Previously, we looked through all the New Testament for
hell, and all associated concepts. We will now conclude the series with some final verses/arguments.
Warning: This will be a 3 part series, each consisting of a very long, exhaustive study of the subject. I am doing my best here to present as much evidence as I can and explain my reasoning for believing the way I do, so that at the end there will be little to no room for misunderstanding my position, or the logic I'm using to ground it. Ultimately, my hope is that the only disagreement possible would be that of interpretation.
I've tried to address some specific annihilationist verse interpretations already, and will do a few more of the popular ones in a moment, but I wanted to show a big picture here. I found a large list of (what are meant to be) key pro-annihilationism verses.
If we put aside the ones discussed in the previous 2 posts (as far as elaborating individually) we're basically left with 3 categories: Verses that depend on some form of
destruction to equate to
annihilation, verses that depend on
death equating to
annihilation, and finally verses that depend on an alternate understanding of eternity.
Note, more than 90% of these supposed annihilationism-supporting verses hinge on these specific definitions. These are all points I've already countered in the previous posts and tried to make as clear as possible in regards to what I believe the correct, contextual, and coherent interpretation should be, and why the definitions, as presented through the lens of annihilationism, is something I can only describe as distorted. As such, a doctrine that is so dependent on altered definitions is a doctrine I think should be immediately negated any credence or validity. Regardless, for the sake of being thorough, I'm going to continue presenting more evidence.
There were also a pair of verses (the 2 in Genesis) I don't even think should be counted (on their own anyway, I somewhat see the path each might lead down), and will leave folks to investigate on their own. This ultimately leaves us with just 2 verses in Isaiah with any potential, which I'll also address, along with a few others, below.
soul, three keywords all packed into one verse, it'd be impossible for an annihilationist to ignore such a seemingly handy verse. However, contextually, this verse is not talking about the annihilation of body and soul.
If we look back at verse 5, we see that Assyria has earned God's anger, and they are about to receive judgment. Starting from verse 13 we begin to see some figurative imagery, primarily in regards to the people and their riches. At verse 15, however, we have a shift in context. Now we're looking at God's power, and in verses 16 and 17 this is being represented as fire. Now note the objects receiving this fire:
- (v17) thorns, briers
- (v18) forest, fruitful field,
- (v19) trees of his forest.
The imagery we're given is clearly of the land that belongs to Assyria, more accurately, all the land of the kingdom. Historically, the Assyrian Empire fell to the Babylonians around 609 B.C. So note, that the context of the verse is (1) very figurative to start with, and (2) the subject matter is that of Assyria, its king, people, and kingdom as a whole, not the individual souls and their state in the afterlife. The NET also has a note on verse 18:
Heb “from breath to flesh it will destroy.” The expression “from breath to flesh” refers to the two basic components of a person, the immaterial (life’s breath) and the material (flesh). Here the phrase is used idiomatically to indicate totality.
"From breath" is what we see rendered as
soul in many translations, however the main takeaway here is that it is a Hebraic idiom. It means that all of (the totality of) the forest and fields (or kingdom) will be destroyed, as opposed to "a part of" it. History confirms this as the Assyrian empire never returned. This verse has nothing to do with literal human souls ceasing to exist.
I'm not exactly sure how this one supports the annihilationist's doctrine to be honest, as I think both a "quick reading" and a deeper reading point to the more traditional viewpoint of hell, than anything regarding annihilation. I do know the two main aspects of this are the "worm" and the "unquenchable fire." Looking at it together, this is what I believe:
I do think the physical corpses of the wicked will be observable at some point in the end time judgment. However, I don't think the following sentence is still in reference to the physical realm. Unfortunately, there is no context afterwards, as this is literally the closing verse for the whole book of Isaiah, so although I have a context of "end time judgment" here, my conclusion is derived with other supporting verses.
