To The Point: Annihilationism
The teaching of Annihilationism centers around two key Greek words, one of which is usually translated eternal, and the other destruction. We need to take a close look at those words before we can build a teaching on them.
There was no Greek word for eternity or everlasting. Instead it was expressed as ages with the Greek word αιωνιος; see Biblehub. Some count 60 or 70 occurrences of the word in the New Testament. Quoting Tektonics,
51 of these refer to the unending happiness of the righteous; 2 refer to the duration of God in His glory; 6 indicate an endless amount of time in other contexts; and 7 appear in reference to the punishment of the wicked.
The Greek word for destruction is απολλυμι; see Biblehub. There are around 90 occurrences of the word, and the overall usage indicates the idea of that which cannot return to its former place or condition. It is an exclusion rather than disintegration or being wiped out of existence. In contrast, the word λυω (2 Peter 3:11) means loosened, disintegrated, dissolved, and διαφθειρω (Rev. 8:9) means rotted, decayed. In both those cases, it's things being destroyed, rather than people or souls.
Scriptural References to the Afterlife
The Old Testament says relatively little about the afterlife and does not present a thorough, developed doctrine about it. So we will focus on the New Testament's statements in various contexts. Here is a list of the most pertinent references to the fate of the unrighteous dead, and to take them all as metaphors is to beg the question.
- Mat. 22:13 weeping/teeth gnashing, cast out of kingdom
- Mat. 24:51 assigned a place with the hypocrites
- Mat. 25:46 the same αιωνιος duration for both life and punishment
- Luke 13:27 outer darkness
- Acts 24:15 both righteous and wicked will be raised
- 2 Thes. 1:9 αιωνιος ολεθρος (age-long ruin) away from presence of Lord
- Jude 13 blackest darkness rather than nothingness
- Rev. 14:11 no rest day or night for those who worship beast and take its mark
- Rev. 20:10 devil/angels in lake of fire and tormented αιωνιος
- Rev. 22:15 outside are despised, miserable people
In addition to those, compare Mt. 10:28/Luke 12:4-5 [fear him who can απολλυμι soul and body], with Luke 15:4 [has 100 sheep and one is απολλυμι]. Both use the same Greek word; did one sheep get utterly destroyed? Of course not; the lost sheep continued to exist even while in a state of being lost. See also Mat. 15:24, where Jesus came to the απολλυμι sheep of Israel, or Luke 19:10 where Jesus came to seek and save the απολλυμι, or Luke 15:32 where the prodigal son was απολλυμι and then was found.
Now if a person thrown into fire dies, then isn't their soul also immediately destroyed? If not, why not? Why make them conscious of suffering even for a limited time? And what kind of God would wake the dead just to judge their works (Rev. 20:11-15) and then annihilate them? How does that show God's holiness and justice, rather than sadistic pleasure in torturing people before he destroys them? How is Annihilationism an improvement over eternal conscious torment, on the basis of compatibility with a loving God?
Consider also what the purpose of an allegory is. For example, Rev. 5:8 shows that literal incense symbolizes literal prayer. Then why can we not also say that literal fire/smoke symbolizes literal suffering? Does scripture ever say that eternal torment is exactly like fire in every respect? That is a gross misunderstanding of allegory in general.
Implications to the Gospel Message
How does Annihilationism affect the Gospel? Here is a hypothetical conversation to illustrate the problem arising from this teaching. Alex is an atheist, and Chris is a Christian.
Chris: You need to trust Jesus to save you.
Alex: Why? Save me from what?
Chris: Eternal separation from God.
Alex: Why is that bad?
Chris: Don't you want to spend eternity in happiness?
Alex: Not sure, what are all the choices?
Chris: Well, the only other choice is to be completely destroyed.
Alex: Wait, are you saying there's no eternal torment?
Chris: Exactly, that's a false teaching to scare people.
Alex: So if I'll be destroyed, so what? I already believe that.
Chris: But don't you want to be happy forever?
Alex: If I'm destroyed, I won't know I'm not happy.
Chris: Wouldn't you rather keep living and be happy?
Alex: Not if it means I can't live how I want here and now. Don't Christians suffer persecution for their faith?
Chris: Yes, sometimes, but it's totally worth it to get eternal happiness.
Alex: So I should suffer persecution and give up control of my life to someone I can't even prove exists, instead of living how I want and even getting away with murder, since I'll just go to sleep and never wake up?
Chris: Okay, let me explain it this way: You're a kid and your parents offer to take you to a theme park. You've never been there so you say 'no'. They say you don't know what you'd be missing, it'll be fun. You say no, I'd rather play with my friends and do whatever I want all day. See, you'd never know the fun you could have had, because you wanted to stick to what you're used to.
Alex: You left out the part where if I go to the theme park, I'll spend most of the day in the hot sun, dying of thirst, waiting in long lines, hardly eating anything because the food is overpriced.
Chris: But... the rides, the prizes, the souveniers! And don't you want to please your parents, who love you enough to make the offer?
Alex: Not if it means being miserable most of the time.
Chris: But when you get to heaven you'll be with people you love. We can't even imagine how awesome it will be!
Alex: But you're telling me I won't even know what I'm missing. Seems to me that the only people who will suffer are the ones in heaven who remember me.
What would you choose?
- Suffer now, be happy for eternity.
- Be happy now, knowing you won't be aware of any eternal consequences since you just go to sleep and never wake up. As a saying from the 1970s goes,
Do unto others— then split!Those who get away with injustice in this life will never be held to account.
The reason separation from God is bad, is because all that is good comes from God. God doesn't send people to eternal torment, they demand it, because they want nothing that comes from God. God isn't just love, he is also holy and just. There will be a judgment day for a reason.
Above all, we as Christians must remember that eternal conscious torment is OUR motivation to spread the Gospel, never OTHER PEOPLE's motivation to accept it. Salvation is reconciliation and adoption through faith in the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 2 Cor. 5:18-21), which can never be forced or coerced, and especially not by means of fear tactics or deal-making.
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