Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?
Annihilationism is the view that lost people in hell will be exterminated after they have paid the penalty for their sins. Its proponents offer six main arguments.
First is an argument based on the Bible’s use of fire imagery to describe hell. We are told that fire consumes what is thrown into it, and so it will be for the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8)—it will burn up the wicked so that they no longer exist.
Second is an argument based on texts that speak of the lost perishing or being destroyed. Examples include unbelievers perishing (John 3:16) and suffering “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Third is an argument based on the meaning of the word eternal. In hell passages, it is claimed, eternal means only pertaining to “the age to come” and not “everlasting.”
Fourth is an argument based on a distinction between time and eternity. Annihilationists ask: how is it just of God to punish sinners for eternity when their crimes were committed in time?
Fifth is an emotional argument that God Himself and His saints would never enjoy heaven if they knew some human beings (let alone loved ones and friends) were perpetually in hell.
Sixth is an argument that an eternal hell would tarnish God’s victory over evil. Scripture declares that God will be victorious in the end; He will “be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). We are told that this idea seems hard to reconcile with human beings suffering endlessly in hell.
I will answer each of these arguments in turn. First is the argument from hellfire. Many passages use this language without interpreting it. It is possible, therefore, to read various views into such passages, including annihilationism. However, we do not want to read our ideas into the Bible, but to get our ideas from the Bible. And when we do, we find that some passages preclude an annihilationist understanding of hellfire. These include Jesus’s description of hell in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a “place of torment” (Luke 16:28) involving “anguish in this flame” (v. 24).
When the last book of the Bible describes the flames of hell, it does not speak of consumption but says the lost “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:10–11).
Second is the argument from passages that speak of destruction or perishing. Once again, when Scripture merely uses these words without interpreting them, many views may be read into them. But once again, we want to read out of Scripture its meaning. And some passages are impossible to reconcile with annihilationism. Paul describes the fate of the lost as suffering “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:8). Also telling is the fate of the Beast in Revelation. “Destruction” is prophesied for him in 17:8, 11. The Beast (along with the False Prophet) is cast into “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (19:20). Scripture is unambiguous when it describes the fate of the devil, Beast, and False Prophet in the lake of fire: “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). So, the Beast’s “destruction” is everlasting torment in the lake of fire.
Third is the argument from the word eternal. In hell passages, it is claimed, eternal means only pertaining to “the age to come” and not “everlasting.” It is true that in the New Testament, eternal means “agelong,” with the context defining the age. And in texts treating eternal destinies, eternal does refer to the age to come. But the age to come lasts as long as the life of the eternal God Himself. Because He is eternal—He “lives forever and ever” (Rev. 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7)—so is the age to come. Jesus plainly sets this forth in His message on the sheep and goats: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46; italics added). The punishment of the lost in hell is coextensive to the bliss of the righteous in heaven—both are everlasting.
Fourth is the argument that it is unjust of God to punish sinners eternally for temporal sins. It strikes me as presumptuous for human beings to tell God what is just and unjust. We would do better to determine from His Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.
Jesus leaves no doubt. He will say to the saved, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). He will say to the lost, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). We have already seen John define that fire as eternal conscious punishment in the lake of fire for the devil (Rev. 20:10). A few verses later, we read that unsaved human beings share the same fate (vv. 14–15). Evidently, God thinks it just to punish human beings who rebel against Him and His holiness with everlasting hell. Is it really our place to call this unjust?
I will treat the fifth and sixth arguments together. The fifth is the emotional argument that God and His saints would never enjoy heaven if they knew loved ones and friends were forever in hell. The sixth is the argument that an eternal hell would tarnish God’s victory over evil. It is noteworthy that universalists use these same two arguments to insist that God will finally save every human being. God and His people would not enjoy the bliss of heaven if even one soul remained in hell, they argue. In the end, everyone will be saved. And God would suffer defeat if any creatures made in His image were to perish forever.
I regard these arguments for annihilationism and universalism—from emotion and from God’s victory—as rewriting the biblical story, something we have no right to do. I say this because the Bible’s final three chapters present the eternal state of affairs. The resurrected saints will be blessed with God’s eternal presence on the new earth (Rev. 21:1–4). And, interestingly for our present discussion, each of Scripture’s final three chapters presents the fate of the unsaved:
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (20:10)
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in to the lake of fire. (vv. 14–15)
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (21:8)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (22:14–15)
The Bible’s story does not end by saying, “And the unrighteous were destroyed and exist no more.” Neither does it say, “And in the end all persons will be gathered into the love of God and be saved.” Rather, when God brings His story to a close, His people rejoice in endless bliss with Him on the new earth. But the wicked will endure never-ending torment in the lake of fire and be shut out of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, which is the joyous dwelling place of God and His people forever.
We have no right to rewrite the biblical story. Rather, we must leave it to God to define what is just and unjust and what is commensurate with His being “all in all.” He does not leave us in doubt about hell because He loves sinners and wants them to believe the gospel in this life.
How kind and merciful of Him to include this invitation at the end of His story: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17). All who trust Jesus in His death and resurrection to rescue them from hell will have a part in the Tree of Life and the Holy City of God. All who do so with all the saints can say now and will say forever:
Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just. (19:1–2)