The natural parallel is in Mark 9, where Jesus is basically quoting this portion of Scripture as He warns sinners about avoiding Hell's fire. He is reiterating that the fire shall never be quenched. To perhaps repeat myself, I find it illogical to believe that this really means "the fire that can't be quenched by a human, but will eventually burn out by itself." It's too much of a stretch for a reader to make all on their own, and nothing in the text ever indicates anything beyond the simple reading. To further counter that idea, we have Revelation 14 stating:
Smoke that rises "forever and ever" would make total sense if it came from an unquenchable fire that was burning for eternity. Although it is true that this verse doesn't use the more solid
aionios, I believe these fires (from Matt. 25:41) to be the same, so this "forever and ever" is literally
Logically then, an eternal fire makes eternal smoke. Although I don't claim to understand the true nature of this special fire or smoke, I must assume that at least the picture of fire and smoke is at least somewhat similar to this physical realm in that: fire creates smoke when it's burning something. Normally, that something would be consumed, the fire dies, and the smoke is gone. However, given the image, if we logically follow the process in reverse:
The smoke rises eternally, which means the fire burns eternally, which means whatever is burning, does so eternally. What is that "something"? Well, in Isaiah it's simply called the "worm." From what I've gathered through all the other verses so far, though, I would say that would more accurately be the (new) body of the sinner that is received at that "last resurrection" mentioned in Daniel. I understand that this conclusion takes many steps to get too, nonetheless I think that it at least makes sense and keeps coherency within the framework of all that I've presented so far.
Ultimately, this verse is clearly not something I'd use to defend the traditional concept of hell all on its own (nor do I see how it'd be of any conclusive support for annihilationism), or even as a key verse, but it definitely has its purpose and explanation in the discussion.
If I remember correctly, the main argument an annihilationist will present goes along the lines of: the wages of sin is death, not "eternal torment in hell." Jesus paid those wages, and He's not burning eternally, therefore that can't be the punishment.
The ironic thing here is that presenting the argument this way (a strawman to begin with) backfires horribly. Christ was also not annihilated, so how could that be the wage? The point of the verse is not to elaborate on the afterlife consequences or punishments to begin with though, it is to state that sin requires a life (blood) and that Christ gave His, for us, to atone for all our sin once and for all, and allow us to obtain salvation.
Alternatively, another annihilationist argument to make with the Romans verse above, as well as this verse, would be that death/perishing is the punishment for sin, while eternal life is the reward for the righteous. In other words, if eternal life is only given to the righteous, the unrighteous will not "live eternally."
Part of this stems from the (incorrect) assumption that perish (or death) means annihilation. I already covered this word study in the last post, so I'll focus on the other aspects.
For starters, it would be rash to assume that simply because the gift is
eternal life, the punishment (in this case,
perishing) is automatically not eternal. It's certainly a possibility, if we only had this single verse in isolation, but it's not conclusive either way.
If we continue reading down the chapter, we see that at the end we have:
We see the gift reiterated here, but note the different consequence. They shall (1) not see life and (2) have the wrath of God remain on them. The first part is basically what we can assume from John 3:16, but properly clarified. However, note the second part's construction. The
wrath of God, which we can probably parallel to the
perish action in v16,
remains on him. How can the wrath remain on someone that doesn't exist? Since the verse does not say anything about "until he is no more" or anything along those lines (and you would think if that were the case, Christ would take the chance to mention it), the safer assumption is that it remains indefinitely.
An "eternal life" is the gift, but an eternal wrath is the consequence. In this wrath there is "perishing," which we should know by now does not automatically mean "ceasing to exist." This ties in perfectly with what we read previously in John 5:28-29, Matt. 25:46, and Daniel 12:2, that is both conclusions are eternal.
The emphasis of the comparison in John should not be on the eternal part, especially when that would contradict all the other verses. The correct comparison is between life and wrath (or death, perishing, judgment, shame, really all related things that are not mutually-exclusive or contradictory in any way, especially if you've rejected the Son of God).
I could probably keep going with the verses, but honestly if the previous 2 posts and everything above don't suffice as far as Scriptural evidence goes, then I could argue every other verse exhaustively to no gain as well. So with that said, I want to address some other glaring issues with the annihilationism doctrine.
