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JETS 37/4 (December 1994) 553568

Let me say at t he outset t hat I consider t he concept of hell as endless t orment
in body and mi nd an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity,
a bad doctrine of t he t radi t i on which needs to be changed How can Chris-
t i ans possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways
include inflicting everl asti ng t ort ure upon hi s creat ures, however sinful they
may have been
Surely a God who would do such a t hi ng is more nearl y like
Sat an t han like God, at l east by any ordi nary moral st andards, and by t he
gospel itself Surely t he God and Fat her of our Lord Jesus Chri st is no
fiend, t ort uri ng people wi thout end is not what our God does
Strong words, indeed Not all annihilatiomsts, however, engage in such
heated polemic And ultimately it is not the temperature of the writing but
the cogency of the arguments that matters My goal in this paper is to weigh
on the scales of Scripture the best arguments set forth by annihilatiomsts
Of the books that espouse annihilationism, the four best have been written
during this century Anglican missionarytranslator Harold E Guillebaud
completed The Righteous Judge A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Everlast-
ing Punishment shortly before his death in 1941 In the late 1960s Basil At-
kinson, underlibrarian in the Cambridge University library, penned Life and
Immortality An Examination of the Nature and Meaning of Life and Death
as They Are Revealed in the Scriptures SeventhDay Adventist historical
theologian LeRoy Edwin Froom's massive twovolume work, The Conditwn
ahst Faith of Our Fathers, was published in 196566 Edward Fudge, an
attorney and Churches of Christ layman, produced The Fire That Consumes
A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment m 1982
* Robert Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary,
12330 Conway Road, St Louis, MO 63141 8697
C H Pinnock, "The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent," Criswell Theological Review 4/2
(1990) 246247 M J Erickson issues a needed word of caution "It is one thing to speak em
phatically about one's sense of injustice and moral outrage over the idea of God's condemning per
sons to hell If, however, one is going to describe sending persons to endless punishment as
'cruelty and vindictiveness,' and a God who would do so as 'more nearly like Satan than God,' and
'a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz,' he had better be very certain
he is correct For if he is wrong, he is guilty of blasphemy A wiser course of action would be re-
straint in one's statements, just in case he might be wrong" (The Evangelical Mind and Heart
[Grand Rapids Baker, 1993] 152)
The first two books were privately published and are obtainable from the Reverend L
Bateson, 26 Summershard, S Petherton, Somerset, U TA13 5DP Froom's book was published
by Review and Herald Publishing Association in Washington, DC, and Fudge's by Providential
Press in Houston, TX
The four books ment i oned above combine to exceed 3,000 pages. None of
t hem, however, offers a succinct summar y of t he best case for anni hi l at i on-
ism. Inst ead, t hat is found in John Stott' s t ent at i ve defense of t he doctrine
in his nine-page response to liberal theologian David L. Edwar ds.
I will,
therefore, use Stott' s summar y as an outline and in footnotes cite t he four
books and quote from t hem t hroughout t hi s paper to fill out Stott' s argu-
ment s. I will add one ar gument t hat St ot t ment i ons in passi ng and t hat
features promi nent l y in t he anni hi l at i oni st l i t erat ure: t he ar gument based
on conditional i mmort al i t y.
Stott contends t hat we should under st and t he Bible literally when it
speaks of t he damned as "perishing" or suffering "destruction. " He assumes
t hat t hese words speak of anni hi l at i on, as is evident from hi s assert i on: "It
would seem st range, therefore, if people who are said to suffer dest ruct i on
are in fact not destroyed." Addressi ng Edwards, his par t ner in dialogue, he
adds: "And, as you put it, it is 'difficult to i magi ne a perpet ual l y inconclu-
sive process of peri shi ng. ' "
How are we to eval uat e t hese claims? Fi rst , I will exami ne t he NT pas-
sages t hat Stott mai nt ai ns t each t he extinction of t he wicked. I admi t t hat
it is possible to construe many of t hese passages as t eachi ng anni hi l at i on-
ism. Jesus' words in Mat t 10:28, for example, could be t aken t hi s way: "Do
not be afraid of those who kill t he body but cannot kill t he soul. Rat her, be
afraid of t he One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
Likewise Jesus' present at i on of st ar k al t ernat i ves in t he sermon on t he
mount could be i nt erpret ed in t he same way: "Ent er t hrough t he narrow
gat e. For wide is t he gat e and broad is t he road t hat leads to dest ruct i on,
and many ent er t hrough it. But small is t he gat e and narrow t he road t hat
leads to life, and only a few find it" (7:13-14).
And John 3:16 could be understood as t eachi ng t he final obliteration of
t he wicked: "For God so loved t he world t hat he gave his one and only Son,
t hat whoever believes in hi m shall not peri sh but have et ernal life."
In fact many passages t hat contain "the vocabulary of destruction"
could, if considered by t hemsel ves, be construed to t each t he ext ermi nat i on
of t he wicked (John 10:28; 17:12; Rom 2:12; 9:22; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess
5:3; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 3:7, 9; J a s 4:12). If Scri pt ure gave us no ot her teach-
ing on t he final destiny of t he wicked t han t hat provided by t hese and simi-
l ar passages, anni hi l at i oni sm would be a viable option.
