I saw your question of the week about whether teaching eternal punishment was beneficial. I was wondering how you feel about Annihilationism. Do you think it’s harmful?
While I applaud anyone’s effort to move away from the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilationism is little better. It still retains an unforgiving and unmerciful image of God, who withholds life from the hopelessly sick and confused. The doctrine dashes any hope or comfort or peace or joy we may have when it tells us many of our friends and family will some day cease to exist. And it makes us question God’s goodness and love, the two characteristics essential to his nature.
Just imagine what the doctrine implies. Think of the terror on Judgement Day, the panic and weeping as families are forcibly separated — husbands ripped from their wives, fathers pushed aside so their sons can be led to their doom, mothers screaming, frantically running back and forth looking for help, as their daughters are thrown into the blackest oblivion, never to be seen again. Now imagine the day after, when the survivors, the fortunate ones who have been ‘saved,’ must begin their journey through the ages, carrying only the memories of their lost loved ones. Imagine the pain of that experience, the tears, the hurt, how their hearts would ache to see the lost once again. In a strange reversal it is these surviving saints who would suffer for eternity while the annihilated find peace in non-existence. How can this doctrine come from God? How can this be Good News?
Which leads me to the two, I think, most powerful objections to Annihilationism:
First, Annihilationism undoes the Good News. Since Adam and Eve the whole cosmos has been locked in the grip of death. Our greatest enemy is death — because it separates us from God, from each other, and it has thrown the whole world into disorder, pain, and suffering. Christ came to free us from death, all of humanity, the whole cosmos. And His resurrection signaled this victory. This is the Good News.
But on Annihilationism, death remains on its throne, victorious, powerful and unrelenting. The doctrine makes death’s victory overwhelming and everlasting since most of humanity will forever remain under its power. It denies Jesus his victory, and the proclamation of that victory, which is the Good News.
This leads me to the second objection — the doctrine misunderstands how that victory was won. It is through death (this is key) that death is conquered. Jesus came to show us the way back to the Father, and that way is through death. All that is false must die — our selfishness, our ambitions, our lusts, our greeds, our pride, everything that holds us onto this world must perish — so that new life can be had in Jesus. Our example is a dying God. This is the path of Jesus, one which we must all imitate.
This is why Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is why Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again — the old must die so the new can be born. Saul died so that Paul could live, and Paul boasted, “I die every day!” — meaning, he continually dies to himself so he can live for Christ.
But Annihilationism cannot support the view of death as a gateway to life. It argues death as the final end, the cessation of all life, the obliteration of a thing from which there is no recovery. So when Paul says the final enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26), Annihilationism can make no sense of it, since the doctrine holds that a large portion of humanity will remain dead forever. But death is not the end. Rather, it is a bridge to life all must pass over, which is afterwards both conquered and destroyed.
The only view worthy of God is Christian Universalism. It affirms the Good News by maintaining Christ’s complete victory. It affirms the biblical view of death as a gateway to life. And both of these facts satisfy our hearts, producing hope and joy for the future, and love and trust in God. Annihilationism teaches the opposite of these things and for that reason is harmful.