Hell Breaks Loose, Part II: Annihilation

Last week, we examined the eternal torment perspective of hell, and uncovered how it is actually a foreign idea to the New Testament. If hell is not eternal torment, what are some other options for understanding it? There are a few, and one is annihilation. In brief summary, annihilation (or terminal punishment as it is sometimes called) contends that those who resist God do not suffer punishment forever, but they (eventually) cease to exist. This was believed by several important figures in the early church, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius of Alexandria, Polycarp, and others. That being said, I do not think this is the view of hell, but it was believed by some and accepted as a valid interpretive conclusion. There is a resurgence of this perspective that has been led by many recent Evangelical scholars such as the late John Stott, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, as well as others. But where is this present in the Bible? That is what we will look at today.

Let’s start with what is perhaps the most popular passage in all of the Bible - John 3:16, which reads “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The Greek verb for “perish” is apóllymi, which implies permanent loss or complete destruction. To better understand this word, we can see how it is used throughout the New Testament, as it appears frequently. One occasion of such is Matthew 12:14, which reads “The Pharisees went out and plotted how they might destroy (apóllymi) Jesus.” Were the Pharisees aiming to eternally torment Jesus? No. They wanted him to die and be gone forever. A different form of the same verb appears in Matthew 8:25, apollymetha, when the disciples fear for their lives as they are tossed about in a violent storm while at sea. It is written “We are perishing! (apollymetha)” Did the disciples believe that they were being subjected to eternal torment? No, they believed they would die. Another form of this verb, apollymenen, is attributed to Jesus in John 6:27, when Jesus instructs his disciples not to work for food that perishes (apollymenen), but for food that endures eternally. Is the metaphorical food here being subjected to eternal torment? Of course not. While this is completely silly, it shows that this verb had a relatively consistent usage that was understood at the time the New Testament was written.

Where does this verb appear in places that speak directly to hell? One is Matthew 10:28, in which it is written: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy (apóllymi) both soul and body in hell.” If the previously described understanding of this verb is correct, then it would follow that this statement is describing “hell” as annihilation, not eternal torment. The annihilation perspective requires that this interpretive conclusion is correct, and it seems that the case can definitely be made for such.

The annihilation perspective also contends that humans are not innately immortal, which the eternal torment perspective requires. This draws from ancient Jewish theology, as it is not clearly indicated anywhere in the Old Testament that humans have immortal souls. Indeed, this is a Greek idea. The annihilationist would point to passages such as Romans 2:7, in which St. Paul writes “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, God will give eternal life.” Here, it is implied that immortality is something that is given to humans, not something that they already possess. St. Paul also writes in Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” The noun “death,” or thanatos in Greek, really simply means to die, there is no real profound secret to unlock here. Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 6:16 it is written that “God alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light.” The Greek (feminine) noun translated “immorality” is athanasia, which most rigidly means “freedom from death.” If “God alone” is free from death, what is implicit as that all other things, including humans, are not. Likewise, if immortality is not innate to humanity, but must be given, that would mean eternal torment is not possible (unless God instantaneously made people immortal solely for the purpose of torturing them, but there is no reason to believe that). If these passages can be legitimately read in this way, and it seems that they can, this also supports the case for annihilation.

Another area where annihilation succeeds where eternal torment does not is in eschatology, or the end of all things. One passage in Matthew 13:41-42, Jesus teaches that, at the end of the age, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire.” The imagery here is meant to convey the idea that everything that corrupts God’s creation will be eradicated. Indeed, wouldn’t God have failed if this were not so in the end? For the eternal torment perspective, evil is not eradicated, it is merely relocated. For annihilation, evil actually is brought to end because it is extinguished. Universalism also succeeds over eternal torment in this arena, in that it transforms what is evil and reconciles it to God rather than only storing it away elsewhere, but we will revisit and expand on universalism in a later post.

Lastly, one must ask the question “How can God punish someone forever in hell even though they only committed a finite amount of sins in their brief time on earth?” This is a serious moral question that cannot just be brushed aside. Some proponents of eternal torment respond in defense that “God is infinite, and any sins against him warrant infinite retribution.” The logic is consistent here, but this concept is completely absent from the Bible, and likewise is completely absent from church history until St. Anslem of Canterbury, who lived in the eleventh century CE. So this response seems to be invalid if it cannot be drawn from the Bible itself, and its stark absence from Christian writing for a millenia is also quite telling. Other Christians may respond “God does want God wants, and you can’t question that.” This is not only dangerous as it can cause people to be subjugated to religious falsehoods, but also seems to run contrary to the myriads of portraits of God in the Bible in which God actually engages people with their questions.

In summation, annihilation is a viable alternative to eternal torment, and also demonstrates a greater exegetical integrity when reading the Bible. Why then is eternal torment so popular, and why is annihilation treated as a fringe perspective? I think this is largely due to St. Augustine, who entertained the idea of universalism in his early years, but then strongly rejected it in his later writings, and become an ardent proponent of eternal torment. Augustine is so deeply influential for both Protestants and Catholics that this perspective is widely assumed to be the only way of understanding hell. It is also worth noting that, Augustine could not read Greek or Hebrew (the original languages that the Bible was written in). Thus, to say that Augustine made the best interpretive decisions regarding hell is dubious at best. This goes to show that, just because something is widely believed within a religious tradition does not mean that it is correct. All this being said, although I would not say that I am an annihilationist, I do believe it is a legitimate way to understand the concept of hell, engages the Bible and Christian tradition much more thoroughly, and does not commit the many errors that eternal torment is guilty of.

Now, what about universalism? Is it possible that God could save everyone? Well, you will have to come back next week for that.