In my opinion, one huge red flag, with any doctrine, is where the majority of support is coming from. As an example, Transubstantiation is a doctrine primarily taught by the Catholic Church (and I believe accepted in some eastern orthodox variants?) yet universally (to my knowledge) rejected by any Protestant-based denominations.
To be clear, this alone is not enough to dictate whether a doctrine is right or wrong, that is what Scripture is for. However, as I said, it is a big warning sign that I think needs to be carefully thought through. Why is it only the Catholic Church that accepts this doctrine?
Annihilationism triggers similar warning signs. The majority of the supporters come from "Christian" sects which actually all stem from the same branch, historically speaking. The Adventists were a group that started when a preacher (falsely) prophesied the coming of Christ in the 1840s. When your "denomination" starts off with a foundation like this, that's a pretty bad sign. Adventism splintered off into its own numerous divides, however a man named Charles Russell, inspired by an Adventist, began to study the Bible and formed a group known as the "Bible Students." After his death, another group formed from there and eventually gave birth to the Jehovah Witnesses, while another group, the Christadelphians, formed around a similar time frame. All three of the aforementioned groups reject the Trinity, the divine nature of Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit.
These are all things core to "standard" Christianity, regardless of denomination, and opposition to those beliefs is basically considered heresy. However, this heretical trio is the primary force that has driven Annihilationism into popularity as well! Yes, nowadays there might be pastors or churches from the more common denominations that have begun to latch on to this doctrine as well, but considering its origins (although scattered throughout Christian history as a minority view, I'll refer to the above group as being the primary force to drive it into modern relevance), the only reason I can see that happening is because of apostasy, not because there is any truth behind it.
To emphasize, the trio rejects the Holy Spirit. Is the Bible not clear enough?
We are taught (all and any) spiritual things by the Spirit. The natural man can't receive from the Spirit. All these sects don't even believe in the Spirit. If they reject the Spirit, they can only remain in their natural state. Therefore they can't receive any (true and Godly) spiritual things, and only have man's "wisdom" to guide their teachings. Yet, it is precisely this group that heavily supports and teaches annihilationism.
Is the potential danger of the doctrine not disturbingly clear enough on this straightforward premise alone?
God's justice is a common point of debate when discussing annihilationism. How could a loving and just God allow for anyone to burn for all eternity? How is that "fair"?
We should know by now that the good news Scripture presents to us is that of Christ on the cross, dying for our sins, paying the price with his own blood so that we, sinful man, can be reconciled to the Father and have eternal fellowship with Him. If you do not accept Christ though, you are "condemned already" as a sinner, and therefore have been and will continue to be in a state where you cannot have fellowship with God.
In other words, there are two choices: Either you accept Christ and let Him pay for your sins, or someone else (and as far as we know, no one else sacrificed themselves for you, so that "someone" is probably you) pays for it. Our sins are made against an eternal God, so as long as He exists, even a single sin will make you guilty against the Holy Judge. However, if that sin were completely paid by the blood of Christ, then you are no longer guilty. If you are not guilty, you don't deserve punishment.
A sinner who has rejected Christ does not have that sin paid, it remains, as does the guilt, and therefore the punishment. Naturally then, the question arises:
How long would it take to repay God for the sacrifice He made? Animal sacrifices weren't enough, the payment needs to be equivalent to the the only (actually accepted) payment we are told of: the eternal, sovereign, Creator of the Universe becoming a mortal, beaten, tortured, and killed by His creation, despite being completely perfect.
Eternity, honestly, does not sound like enough. It's impossible to pay the Lord back for that, really, and yet somehow a doctrine arises to say "Hey, that's not fair, God wouldn't require that" despite everything? I think annihilationism shows a fundamental lack of appreciation and knowledge of who God is. To paint another picture:
Let's say we have a store. Bob frequents the store but commits a crime against them, and forgets to bring back his copy of Armageddon to the store. Bob's crime does not magically disappear with time; five years later, assuming he has done nothing to right his wrong, that crime is still on him. Now, if he were to finally pay the late fees and return the copy, he will probably be absolved of his wrong-doing (and probably banned from the store afterwards). This is one way this might work, alternatively, if the store were to meet some financially bankrupt fate and no longer exist, then technically (as far as my non-lawyer understanding of the law goes) Bob is "free." There are no more late fees owed to a non-existent store, and he'll simply get to keep that aging VHS tape he stole.