Some of t he passages Stott cites, however, are difficult to reconcile wi t h
anni hi l at i oni sm. 2 Thessal oni ans 1:9 is one example. Paul says of t he dis-
obedient, "They will be puni shed wi th everl ast i ng dest ruct i on and shut out
J Stott, Evangelical Essentials A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove Int erVar-
sity, 1988) 312- 320
Ibid 315- 316 Cf Guillebaud, Judge 14- 19, Atkinson, Life 85- 100, Froom, Faith 1 105-
111, 286- 302, 404- 414, 486- 497, Fudge, Fire 173- 178, 243- 250, 295- 307
from t he presence of t he Lord and from t he maj esty of hi s power." Annihi-
lation is an unl ikely meani ng for t he words "everl asti ng destructi on. "
Furt hermore, does it make sense for t he apostle to describe unbel i evers'
extinction as t hei r being "shut out from t he presence of t he Lord"? Does not
their being shut out from hi s presence imply t hei r existence? Not according
to Atkinson, whose expl anati on, however, is far from convincing: "All will
agree t hat t he presence of t he Lord is everywhere. To be destroyed from t he
presence of t he Lord can therefore only mean to be nowhere. "
On t he con-
trary, as Scot McKnight argues, "Paul has in mi nd an irreversibl e verdict
of eternal nonfellowship wi th God. A person exists but remai ns excluded
from God's good presence. "
The word "destructi on" cannot bear t he meani ng St ot t assumes in Rev
17:8, 11. There "destructi on" is prophesied for "t he beast." Two chapt ers
later t he beast and false prophet are "thrown alive into t he fiery l ake of
burning sulfur" (19:20). Although Fudge categorically st at es t hat "in t he
case of t he beast and false pr ophet . . . t he l ake of fire st ands for ut t er, ab-
solute, irreversible anni hi l at i on, "
they are still t her e "one t housand
years" l at er (20:7, 10). Fur t her mor e John teaches t hat t he beast, t he false
prophet and Sat an "will be t orment ed day and ni ght for ever and ever"
(20:10). The beast' s "destructi on," therefore, is not anni hi l ati on. It is eter-
nal puni s hment .
Consequently anni hi l at i omst s err when they claim t hat t he words "de-
struction," "peri sh" and t hei r synonyms signify t he final extinction of t he
wicked. This claim cannot be establ i shed from all of t he j udgment passages
that use t hese words.
A second way of eval uati ng Stott' s claim t hat t he vocabulary of destruc-
tion teaches anni hi l at i oni sm is to give at t ent i on to theological methodology.
Even if one could show t hat every passage t hat uses t he l anguage of de-
struction is compatible wi th anni hi l ati oni sm, t hi s still would not prove t hat
it is t rue. In addi ti on one would have to show t hat t he other passages t hat
speak of hell are consi stent wi th anni hi l ati oni sm. And t hi s cannot be done.
Anni hi l at i omsts claim t hat awnios i n t hi s and si mi l ar expressions refers to et er nal resul t s
and not et ernal existence (see Guillebaud, Judge 711, Atkinson, Life 101, Froom, Faith 1 224,
288291 , 294295, 441443, Fudge, Fire 4450) This claim is arbi t rary and uns ubs t ant i at ed
On the meani ng of awnios see W G Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (2d ed , New
York Scribners, 1887) 8289, S McKnight, "Et er nal Consequences or Et er nal Consci ousness
Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard (ed W V Crockett
and J G Sigountos, Gr and Rapi ds Baker, 1991) 147157
Atkinson, Life 101 Fur t her , he would prove too much if hi s claim were t r ue t hat "t he oc-
currence of t he word [olethros, "destructi on"] in 1 Thess 5 3 refers to t he same t hi ng as in
2 Thess 1 9 " If 1 Thess 5 3 refers to anni hi l at i on it is t he anni hi l at i on of Ber t r and Russell, not
that of t he evangelical anni hi l at i omst s
McKnight, " Et er nal " 155156
Fudge, Fire 304
Atkinson therefore errs when he claims t hat "t he use of t he word ' drown' in 1 Tim 6 9 may
perhaps be felt on t he whole to st r engt hen our view of perdition, and t he two verses (8 and 11)
of Rev 17 make it reasonabl y certai n They speak of a great political and ecclesiastical power go-
ing into perdition, and t hi s can mean not hi ng but its total destructi on and extinction" (Life 89)
The Bible uses five mai n pi ctures to speak of hell: darkness and sepa-
rati on, fire, "weeping and gnashi ng of teeth, " puni shment , and deat h and
destructi on. Only t he l ast fits wi th t he view t hat t he wicked will be blotted
out, and not even every passage in t hat category fits, as we have seen. I will
postpone study of t he fire i magery unt i l consideration of Stott' s second ar-
gument. For now I will exami ne one passage from each of t he remai ni ng
t hree categories.
1. Darkness and separation. Jes us describes t he fate of t he wicked in
t er ms of separat i on in Luke 13:2728. Jesus, "t he owner of t he house"
(v. 25), will have har d words for false believers: "I don' t know you or where
you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!" Jes us rejects t hem and
expels t hem from hi s presence. He conti nues: "There will be weeping and
gnashi ng of t eet h" when you hypocrites see t he pat ri archs and even Gen-
tiles feasting in t he kingdom of God, "but you yourselves [will be] t hrown
out." Jes us here presupposes t he existence of t he wicked. They are alive
and experience great pai n of loss. John Wenham, therefore, errs when he
i nsi sts t hat t he NT l anguage of separat i on from God "is anot her way of de-
scribing dest ruct i on. "
1 0
2. "Weeping and gnashing of teeth." Weeping signifies sorrowful cry-
ing, t he gnashi ng of t eet h "extreme suffering and r emor s e. "
1 1
Jes us uses
t hi s expression to explain t he pi ctures of darkness (Matt 8:12; 22:13;
25:30; Luke 13:28), fire (Matt 13:42, 50), and being cut to pieces (24:51). In
each of its seven occurrences "weeping and gnashi ng of t eet h" is preceded
by t he adverb ekei, which means "t here, in t hat pl ace, "
1 2
i ndi cati ng t he
suffering of t he wicked in hell itself. Weeping and gnashi ng can only be
done by people who exist. It is not possible for those anni hi l at ed to cry and
grind t hei r t eet h.
