Engaging Perspectives: Annihilation or Eternal

Derek Ouellette —  April 29, 2011

As the marketing and advertising guy for a small Christian bookstore, it is my job to send out e-blasts promoting our material. Recently I promoted Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, and as part of the write up I wrote this: “Whether one agrees with the conclusions drawn from this book or not, you will walk away with a deeper passion to know exactly what the scriptures do teach on this subject.”

I think that is something we can all agree on. Bell’s book has caused a resurgence of interest in the afterlife among the evangelical community.

This is fabulous. I cannot speak too much for others, but I have become slack by taking for granted the assumptions of my tradition, especially in this area. Ironically, I think one of Bell’s main points was to convince people that we don’t really know much of the afterlife, and so we should concentrate our energy on this life. But the opposite in fact happened, at least for me.

Now I want to know, have I been mistaken all these years? Has my tradition unintentionally, unwittingly led me wrong, as it has before? Does my commitment to scripture above all traditions require me to reexamine what I’ve always believed the bible to teach about Hell?

Coming Up Empty With Proof-Texts

It’s frustrating for someone such as myself to find good material in favor of the traditional view (for research purposes). Much of the work written apologetically in favor of the traditional view are so poorly argued it’s simply embarrassing.

Take the Four Views on Hell for example. John Walvoord enters into a ready defense of the traditional view of Hell, and he has no shortage of bible passages to support his case. But he interacts with none of them. He merely proof-texts. I can relate with Clark Pinnock (the annihilationist) when he responds to Walvoord with this:

“How should I respond to a study that does not engage many basic issues or face up to serious difficulties in the view it is defending? There is little documentation even in support of his position and none interacting with alternative interpretations of it.”[i]

Proof-texting works only if you write to an audience who already agrees with your position. It does not work well in times such as these. Since the ‘80’s the annihilationist position has been building momentum[ii], and the only way such a position could hope to survive within evangelicalism, challenging such a long standing and nearly universal tradition,[iii] is if it seriously engaged the biblical text and could make a case against the traditional view.  It’s been done before, why not again?

There are some pretty venerable names associated with the annihilation perspective. John Stott is probably the most respected annihilationist. But the works of Clark Pinnock, Edward Fudge and more recently Greg Boyd have all contributed to its rise in recent years.

So I think the annihilation perspective needs to be taken seriously. I think it presents a real challenge to the traditional view and in fact, if it can be shown to present a stronger biblical case, it may replace the traditional view, at least in my mind.

This is because I am open to the biblical testimony.

Re-Engaging The Traditional View

But I am not ready to give up the traditional view without a fight. Not that I want to fight against “truth”, but I want to fight against the tendency of being blown to and fro by every wave of doctrine,[iv] just because of who supports it or because it seems – at least at first glance – to present a stronger case.

Since I stand behind my previous post that asserted “tormented day and night forever and ever” (in Revelation 20:10) cannot possibly mean “annihilate” (here), I will begin there, in Revelation. And I will enlist the critical scholarship of Biblical scholar G.K. Beale to answer the annihilationist critique of the traditional view of Hell in Revelation[v]. In so doing, Beale not only attempts to dismantle the annihilationist interpretation (with Edward Fudge being his main conversation partner), but his primary aim is to bolster the traditional view of Hell as everlasting punishment.

[ii] I’m speaking specifically about within evangelicalism.

[iii] I’m not saying no one has advocated for Universalism, Postmortem Reconciliation or Annihilationism in Church History, but they have all been minor views.

[iv] Ephesians 4:14

[v] The Revelation on Hell by G.K. Beale in Hell Under Fire, p.111-134

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/ Craig L. Adams

    The defenses of the traditional view have always been bad, generally speaking. I remember once trying to read William G. T. Shedd’s old Book The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, since I have it in PDF form. I quit. It was bad.

    But, i think you should give Jerry Walls’ book Hell: The Logic Of Damnation a try as well. http://www.amazon.com/Hell-Damnation-Jerry-L-Walls/dp/026801096X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1304102257&sr=8-2

    That’s one I’d like to read myself.

  • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

    Craig, while I have not read Walls’ book, I believe it is more of a philosophical defense of the traditional view of hell. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but I think Derek is looking for a more biblical, or exegetical, defense of the traditional view.

