Eternal Suffering or Eternal Destruction?

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By Stanley J. Grenz

The traditional teaching of the church—that the lost will suffer unending conscious torment in Hell—has repeatedly been challenged by “universalists” since the third century. They believe that in the end, all will be saved.

After the Reformation, a third viewpoint, annihilationism, emerged as a minority position.

The doctrine of annihilationism appeared in the 1660 confession of the General Baptists, and among the Seventh-day Adventists and several other Evangelical groups in the 19th century. Since 1960, several prominent British Evangelicals, as well as Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, have embraced this view. John Stott has likewise expressed sympathy for annihilationism while choosing to remain “agnostic” on the question.

What Annihilationists Believe

One key difference between universalists and annihilationists is that annihilationists agree with traditionalists that many will indeed be lost eternally. By this, however, they mean the unsaved will cease to exist for all eternity. They argue that because eternal torment serves no remedial purpose, the traditional concept of Hell paints a portrait of God as a vindictive despot incompatible with the loving Father revealed in Jesus. Further, they claim the presence of people in Hell throughout eternity contradicts the Christian truth that Christ has conquered every evil foe and God will reconcile all things in Christ.

Some annihilationists who are better described as holding to “conditional immortality” claim the idea of eternal conscious punishment depends on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul, which they say is wrongly read back into the Bible. The Bible teaches, they argue, that we are dependent on God for life, so only through participation in Christ’s resurrection are the saved given immortality.

Annihilationists believe the Bible teaches that the end of the wicked is destruction, not eternal torment. Building from the Old Testament (Psalm 37; Malachi 4), they point to how Jesus declared that the wicked will be cast into the smoldering garbage heap of Gehenna (Matthew 5:30), where they will be burned up (Matthew 3:10-12) and destroyed in both body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Similarly, Paul spoke of the fate of the lost as death (Romans 6:23) and destruction (1 Corinthians 3:17). Peter also used such language (2 Peter 2), likening the destruction of the ungodly to the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah. And John anticipated the wicked being consumed in the lake of fire, which he called “the second death” (Revelation 20:14, 15).

Problems with the Annihilationist Position

Whatever its appeal, the annihilationist position contains substantive problems. One is the biblical assertions that the wicked will suffer an “eternal” fate. Annihilationists argue that the word eternal refers to the permanence of the results of judgment and not to the duration of the act of punishment.

Many Scripture passages, however, say more than this. Biblical writers use the word eternal to refer not only to the punishment of the lost but also to the bliss of the righteous (Matthew 25:46), suggesting a parallel that goes beyond the permanence of the pronounced judgment. The unending joy of the redeemed stands in contrast to the unending torment of the reprobate. Also, several New Testament texts indicate that the lost will suffer varying degrees of punishment. Jesus declared that those who have received greater opportunities for belief will suffer more severe condemnation (Matthew 10:15; 11:20-24; Luke 12:47, 48).

While many annihilationists believe in different degrees of torment before extinction, they anticipate only one ultimate destiny for all the wicked, an undifferentiated nonexistence. But can a righteous Judge pronounce the same sentence of destiny upon the most despicable villain of human history as upon the seemingly moral pagan? Also, doesn’t passing out of existence trivialize the seriousness of the choices we make in life and the importance of our response to God’s loving offer of community?

Difficult to Pinpoint

In sum, yes, some Evangelical theologians affirm annihilationism, but we must keep in mind that annihilationists affirm several aspects of the traditional view. This issue, therefore, should not be lumped in with the more substantial question of universalism, which denies a final judgment altogether.

The debate raised by annihilationists reminds us of the difficulties that arise whenever we attempt to pinpoint the eternal situation of the lost. Just as we cannot envision what conscious bliss will mean to the saved in their resurrection bodies, so also we do not know exactly what eternal punishment will be like.

Finally, the controversy surrounding the nature of eternal damnation will serve a positive purpose if it leads us to realize we ought never to speak about the fate of the lost without tears in our eyes.

Stanley J. Grenz was professor of theology at Carey/Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and the author of numerous books. “Is Hell Forever?” was first published in the October 1998 issue of Christianity Today.

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5 Comments

  1. “Eternal Suffering or Eternal Destruction?”

    That’s an easy one. The Bible never once ascribes “eternal suffering” to the lost, but Paul explicitly says that the lost will suffer “eternal destruction.” Case closed? :)

    Probably not, but there are a few more substantive issues here.

    1. You say, “Many Scripture passages, however, say more than this. Biblical writers use the word eternal to refer not only to the punishment of the lost but also to the bliss of the righteous.” You said “many”, but mention only one verse. Can you list the many other passages that say such a thing?

    2. The word “eternal” in Matthew 25:46 modifies “life,” not “bliss.” Conditionalists (“annihilationists”) affirm that just as the life of the redeemed will not end, so the punishment of the wicked will have no end (their destruction will continue forever and never be reversed). Conditionalists therefore uphold the passage’s symmetry and read nothing into the text.