However, such fates are impossible for the sovereign and eternal God. The sin committed against Him by Bob, that of theft, will always demand a payment for as long as God exists. Why then, is an eternal punishment such an "unfair" consequence when Bob surely has a long list of sins to pay for (as all humans do) and something that we haven't even mentioned yet: Bob, having rejected Christ, does not have his sinful nature removed!
In other words Bob can and will sin, perpetually, since he has rejected the only One capable of absolutely cleansing him of sin (past, present, and future). As unfortunate as it is, perpetual sin would justify perpetual punishment. Bob will never be able to pay his own sins, all by himself.
Another, smaller red flag in regards to annihilationism is the human appeal aspect. The sinner, faced with the two options, will obviously prefer annihilation. I mean, I've had someone tell me they'd rather blaspheme all the way to hell (with the understanding that it is eternal) than admit a certain sin was actually a sin. Sadly, someone like this, with clear enmity towards God is already willing to face a consequence they don't understand the gravity of. Much more would they accept the idea that "is actually not that bad!" Similarly, the believer probably looks at this doctrine in hopes of consolation. It's certainly more comforting to think that your unbelieving family and friends won't be burning in hell forever, but rather for a "while" and then their suffering will be over with.
I understand the appeal myself, of course, but we can't let our human emotions and understanding distort the lens through which we read Scripture. Let's remember that in the end, there are only two possibilities, and the glory/goodness of one is enhanced by the darkness of the other.
Imagine a white circle on a canvas. It stands out more against a totally black background than it would on a dark gray background. This idea pops up in Romans 3 as well, where the unrighteousness of the Jews, in a way, glorifies the righteousness of God (through contrast). At the end, although it is not something that I find appealing in the slightest, the more we try to diminish the consequence of rejecting Christ's death, the more we are actually diminishing Him and his gift as well, and since I can only see the latter as the ultimate thing I can ask for, then it's not unfathomable that the opposite would be the ultimate punishment.
I believe that it is also this ultimate punishment that, in small part, should motivate believers to preach the gospel as much as they can, to whoever is willing to listen. Annihilationism, whether we want to admit it or not, can instead easily bring about complacency as we accept and take solace in the "less drastic, more just" fate that we assume will fall upon those around us.
However, if it is any consolation, I do feel it is worth mentioning: the Bible doesn't give detail on how this "eternal punishment" is actually executed. Although we are given depictions of "fire and smoke", and certainly suffering, it is very possible that the imagery of "being burned alive forever" is a step beyond what the text says. There are those that believe the fire imagery to be figurative, and that ultimately hell is simply the separation of the soul from the presence of God for all eternity. The common "gnashing and wailing" which some attribute to pain, could also theoretically be the cries of angry, sinful souls who curse the God they chose to reject (as they did on Earth). I would agree that neither seems to specifically contradict scripture, and it is possible that is the case.
What I'm saying is, that despite everything I have written against the annihilationistic view, we should be applying the same exegesis and understanding when coming to any conclusion. I honestly don't believe the Bible paints an overly conclusive image that hell equates to eternal torture (in the way we generally understand torture). The parable of Luke clearly indicates a place of some sort of suffering, and Revelations does mention a torment that is "for ever and ever", but let's not go beyond what the Bible gives us and assume things that aren't in the text. We simply do not know the details of what really occurs in hell (or the lake of fire), and so we cannot create our own. Some would describe life on Earth as a torture or torment as well, so the level of suffering is really an unknown given the lack of detail.