J Wenham, "The Case for Conditional Immortal i ty," Universalism and the Doctrine of
Hell (ed M de S Cameron, Grand Rapi ds Baker, 1992) 172
McComiskey, "brygmos" New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed
C Brown, Grand Rapi ds Zondervan, 1976) 2 421
So BAGD 239 Atkinson' s renderi ng of ekei in Mat t 24 51 as "on t hat occasion" in an at-
t empt to avoid t he idea of hell as a place is arbi t rary and unsupport ed by any lexicon "Four t i mes
in t he Gospel of Mat t hew we are told t hat on t he day of j udgment t her e will be ' weeping and
gnashi ng of t eet h' (Matt 8 12, 22 13, 24 51, 25 30) The first, second and fourth of t hese passages
speak of ' t he out er darkness' and conti nue i mmedi atel y, 'there (Greek ekei) will be weeping and
gnashi ng of t eet h ' Those who believe in t he et ernal conscious existence of t he lost believe t hat
t hi s weeping will be hear d for ever in t he outer darkness, which t hey ri ghtl y identify wi th hell
If however we look at t he t hi rd passage (Mat t 24 51), we shal l see t hat no place is menti oned
' There' means 'on t hat occasion ' It is at t he t hr one of j udgment , as t he real nat ur e of t he wicked
is reveal ed to t hem in all hi deousness, in despai r and mi sery because of what t hey have lost and
missed, as t hey hear t he sentence, perhaps t hrough t he t emporary suffering, which, as we shall
see, precedes t hei r destructi on, t hat t he weeping and gnashi ng of t eet h are hear d" (Life 100) On
t he contrary, t he expression "t here t her e will be weeping and gnashi ng of t eet h" is exactly t he
same in t he four texts cited above
Fudge' s claim t hat t hi s expression speaks of "conscious suffering which
precedes final destructi on" is gr at ui t ous .
1 3
Darkness, fire, and being cut to
pieces are pi ctures of final puni shment in t he t he texts cited above, not of
suffering precedent to final puni shment .
3. Punishment. Our Lord cont rast s t he fates of t he wicked and righ-
teous: "Then t hey [the wicked] will go away to et ernal puni shment , but t he
righteous to et ernal life" (Matt 25:46). Augustine' s comments deserve full
Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long
time, while believing that eternal life is life without end
For Christ, in the
very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sen-
tence when he said, "So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the
righteous will go into eternal life" (Matt 25 46) If both are "eternal," it follows
necessarily that either both are to be taken as longlasting but finite, or both
as endless and perpetual The phrases "eternal punishment" and "eternal life"
are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence
to mean "Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an
end " Hence, because the eternal life of the saints will be endless, the eternal
punishment also, for those condemned to it, will assuredly have no end
Augustine' s conclusion is fortified by t he fact t hat five verses earl i er
Jesus said t hat t he wicked will share t he same desti ny as t he devil, who ac-
cording to Rev 20:10 will suffer endlessly in t he l ake of fire.
Good theological method di ctates t aki ng into account t he whole Bible
when constructi ng a doctrine. Anni hi l ati oni sm, however, can only accom-
modate a portion of t he Biblical passages t hat describe t he final desti ny of
the wi cked.
1 5
Some may be troubl ed by t he number of passages I earl i er conceded were
compatible wi th anni hi l ati oni sm. It hel ps to look at t he way we reach con-
clusions concerning other doctrines. Take, for example, t hat of t he person
of Christ. Jes us ' s t at ement in John 14:28"The Fat her is great er t han I "
is sometimes used to deny Chri st' s deity. Taken by itself, t hat verse is com-
patible wi th such a denial . In fact some claim t hat scores of passages t hat
teach t he humani t y of Chri st disprove hi s deity. Thi s claim is false, how-
ever, because t he Bible clearly and repeatedl y teaches t he deity of Chri st.
Notice t hat t he fact t hat many passages are compatible wi th a deni al of
l d
Fudge, Fire 1112, 428 Cf Guil l ebaud, Judge 1214, Atkinson, Life 100, Froom, Faith
1 287 1 S Har mon refutes t hi s error ("The Case Against Condi t i onahsm A Response to
Edward William Fudge," Universahsm and the Doctrine of Hell 210212)
Augusti ne City of God 21 2324 Neverthel ess Froom and ot hers claim t hat "according to
the wi tness of Chri st, t hen, t here is et erni t y of result but not of process, of punishment but not
of pums hmg of men" (Faith 1 288) This is an exampl e of i mporti ng a distinction i nto t he text
of Scri pture in order to justify theological conclusions
1 5
This exposes t he fallacy of Wenham' s relying too heavily on vocabulary counts ("Case"
169174 )
Christ' s deity does not disprove his deity. The key to a correct under st and-
ing of t he person of Chri st lies in st udyi ng all of t he Bible' s passages.
It is t he same for t he doctrine of hell. The fact t hat many passages could
be i nt erpret ed as t eachi ng anni hi l at i oni sm does not prove t hat doctrine. To
be t r ue, anni hi l at i oni sm has to account for all of t he passages. And at t hi s
point it fails.
One loose end remai ns: What does t he vocabulary of dest ruct i on signify?
I appl aud t he honest y of Guillebaud, who admi t t ed: "It is not denied, t hat
if it were clear beyond question from Bible t eachi ng elsewhere t hat t he
doom of t he lost will be everl ast i ng t orment , it would be quite possible to
under st andi ng ' death' , ' destruction' and t he like, as meani ng a wretched
and rui ned existence."
Stott' s second ar gument involves Scri pt ure' s hell-fire imagery. Unfortu-
nat el y we have been misled by t he experience of being burned into associ-
at i ng fire wi th pain, for "the mai n function of fire is not to cause pai n, but
to secure destruction, as all t he world' s i nci nerat ors bear wi t ness. "
stoves have led us ast ray. Inci nerat ors are more t r ust wor t hy guides.
Some hell-fire passages can be understood as t eachi ng anni hi l at i oni sm.
John t he Bapt i st ' s war ni ng is one example: "The ax is al ready at t he root
of t he t rees, and every t ree t hat does not produce good fruit will be cut down
and t hrown into t he fire. . . . His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will
clear his t hr eshi ng floor, gat heri ng hi s wheat into t he bar n and bur ni ng up
t he chaff wi th unquenchabl e fire" (Mat t 3:10, 12).
A number of Jesus' sayings could be put in t hi s category. "Every t ree
t hat does not bear good fruit is cut down and t hrown into t he fire" (7:19).
"If anyone does not r emai n in me, he is like a branch t hat is t hrown away
and wi t hers; such branches are picked up, t hrown into t he fire and burned"
(John 15:6).