    3. “The unending joy of the redeemed stands in contrast to the unending torment of the reprobate.” But the passage never mentions unending joy OR unending torment. Matthew was free to use the word “torment” (basanizo); he did so in 8:29.

    4. With regards to the perceived “fairness” of annihilation, what matters is what Scripture teaches, not what we think is fair. Moreover, you already granted that annihilationists allow for varying degrees of punishment that culminate in eternal destruction, so then the Judge in fact does not pronounce the same sentence. In a broad sense, yes, everyone receives the same punishment in the sense that everyone will be destroyed. But you have the same problem: in a broad sense, everyone will receive the same punishment: eternal torment. So both the kind pagan and the sadistic torturer and murder will be tormented forever. That seems more fair to you?

    5. “So also we do not know exactly what eternal punishment will be like.” We don’t know with precision, but the overwhelming majority of passages describing future punishment, from cover to cover, use words like death, die, kill, perish, slay, destroy, destruction, consume, burn up, pass away, fade away, be no more, etc. Scripture knows nothing of some nether-world where billions of people will suffer unimaginable pain for all of eternity.

  2. (In the spirit of full disclosure, when it comes to the topic of hell, I would be in the camp that remains “agnostic” between the views of annihilation, eternal conscious torment, and other “minority” views, including the Eastern Orthodox view (which is too complex to sum up simply)).

    You wrote: After the Reformation, a third viewpoint, annihilationism, emerged as a minority position.

    Just to be accurate, the belief in the eventual annihilation of the wicked (rather than eternal, conscious torment) was the majority view w/in the rabbinic tradition of Judaism, which traces back to the intertestemental period (see Kiddushin 4.14, Avot 1.5; 5.19, 20, Tosefta t.Bereshith 6.15 along with references in the Babylonian Talmud), and was not contradicted by any of Jesus’ or Paul’s teaching (both of whom came from this branch of Judaism).

    The rabbinic view (as opposed to the view of the Sadducees) was that there were those who would be positively judged by God, and their names would be written in the book of life, and that they would be resurrected in body at the time of judgment. Those whose names were blotted from the book of life would be judged and then remain dead, with no resurrection. (see Psalm 69:28) Additionally, Jesus seems to affirm this position in ruling against the Sadducees in Matthew 22.

    Jesus’ comments about Gehenna and Hades, along with Paul’s comments about “death” and “destruction” do not contradict this belief, nor do the references to the Book of Life in Revelation contradict it. While Luther picked up on the stream via “conditional immortality”, this was not a new belief, and you correctly point out that the belief in immortality of the soul was a Greek invention, not an original doctrine of the church.

    You wrote: Annihilationists argue that the word eternal refers to the permanence of the results of judgment and not to the duration of the act of punishment.

    Actually, they would likely argue that the distinction is meaningless – permanence and duration both have the same end result in annihilation. A fire may continue to burn forever, even if what was thrown into it was destroyed in the process of burning it.

    You wrote: Also, several New Testament texts indicate that the lost will suffer varying degrees of punishment. Jesus declared that those who have received greater opportunities for belief will suffer more severe condemnation

    Again, this is consistent with the rabbinic teaching about the post-mortem judgment of the wicked, referenced above. After the time of punishment, the wicked are then destroyed.

    You wrote: Also, doesn’t passing out of existence trivialize the seriousness of the choices we make in life and the importance of our response to God’s loving offer of community?

    I could point to N.T. Wright, who argues the opposite – is it truly a demonstration justice to give infinite, eternal punishment in response to finite, temporal sin? Is not permanent exclusion from the Kingdom and separation from God enough? To cease to exist, never to be remembered, is not of trivial consequence.

  3. Just wanted to confirm a misstated fact. Christian Universalism does not deny a final judgment, it simply believes that that judgment is for remedial purposes “for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved “

  4. The penalty of sin is death not eternal torment. When our Lord died for our sins there was no eternal torment involved. The resurrected unbelievers at the great white throne are judged “kata” (according to) their works which to me indicates degrees of judgment of some kind. I’m having trouble reconciling these two facts. However, I know the trouble lies with my understanding and not with the Word of God. I’ll be checking in to see if there is more discussion on this subject. Thanks

  5. I’ve been reading E.W. Fudge’s “Hell: A Final Word.” Ronnie and Chris both use the same compelling arguments for conditionalism that Fudge uses. However, I do have (at least) two issues that need clearing up.

    1. In regards to the immortality of the soul, are the beast and the false prophet human? Because Revelation 20 says “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

    2. In regards to the Great White Throne judgment, I have the same question as David. Is the judgment of the dead “according to their works” a matter of degree? If so, how does this jive with destruction? Are some destroyed more quickly than others?

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