    You are both right though; by and large, defenses of eternal torment (both scholarly and popular) tend to be almost embarrassingly bad. And I don’t say that because I’m a conditionalist (at least I don’t think that’s why I say it!). I’m not a Calvinist either, but some defenses of Calvinism are quite good and require, if not demand, serious interaction.

    Derek, I’m ambivalent about your using Revelation 20:10 as the starting point in seeking understanding on this issue. On the one hand, it is the strongest proof-text for eternal torment (indeed, it is the only verse in the Bible that explicitly mentions eternal torment–albeit as part of a symbolic, apocalyptic vision, and not in reference to humans). On the other hand, it seems to me that the apocalyptic visions of Revelation are precisely the sort of unclear passages that should be interpreted in light of more clear Scripture.

    I do find it frustrating that almost all evangelicals will say “we should interpret the less clear in light of the more clear!” and yet will, almost without fail, come back to Revelation 20:10 and use that single verse to guide their interpretation of every other passage that speaks to future punishment whenever they feel that the traditional view has been threatened.

    At the very least, I sincerely hope that you read responses to Beale. I may write a blog post myself of his main argument in that chapter of Hell Under Fire.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Ronnie, I don’t think you’ll find Revelation 20:10 or any other passage used as a proof-text in the article. The article will be a discussion of Hell in Revelation specifically. The main text that will be discussed will be Revelation 14:9-12; 20:10 and 20:14 (along with related passages).

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Yes, I’ve read through Hell Under fire several times. I don’t believe I said that Beale uses Revelation 20:10 as a proof-text in his article, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply it.

      Plenty of people do use the verse a proof-text, however. I recently wrote a fairly lengthy comment, arguing against the assertions made by a certain commenter at a certain cite. His response was to merely quote Revelation 20:10, and say that if that didn’t convince me, nothing would!

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Oh, and I misspoke (mistyped?) in my original comment. I should have said that Rev 20:10 is the strongest verse used in support of the eternal torment (as opposed to “the strongest proof-text”).

    • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/ Craig L. Adams


      Thanks for your comments. I also checked out your blog. It’s quite interesting. I had to click around for a while before I found the post where you define what you mean by the “conditionalism” though. I appreciate the thought you given to these issues.

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Thanks Craig! I’ll add a permanent link called “What is Conditionalism?” to the top of my page.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Once again, y’all: neither Scripture nor the rest of the Tradition know anything about annihilation. However, if one understands that the “Fire” of the “Lake of Fire” IS God and that those being “tormented” therein are experiencing God in this way because of their knowing and completely free rejection of the Divine Love and the Divine Goodness – well, what difficulties are left?

    This makes the Lake of Fire simply the (permanent) “time out” room of the new heaven, and it is possible that those who reside there may, if they choose, repent, and then, join the Saints, but that possibility is by no means certain, and really doesn’t affect this scenario one way or the other.

    In any event, this Lake of Fire thing doesn’t kick in until the End of History. (But the fire of hades – that’s God too) If you’re concerned about your friends and relatives who have departed this life, apparently without a saving knowledge of Christ – pray for them. God is outside time, and the prayers of today can change the past, especially with regard to these folks’ dying moment.

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Greg, I strongly object to your assertion that Scripture knows nothing of annihilation. There are literally hundreds of descriptions of the end of the wicked in Scripture, and the overwhelming majority sound exactly like annihilation. Scripture uses words like death, destroy, die, perish, consume, pass away, melt, be no more. One of the most common images is that of chaff or weeds being burned up in a flame.

      I find it peculiar that you say annihilationism finds no support in Scripture or Tradition, but then go on to posit post-mortem repentance, and the possibility of God literally changing the past!

  • Brian MacArevey

    Again, Derek; good thoughts. I respect your convictions, and your desire to seek alternative (biblical) answers. I am interested to see where you will ultimately end up, too!

  • http://EdwardFudge.com Edward William Fudge

    Ronnie, thanks for including THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES in your discussion. You might be interested to know that a revised, updated, enlarged edition is due to be released by Cascade Books (academic/theological arm of Wipf & Stock)this June after 29 years. Two major new elements: (1) I interact throughout with 17 authors of 12 traditionalist books published during past 29 years; and (2)this new edition carries a foreword by Richard Bauckham of Cambridge University, formerly of University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
    –Cordially, Edward

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Hello Edward, thanks for taking the time to add value to Covenant of Love by your comment. I suspect that the revised version of The Fire That Consumes will interact with Beale’s article responding to many of your points in Hell Under Fire?