Hebrews also contains two t ext s t hat could be construed as t eachi ng an-
nihilationism: "a ragi ng fire t hat will consume t he enemi es of God" (Heb
10:2); "our God is a consuming fire" (12:29).
These five t ext s could possibly be so i nt erpret ed, but should t hey be? I
must answer in t he negative due to t he Scri pt ural t est i mony t hat hell-fire
speaks of t he pai n of t he wicked, not t hei r consumption.
Verse 30 of Jesus' parabl e of t he weeds sounds like t he verses cited
above: "Collect t he weeds and tie t hem in bundl es to be burned" (Mat t
13:30). The picture of t he burni ng of t he weeds was built into t he parabl e.
If Jesus had want ed to t each anni hi l at i oni sm, here was an ideal occasion.
He, however, concludes his expl anat i on of t he parabl e: "As t he weeds are
Guillebaud, Judge 16
Stott, Evangelical Essentials 316 Cf Guillebaud, Judge 13-14, Atkinson, Life 104-112,
Froom, Faith 1 264, 291-295, 313-315, 371-372, 405-413, Fudge, Fire 99-106, 110-116, 183-
187, 192-202, 285-287, 295-307
pulled up and burned in t he fire, so it will be at t he end of t he age. The
Son of Man will send out hi s angels, and t hey will weed out of his kingdom
everything t hat causes sin and all who do evil. They will t hrow t hem into
the fiery furnace, where t her e will be weeping and gnashi ng of t eet h"
When Jesus explained t he meani ng of t he weeds being cast into t he fur-
nace he did not speak of consumption. Inst ead he warned of suffering. He
described t he "fiery furnace" as a place mar ked by "weeping and gnashi ng
of t eet h" (v. 42). It is a place of crying and of gri ndi ng t he t eet h in pain.
Hell-fire here speaks of angui sh, not of extinction.
I do not claim t hat t hi s parabl e is incompatible wi th anni hi l at i oni sm. An
annihilationist could hold t hat after t hei r crying and gnashi ng, t he damned
will cease to exist. I do claim, however, t hat st at ement s like t he following
are irresponsible: "Penal suffering comes into t he application of t he para-
bles, for a deat h by fire is necessarily a very awful deat h, but it surely is not
the mai n point. "
On t he cont rary, Jesus is capable of telling us what t he
main points of his parabl e are, and he has done so here. He uses fire to
speak of pain.
At t he end of t he parabl e of t he net , our Lord offers a similar descrip-
tion of hell: "This is how it will be at t he end of t he age. The angels will
come and separat e t he wicked from t he ri ght eous and t hrow t hem into t he
fiery furnace, where t her e will be weeping and gnashi ng of t eet h" (Mat t
13:49-50). Again, Jesus uses hell-fire to signify angui sh.
Historically t he most i mpor t ant passage on hell in t he gospels is t he
parable of t he sheep and t he goats. Jesus, t he Son of Man, bani shes t he ac-
cursed to "the et ernal fire prepared for t he devil and hi s angels" (25:41).
Does t hi s "et ernal fire" denote pai n or extinction? John answers t hi s ques-
tion: "And t he devi l . . . was t hrown into t he lake of burni ng sulfur . . . [and]
will be t orment ed day and ni ght for ever and ever" (Rev 20:10). Here fire
denotes t orment . And t hi s t orment , not obliteration, lies ahead for t he
devil, evil angels, and evil human beings alike.
The parabl e of t he rich man and Lazarus uses fire i magery in t he same
way. The rich man died and found himself "in hell where he was in tor-
ment." He gives t he reason for hi s plea for mercy: "I am in agony in t hi s fire"
(Luke 16:23-24). Plainly, fire here speaks of t he "agony" t hat one suffers in
the "place of t orment " (16:25, 28).
It will not do, as some anni hi l at i omst s have tried, to exclude t hi s para-
ble from t he discussion because it speaks of t he i nt ermedi at e r at her t han
the final st at e of t he wicked.
Regardless of it s precise focus we can l earn
from its use of hell-fire imagery. And t hat imagery unmi st akabl y equat es
fire with t orment .
The book of Revelation does t he same when it says t hat t he wicked "will
drink of t he wine of God's fury, which has been poured full st r engt h into
1 8
Guillebaud, Judge 14
Ibid 12 Atkinson' s i nt erpret at i on is no bet t er "The flame of haidees is t he loss of life"
(Life 50)
t he cup of hi s wr at h " Is t hi s an indication of t he blotting out of t he un-
Hardl y John continues "He will be t orment ed wi t h burni ng sulfur"
(Rev 14 10) Here fire ("burning sulfur") is t he i nst r ument used by God to
puni sh t he wicked
Anni hi l at i omst s, however, claim t hat t he next verse favors t hei r cause
"And t he smoke of t hei r t orment rises for ever and ever" (v 11) Stott, for
example, wri t es
The fire itself is termed "eternal" and "unquenchable," but it would be very odd
if what is thrown into it proves indestructible Our expectation would be the
opposite it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever Hence it is the
smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which "rises for ever and
ever "
On t he contrary, our expectation would be t hat t he smoke would die out
after t he fire had finished its work How could t he smoke from t he fire rise
forever if it s fuel had been consumed? And t he rest of t he verse confirms
our i nt erpret at i on "And t he smoke of t hei r t orment rises for ever and ever
There is no rest day or ni ght for those who worship t he beast and hi s im-
age, or for anyone who receives t he mar k of his name "
It is incorrect for St ot t to claim t hat "it is not t he t or ment itself but it s
' smoke' (symbol of t he completed burni ng) which will be Tor ever and
ever' "
2 1
because John says "there is no rest day or night" for t he wicked
When anni hi l at i omst s assert t hat John here means to say t hat t he
wicked have no relief "so long as t hei r suffering l ast s" t hey evade t he plain
meani ng of t he text, in addition to readi ng into t he t ext somet hi ng t hat is
not t her e
The conclusion is irresistible In Rev 14 10- 11 t he i magery of
bur ni ng conveys t he et ernal conscious t orment of t he ungodly
So does t he picture of t he lost being t hrown into t he l ake of fire The
lake of fire first comes into view in Rev 19 20, where t he "beast" and "false
prophet" were t hrown alive into it A "t housand years" l at er t hey are still
t her e when t he devil is t hrown in to join t hem (20 7, 10) John explains
what t hi s means for all t hree "They will be t orment ed day and ni ght for
ever and ever" (20 10)
The verses t hat i mmedi at ely follow speak of all human beings st andi ng
before God at t he l ast j udgment People are judged, and t he wicked are cast
into t he lake of fire (20 14) The city of God is t he final abode of t he godly
By cont rast , t he lake of fire is t he place for t he ungodly (21 8) Does t he
lake of fire mean unceasi ng t orment for t he devil, but anni hi l at i on for lost
human bei ngs
Hardl y As Beasley-Murray explains
John's use of the symbol [of the lake of fire] shows that he views it as the
alternative to the city of God, the new Jerusalem (see 21 7f ) Its significance
for humanity thus begins with the new creation That it does not have the
meaning of annihilation is indicated by 20 10 The lake of fire signifies not ex
2 0
St ot t Evangelical Essentials 316
2 1
Ibid 318
2 2
Fudge Fire 300 Cf Atkinson Life 109 Guillebaud Judge 24
tinction in opposition to existence, but torturous existence in the society of evil
m opposition to life in the society of God
Annihilationist at t empt s to argue otherwise are contrived, as is, for exam-
ple, Guillebaud' s. He contends t hat t he l ake of fire should be i nt erpret ed in
light of t he second deat h because of t he word order in Rev 20:14 and 21:8
("the lake of fire is t he second death"). He t hen defines t he second deat h as
annihilation and concludes t hat t he lake of fire means anni hi l at i on too.
