Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

The Most Convincing Arguments for Hell as Annihilation

I was recently on a discussion forum where there was a debate going on about the nature of hell.

Someone was arguing for the traditional view where people who are sent to hell will be tortured forever (a.k.a Eternal Conscious Torment), whereas I was trying to get them to see the merits of the view that those in hell will be destroyed and no longer exist (a.k.a Annihilation).

Of course, discussion forums are not the easiest place to get into the details of Biblical exegesis. Blog articles such as this one are also limited, but slightly less so (my only limit is your attention span).

So here I will explain what are (to me) the most convincing arguments that Annihilation is the most Biblical interpretation of hell.

Obviously, I will not be able to do proper exegesis of every single verse in the Bible on this topic in this post.

If you want that level of analysis, then you should really read the book by Edward William Fudge titled The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third ed.). He examines all the relevant Biblical verses, as well as the historical, ethical, and philosophical/theological arguments for and against hell as Annihilation. I will make use of some of his best quotations in this post.

I would challenge any proponent of Eternal Conscious Torment to read Fudge's book with an open mind, and see if at the end they can say they still believe Eternal Conscious Torment is the proper Biblical understanding of hell. I could not.

God Can Destroy Whatever He Has Created

Since God created the entire universe out of nothing (Heb. 11:3, Col 1:16), then it makes sense that He also has the power to take whatever He created and return it to non-existence.

Even though the first law of thermodynamics says energy is not created or destroyed in a closed system, this is only our observation of how the world that God has created typically operates, and so it is not a limit on God's power. God is sovereign over thermodynamics.

Jesus specifically says that, in contrast to people who can only kill the physical body (but cannot destroy a person's soul), God can destroy both bodies and souls in hell! (Matt. 10:28). The idea of the immortality of the soul is a Greek philosophical concept that crept into early Christian thought and has no clear Biblical support.1

So there's no reason why God has to keep anyone's soul or body alive forever. Whether He chooses to or not, though, is what the debate is about.

The Contrast Between Eternal Life and Eternal Death

Let's look at a list of some of the terms the Bible uses when referring to the final destiny of unsaved people:

  • "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matt. 7:13-14)
  • "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
  • "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5:24)
  • "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10:28)
  • "For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law." (Romans 2:12)
  • "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23)
  • "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory." (Rom 9:22)
  • "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy." (James 4:12)
  • "But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing." (2 Pet.2:12-13)
  • "But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly." (2 Pet. 3:7)
  • "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (2 Pet. 3:9)
  • "our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Tim. 1:10)
  • "The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death." (Rev. 2:11)
  • "Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years." (Rev. 20:6)

But proponents of the Eternal Conscious Torment view claim that these frequently used Biblical expressions to describe the ultimate fate of the unsaved - "eternal death", "second death", "eternal destruction", and "perish" - don't have anything to do with the meanings of these words as we commonly understand them at all (cessation of bodily life/conscious existence)!

Instead, they say that all these terms actually mean eternal life, just in a different (and highly unpleasant) location.

To me, that doesn't seem to be "death", "destruction", or "perishing" at all.

Fudge says: "Throughout this study, we have watched as traditionalist authors repeatedly read straightforward, non-symbolic texts, commenting that such texts, if taken alone, certainly teach extinction, but that Rev. 14:9-11 and Rev. 20:10 do not allow that result".2

Revelation was the very last book of the Bible to be written, sometime in the late first-century A.D.

So anyone who read Scripture before the book of Revelation was written would have interpreted these warnings in the straightforward way, as eternal death, a.k.a being deprived of life/existence, as Fudge says the Eternal Conscious Torment proponents themselves admit! It is only with the addition of the book of Revelation that this debate gets complicated.

Therefore, it is the proponents of Eternal Conscious Torment who interpret all of these terms metaphorically, without any justification based on the immediate context or the meaning of words in the original languages of Scripture.

For example, let's imagine we went up to someone with no knowledge of the book of Revelation, and who had not been exposed to the Eternal Conscious Torment view of hell, and read John 3:16 to them:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

Would they really understand this as:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not be condemned to live forever in a place of conscious, unending torment but have eternal life"?

No! The contrast in many of these verses above is clearly between eternal life and perishing, a.k.a death, a.k.a eternal destruction, a.k.a. annihilation, a.k.a. non-existence.

Eternally Destroyed, or Eternally Alive In Agony?

One of the verses the Eternal Conscious Torment proponents most frequently appeal to is Isaiah 66:24, the latter half of which says "For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh".

But what about the first half of this verse, which says "And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me."

Notice the things being talked about here as being abhorrent and being destroyed by worms and fire, are dead bodies!!!

