passages really indicate that the unsaved, like the saved, will be raised with bodies sufficiently different from their current, mortal ones, such that they will be capable of living for eternity? Quite simply, no—unless, that is, one reads certain presuppositions into them. Acts 24:15, for example, simply says, “there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.” Evangelical conditionalists don’t deny this; we agree that the wicked will rise from the dead. But it says nothing about the nature of their bodies. The only way this text can be interpreted as indicating that they will rise from the dead with immortal bodies is if one assumes that all resurrected bodies are immortal, but the resurrections of Lazarus (John 11), Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12) and others prove otherwise. The wicked may, in fact, be raised at the general resurrection with bodies every bit as mortal as their current ones. Indeed, Paul told the Corinthians that only those who would inherit the kingdom of God would be raised with imperishable, immortal bodies (1 Cor. 15:50, 53).
Revelation 20:13, like Acts 24:15, indicates only that all the dead will be raised; it says nothing about the nature of their resurrected bodies. Of course, in the following verses John sees those who had just been raised, and whose names are not written in the book of life, thrown into the lake of fire, the same lake of fire in which the devil, the beast and the false prophet are said to suffer in torment for eternity (Rev. 20:10). However, it does not follow from the eternal torment of this unholy trio that the fate of the risen unredeemed are seen by John as suffering the same thing in that lake of fire. The text doesn’t say that they will; that’s an assumption, the implications of which we’ll consider more below. But the point is that Revelation 20:13 does not tell us that the unsaved are resurrected with immortal bodies prepared for eternity.
But what does it mean if in his vision John does see the unsaved enter into eternal torment with the devil, beast and false prophet? Still treating the lake of fire literally, GQM thinks it means they will be tormented forever and ever in reality, arguing in its article that annihilationists misunderstand eternity:
Eternity is another aspect which annihilationists fail to fully comprehend. Annihilationists are correct that the Greek word aionion, which is usually translated “eternal,” does not by definition mean “eternal.” It specifically refers to an “age” or “eon,” a specific period of time. However, it is clear that in New Testament, aionion is sometimes used to refer to an eternal length of time. Revelation 20:10 speaks of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet being cast into the lake of fire and being tormented “day and night forever and ever.” It is clear that these three are not “extinguished” by being cast into the lake of fire. Why would the fate of the unsaved be any different (Revelation 20:14-15)?
Eternal Torment: Imagery and Interpretation
At Rethinking Hell we agree that in some texts, including many of those most relevant to the debate over the nature of hell, the word usually translated “eternal” does refer to an eternal length of time, not merely an “age” of unspecified duration. That word is not used in Revelation 20:10, but we think that by using the phrase translated “forever and ever,” John does say that the devil, beast and false prophet will be tormented forever and ever in the lake of fire. But care must be taken in intepreting this imagery, for while it is clear that these three are not “extinguished” in the imagery, it is also clear that several of the things whose symbols John sees thrown into the fire will, in reality, be “extinguished” after all.
We’ve already seen two such examples. John sees the horsemen symbolizing death and Hades thrown into the lake of fire. But as impersonal abstractions, death and Hades—the grave and the intermediate state, believed by most Christians to be where the disembodied souls of the dead consciously await resurrection—cannot experience torment to begin with. What, then, does their being thrown into the lake of fire represent? Their complete destruction, their utter end—their annihilation. There’s a reason we call it the “intermediate” state, after all. And in 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul says death will be “abolished,” a word meaning “to make completely ineffectual.” If death is rendered ineffectual, because it’s an abstraction it can’t continue to exist powerlessly when no one will experience it again. It will have come to a permanent end. No wonder that in Revelation 21:4, John sees that “there will no longer be any death.”