      ~ Derek

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Lemme ask y’all something: if the Fire in the Lake of Fire is not the presence of God, then what is it?

    Or in the age to come, it is not the case that, as St. Paul writes, God will be “all-in-all” and “everything to everyone”, meaning that all will be in the unmediated, direct presence of God?

    The Divine Nature is objectively good, is it not? Of course it is. If I then experience contact with the Divine Nature as torture, is this God’s problem or is it my problem?

    The point is, in this scenario, regardless of ability to interact with each other, those who are saved and those who are “damned” are having exactly the same experience with regard to the presence of God. The saved, however, having been transformed and having become what they were created to be, find this experience to be one of infinite bliss while those who have chosen “damnation” experience the presence of God as infinite torture.

    While the Bible, especially the Old Testament, may be ambiguous on this question, the authentic, Apostolic Tradition is not. It knows nothing of annihilation. Quite the opposite. Further, the active destruction of any sentient being does not strike me as being any more worthy of God than does the traditional (Western) account of damnation.

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Greg, I actually agree that God’s presence will be the agent of future punishment. But the unequivocal biblical teaching is that God’s presence consumes and destroys those who have not had their sins atoned for. ESV’s alternate rendering of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (which, I think, correctly interprets apo as “from” of source) expresses the idea perfectly:

      They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might

      Just a few verses later, in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul makes the exact same point concerning the man of lawlessness:

      And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming

      Hebrews 10:26-27 repeats the same idea:

      For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

      The passages are straightforward and explicit. God’s fire will consume and destroy his adversaries. The only reason anybody would ever suppose that such consumption would last forever (which is a complete abuse of what “consume” means) is because he or she is beholden to the idea that humans (or their “souls”) are immortal. Once we drop this unbiblical notion of unconditional immortality and let all the biblical passages concerning future punishment speak for themselves, the doctrine of annihilationism will conspicuously shine through.

      the active destruction of any sentient being does not strike me as being any more worthy of God than does the traditional (Western) account of damnation.

      I find that very hard to believe. Everlasting destruction is as odious as endless unthinkable agony and irreversible misery in your eyes? A creation that will forever be inhabited by billions of evil, sinning, God-hating humans is equivalent in your eyes to a creation that will one day be completely free of all sin, evil and suffering? I believe it not!

      And I’m genuinely interested in seeing a case made that post-mortem repentance has significant historical support in any Christian tradition. That’s a candid request, not a challenge.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA


    Doesn’t the phrase “everlasting destruction” give you a hint that we are not talking about conventional destruction? If I take a piece of wood and put it in the fire, sooner or later it will be completely gone. Its destruction will not be “everlasting”.

    So what does this mean? Well, regardless of what a human person does, the existence, the being, of a human person is good in and of itself, it having been made by God in the Divine image and likeness. Therefore, for God to utterly destroy human being is inherently problematic. What is destroyed, however, is the sin which the unrepentant person continues to generate within themselves.

    Thus, the “destruction” in question is “everlasting” in that there is always more “wood” for the fire being generated, and the “torment” comes from the rejection of God’s presence, from which there is no escape, and from the destruction of the ever-generated sin by those who continue to refuse repentance. As a 19th-century Evangelist put it, “Those in hell bring their own brimstone”.

    Regarding conditional immortality. We are discussing the period of time after the general resurrection, no? If the condemned are to be ultimately destroyed, why even bother with raising them in the first place?

    Three more points: first, regarding agony. Being in the presence of God is a good thing, right? If it causes me to suffer, that is my problem, no? If we are saved, we shall rejoice in God’s presence forever, as we were created to do. If I find being in the presence of God, being in communion with God, to be torture, it is not God’s problem, but mine. It basically means that I have rejected the Love that is God.

    Think about the younger Son in the Story of the Prodigal Son. The father is good and loves his sons. He has created a good home and a good life for them. But the younger son is miserable and wants to go party. Whose problem is this?

    Second, obviously the human who condemn themselves to the Lake of Fire, along with the demons, are not going to be interacting with everyone else (unless they repent, if that is possible).

    Third, in the East, the possibility of post-mortem reconciliation is considered to be a valid theological opinion. The Saint from whom I took my ordination name, the great Cappodocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa, held it, among others. It is indeed virtually unknown in the West.

