Reprinted with permission from Voice, Sept./Oct, 2001. By Dr. James R. Mook.
Will the destiny of the unsaved be eternal conscious torment or annihilation (total cessation of existence)? The eternal conscious punishment of the lost has always been a fundamental doctrine of Christian orthodoxy. Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Pieper, Berkhof, Shedd, Chafer, Erickson, and other theologians affirmed the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment as a biblical essential-explicitly defining divine eternal “punishment” against “annihilation.” (Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1995, pp. 97-137.)
But in recent years some prominent professing evangelicals have advocated conditional annihilationism (which includes the concept of postmortem evangelizing of those who die without having heard the gospel).
Examples: Philip E. Hughes, Clark H. Pinnock, John R. W. Stott, and John W. Wenham.
Biblical support of the fundamental doctrine
The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment asserts that after physical death on earth, the soul of the unsaved person immediately enters a state and place of continual conscious torment. The condemned state will culminate in bodily resurrection, final judgment, and then unending torment in the “lake of fire.” Following are major passages supporting this doctrine.
Dan 12:1-2 contrasts “everlasting life” with “everlasting contempt” (NKJV). If “life” will be unending conscious blessing, “contempt” must also be unending conscious disgrace.
Matt 25:46 contrasts the condemnation of the wicked, “everlasting punishment,” with the blessing of the righteous, “eternal life.” So if eternal life will be consciously experienced without end, “everlasting punishment” will also be consciously experienced without end.
And since verse 41 designates “everlasting fire” as the means of the “everlasting punishment,” then the punishment will indeed be agonizing.
The unimaginable pain is depicted by the “wailing and gnashing of teeth of the wicked in the furnace of fire” (13:42, 50), to which they will be sent in judgment by Christ at His Second Advent (13:41-42, 49-50). (Note that the Lord Jesus spoke much about hell and eternal conscious punishment examples: Matt 5:21-22, 27-30; 8:1112; 10:28; 13:30, 40-43, 49-50;18:6-9; 23:15, 33; 24:51; 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 16:19-31.)
In Mark 9:42-48, Jesus uses Is. 66:24 (three times in the Majority Text) to give a picture of people in hell: “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The picture is of unending consumption by worms and fire-a consumption that never ends. 2 Thess 1:9 says that unbelievers will be “punished with everlasting destruction,” indicating a process of destruction that never ends.
Revelation 14:9-11 depicts unbelievers as ultimately objects of the unmitigated “wrath of God” by being “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” That this conscious torment will never end is shown by verse 11: “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night.” This passage depicts people being tormented without end by burning without end. Revelation 20:10-15 sustains this interpretation by using identical terms in v. 10 to describe “the devil,” “the beast and the false prophet” in “the lake of fire and brimstone” being “tormented day and night forever and ever.” And this unending torment in “the lake of fire” will then be experienced by the unrighteous in “the second death” (20:14-15).
Answering annihilationism’s arguments
Professing evangelical theologians who contend for annihilationism use arguments that are not biblically sound.
1) God in His love would never be cruel and vindictive, so He would never punish His enemies endlessly. (Clark Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett; Zondervan, 1992, p. 140).
2) The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment in a torture chamber is emotionally repugnant and intolerable. (Pinnock, “Fire, Then Nothing,” Christianity Today, 20 March 1987, pp. 40-41; John R. W. Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, IVP, 1988, pp. 314-15.)
Response. These are arguments from human emotion—which should never be the measure of truth. Also, if one has difficulty reconciling eternal punishment with divine love, it is just as difficult to reconcile divine love with any punishment. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1150) Furthermore, it is presumptuous for finite, fallen creatures to claim to know the full extent of divine love or how it harmonizes with divine justice. Finally, in heaven our perspective and emotions will be different as we see things from the divine perspective.
Indeed, the saints in heaven (who are morally perfected) are depicted as crying out for avenging judgment of the wicked and praising God for executing this vengeance (see Rev 6:10; 19:1-3).
3) Only God is immortal. God grants immortality only to believers. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is from Greek philosophy. (Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, Houston: Providential, 1982, pp. 51ff.) Annihilationists believe that Tertullian and Augustine were especially responsible for corrupting Christian theology with the Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul. (Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review, 4/2, 1990, pp. 246-47.)
Response. Passages asserting that conscious existence continues after death for both the righteous (2 Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23) and the unrighteous (Luke 16:19-31) support the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In this respect, it must be noted that annihilationists assume that human “immortality” means a blessed life, whereas in mainstream Christian theology it means existence.
Second, while Tertullian and Augustine have some affinity with aspects of Platonic thought on the immortality of the soul, they base their doctrine on Scripture. And their concept of immortality was not that of Plato, which included the preexistence of the soul and the belief that the immortality of the soul is inherent. Rather, orthodox Christian theologians have always held that the soul was created and given immortality by God.
(Evangelicals should beware of being associated with Edward Fudge concerning immortality, since he believes that the soul is not a separate aspect of man, and, at death, the whole person becomes nonexistent until the resurrection. Only at the resurrection will God give immortality to believers. The unrighteous will be raised only to be annihilated.)
4) Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with sin that occurs in time, so eternal conscious torment violates the justice of God. Stott contends that there is a “serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity.” (Judgement and Hell, pp. 318-319.)
