Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #2: Problems with Annihilationism

[This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!]

There are alternatives to the traditional view. As more and more Christians have found it difficult to believe that a loving God could send persons to hell, many have developed alternatives to the traditional view. Some have taken up the view that the unsaved will simply cease to exist. This view is known as Annilhiationism and it falls somewhere in between the traditional view of eternal punishment (both Calvinism and Arminianism) and the salvation of all (Universalism).

There is both Scriptural and philosophical support for Annihilationism. In
Matt. 10:28 Jesus seems to imply that the wicked will suffer the destruction of both "body and soul." In two of his letters Paul may suggest the annihilation of the lost (Rom. 6:23 and 2 Peter 2:6). Additionally, there are the various symbolic passages in Revelation that convey the destruction of the wicked and evil altogether. Nevertheless, Annihilationism is driven more by the philosophical concepts of freedom, love, and justice than by scriptural texts. The major grounds for Annihilationism is that an eternal hell does not allow God's love and justice to be accomplished (i.e. how can we party upstairs when people are suffering in the basement?). Thus, it is only after the wicked have been destroyed that God's love and justice (shalom) will be complete.

This view does have its advantages:

  • It jettisons the horrifying idea of God eternally tormenting the damned
  • It *appears* to respect the freedom of creation to choose non-being over salvation
Unfortunately, the view of Annihilationism is still more problematic that it is helpful.

The Problems:

1. What do we do with 'all' ? There are many texts that convey the final redemption of Christ in terms of 'all' (John 12:32, 1 Cor. 15:28, 2 Cor. 5:14, Eph. 1:10, 1:23, Col. 1:20, Phil. 2:10-11).  The question for the annihilationist is whether all really means all. If the unsaved are finally annihilated, how can Christ be said to "fill everything in every way?" And how can God be "all in all"?  According to the annihilationist, it must be after God has destroyed the unsaved. Is this a satisfactory answer? Is this really what Paul envisions when God will be 'all in all'? Are we to believe that God will be 'all in all'... minus the millions (if not billions) of people throughout history?

Holy notes, "To me, it borders on dishonesty to suggest that God's promise to be 'all in all' would be
 genuinely fulfilled by first eliminating all those who make a more literal fulfillment of that promise impossible. Can we really ascribe such duplicitous behavior to the God of truth?" (Holy, 20, italics original)

This dilemma is not necessarily a deal breaker, but it deserves serious reflection. And neither is it the lone flaw in annihilationism.

2. What of the Cross? The cross is indisputably God's remedy to sin. It is the consummation of God's love for the entire world and it is the location of at-one-ment with all of humanity. Jesus the Christ died once and for all (Rom. 6:10) and stands continuously before God on behalf of humanity (Hebrews 7:21-28). The centrality of the Cross as the 'event' of God's reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5:18) suggests that additional solutions are unnecessary. The annihilationist must ponder the scope and efficacy of the Cross.

3. What of God's character? Many who endorse Annihilationism are repulsed by the notion of God tormenting the damned. Yet how is annihilation of the unsaved any better? How does the utter destruction of those whom God once brought into being match the character of God revealed in Jesus the Christ? "God is Creator and Savior, not Destroyer!" (Holy, 20) Some may answer that God destroys the wicked out of sheer "mercy"; for the unsaved non-existence is better than existence. But this answer leads to the next problem (#4).

4. What of free will? For God to annihilate the unsaved (even out of "mercy") is an obvious violation of their free will. It is certainly possible that the unsaved might freely ask God to destroy them and thereby 'choose' non-existence over [unsaved] existence. Yet if God is able to either A) annihilate against  free will, or, B) annihilate as an act of mercy, then why would God not simply save the unsaved against their will or as an act of mercy?

"For God to annihilate people would be just as much of a violation of their free will as it would be for [God] to save them against their will." (Holy, 20) If we are able to imagine God exercising such unilateral action, why would we choose destruction over mercy? Some, including myself, believe that it is not the "clear teaching of Scripture" that causes us to think this way. In post #5 I will discuss what I believe causes us to distort the Good News of God's salvation in Jesus the Christ in order to preserve exclusive, ungracious perceptions of salvation.

At this point, let us summarize:

  • Annihilationism is the belief that God will annihilate the unsaved and they will cease to exist. The saved will enjoy communion with God who will be 'all in all.'
  • Advantages
    • the unsaved are not tormented forever and ever
  • Disadvantages:
    • Texts using the word "all" are less genuine; they must really mean "all that are left after God destroys the unsaved"
    • Sin must be dealt with a second time via annihilation rather than the Cross and Resurrection being decisive victory over sin
    • God as Annihilator is not much better than God as Punisher
    • Annihilationism sees God destroying against free will rather than saving against free will


Next Post: Problems with C.S. Lewis


  1. I've never considered the free will aspect of this. Also, I cannot decide is ceasing to exist or eternal torment is worse.