This will not do. Inst ead we should allow John' s description of t he lake
of fire, given four verses earlier, to govern our under st andi ng of it in 20:14.
The second deat h, therefore, is anot her name for t he lake of fire, which John
teaches l ast s forever. I conclude t hat John uses t he i magery of t he l ake of
fire to port ray condemned human beings forever experiencing t he wr at h of
God, away from his blessed presence.
I have weighed t he ar gument t hat hell-fire signifies unbel i evers' exter-
mination and found it want i ng. Although some hell-fire passages could be
interpreted in t hi s way, t hey should not be. This is proved by t he fact t hat
fire signifies t he suffering of pai n, not consumption, in t he six j udgment pas-
sages t hat were examined. I conclude, therefore, t hat t he Bible' s hell-fire
imagery is bet t er i l l ust rat ed by stoves t han by i nci nerat ors.
Stott' s t hi rd ar gument concerns j ust i ce. The Bible t eaches t hat "God
will j udge people ' according to what t hey have done' (e.g. Rev 20:12), which
implies t hat t he penal t y inflicted will be commensurat e wi th t he evil done."
But et ernal conscious t orment is seriously disproportionate to sins con-
sciously committed in t i me. It clashes wi t h t he Biblical revelation of divine
j ust i ce.
At first glance t hi s ar gument is appealing. How are we to respond? Fi rst ,
by pointing out t hat , measured agai nst Biblical st andar ds, few people t ake
sin very seriously. As evidence of t hi s I will look at God's j udgment s agai nst
what mi ght be called "little sins. "
An impressive list can be drawn up. Because Lot' s wife looked back at
Sodom and Gomorrah "she became a pillar of salt" (Gen 19:26). The deat h
penalty for a glance?
Because of irregularities in t hei r priestly service in t he tabernacle, Nadab
and Abihu "fell dead before t he Lord" (Num 3:4; see also Lev 10:1-2). Capital
puni shment for faulty worship?
G R Beasley-Murray, Revelation (rev ed , Grand Rapids Eer dmans, 1978) 304
Guillebaud, Judge 14 Incredibly, At ki nson concludes hi s discussion of Rev 20 10 as fol-
lows "Thus to be t orment ed for ever means to be t orment ed wi t h t he result of everl ast i ng de-
struction" (Life 112)which he under st ands as anni hi l at i on
2 5
Stott, Evangelical Essentials 318- 319 For discussion of wider ramifications of t hi s issue
see C F H Henry, "Is It Fair?", Through No Fault 245- 255, H Blocher, "Everl ast i ng Puni sh-
ment and t he Problem of Evil," Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell 283- 312
Because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath, an unnamed man was stoned
to death at God's command (Num 15:32-36). Death by stoning for picking
up sticks?
Because Moses struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it, he was de-
nied entry to the promised land (20:11). God's faithful servant disqualified
for such a minor offense?
Because Achan coveted and then stole a robe, silver and gold, he and his
family were stoned and burned (Josh 7:25). A whole family destroyed due
to one person's greed?
Because Uzzah steadied the ark with his hand, "the Lord's anger burned
against Uzzah. . . . Therefore God struck him down and he died" (2 Sam
6:6-7). Punishment by death for trying to keep the ark of God from falling?
Because Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles, God struck them
dead (Acts 5:1-10). Capital punishment for lying?
Our first response upon hearing these things is that justice has not been
served. Repeatedly, it seems, God has been overly severe. God's assess-
ment, however, is far different.
Lot's wife disobeyed God's command and failed to heed his warning:
"Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains
or you will be swept away!" (Gen 19:17). Is God unjust to repay disobedience
with previously announced penalty? Evidently Jesus did not think so, for he
admonished his hearers: "Remember Lot's wife!" (Luke 17:32).
Leviticus informs us that Nadab and Abihu acted "contrary to his [God's]
command" (Lev 10:1). God regarded their disobedient priestly service as dis-
honoring to himself, as is evident from his evaluation of it: "Among those
who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will
be honored" (v. 3). Will we question God's right to keep his worship pure?
The punishment of the man gathering sticks reveals that in Israel God
brought the previously announced penalties upon violators of the Ten Com-
mandments (Exod 20:8; 31:15; 35:2). Is he unjust to bring covenant bless-
ings upon covenant keepers and to visit covenant curses upon covenant
God evaluated Moses' act as unfaithfulness, dishonor and ungodliness:
"Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight
of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give
them" (Num 20:12). Do we really want to offer an alternative evaluation?
