The Reluctant Annihilationist – a personal journey

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I first encountered the annihilationist perspective in 2014. I was taking an Eschatology class for my Masters of Divinity program at Liberty University. I remember that I had been pretty disappointed with the direction of the class. When I enrolled, I was really looking forward to assessing various eschatological views (preterism, amillennialism, pre-millennialism, etc). Instead, the class turned out to be little more than a primer on pre-millennial dispensationalism. I think it was the one course in my program where I was the least engaged.

When it came time to decide on a topic for my research paper, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had made a point in many of my classes to intentionally engage ideas that were different from my own. It had been a rewarding endeavor. I had learned about Eastern Orthodoxy, writing a paper on their doctrine of theosis. I had done an in-depth study into the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, and now I decided (with some help from the men in my Bible study) to research annihilationism. I was going to study the arguments for and against, and show why the belief in the complete destruction of the wicked was a heresy. As the title of this article betrays, I had no idea what I was in for.

Please understand, this article is not an attempt to make a defense of the annihilationist position. That has been done well elsewhere. This article is to briefly outline the arguments that convinced me that the annihilationist perspective is not one of heresy but, rather, is one that I feel best fits the evidence. Since I was first convinced, I have encountered arguments that are far better and more detailed than those I originally interacted with and the factors that have kept me in the annihilationist camp are, by and large, not the factors that first persuaded me. I will speak of my initial convincing, however, to keep with the theme of the article, namely, how I went from believing annihilationism to be heresy to accepting it as my own view.

First, let me give you a little background information regarding my theological leanings, so that there is no confusion. I do this because many who argue against annihilationism suppose some less-than-flattering things about annihilationists’ other views.

  • I hold to what theologian Millard Erickson calls “full inerrancy” when it comes to the reliability of Scripture.[1] This means that, when it comes to religious/theological/spiritual assertions, I believe the Bible is fully true and wholly accurate. However, when it comes to scientific and historical references, “they are reported the way they appear to the human eye. They are not necessarily exact; rather, they are popular descriptions, often involving general references or approximations. What they teach is essentially correct in the way they teach it.”[2] So, I adopt Erickson’s definition of inerrancy: “The Bible, when correctly interpreted in the light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.”[3]
  • I believe that God’s holiness and character are defined by who He is, not what we think about who He is. In other words, it is improper for man to question whether something God does is holy, virtuous, or just. Rather, if God does something, it is holy, virtuous, and just by the very fact that God did it. In the context of this argument, it makes little difference how I feel about hell – whether I have emotional difficulty reconciling a loving God with the idea of His consigning the reprobate to eternal conscious torment. If God does that, then it is good. It is holy. It is within his character, because it is Him doing it.
  • I believe that theology does not happen in a vacuum. It is impossible for a man to rightly approach theology sitting in a closet with his Bible, paying no attention to those who have gone before him in his endeavor to comprehend the incomprehensible. It is, in fact, what C.S. Lewis repeatedly called, “chronological snobbery,” and it discounts the efforts of Godly men and women who have devoted their lives to theological inquiry. Additionally, it is perhaps the surest path to error, as theology in a vacuum exacerbates our own cultural, ethnic, and historical biases, and lets them go unchecked. So, holding a view that is in the minority, historically speaking, among theologians is something that should give one great pause.
  • I am not a Jehovah’s Witness, nor do I espouse many of the views these religions hold that are outside the realm of Christian orthodoxy. The fact that some heterodox groups hold to annihilationism does not mean that all who hold to annihilationism are outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy (this point should be obvious, but there are many who make this their initial line of attack).

SCRIPTURE

So, what convinced me to adopt annihilationism? The first element was the testimony of Scripture. Having been raised a traditionalist, and having never made a concerted study of what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked, I assumed that eternal conscious torment was the only understanding that squared with the biblical testimony. Clark Pinnock, in one of the sources I was using for my research, wrote that “the biblical basis supporting annihilationism is strong. Scripture does leave the impression of a final and irreversible destruction, of ruin and perishing, and of a fire that consumes, rather than a fire that tortures. The Bible chooses the language of death, destruction, ruin, and perishing when speaking of the fate of the finally impenitent. Such people can expect to be destroyed.”[4] He, and others, cite verse-after-verse that speaks of the end of the wicked using terms like “death,” “destroy,” “perish,” “cut off,” etc. Again, I will not go into a detailed exegetical narrative here, as that is not the aim of this article. What I found, however, was that the biblical evidence was compelling and explanations of problematic texts (like Revelation 20:10 for example) were more convincing than traditionalists’ explanations of destruction-language texts.