But it is not only death and Hades which will in fact come to a permanent end in reality, despite that symbols representing them are seen thrown into a symbolic lake of fire. As we’ve seen, an angel interprets the terrifying multi-headed beast as symbolizing a kingdom. This ten horned beast with features of a leopard, a bear, and a lion, comes straight out of the vision recorded in Daniel 7, where Daniel is likewise told that this beast “will be a fourth kingdom on the earth . . . As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings will arise” (Dan. 7:23-24). In the imagery, Daniel sees this beast slain, and its corpse thrown into a river of fire where it is destroyed (Dan. 7:11). If the visions of both John and Daniel were to be taken literally they would contradict one another, for John’s beast is not slain, and is instead thrown alive into a lake of fire and tormented eternally. But Daniel is told what the symbolism represents: “his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One” (Dan. 7:26-27). John, too, sees that following the beast’s being cast into the fire, the saints “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). So although the imagery is different, we know what the imagery symbolizes: the end to a kingdom’s dominion, replaced by the kingdom of the reigning saints.
We have, therefore, at least three realities—a kingdom’s dominion, death, and Hades—the symbols for which John sees thrown into the lake of fire, one of which is explicitly said to be tormented eternally there, all of which will, in reality, be annihilated. If what happens to one of these in the imagery is to be assumed to happen to them all, then sure, we could grant that John sees that the risen wicked will be tormented for eternity. But if we’re to be consistent in our interpretation of the symbolism, then the devil and, by extension, risen unbelievers seen thrown into the symbolic lake of fire will be annihilated, brought to a complete, utter and permanent end. No wonder, then, that both John and God Himself interpret the imagery in straightforward terms as symbolizing “the second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
Eternal Life, Punishment and Destruction
The most convincing evidence for the eternality of hell is Matthew 25:46, “Then they [the unsaved] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” In this verse, the same Greek word is used to refer to the destiny of the wicked and the righteous. If the wicked are only tormented for an “age,” then the righteous will only experience life in heaven for an “age.” If believers will be in heaven forever, unbelievers will be in hell forever.
Notice that the word punishment in the first sentence from Matthew is somewhat surreptitiously replaced by the word torment from GQM in the last sentence. But that is the very thing to be proved, at least when it comes to this passage. The statement from GQM ought to read, “If the punishment of the wicked is only for an ‘age,’ then the righteous will only experience life in heaven for an ‘age’.” And there would be something to this argument if it were actually responding to how we understand Matthew 25:46. However, not many of us contend that “the punishment of the wicked is only for an ‘age.’” Rather, we believe their punishment will indeed be eternal. The question is not what is the duration of the punishment, but it is what is the nature of the punishment.
Conditionalists side with traditionalists in affirming, contrary to universalism, that the punishment of the wicked will be of everlasting duration. We disagree with traditionalists, however, when it comes to the nature of that punishment. As evinced by the article’s use of “punishment” and “torment” as if they were synonymous, traditionalists believe that the punishment of hell consists in endless conscious suffering, and so naturally they assume that an eternal punishment is one which consists in everlasting conscious suffering. Conditionalists, on the other hand, believe that final punishment consists not primarily in torment but in death. One simple way to understand the contrast is to consider the difference between corporal punishment and capital punishment: one consists in the infliction of pain, the other in the privation of life.
How then do we understand eternal punishment? That the punishment is the outcome of being punished by execution, rather than its process, and that the punishment will indeed be eternal. St. Augustine rhetorically asked, “As to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?”4 His point is that the duration of capital punishment is measured, not in the time it takes a criminal to die, but in the duration of his execution’s consequent lifelessness. Conditionalists agree, and as the ultimate form of capital punishment, annihilation certainly qualifies as an eternal punishment, since the lifelessness that results from it will last for eternity.
And so by itself Matthew 25:46 is ambiguous and may refer either to an eternal punishment consisting in everlasting suffering or the eternal punishment resulting from being annihilated. Fortunately we don’t have to speculate as to what this eternal punishment is, for Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that eternal punishment consists in “eternal destruction” (emphasis mine). And Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In the synoptic gospels, the Greek word here translated “destroy” consistently means something like “slay” or “kill” when used in the active voice to describe what one personal agent does to another.5 Jesus is saying men can kill only the body, but God can kill both in hell. This is precisely what conditionalists believe God will do, whereas traditionalists believe—as the article previously indicated—that the risen bodies of the wicked will be immortal, living forever in torment.