Achan "acted unfaithfully" (Josh 7:1) and, when confronted, confessed: "I
have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel" (7:20). Do we still want to
denounce God's punishing him?
Uzzah was guilty of what Scripture calls "his irreverent act" (2 Sam
6:7). God demands to be worshiped in truth. Israel, however, had followed
the Philistines' example instead of obeying God's instructions for trans-
porting the ark (compare 2 Sam 6:3 with Exod 25:12-14 and Num 4:5-6,
15). Shall we criticize God for giving only one person what David and many
others deserved?
If we are offended by God's bringing capital punishment on Ananias and
Sapphira because they merely lied to the apostles, we are missing Luke's
whole point The husband and wife were ul ti matel y guilty of lying not to
men but to God (Acts 5 34)
Luke' s words serve as a paradi gm "not to men but to God " Our difficulty
in recognizing God's j ustice in his puni shment of "little sins" lies with t he fact
t hat we adopt a mancentered perspective r at her t han a Godcentered one If
people lied to us, disobeyed us, or spoke agai nst us, would they be worthy of
death? Of course not If they do these thi ngs agai nst God, do they deserve cap-
ital puni s hment
The Bible's consistent answer is yes The Bible views sin as
an attack on God's character and therefore deserving of great puni shment
Readers may agree wi th me in principle but protest t hat all of t hese ex-
amples i l l ust rat e temporal puni shment , not et ernal This criticism is fair
I have, however, saved t he most scandal ous exampl e for l ast Because Adam
ate t he forbidden fruit, he plunged t he human race into sin wi th all of its
terrible consequences Paul wri tes wi th reference to Adam' s sin "The many
died by t he t respass of t he one man The j udgment followed one sin and
brought condemnati on By t he t respass of t he one man, deat h reigned
t hrough t hat one man The resul t of one t respass was condemnati on for
all men Through t he disobedience of t he one man t he many were made
si nners" (Rom 5 1519) Is t hi s penal t y proporti onate to t he crime commit-
t ed
Notice t he penal t y Paul repeatedl y says t hat Adam' s one sin brought
deat h and condemnati on There is no mi st aki ng Paul ' s meani ng in t he con-
text of Romans Due to Adam' s sin, physical and spi ri tual deat heven eter-
nal condemnat i oncame to t he human race "The resul t of one t respass
was condemnati on for all men" (5 18) Damnat i on of t he world due to one
man' s eat i ng a piece of fruit?
Per haps we have mi sunderstood t he significance of Adam' s eat i ng t he
forbidden fruit John Calvin t hi nks so
To regard Adam's sin as gluttonous intemperance (a common notion) is child-
ish As if the sum and head of all virtues lay in abstaining solely from one
fruit, when all sorts of desirable delights abounded everywhere, and not only
abundance but also magnificent variety was at hand in that blessed fruitful
ness of earth'
Calvin advises us to look more deeply into t he account of t he fall of Adam
in Genesis 3
Augustine speaks rightly when he declares that pride was the beginning of all
evils For if ambition had not raised man higher than was meet and right, he
could have remained in his original state But we must take a fuller definition
from the nature of the temptation which Moses describes It is already
clear that disobedience was the beginning of the Fall This Paul also confirms,
teaching that all were lost through the disobedience of one man Yet it is at
the same time to be noted that the first man revolted from God's authority
because, contemptuous of truth, he turned aside to falsehood Unfaithfulness,
then, was the root of the Fall
2 6
2 6
J Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (LCC, ed J McNeill, Phi l adel phi a West
mi nst er 1960) 20 245 (italics mi ne)
Pri de, disobedience, unfaithfulness. These words summari ze t he signifi-
cance of Adam' s pri mal sin if viewed from a God-centered perspective. Adam
pridefully want ed to be like his Maker. He disobeyed God's prohibition. And
he was unfaithful to hi s Lord (Gen 3: 1-6). Will we charge hi m wi t h injustice
who warned t hat "you must not eat from t he t ree of t he knowledge of good
and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen 2:17)? Do we accept
t he eval uat i on of hi m who declared, "The j udgment followed one sin and
brought condemnation" (Rom 5:16)? Or will we follow Adam' s footsteps and
revolt agai nst our Maker?
If we are to submi t to t he aut hori t y of God's Word, we must accept t he
fact t hat God is not unj ust for puni shi ng t he human race wi t h condemna-
tion for Adam' s si nand not only for Adam' s sin, but for our individual sins
as well. Before Paul t r eat s original sin in Romans 5 he deals wi th act ual sin
in t he earl i er chapt ers: "The wr at h of God is being revealed from heaven
agai nst all t he godlessness and wickedness of men. . . . Although t hey know
God's ri ght eous decree t hat those who do such t hi ngs deserve deat h, t hey
not only continue to do t hese very t hi ngs but also approve of those who
practice t hem. . . . Because of your st ubbornness and unr epent ant hear t ,
you are storing up wr at h agai nst yourself for t he day of God' s wr at h, when
his ri ght eous j udgment will be revealed. . . . All who sin apar t from t he law
will also peri sh apar t from t he law, and all who sin under t he law will be
j udged by t he law. . . . There is no one ri ght eous, not even one; t her e is no
one who . . . seeks God. All have t ur ned away, t hey have t oget her become
worthless; t here is no one who does good, not even one. . . . All have sinned
and come short of t he glory of God" (Rom 1:18, 32; 2:5, 12; 3: 10-12, 23).
We must l earn about divine j ust i ce from t he Bible itself. It will not do
to prot est God's revealed j udgment s on t he basi s of what seems fair or un-
fair to us. Inst ead we must adjust our t hi nki ng, including our view of God's
justice, to God's t r ut h.
Anni hi l at i oni st Guillebaud wisely calls for r est r ai nt :
For the words of the Lord Jesus Christ with regard to the condemned are so
terrible, so final in excluding any idea that mercy may be open to them, that
we dare not presume to set limits in advance as to what He might see fit to
ordain as their punishment. The character of God is safe in the hands of His
Son, who came to reveal Him, and we must trust Him, and receive what He
tells us. The question is simply, What do His words mean!
