Two basic views on hell exist: those that say wicked man will be annihilated post-mortem and those that say wicked man will be judged and sent to eternal, conscious punishment in hell. Both views seem to be based on various philosophical and cultural backgrounds, yet the Bible must be the basis for our views and not our ideals. Showing multiple Bible passages, annihilationism is annihilated for lack of sufficient evidence. History proves that the Biblical view of hell, while offensive to mankind, is foundational to the effective spreading of the Gospel. Jonathan Edwards, in his preaching and because of the incredible response to his “fire and brimstone” messages is possibly the single greatest authority on the issue of hell. His view of Christ and the reason for which he came was based on the importance of the awfulness of hell. The necessity for hell, he argued, was based on a high and Biblical view of God’s holiness and view of sin. The Gospel has much more power when the reality of hell is pronounced, because God’s wish is to save us from his wrath—the wrath he put upon his Son and he has made available to all who put their faith in him. This is the Gospel.
All it took to turn the Protector of Mankind into the Judge of Mankind was one single bite in a fruit. Eve, the daughter of God, was tempted and sinned against God in this and Adam was condemned for it; thus the entire human race has been borne the consequences, for we are his descendents. Is it cruel or just of God to send mankind to hell for such a petty crime? Or was this crime so heinous that it deserved eternal separation from God? Yet it was for this very reason that the Christ was prophesied, that he came, and that the man of Bethlehem died for the sins of the world—because we could not bear the consequences of this or any sin before God’s holiness. It was Jesus Christ himself, after offering atonement through his payment for sin, condemned to eternal damnation those who rejected this salvation. Yet men across the centuries have hated this truth, for it devours our imagination and seems to distort the God of love we know and turn him into a vicious, bloodthirsty oppressor.
Perhaps no one said it better than the volcanic preacher of the 1700’s, Jonathan Edwards when he said that the doctrine of hell is “indeed awful and dreadful. It is dreadful to think of it, but yet tis what God the eternal God who made us and who has us soul and body in his hands has abundantly declared unto us, so that so sure as God is true there will absolutely be no end to the misery of hell” (Gerstner 74). The man who changed America based on his description of the doctrine of hell was himself afraid of it and wished it did not exist, yet he had to admit: “tis of God” (49). And that itself is the question at hand: is this doctrine truly Biblical and does God truly wish to punish men consciously and for all eternity simply because of sin? Truly it is a crucial subject and it must not be swept under the rug, for Christ himself spoke more about hell than about heaven while he walked this earth.
John Stott, himself a renowned preacher and theologian, disagrees with Jonathan Edwards and most theologians by upholding the view of annihilationism. He joins a minority which also includes great theologians like C. Pinnock, E. Fudge, and others. First off, annihilationism must be defined. Larry Dixon explains its teaching: “that, although everyone will survive death and even be resurrected, the impenitent (unbelievers) will finally be destroyed” (86). This is directly opposed to the concept that man will be eternally and consciously punished by God for sin. Instead of understanding Scripture as meaning this, it is interpreted by saying that those who do not receive eternal life in heaven will be annihilated, as in completely and utterly destroyed. When a sinner dies, he is incinerated by fire as an act of God’s judgment, but in this he is annihilated and looses all sense of consciousness or remembrance—he simply ceases to exist. A key verse to back up God’s ability to annihilate man after death in judgment is very clear: “for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, ESV).
Dixon then goes on to tie this idea to the cousin concept of conditional immortality, both of which are held in principle in the Anglican and Easter Orthodox churches. He defines this second concept by explaining that “no one survives death except those to whom God gives life; that is, man is immortal by grace, not by nature” (86). I Timothy 1:10 is a very clear passage arguing that the gift of immortality comes only to the saved, “our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (emphasis added). This verse implies that no immortality exists for man without Jesus Christ, who abolished death. Death in this case can be easily interpreted as destruction or annihilation, simply because of the contrast with the connection of life with immortality—it implies they go together, hence excluding those dead, without the life of Christ in them, from having immortality.
Another key passage in defense of these two views comes from Genesis 3:22-23 which argues that eternity only is given to those that choose to obey God, in this case Adam and Eve are cut off from God because of their disobedience: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden…”(emphasis added). Murray Harris argues on this verse that, although man is “potentially immortal by nature, man actually becomes immortal by grace” (Dixon 94). Adam and Eve clearly had the possibility of becoming immortal, in the simple reading of the text, yet it was denied them because of sin.
The traditional view that has opposed annihilationism since Christianity began has never given much credence to such an idea, and it has been thrown aside as an error in Biblical interpretation. But in the last decades men of great theological grounds have stood up and spoken out against the traditional view, and some have given the idea a hearing. Simply because a group is a minority or has a new idea does not imply it is wrong. The classic example of Galileo battling against the Catholic government over the dimension of the earth based on their interpretation of the Bible. They were clearly wrong, yet it took a minority with a new idea to change their view. Stott, as a renowned theologian, has stood up for annihilationism and has asked the Evangelical community to give him a hearing. He speaks honestly when he states that he “does not dogmatize about the position to which I have come, I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal, conscious torment” (Dixon 88). And he is not alone. C. Pinnock argues from a moralistic position when he begs the traditionalists to reconsider based on God’s character: “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine that needs to be changed…Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God […] Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on his own enemies for all eternity?” (Pinnock 246-47).
Difficulty of Hell
The arguments by Stott, Pinnock and others are very strong, there is no question about it. Truly all the authors I read on that held the traditional view agreed that hell a terrible and difficult doctrine. If it were up to the reader to decide the fate of human kind we might agree on having all men being saved and being eternally with God, based on his love (also known as Universalism). But that is the very problem: it is not based on our philosophy or interpretation of the world, but on the truth that the Bible speaks, and we are bound to the truth it gives.
So where have the traditional and annihilationism views come from? Without looking at Scripture it can be clearly seen that the traditional view fits very well with Platonic philosophy, and that of the ancient Greeks. They believed that the soul was immortal and thus man was to live forever (Dixon 92). Conversely, the rise of annihilationism is very warranted in our current post-modern culture. Man is innately good Freud has taught us, and our view of sin and truth is very subjective. Thus it can be easily argued that to hold to annihilation fits very well with our culture, and the view of Stott and others can be seen more as moralistic and humanistic than as necessarily Biblical. This leads to the obvious question: what does the Bible teach?
In order to avoid the Platonic arguments we should look at the Old Testament in light of the attack on traditionalism. Solomon clearly states that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It seems to imply that man was intended to live eternally. As for hell itself, the Old Testament is not silent, specifically Isaiah: “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’” and speaking of the same he says “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched…” (Isaiah 33:14-15, 66:24, emphasis added). The latter fits specifically with the preaching of Christ in Matthew 9:43 and 48: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (emphasis added).
It must be admitted that the Old Testament view of hell was incomplete and very weak, and it likewise explains why Christ spoke more on the reality of hell than on that of heaven. We have no problems with heaven, it is hell that truly grips us and scares men young and old, saved and unsaved. From a humanist view, it seems wise to take hell out of the Gospel, so that it is not offensive. Logically this should lead to more converts and to more acceptance of Christianity worldwide. Yet we do not have to dream of such a thing, our very country at large employs a very low view of hell and of sin already (Herrick). There is no Jonathan Edwards preaching Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God anymore, and most preachers are content to preach on love and heaven and grace while completely avoiding hell. I would argue that an unsure knowledge of hell is devastating to the Gospel, and having the annihilationist view of man’s end is even more-so damaging.