Response. Annihilationist concepts of God’s justice and the gravity of sin are not biblical but rather based on assumptions of human reason. Peterson observes that throughout the Bible there are divine judgments that, from a human perspective, seem out of proportion to the offenses: Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for only a glance (Gen 19:26); Nadab and Abihu killed only for improper worship (Num 3:4); a man stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36); Uzzah killed for trying to keep the ark of God from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7); Ananias and Sapphira killed for lying (Acts 5:1-10); etc. And then there was the punishment— physical and spiritual death and eternal condemnation—that God brought on the whole human race for one man’s sin. But each of these contexts reveals the reason for such harsh punishment: the offenses were committed against God.
So for each sin, because it is against God, man deserves eternal punishment. Peterson notes, “The Bible views sin as an attack on God’s character and therefore deserving of great punishment.” (“A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 37, December 1994, 561-64) So we must base our concept of God’s justice and just punishment of man not on human standards of justice, but on God’s character as revealed in the Bible. Since God is eternally holy, any sin deserves an eternal punishment, not a punishment restricted to a period of time. As Aquinas said, “the magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin…. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin … and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against him.” (Summa Theologiae, Ia2ae.87,4, quoted by Peterson, 563.)
5) “Eternal punishment” is satisfied by annihilation, because it is something that is never undone. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p.317)
Response. In Matt 25:41, 46, eternal life is contrasted with eternal punishment. Verse 41 asserts that the unrighteous will share the same punishment as “the devil and his angels.” And Rev 20:10 says that the devil will be “tormented day and night forever and ever” in the lake of fire. Annihilation does not satisfy the biblical concept of eternal punishment.
6) “Fire” depicts total consumption and therefore annihilation. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p. 316.)
Response. Jesus states that when “fire” is used of eternal punishment, it causes agonizing pain—“wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42, 4950). And the Revelation shows that the “lake of fire” is a place of endless “torment” (Rev 20:10). Furthermore, in Luke 16:23-28, the rich man in Hades is “tormented in this flame.” When used of eternal punishment, “fire” signifies intense pain being inflicted but not total consumption. Rev 14:10-11; 20:10 teach that those being tormented with the “fire and brimstone” of eternal punishment will be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” Also note that 1,000 years after being sent to the “lake of fire” (Rev 19:20), the beast and the false prophet will still exist (Rev 20:10).
7) “Death” and “destruction” prove that the punishment is annihilation, not unending conscious torment. Annihilationists assume that death and destruction can mean only annihilation. (Stott, “Judgement and Hell,” p. 316; Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” p. 146.)
Response. The concept of death in Scripture never means nonexistence, but rather separation. Physical death is separation of the soul from the body (Eccl 12:7; James 2:26; John 19:30; Phil 1:23-24; 2 Cor 5:8; 2 Pet 1:14), not cessation of existence. Spiritual death is separation from fellowship with God, not cessation of existence. In Genesis 3:22-24, spiritual death is separation from blessing and fellowship with God. Adam and Eve were not annihilated. According to Eph 2:1, unsaved people are “dead in trespasses and sins,” which is further clarified in verse 12 as being “without Christ.”
Also, studies of the biblical terms used for “destruction” show that ruin, not nonexistence, is the result indicated by these terms. The verb apollumi (“to destroy”) and the noun apoleia (“destruction”) refer to ruin, not to cessation of existence. Examples: (1) the “lost” coin of Luke 15:8-9; (2) the broken old wineskins of Matt 9:17; (3) John 3:16—existence in punishment (perishing) contrasted with existence in blessing (eternal life). (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, Zondervan, 1966, pp. 521-522.) Also, note that katastrepho and katastrophe mean destruction in the sense of “overturning, ruin,” not cessation of existence. Examples: overturning tables (Matt 21:12); ruining hearers (2 Tim 2:14); destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by burning to ashes (2 Pet 2:6). And olethros means destruction by changing to another kind of existence (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9; 1 Tim 6:9).
Annihilationism is false teaching. It is not evangelical doctrine.
- It exalts God’s love above His other attributes and so distorts the doctrine of God’s love and God’s nature. It is ultimately founded on human emotion and human reason, and so it humanizes God by defining God’s love and justice by human concepts of love and justice.
- It diminishes God’s justice and the nature of sin. If annihilation is a sufficient payment for sin, then sin is not a violation of God’s eternal holiness. And if annihilation is the punishment of sin, and sin is against an eternally holy God, then the punishment does not fit the crime, because annihilation is not an eternal punishment.
- It devalues the death of Christ by making His death less than a truly eternal punishment for sin. And it may lead to the belief that Christ was annihilated, since in His death He paid the penalty for sin which, in annihilationism, is cessation of all existence. If so, then the Son of God would either have been temporarily nonexistent, and the Trinity would have had only two members—or the human and divine natures would have been temporarily divided. And if, in response, it is argued that Jesus need have suffered only a token punishment for sin, rather than annihilation, then, again, God’s holiness and justice—and the content and meaning of Christ’s payment—would be diminished.
- The doctrine of eternal retribution asserts the awful judgment of sin and so is not immediately “comfortable.” But we can and must be confident that it is God’s truth, revealed in Scripture.
- It magnifies God’s holiness and justice—and love, since His love reaches out to save people from such a terrible punishment. It magnifies God’s salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son. And it is used to effectively persuade people to receive salvation through Christ.
- Biblically, theologically, and evangelistically, we dare not deny the doctrine of eternal retribution. We must embrace and proclaim it for the glory of God and the salvation of people.
Dr. James Mook is Professor of Systematic Theology at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. He is a graduate of Washington Bible College (BA) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM, ThD) and served as pastor of Trinity Bible Church from 1986-1990. He is a Contributor to Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth, Master Books, 2008.