Although Guillebaud reaches different conclusions t han I concerning t he
fate of t he ungodly, I respect hi s refusal to argue for anni hi l at i oni sm based
on a preconceived notion of divine j ust i ce.
In fact t he anni hi l at i omst s' ar gument from j ust i ce can be t ur ned agai nst
t hei r position. On t he basi s of what uni versal i st s deem j ust and unj ust ,
t hey reject et ernal puni shment and anni hi l at i oni sm as unwort hy of a loving
God. So J. A. T. Robinson:
Guillebaud, Judge 47.
Christ, in Ongen's old words, remains on the Cross so long as one sinner re-
mains in hell That is not speculation it is a statement grounded in the very
necessity of God's nature In a universe of love there can be no heaven which
tolerates a chamber of horrors, no hell for any which does not at the same time
make it hell for God
2 8
Actually t he anni hi l ati oni st argument based on j ustice is not a new argu-
ment but a very old one And Thomas Aquinas still offers t he best response
Further, the magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the
sin Now a sin that is against God is infinite, the higher the person against
whom it is committed, the graver the sinit is more criminal to strike a head
of state than a private citizenand God is of infinite greatness Therefore an
infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against him
2 9
Aqui nas is ri ght Sin is an at t ack on t he infinitely holy charact er of God
God therefore j ust l y sets t he penal ti es for sin in t hi s world and t he next
He righteousl y condemns si nners for Adam' s sin and for t hei r own sins
And he plainly teaches t hat he puni shes t he wicked forever I conclude t hat
he is j ust in so doing
Stott' s fourth and final ar gument for anni hi l at i oni sm is based on sup-
posed uni versahst passages Stott cannot endorse uni versal i sm because t he
Bible teaches t he real i ty of hell
My point here, however, is that the eternal existence of the impenitent in hell
would be hard to reconcile with the promises of God's final victory over evil,
or with the apparently universalista texts These texts lead me to ask
how God can in any meaningful sense be called "everything to everybody"
[1 Cor 15 28] while an unspecified number of people still continue in rebellion
against him and under his judgment
3 0
Once agai n Stott' s ar gument can be t ur ned agai nst hi m 1 Cori nt hi ans
15 2428 is used more t han any other Biblical passage to "prove" univer-
salism "Then t he end will come, when he hands over t he kingdom to God
the Fat her after he has destroyed all dominion, aut hori t y and power For
he must reign unt i l he has put all hi s enemi es under hi s feet When he
has done thi s, t hen t he Son himself will be made subject to hi m who put
everything under hi m, so t hat God may be all in all " Stott argues t hat
1 Cori nt hi ans X5 does not t each uni versal i sm On what bas i s
He correctly
accuses uni versal i ste of t aki ng t hi s and si mi l ar passages apar t from t he
rest of t he Bible's teachi ngs Yet Stott makes t he same mi st ake when he
cites t hese passages in support of anni hi l at i oni sm
2 8
J A Robinson, In the End God (New York Harper, 1968) 133
2 9
Aqui nas, Summa Theologiae (New York McGraw Hill, 1974) Ia2ae 87,4
3 0
Stott, Evangelical Essentials 319 Cf Guil l ebaud, Judge 56, Atkinson, Life 112, Froom,
Faith 1 2325, 269, 301302, 413414, 518519
In fact, appeal to "universalist" t ext s proves nei t her uni versal i sm nor
anni hi l at i oni sm. Inst ead we must st udy t he whole Bible to under st and t he
final st at e of affairs. The crucial question: What does God deem compatible
with his being "all in all"? This question is answered by t he Bible' s final
t hree chapt ers. God's ul t i mat e victory does not involve t he eradication of
evil beings from his uni verse.
Revelation 20: 11-15 describes t he l ast j udgment . Here John sees "the
dead, great and small, st andi ng before t he t hrone" of God. That "the
sea, . . . deat h and Hades" give "up t he dead t hat were in t hem" (Rev 20:13)
refers to t he resurrect i on, because it makes no sense to speak of t he sea giv-
ing up souls. Rat her, t hi s is God' s way of affirming t he uni versal resurrec-
tion. Even those who died at sea will be rai sed to st and before God.
Immedi at el y before his present at i on of t he l ast j udgment , John had
t aught t hat t he devil, beast and false prophet were t hrown into t he l ake of
fire to suffer everl ast i ng t or ment (Rev 20:10). Now, four verses l at er, he
t eaches t hat wicked human beings share t hei r fate (20:14).
Revelation 21: 1- 8 confirms t hi s conclusion. There alongside t he new
heaven and t he new ear t h John describes t he final dest i nat i on of t he unre-
pent ant as "the fiery lake of bur ni ng sulfur" (21:8). Evidently God does not
view unbel i evers' being et ernal l y alive in t he l ake of fire as incompatible
wi th his being "all in all." Moreover t he picture of t he ri ght eous and un-
ri ght eous living forever in bliss and misery, respectively, does not fit ei t her
uni versal i sm or anni hi l at i oni sm.
That God' s ul t i mat e victory does not include t he anni hi l at i on of t he
damned is subst ant i at ed by t he picture of t he new Jer usal em in Revelation
21- 22. John reveals t he bliss of those privileged to live in t hi s city. God will
be in t hei r mi dst to "wipe every t ear from t hei r eyes." For t hem "t here will
be no more deat h or mour ni ng or crying or pai n" (21: 3-4). Does John here
teach t he absolute bani shment of deat h and pain? The answer is no, be-
cause four verses l at er he speaks of t he wicked in t he l ake of fire (21:8).
Fur t her mor e in chap. 22 he cont rast s t he joy of those who "may go
t hrough t he gat es into t he city" of God wi t h t he misery of t he godless who
are "outside" t he city: "Outside are t he dogs, those who practice magic ar t s,
t he sexually i mmoral , t he mur der er s, t he idolaters, and everyone who
practices falsehood" (22:14-15). Plainly t he wicked are not anni hi l at ed. In-
st ead t hey are alive but cut off from t he happi ness of et ernal fellowship
wi t h God.