Not: "And they shall go out and look at all the immortal resurrected people writhing in agony and screaming but never actually dying", which seems to be how many Eternal Conscious Torment proponents interpret it.

So, even if saved people really need some sort of eternal reminder of God's justice (as Jonathan Edwards seems to think they do, although I disagree - see my article here), a pile of eternally rotting, burning dead bodies would be enough. (Although, this verse doesn't prove this scene lasts forever.)

Fudge notes that to Jews, this scene had special significance, for to be unburied was the ultimate shame and disrespect: "to burn a corpse signified at times a thing utterly accursed or devoted to God for destruction".3

The idea of "unquenchable" fire or "undying" worms does not mean that the fire burns forever or that the worms live forever, but that the activity of these things cannot be stopped prematurely or thwarted before they have totally consumed or burned up the body. God's judgement cannot be stopped or resisted by anyone.

So even if we take this verse as literally as the Eternal Conscious Torment proponents do, at the very worst, it could mean that these people were thrown into the fire alive, suffered for some period of time from the worms and fire, and then died, leaving a disgusting corpse which is exposed for all to see. Thus, leaving an eternal legacy of "shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan 12:2).

But it certainly doesn't prove eternal conscious torment.

Other Biblical Examples Of Destruction

Frequently, Eternal Conscious Torment proponents will insist destruction doesn't really mean to be taken out of existence. So, let's look at how the Bible itself describes the final destiny of the unsaved:

  • they will be "like chaff that the wind drives away" (Ps. 1:4)
  • "the way of the wicked will perish" (Ps. 1:6)
  • God will rain fire and sulfur on them and scorch them with wind (Ps. 11:6)
  • God will "cut off the memory of them from the earth" (Ps. 34:16)
  • they will wilt like grass (Ps. 37:2)
  • they will be no more (Ps 37:10)
  • they will perish and vanish like smoke (Ps. 37:20)
  • they will be "cut off" (Ps 37:9, 22, 28, 34)
  • they will pass away and be no more, be unable to be found (Ps. 37:35-36)
  • they will be "altogether destroyed", their future is "cut off" (Ps. 37:38)
  • God will "tear them apart", so that they can't be delivered/saved/rescued (Ps. 50:22)
  • they will "vanish like water that runs away" (Ps. 58:7)
  • they will "be like the snail that dissolves into slime" (Ps. 58:8)
  • they will "be like stillborn children" (Ps. 58:8)
  • they will be "blotted out of the book of the living" (Ps. 69:28)
  • "with the breath of his lips [God] shall kill the wicked" (Isa. 11:4)
  • they will be unable to dwell in consuming fire or everlasting burnings (Isa. 33:14)
  • they will be consumed, like how moths and worms eat fabric (Isa. 51:8)

Fudge says "Without being literal, therefore, we may learn from these passages of Scripture. They say nothing of conscious unending torment. None of them hints at a fire that tortures but does not kill. They do not envision the presence of the wicked forever - even in a distant place. Rather, they picture a time and a world where the wicked will not be".4

Fudge says we should also look at the Biblical examples of historical destructions, such as Noah's flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

For example, Peter warns that "by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly" (2 Pet. 2:6).

Jesus also referred to Noah's flood as an example of judgement on unbelievers which will be repeated when he returns (Matt. 24:37-39; Lk 17:26-27).

In the story of Noah's flood, Fudge says "Throughout the story, the operative verbs are 'perish', 'destroy' or 'die', and they are used synonymously with 'cut off' and 'wipe out'. Sometimes Scripture writers use such words poetically, figuratively or metaphorically. But in this canonical version of the Flood story itself, these terms are clearly intended to be read literally. In this specific judgement event, evildoers meet the very end that the Psalms and Proverbs describe again and again".5

So Fudge says "The authors of Scripture could have written hundreds of pages of philosophical discussion about the exact meaning of 'destroy' and 'perish.' Instead, they point us back to what God did once before, and they warn us that it exemplifies what the wicked may expect again".6

Although, Fudge notes that we do have to extrapolate a little: "The death by Flood killed only the body; the second death awaiting the wicked will kill the whole person, soul and body alike. The first punishment was temporary; the second will be permanent".7

But Doesn't Their Punishment Last Forever?

Some Eternal Conscious Torment proponents seem hung up on the idea of "eternal punishment", implying that it must be consciously experienced in order to properly be punishment.

They bring up verses such as Matthew 25:36: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

But they are reading more into these verses than they actually say.

Missing out on eternal life, in a perfect resurrected body, in a perfect society that includes perfect relationships with God, other saints, and angels, is enough of a punishment. And that punishment lasts forever, for these people never come back into existence.