GOD’S NATURE

The second category of argument that I found convincing had to do with the nature of God. Annihilationists typically argue that the idea of God punishing for eternity a person who sins temporally does not comport with what we know of the nature of God. Here I would draw attention back to point #2 that I made about my beliefs above. Man is not the judge of God. God is the judge of man. Morality is not an abstract concept that exists apart from God.  Morality is an expression God’s very nature.  Therefore, many things which would be wrong for man to do, are right when done by God. Surely, if the traditional view of hell is correct, then it must be acknowledged that it is indeed good, moral, and just, as these find their very definition in the character of God Himself. However, contentious theology must take into account God’s character as He has revealed it. Pinnock argued, “God will not heap upon us a punishment greater than we deserve. There would be no point in keeping the reprobate alive. The obvious place for the corrupt soul is the scrap heap. This does not involve unending torment and does not picture God as vindictive.”[5] There are those, in the tradition of Anselm of Canterbury, who contend that sin, by nature of the glory of the one offended, is deserving of eternal punishment. However, the concept of God’s consignment of the reprobate to an “everlasting Auschwitz” seems radically out of step with His teaching to love our enemies.

THE REIGN OF GOD

The third element of the argument that I found compelling relates to the reign of God. Namely, if God is to be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:24), and “every knee will bow, of those who are in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10), then where is there room for an eschatological place where He is not? The victory of Christ can scarcely be complete while countless millions suffer eternal anguish, just across the divide from the saved. If the reign of Christ is to be complete, can there be a place where He does not reign, or does He reign over the damned as well as the redeemed? Unless hell is a caveat to the myriad references to the complete reign of Christ, or subject to His reign as a dungeon is to a king, this is a difficult hurdle for the traditionalist view. If it is adopted that hell exists truly outside the presence of God, a place outside the banquet, in everlasting darkness, then this raises another problem. Jonathan Kvanvig, hardly an annihilationist, observes that “there is no possibility of existing without dependence on God (a result that follows from the doctrine of divine conservation).” [6] Were man to find himself completely outside God’s providential care, is there any reason to think that man would not cease to exist?

A RELUCTANT CONVERT

The arguments above were fascinating for me to read, but they were terrifying at the same time. I realized that I was becoming convinced of a view that, to my knowledge at the time, very few orthodox Christians had ever held (I’ve learned since that those who have held to annihilationism are far greater in number than I thought at the time). The prospect of standing on what I had become convinced was the most biblical view, against a sea of friends, family, and mentors who would likely think I’d lost my proverbial marbles, was daunting. So, I held my belief in silence, confiding in only a couple of friends, as I continued to study and pray. Today, nearly two years after I set out to disprove the “heresy of annihilationism,” I stand even more convinced, for even more reasons, as I bring my conviction out into the blinding light of public scrutiny.

FURTHER RESOURCES

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[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 248.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 259.

[4] Clark H. Pinnock, “Annihilationism.” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 464.

[5] Pinnock, “Annihilationism,” 469.

[6] Johnathan L. Kvanvig, “Hell.” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 420.

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About Christopher J Ray

Blogger, avid reader, banker, father.
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3 Responses to The Reluctant Annihilationist – a personal journey

  1. Mark Corbett says:

    God has led you on a journey similar in many ways to my own and to a growing number of other Christians who believed the traditional view before being convinced by Scripture that the unrighteous will finally and permanently perish.

    I thank God for the way He has led you and the courage and grace He has given you to walk this path.

    I also thank God that you are willing to graciously share this truth with others despite the risk of opposition and slander. May He continue to give you wisdom, patience, and courage, all guided by His Holy Spirit.

    I pray that He will bless and watch over your relationships with Christians who disagree with you on this point. If there are any who insist on dividing over this issue (and I pray there will not be), I pray for God’s grace, strength, and encouragement for you.

    Finally, I pray that God will work through you and others to help many other Christians see the truth of conditional immortality (also called annihilationism). The wrong belief that God will torture unbelievers for trillions of years and then keep torturing them forever is an error which unintentionally makes God look evil and has been a factor in many embracing either theological liberalism or atheism.

    Grace and Peace, Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

    • Thank you, Mark. I appreciate you thoughts, and am glad you are engaging in the discussion. Your recent article at http://www.rethinkinghell.com is very good, and I’d love to discuss it further with you, as it touches on some of the nuances of Annihilationism that I have been contemplating lately.

      May God bless you and your ministry.

  2. Pingback: Why I am an Egalitarian | The Patriot Principle

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