In the GQM article’s fourth paragraph, readers are told how it is that an eternity of suffering in hell can be a just punishment for sins:
Another frequent objection to the eternality of hell by annihilationists is that it would be unjust for God to punish unbelievers in hell for eternity for a finite amount of sin. How could it be fair for God to take a person who lived a sinful, 70-year life, and punish him/her for all of eternity? The answer is that our sin bears an eternal consequence because it is committed against an eternal God. When King David committed the sins of adultery and murder he stated, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:4). David had sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah; how could David claim to have only sinned against God? David understood that all sin is ultimately against God. God is an eternal and infinite Being. As a result, all sin against Him is worthy of an eternal punishment. It is not a matter of the length of time we sin, but the character of the God against whom we sin.
While some conditionalists do offer as a secondary argument that ECT is unjust, many—including those of us at Rethinking Hell—do not rely on this argument at all. As explained earlier, annihilation is an eternal punishment. As such, if this reasoning is legitimate and if all sin against God warrants an eternal punishment, then annihilation qualifies. But what does Scripture indicate is in fact the just penalty for sin? What do sinners deserve? Paul said that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23, emphasis mine), and when Jesus bore the penalty deserved by His people, He “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh” (1 Pet. 3:18). So the just punishment for sin is death, one that entails, at minimum, privation of embodied life. Again, this is precisely what conditionalists believe awaits the risen wicked upon being judged: execution. Traditionalists, on the other hand, believe the risen wicked will never die again.
In its fifth paragraph, the GQM article continues:
A more personal aspect of annihilationism is the idea that we could not possibly be happy in heaven if we knew that some of our loved ones were suffering an eternity of torment in hell. However, when we arrive in heaven, we will not have anything to complain about or be saddened by. Revelation 21:4 tells us, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” If some of our loved ones are not in heaven, we will be in 100 percent complete agreement that they do not belong there and that they are condemned by their own refusal to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (John 3:16; 14:6). It is hard to understand this, but we will not be saddened by the lack of their presence. Our focus should not be on how we can enjoy heaven without all of our loved ones there, but on how we can point our loved ones to faith in Christ so that they will be there.
Of course, nothing in the above paragraph serves as a challenge to conditionalism, and a conditionalist could agree with much of what is written there. It is worth noting, however, that in at least one passage in Scripture, the picture painted of eternity is not one in which the unsaved are merely absent from the presence of God and of the saints. In Mark 9:48, Jesus says that in Gehenna “their worm does not die, and the fire is not queched,” quoting from a scene in which worms and fire are consuming corpses, not living people in torment.
Isaiah 66:24 says all of God’s people “will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against [Him]. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind” (emphasis mine). The undying worm is basically the same idiom as used in Deuteronomy 28:26, whose stouthearted scavengers will not be frightened away from their carrion, and will thus completely consume the carcasses of disobedient Israelites.6 Unquenchable fire is an idiom used consistently in Scripture (Eze. 20:47-48; Jer. 17:27; Amos 5:6; 2 Kings 22:17; 2 Chr. 34:25) to refer to a fire which, incapable of being extinguished prematurely, completely devours.7
It’s ironic, then, that Mark 9:48 and Isaiah 66:24 are so frequently appealed to by traditionalists as support for their view, when in no uncertain terms it communicates that the unsaved will be slain and completely devoured. And the vision of eternity it paints is not one in which the lost will merely be excluded from the presence of the redeemed; it is one in which they will have been so excluded by means of execution.
In its final paragraph, the article begins its conclusion, saying,
Hell is perhaps a primary reason why God sent Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins. Being “extinguished” after death is no fate to dread, but an eternity in hell most definitely is.
If Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, just what was that penalty? Again, He “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh.” Paul told the Corinthians that the fact that Jesus died for sins is “of first importance,” saying “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), later telling them that it was on their behalf that Jesus “died and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15). Paul delivered the same message to the Romans, telling them that “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” and that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). The author of Hebrews followed suit, saying that whereas the sacrificial deaths of bulls and goats as part of the Mosaic covenant could not take away sins, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).
But is it true that whereas an eternity in hell is something to fear, death is “no fate to dread?” If we’re to believe Scripture (rather than anecdote), the answer is clearly no. For in addition to its consistent testimony that the just penalty for sin is death, the Bible says that by His death Jesus freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:15, emphasis mine). Besides, it’s not as if anecdote universally supports the claim that death is not fearful. 20th century agnostic Philip Larkin, in his famous poem “Aubade,” wrote in haunting detail about his dread of consciousless extinction: “yet the dread of dying, and being dead, flashes afresh to hold and horrify . . . at the total emptiness for ever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”8 William Barclay writes that according to first century Greek historian and biographer Plutarch “the idea of annihilation was intolerable to the Greek mind . . . [Faced] with the alternatives of annihilation and a life of torment in Hades, the Greek would have chosen the torment rather than the annihilation.”9
So while it may be true that perhaps some unbelievers do not fear death, many do—and death is a fate to dread. There’s a reason it has been the punishment reserved for the most heinous of crimes for ages by societies around the world.
Wrapping up, GQM ‘s article concludes as follows:
Jesus’ death was an infinite death, paying our infinite sin debt so that we would not have to pay it in hell for eternity (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we place our faith in Him, we are saved, forgiven, cleansed, and promised an eternal home in heaven. But if we reject God’s gift of eternal life, we will face the eternal consequences of that decision.
Indeed, the gift of eternal life is something not everybody receives, and therefore not everybody will live forever. This is in direct contradiction to the traditional view which holds that an unsaved person’s body rises but “dies not again,”10 that “the evil ones . . . shall be made immortal,”11 that “every human being ever born lives forever,”12 that in hell they “will continue living in a state with a low quality of life.”13 Conditionalism, on the other hand, accepts what the Bible says is the eternal consequence of failing to turn to Christ for forgiveness of sins: the second death from which the unsaved will never rise again.
- “About GotQuestions.org,” GotQuestions.org, http://www.gotquestions.org/about.html (accessed February 21, 2013).↩
- “Is annihilationism biblical?” GotQuestions.org, http://www.gotquestions.org/annihilationism.html (accessed February 21, 2013).↩
- “Episode 4: The case for annihilationism with Glenn Peoples,” hosted by Glenn Peoples, Rethinking Hell [podcast], September 4, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples (accessed February 21, 2013).↩
- St. Augustine, The City of God, enhanced Kindle edition, locations 16804-16805.↩
- Glenn Peoples, “The meaning of ‘apollumi’ in the synoptic gospels,” Rethinking Hell [blog] (posted October 27, 2012), http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels (accessed February 21, 2013).↩
- Chris Date, “Their worm does not die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48,” Rethinking Hell [blog] (posted July 17, 2012), http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/their-worm-does-not-die-annihilation-and-mark-948 (accessed February 25, 2012).↩
- Chris Date, “The fire is not quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2),” Rethinking Hell [blog] (posted November 20, 2012), http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/the-fire-is-not-quenched-annihilation-and-mark-948-part-2 (accessed February 25, 2012).↩
- Philip Larkin, Philip Larkin Poems: Selected by Martin Amis (Faber and Faber, 2012), Kindle edition, locations 1247-1254.↩
- William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 298.↩
- John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity: Or a System of Evangelical Truths (Baptist Standard Bearer, 2001), 679.↩
- Belgic Confession, Article 37, http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html.↩
- John MacArthur, “The Answer to Life’s Greatest Qustion, Part 1,” http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/42-141.↩
- “Christopher Morgan on Hell and Inclusivism,” hosted by Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason [podcast], June 5, 2011, 1:09:25. http://www.strcast2.org/podcast/weekly/060511.mp3.↩