    However, annihilationism is unknown in either East or West in…

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Doesn’t the phrase “everlasting destruction” give you a hint that we are not talking about conventional destruction? If I take a piece of wood and put it in the fire, sooner or later it will be completely gone. Its destruction will not be “everlasting”.

      “Destruction” is a noun which refers to a state, not a verb which refers to a process. If the passage said something like “continual destroying”, then what you say would be true. The unrepentant will be destroyed, and their destruction will last forever–it will not be reversed (as their initial destruction is reversed in the resurrection).

      What is destroyed, however, is the sin which the unrepentant person continues to generate within themselves.

      But Scripture repeats over and over again that it is the person who will be destroyed. If I may be a bit “ad hominemy” :), it appears that you’re reinterpreting and contravening the explicit teaching of many passages so they fit with your peculiar understanding of future punishment.

      Regarding conditional immortality. We are discussing the period of time after the general resurrection, no? If the condemned are to be ultimately destroyed, why even bother with raising them in the first place?

      Because dead people (“dust”) can’t be judged for their deeds and punished.

      It must be said that traditionalists encounter the exact same problem; they believe in a conscious intermediate state of suffering. I could ask, “If the condemned are to be ultimately put into a state of suffering, why even bother with raising them in the first place? Just leave them in the state of suffering that they are currently in.”

      As for post-mortem repentance, you named one person. I can top that! I asked for evidence of “significant historical support”.

      However, annihilationism is unknown in either East or West

      You keep on repeating this refrain that tradition knows nothing of annihilationism. First of all, if what you mean is “no early Christian ever believed this” then your claim is demonstrably false. More importantly, however, I don’t determine truth simply by taking a tally of what people before me have believed. That line of reasoning may be persuasive for you, but it holds very little force for me (and I daresay most people on this board). So I’m a little put off the way you keep saying that as if it’s some sort of trump card.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Ronnie, saying “Gregory of Nyssa” in Eastern Christian circles is ALMOST like saying “Augustine” (almost) in the West. Throw in St. Isaac of Nineveh and you indeed have a majority of two such that the possibility of post-mortem reconciliation remains a non-heretical theological opinion in the East.

    Can you name any ONE theologian of this stature in East or West from the first 1500 years of Christianity who supported annihilationism?

    In theology, if it is new, it is probably wrong.

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      Of Augustine’s stature? Of course not. Again, I don’t care.

      In theology, if it is new, it is probably wrong.

      Then I guess the first theologian who said this was probably wrong :)

      In any event, and with all due respect, I’m very busy and can’t be bothered with replying to someone who refuses to interact in a meaningful way with my arguments, but rather is content to merely count votes. I think any objective reader here will acknowledge that you have not presented a compelling case for your view, and have raised no significant challenge to mine–but of course that’s not for me to judge. I hope somebody finds my comments helpful.

      Thanks for the exchange; it gave me a few things to think about, and also gave me some ideas for future blog posts. I am glad to learn that Gregory of Nyssa is held in such high regard among Eastern Christians. I was not aware of that. He is now on my current reading list.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    No need to re-invent the wheel, Ronnie. Do read him, along with his brother, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzen. These three are known as the Cappodocian Fathers. Also, Ephrem the Syrian and Isaac of Nineveh.

    But I am not just counting votes. However, the Bible is not self-interpreting, and “sola scriptura” has resulted in nothing more and division within Christianity. But the Bible itself does not endorse “sola Scriptura”. The NT is clear on where the ultimate locus of authority lies within Christianity, and that is the Church and its Apostolic leadership. Today, those leaders are known as Bishops.

    BTW, are you SDA or do you just embrace the SDA position (and that of the JW’s) in this matter?

    • http://conditionalism.net/blog Ronnie

      I am not SDA, and the JW position is significantly different from that of the SDA. The SDA by no means came up with conditional immortality.

      While I’m very tempted to respond to your claims regarding sola scriptura, that would be quite off-topic. A very good friend of mine is Roman Catholic, and we have gone back and forth on this for many, many hours.

      Maybe I’ll put you in contact with him, and you two can figure out amongst yourselves why it is that you have radically different conceptions of future punishment, despite the fact that you both reject sola scriptura, and claim apostolic succession for your bishops :)