If you have been a conditionalist for a while, you will have certainly heard it stated that annihilationism can’t be true because people suffering in hell would want to be annihilated, and therefore annihilation is actually a good thing, not a punishment.
This traditionalist objection has always made me cringe because the fact that it misses the point is almost self-evident: annihilation is a bad thing because it is worse than the alternative fate of eternal life with God. That seems pretty simple, right?
However, I have never really laid down in one place a solid rebuttal to this argument. I hope to rectify that here. Because it is accepted by many, and because healthy dialogue is seldom furthered by simply telling others “you’re wrong, stupid,” I’d like to take this opportunity to break down this line of reasoning and explain where I think it falls short.
Firstly, I actually agree that annihilation is a less terrible fate than eternal torment – at least the historical Christian version of eternal torment that involved fire and unbelievable pain and suffering, that is. By comparison, death would be an improvement. Annihilationists are divided on this, but that is where I stand. Therefore, if some people were in hell, being horribly tormented, burned alive (or its equivalent) in the presence of Jesus and the angels (which is as much a part of Revelation 14:9-11 as the references to the smoke of their torment and “for ever and ever”), and these people were given the option to be destroyed or to stay in that condition for eternity, they would surely choose destruction. And in doing so, they would be better off than if they stayed alive in traditionalist hell for ever and ever. To this extent, I agree with the traditionalist sentiment behind this argument.
That said, this is irrelevant as to whether or not evangelical conditionalism is true.
The Bible Teaches Evangelical Conditionalism
Of greatest importance is the fact that the Bible teaches what the Bible teaches. Many of the traditionalists who make the objection countered here are happy to affirm this belief when replying to conditionalists who make emotional or philosophical appeals against eternal torment. Well, it is just as true now. If the Bible teaches evangelical conditionalism, then the Bible teaches evangelical conditionalism, and that is that.
Of course, if all I wanted to say was that the Bible taught annihilationism and leave it at that, I could have done that in a tweet or two. So, there is more to be said.
Is Annihilation a “Reward”?
One form of the traditionalist objection we are looking at here is the claim that annihilation is not only a relief or a blessing, but a reward. John Piper gave us this gem last year, for example, tweeting the following:
Annihilation is what the unrepentant want, not what they dread. It would be a reward, not a punishment. Non-consciousness knows no loss.1
Our own Glenn Peoples gave quite the response to this on his own blog. For our purposes, I will try to keep it brief and look mainly at how this particular version of our stated traditionalist objection comes into play.
This particular claim is more than a little bit confused. To say that annihilation would be a reward is to fail to understand what a reward is. A reward is something good granted in return for an act.2 But that is not what is happening here at all. Without sin, the default state of man is life with God. The so-called reward of sin is to die instead of staying in that wonderful, perfectly joyful state. The result of sinning, its reward, is therefore a bad thing.
In order to say that annihilation is a reward, we would have to say that as a result of sinning and being damned, a person would enjoy a better fate than if one had not sinned and been damned. But that is absurd. Perhaps one could call annihilation a reward if we lived in a universe where the righteous burn forever in hell but those who sin get destroyed. Since getting destroyed is better than burning for eternity, you could say that annihilation is a genuine reward for sinning. But no one on earth, as far as I know, believes that this is actually what happens, nor do they believe in any variation thereof. No one believes that the fate of the wicked is better than the fate of the saved. And nobody believes that annihilation is better than eternal life with God. Therefore, if annihilation (and missing out on eternal life as a result) is the consequence of sin, how can annihilation be called a reward?
That is the kind of scenario that is required to call annihilation a reward. But we all know that isn’t how the world would work if annihilationism turned out to be true. Instead, the result of sin would be that people who would otherwise have a life with God in a world of perfect joy and beauty would instead suffer and die forever. If your reward is a lake of fire, it is hardly a reward worth chasing!