2 Thess. 1:9 specifically says "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might". If God is omnipresent, the only way to be entirely away from his presence, glory, and might is to not exist.

Even in many human justice systems, capital punishment is the worst penalty possible. What makes it so bad is not that the criminal experiences severe conscious pain (indeed, lethal injection is meant to be as painless as possible), but that it deprives them of the rest of their physical life.

Although the Eternal Conscious Torment proponents would say capital punishment is only a shortcut to the real suffering in hell for eternity, we should note that even atheists who don't believe in hell are afraid of having their lives cut short prematurely. So you don't need a Christian worldview which includes eternal torment in hell to see death as the worst possible punishment, even if the conscious suffering endured in dying is minimal.

I would ask the Eternal Conscious Torment proponents: what about those criminals who have become Christians during their time on death row? For Christians, it is better to die and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). So should we make a law saying that Christian criminals don't get the death penalty because for them death is not really a punishment? Of course not! Being deprived of physical life is itself a punishment, even though the person does not consciously experience every minute that they lose out on.

God Can Inspire Correct Wording In Scripture

Since our eternal destiny is ultimately the most important outcome of this life, you would think that God would tell us in extremely clear terms exactly what those possible destinies are.

As seen above, the preponderance of the terms death, destruction, and perish, are the primary way God describes one of those two destinies. If it was not so, why wouldn't God be more clear? Why wouldn't He say "eternal life in a state of endless torment and agony".

Yes, it's a little longer of a phrase, but, if that is truly a possibility, wouldn't a perfectly loving God warn us of the real, true danger we face, and not cover over it with imprecise euphemisms which, when taken at face value, imply cessation of existence?

Therefore, I think, the numerous times when the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to write things like "death" and "destruction" as the fate of the damned is because it is correct.

But What About the Rich Man and Lazarus?

Fudge quotes numerous commentators who suggest this parable is not meant to give literal details about the afterlife. In fact, it was a common story that was told by other Rabbis at the time and came in several variations. Jesus used and modified it also to make his point.8

This story's point is that what matters isn't our position in this life, but whether we have faith or not, and that those who reject the evidence for God that they did have in this life have no excuse (Lk 16:29). Also, he warns that those who reject this evidence would not believe even if they saw someone come back from the dead, as Jesus would soon do (Lk 16:31).

Even if, at worst, this story does correctly teach some sort of unpleasant intermediate state for the unsaved, it does not prove this suffering lasts forever. Time spent in an unpleasant intermediate state before the final judgement (as hinted at in 2 Peter 2:9) could be counted as "time served" and be deducted from any suffering they will experience in the process of being annihilated, if God's justice requires it.

But What About Those Two Verses In Revelation?

The two verses in Revelation which are frequently claimed to justify interpreting hell as Eternal Conscious Torment are Rev. 14:9-11, and Rev. 20:10.

Rev. 14:9-11: "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

The first two threats, the "wine of God's wrath", the "cup of his anger" are clearly metaphors. God doesn't have real wine or a cup that he's going to force people to drink from, any more than Jesus drank from a literal cup in his death (Matt 26:39). Yet after detailed exegesis, Fudge says "The symbol of God's cup of wrath signifies a judgment that is finally fatal".9

Fudge shows that fire and sulfur relate back to the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so "throughout all of Scripture, the imagery of fire and brimstone signifies a complete destruction that leaves total desolation in its wake".10 Jude 1:7 even mentions that Sodom and Gomorrah "serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire". But in reality, the cities were totally destroyed.

Fudge notes that "Even in the first century AD, it was thought, the erstwhile site of Sodom smoldered".11 So this explains the next symbol of the "smoke that rises forever"; the results of their destruction last forever, not that they are eternally being tortured forever.

Fudge writes "The smoke rising from Sodom did not indicate human suffering or people in pain. Like today's symbol of a mushroom-shaped cloud, the rising smoke gave silent testimony to a destruction accomplished. Where Sodom and Gomorrah once existed, all was now silent".12 He compares this to the promised future destructions of Edom in Isa 34:9-11, as well as the city of Babylon in Rev. 18 which use similar imagery.13

Regarding the "No rest day or night", Fudge quotes the Greek expert Beale, who says it means "there will be no rest as long as the duration of the suffering continues".14

So this verse is not really a problem when we see that all the metaphorical components of it are referring to other Biblical concepts that imply destruction.

Rev. 20:10: This talks about Satan being thrown into the lake of fire where the Beast and False Prophet are, 1000 years after they were first thrown in, where "they will be tormented day and night forever and ever".