A final concept that hasn't been addressed yet is that of the soul's mortality. I believe that with the overwhelming evidence pointing to hell's eternity, and the punishment of the sinners within, the logical conclusion is that the soul must therefore be eternal as well.
The Bible does not give any conclusive answers to the question one way or another, so everyone will have to derive their conclusion through some form of deductive reasoning, not direct Scriptural evidence. I'm well aware of 1 Timothy 6:16 stating that only God "is immortal," however, considering the very same author stated earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 that man will "put on immortality" as well (the only two portions of Scripture that use the word
immortality, by the way), we must find a way for both to work without contradiction.
Personally, I think that 1 Timothy is referring to God's inherent properties of being "all-existing", the source of eternal life itself, impossible to corrupt. Man, on the other hand, is becoming immortal in Corinthians, so it was not the original state of his being. Even if we were to argue that man was created immortal, he still had to be created in the first place. Man's immortality (be it in body or soul) does not compare to the same immortality that God possesses. God's immortality doesn't simply give Him "no end," there's also "no beginning" uniquely attached to that, in His case. Similarly, angelic beings (as far as we can discern) also seem to be immortal. However, they are not immortal in the same way God is immortal, as they too are created, and not infinite.
Speaking of being created, another similar argument arises that since man had to eat of the fruit of life to be immortal, he clearly isn't immortal in the first place. Although I believe that is more in regard to his physical state, not the spiritual, regardless of your position in this matter (and similarly, regardless of any position on soul sleep) we have to deal with the fact that in the end all of us, righteous and not, are resurrected for our final fate.
1 Corinthians 15, particularly verses 35 and onward, give a great comparison and description of what our future bodies will be like. Once again though, recall that there are only two, eternal outcomes: life or death. A resurrected immortal body that gets to stay in the presence of God has eternal life. Those that rejected Him still, as far as we can tell, have that same body, except they have to go to hell and face eternal punishment. I find this to be a very cohesive and straightforward chain of logical points, whereas Annihilationism alters half of the scenario and then leaves itself open with many holes and questions.
In summary, after reading the Scriptures in depth, and taking into account a couple of other external factors, my conclusion is that Annihilationism almost wholly depends on 3 main pillars to function at all.
Those 3 pillars are dependent upon redefining certain concepts, which as I've hopefully presented thoroughly enough on, do not actually mean what the original words ever meant or even implied.
The easiest one to debunk is the idea that eternity, especially in the New Testament, means anything but literal eternity. In addition, through the usage of the word and what/who it is applied to, there is no evidence to support (should the annihilationist move the goal posts and point to the subject of the undeniably eternal punishment) that the adjective applies to any "effects." The grammar and application is clear. With such a gaping hole, I would consider the doctrine sufficiently flawed to discard already.
Regardless, the second pillar falls fairly easily as well. With only three instances of destruction related to hell in the OT, we look to the NT for further clarification and see the verbage is consistent: that is,
perish at no point ever uses
annihilation or any form of
cease to exist when discussing the punishments of Hell.
With two of the three pillars down, the doctrine has little to stand on. However, we go ahead and discard the third as well, after some study, unsurprisingly. The usage of death is just what you'd understand in modern times, that is the loss of a life and "disconnect" from this physical realm.
What we are left with is, at best, a hollow doctrine with a handful of non-conclusive verses that do not make up for the errors and inconsistencies we've already studied out. My apologies to the readers who believe in annihilationism, I hope this series has provided sufficient insight into the majority view, and that you understand my only goal is to rightly divide the scripture, not to personally attack the individuals who find themselves believing false doctrines. It is only through God's grace that we, as sinful humans, are able to even come to understand his truths.
With that, I believe I have exhausted all the main/popular points of discussion for the topic, and have nothing left to do but let the Spirit bear witness to the truths that I have hope to have properly analyzed from His Scripture and share as persuasively as possible. May the Lord use us to reach our circle of family and friends, and may He prepare the hearts of those willing to hear His Gospel, that they may be saved through repentance of their sin and accept the precious gift of salvation from our sacrificial Lamb, Jesus Christ. Amen.