If my exegesis of Revelation 20- 22 is correct, uni versal i st s and anni hi -
l at i omst s would have to claim t hat t he end depicted in Scripture' s l ast t hr ee
3 1
Froom' s reasons for holding t hat t he end depicted in Revelation 20- 21 "involves t he ter-
mi nat i on of all sinful and est ranged life" (Faith 1 301) do not hold up to scrut i ny If t he words
"fire came down out of heaven and devoured t hem" (Rev 20 9) refers to anni hi l at i oni sm, it is ex-
tinction at deat h, not extinction following resurrect i on and j udgment , as evangelical anni hi l a-
t i omst s hold "The former t hi ngs are passed away" (21 4) refers not to t he blotting out of t he
wicked but to t he end of deat h, sorrow, crying and pai n for t he ri ght eous, as t he first half of t he
verse indicates Deat h and Hades being cast into t he l ake of fire does not signify t he obliteration
of t he wicked but t he end of t he power of t he first deat h over human beings
chapters is not ul t i mat e. There is still more to come after Revelation 22.
Later God will save all t he wicked (universalism) or anni hi l at e t hem (an-
nihilationism). But t hese scenarios will not square wi t h Revelation 21- 22,
which present s t he ul t i mat e end, t he new heaven and new ear t h (21: 1-8;
We conclude t hat t he t radi t i onal view of hell bet t er fits t he Scri pt ural vi-
sion of t he end t han does anni hi l at i oni sm. The Bible' s concluding chapt ers
will not allow us to under st and t he "universalist " passages in an absolute
sense. God's being "all in all" means t hat he reigns over t he j ust and t he un-
just. It does not mean t hat only t he former remai n.
I have examined John Stott' s four ar gument s for anni hi l at i oni sm and
have not found t hem compelling. I therefore must respectfully disagree wi t h
him when he urges "t hat t he ul t i mat e anni hi l at i on of t he wicked should at
least be accepted as a l egi t i mat e, biblically founded al t ernat i ve to t hei r
et ernal conscious t orment . "
There is at l east one ot her ar gument for anni hi l at i oni sm t hat meri t s at-
tention. Conditional i mmort al i t y is sometimes used as anot her name for
anni hi l at i oni sm. This is t he view t hat souls are not nat ur al l y i mmort al but
t hat i mmort al i t y is a gift given by God only to t he ri ght eous who, as a re-
sult, live forever. The unri ght eous, however, because t hey lack t he gift of
immortality are anni hi l at ed and cease to exist. Cl ark Pinnock regards t hi s
issue as crucial.
This is clearly an important issue in our discussion because belief in the natu-
ral immortality of the soul which is so widely held by Christians, although
stemming more from Plato than the Bible, really drives the traditional doc-
trine of hell more than exegesis does. Consider the logic if souls must live for-
ever because they are naturally immortal, the lake of fire must be their home
forever and cannot be their destruction . I am convinced that the hellenis-
tic belief in the immortality of the soul has done more than anything else
(specifically more than the Bible) to give credibility to the doctrine of ever-
lasting conscious punishment of the wicked
This ar gument has been vastly overrated. I say t hi s for t he following
reasons. Fi rst , al t hough philosophy has influenced all periods of Church
history, those who have argued for a t radi t i onal view of hell have done so
because t hey believed t hat t hi s is what t he Bible t aught . This is t r ue, for ex-
ample, of Tert ul l i an, August i ne, Thomas, Lut her, Calvin, Edwar ds and
Shedd, to name a few st al wart s of orthodoxy. It is ludicrous to argue t hat
they believed in et ernal t or ment because t hey were misled by Platonic phi-
losophy. Rat her, if we t ake t hei r own claims seriously t hey believed in t hi s
3 2
Stott, Evangelical Essentials 320
3 3
Pinnock, "Destruction" 252 Cf Stott, Evangelical Essentials 316, Guillebaud, Judge 1-4,
Atkinson, Life 1-53, Froom, Faith 1 19- 23, 31- 41, 145- 159, 205- 206, 212, 233, 262, 265, 3 0 5 -
308, 319- 324, 523- 528, Fudge, Fire 51- 76
terrible doctrine out of fidelity to Biblical teaching and sometimes against
their own natural inclinations.
Second, these figures' view of immortality was not Platonic but Biblical.
They did not hold that the souls of humans were inherently immortal as did
Plato. Rather, acknowledging that God "alone is immortal," as Paul says
(1 Tim 6:16), they taught that the immortal God grants immortality to all
human beings.
Third, we need to define the concept of the immortality of the soul. In
fact, due to widespread confusion it may be wise to abandon the expression.
Some use the words "the immortality of the soul" to refer to the survival of
the immaterial part of human nature after death. This is a Biblical idea
but is better called the survival of the human soul or spirit in the interme-
diate state. We confuse the intermediate and final states if we refer to the
former by the expression "the immortality of the soul."
Most use "the immortality of the soul" to describe our final destiny. This
too is misleading because our final state will not be a disembodied spiritual
existence in heaven but a holistic resurrected life on the new earth under
the new heaven. All things considered, it is better to talk about the immor-
tality of human beings, not of souls. This is in keeping with the language
of 1 Corinthians 15, which says of the resurrected righteous: "For the per-
ishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with im-
mortality" (1 Cor 15:53).
Finally, and most importantly, I do not believe in the traditional view
of hell because I accept the immortality of human beings but the other way
around. I believe in the immortality of human beings because the Bible
clearly teaches everlasting damnation for the wicked.
I have set forth the case for annihilationism from the writings of its pro-
ponents. I have weighed their arguments on the scales of Scripture and
have found those arguments wanting. In the process my conviction that the
Church's traditional doctrine of hell is correct has been strengthened.
For the best recent defense see J W Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting Biblical
Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1989)
My new book entitled Hell on Trial The Case for Eternal Punishment is scheduled for re-
lease by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company in the spring of 1995