Good and “Less Terrible” Are Not the Same Thing
In regards to the broader idea that annihilation is a blessing, one major point that this traditionalist argument fails to take into account is that just because something is preferable does not mean that it is a good thing. Death is not a good thing. The only way in which death could possibly be construed as any sort of a blessing is if it saved you from something worse than death, and from which there was no hope of escape. I believe that eternal torment does fit the bill, and so for someone who would otherwise be subject to eternal torment, annihilation would indeed be a relief.
However, this is all relative. Annihilation is better than eternal torment, but that only matters if the unsaved would otherwise be subject to eternal torment. According to evangelical conditionalism, death is not the alternative to eternal torment, but to eternal life with God. There is no way that death can be seen as a blessing when this is taken into account.
But if it is the case that the unsaved will suffer in hell for a time before final death, won’t they be glad that death is coming? And doesn’t that make death a blessing instead of a punishment? Consider Harry Buis’s objection:
The passages cited from the Bible teach that destruction is a serious punishment. But if annihilation follows a period of torment, then that annihilation is not punishment, but a happy relief from punishment.3
This kind of objection commits the same logical error that Piper committed above. If we lived in a universe where everyone who committed no sins was condemned to suffer eternally in hell, but where they would be annihilated if they did sin, then Buis would have a point. But again, that is absurd. The alternative to the punishment of annihilation is not continuing to burn forever. The alternative is eternal life with God. People would otherwise have lived forever with God, but as punishment for sinning against him, they are instead destroyed. The fact that they may suffer beforehand does not suddenly make that the punishment of death less severe. Rather, it makes their punishment even more severe than if they just died painlessly. Any suffering prior to the second death does not somehow change the second death from a punishment to a reward.
The fact that those in a state of torment may be relieved to know they will die does not mean the death itself is a good thing, since they would have lived forever and neither suffered nor died had they not been condemned in the first place.
Some Illustrations of the Distinction between “Good” and “Less Terrible”
Consider a man who has a terminal disease and elects to stop treatment because it would just mean a few more months of living in constant pain. That man does not choose death as his first choice. His first choice would not be to die; it would be to get better and live! However, his only options (barring divine intervention) are death or a short life in misery, so he picks the less terrible option. Yes, as he takes his final breaths he may be relieved to know the pain will soon end. But it would be patently absurd for us to look at that person and say that he was blessed to die! No, this would be a tragedy because he was supposed to live a long, full life. The fact that that his state was so bad that he embraced a horrible but nonetheless better option does not change that fact.
Or let’s say someone with a gun threatened you and told you he was going to torture you for three days and then kill you. You would not be thinking, “I am so glad he’s going to kill me in three days so I don’t have to be tortured longer. Man am I blessed. What a relief it will be once I am dead!” No, you would be under great distress and would try to escape if at all possible because you don’t want to die! Getting killed after three days may be better than being tortured indefinitely, and if the torture is constant and extreme enough, you may even be relieved to know you’re about to die. But death still is no gift! Death is nothing at all to embrace. That’s why when that kidnapper is caught, he doesn’t just go to jail for the kidnapping and torture; he also goes to jail (or maybe even death row) for murder. No one would say, “Don’t worry about getting kidnapped; he’ll just kill you after a few days anyway, so it doesn’t count.” That is because the alternative to being kidnapped, tortured, and killed was not being kidnapped and tortured indefinitely; the alternative was never being kidnapped at all.
Annihilation is not a blessing to anyone. Yes, it is a preferable fate to the even worse, hypothetical fate of eternal torment, but that’s all. The wording of this traditionalist objection says that annihilation is a good thing, that somehow it is desirable. However, the substance of the objection merely says this: “Annihilation is false because annihilation is not as severe a punishment as eternal torment.” That’s all that really can be said, and that argument is hardly a given.