But, notice earlier in Revelation where twice it says the Beast's fate is destruction (Rev. 17:8, 17:11). Compare with Daniel 7:11: "the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire". So these verses need to be reconciled with one another.

At worst, if someone interprets the Beast and False Prophet as individual people (and not human institutions of worldwide government and false religion), and Satan also as an individual, this verse only proves that three individuals are tormented forever. It doesn't say anything about the duration of suffering for everyone else thrown into the lake of fire in Rev. 20:15.

However, Revelation also speaks about abstract things such as death and Hades being thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14).

Clearly, you can't torment death or Hades. But, you can certainly annihilate them, so that they are no more. This destruction of death is promised elsewhere such as Isa 25:7-8; 1 Cor. 15:26, 54; and Rev. 21:4.

So I think this proves that the lake of fire is a symbol of total annihilation, and not meant to be taken literally.

John specifically explains the lake of fire is "the second death" (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). Fudge says everywhere else in Revelation the first term is explained or defined by the second term (e.g. the bowls of incense are the prayers of the saints - Rev. 5:8).

Fudge says "Traditionalist authors always read the equation the other direction, as if it said 'the second death' (indefinite) is 'the lake of fire' (clear). In fact, however, John says that 'the lake of fire' (his symbol) is 'the second death' (a clearer reality)."15

It seems the only word in this verse that is difficult for Fudge to explain is torment. Fudge says that given the overwhelming evidence everywhere else in Scripture that supports Annihilation, he is not convinced it means eternal conscious torture.16

Perhaps there is a way to harmonize some of these verses.

It could be that if there is a period of temporary suffering as people are being destroyed, that torment is continuous, day and night, while they still exist (while they are "in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb" Rev. 14:10). But sooner or later this torment ends in utter annihilation, when they will be "away from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9). Since again, if God is omnipresent, the only way to not be in his presence is if they are nonexistent. Then finally "God will be all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).

Therefore, I agree with Fudge when he says:

"Perhaps this brings us to the crux of the debate over the nature of final punishment, which finally involves an hermeneutical dilemma. Do scores (if not hundreds) of straight-forward declarative statements throughout the whole Bible finally have to be filtered through two highly-symbolic passages in Revelation, or should we read those two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse in light of pages of straightforward declarations, promises, and warnings from Genesis through Jude?"17

Fudge says it would be improper hermeneutics to allow two symbolic passages to interpret the many clear non-symbolic passages.

Like Fudge, I will side with the overwhelming number of clear verses that support Annihilation.

Why Does It Matter?

I think that our view of hell has important implications in two major areas of theology: the gospel, and God's character.

First, it shifts the gospel message from "Believe in Jesus so that God won’t torture you forever", to "Believe in Jesus so that you don’t miss out on eternal life".

I think this is much more effective, because it uses positive motivation rather than fear. Who wouldn't want eternal life in a perfect resurrected body, in a perfectly loving society with God, saints, and angels, where there will never again be fear, anxiety, or pain?

Second, God wants us to genuinely love him, and it's very difficult to feel genuine love for someone who threatens to inflict unimaginable suffering on you if you don't love them!

Does it really make sense for God, who is perfect love (1 John 4:8), to say to humanity "Love me, or I'll torture you forever!"? In what human relationship would that be acceptable? And if it's not acceptable on that level, why would it be acceptable in a divine-human relationship? Is this really how the God who is perfectly revealed in Jesus would act?

Instead, hell as annihilation is much more compatible than hell as eternal torment with God's perfectly loving and holy nature. If God is perfect love and the source of all life who upholds all things in existence, then those who reject God are effectively rejecting their own existence. So God gives them what they have chosen: non-existence.

Justice is still served, for sin is still punished with an infinite sentence - eternal non-existence and loss of the infinite happiness of heaven. God's holiness is not compromised.

So the gospel is not lessened if those who reject it will be annihilated, instead of tortured forever. There are still severe eternal consequences for rejecting God's offer of salvation, but, they are much more in alignment with God's perfectly loving and good character.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 19-22.
  • 2. Fudge, 252.
  • 3. Fudge, 76-77.
  • 4. Fudge, 57.
  • 5. Fudge, 60.
  • 6. Fudge, 61.
  • 7. Fudge, 62.
  • 8. Fudge, 148-151.
  • 9. Fudge, 241.
  • 10. Fudge, 241. Fudge cites other verses such as Job 18:15; Ps. 11:6, Isa. 30:27-33, 34:9, Ezek. 38:22.
  • 11. Fudge, 65.
  • 12. Fudge, 241.
  • 13. Fudge, 242.
  • 14. Fudge, 243.
  • 15. Fudge, 246.
  • 16. Fudge, 249.
  • 17. Fudge, 251-252.