The Underlying Assumption that People Deserve Eternal Torment in Hell
When we really get to the heart of the matter, we find the underlying assumption that everyone is subject to eternal torment, the worst possible fate, and therefore everyone deserves eternal torment. After all, God is just and would never give someone worse than what they deserve. Therefore, they must deserve this worst possible fate. If this is true, then to say that the wicked suffer a less horrible fate, a less severe punishment, is to let them off easy. And although it is still absurd to call death a reward, and although it is only a blessing relative to the worst possible fate imaginable, this underlying assumption that all people deserve eternal torment contributes to the overall attitude that getting annihilated is a good thing.
Otherwise clear thinkers cannot seem to get out of the mindset that the unsaved by default go to hell, a place of eternal torment, and therefore they would be rescued by annihilation. So deeply ingrained is this assumption that they do not think of the unsaved as people who have lost the life they would have had. Instead, the unsaved are viewed as people who just simply are going to live in hell suffering eternal torment (even though if annihilationism is true, eternal torment isn’t even an actual possibility). That is why annihilation is not simply seen as a less terrible fate, but a blessing.
Eternal torment is so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that “if the unsaved are destroyed in hell, they will not suffer as much as if eternal torment is true” becomes “if the unsaved are destroyed in hell, then annihilation is a gift, not a punishment!”
The Nature of Suffering Prior to Final Death
Most conditionalists would agree that there is some sort of negative conscious experience for the unsaved before they are fully and finally destroyed in the second death. Given that there will be a resurrection of saved and unsaved alike, as well as a judgment, this seems unavoidable. But among conditionalists, you will have different variations of how this plays out. Some envision it as the unsaved essentially going to a traditionalist type of hell where they are tormented day and night until they finally pass away. It is this form of conditionalism that the traditionalist objection seems to pertain to most.
Throughout this response, this has largely been the assumed nature of the suffering of the wicked prior to death. However, this view is not actually what I hold to.4 I say this tentatively, but I think that the conscious suffering will largely be the shame and guilt and terror of standing before God at final judgment. Those with greater guilt will suffer all the more in this process, although I don’t envision a designated time where the unsaved will be alive in a hell before it all ends. In the end, some suffer at judgment worse than others, but all are ultimately cast into the raging fire to be consumed like chaff.
In such a view as mine, it is not so clear that a kind of suffering will be experienced that would cause people to ever embrace death in the first place. I don’t expect people to be reflecting on how sad and terrified they are and how they wish they could die to end it. This is especially true because their ultimate doom, being cast into the lake of fire to be destroyed, will be a big part of their torment in the first place. The last thing they would want to do is end it all by dying.
I saved my own view until the end because many might not take it seriously, and so I did not want my rebuttal to rest on it. Instead, under just about any annihilationist view of what the unsaved experience before dying, the fact that they might be in a position to welcome death hardly means that they are not suffering the fearful fate that the Bible describes. At the end of the day, even if unsaved people suffer in a place of temporary suffering, and even if they have a moment of relief knowing they will soon die, their fate is tragic. There is nothing blessed about it. In no world would we ever say that someone on earth who suffers pain and misery and an ultimately untimely death is blessed just because their fate could have been worse, even if they deserve what they get. To say that about the eternal realm is no better.
- John Piper, “Annihilation is what the unrepentant want, not what they dread. It would be a reward, not a punishment. Non-consciousness knows no loss,” Twitter, posted on January 10, 2015, https://twitter.com/johnpiper/status/554103026085265409 (accessed March 4 2016). [↩]
- The term “reward” can sometimes be used to refer to a negative fate that is earned, but that is not its normal use, and it is clearly not the use intended by Piper. [↩]
- Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment. 126 Accessed on March 2, 2016 http://www.ccel.us/buis.ch7.html.
See also Luther Lee, The Immortality of the Soul, (Wesleyan-Methodist Book Room, 1849), 129, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=REgXAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed on March 21, 2016). [↩]
- Another view holds that the mechanism of their destruction causes varying degrees of relatively brief suffering, much like how different earthly execution methods can be more or less painful than others. [↩]