Over the last decade or so, annihilation (the view that the damned are destroyed in hell) has been gaining a hearing among evangelical scholars, with several completely affirming the idea. Consequently, I’ve read a few works that trot out the pros and cons of the argument. And, like any idea in biblical scholarship, what I appreciate most about these kinds of works is when they drive me back to read Scripture more carefully, challenging my assumptions. For example, I hadn’t really thought about why both Jesus and Paul sometimes describe God’s judgment of the unredeemed as “destruction” (Matt. 7:13; 10:28; 22:7; Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9). Or how hell (Gehenna) is described as a place of “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), which doesn’t necessarily mean that the wicked themselves burn forever. That is to say, hell is an eternal fire but mortals do not suffer eternally.
One of the motivations for affirming annihilation is the offensive idea that God tortures these victims forever. Since humans are mortal, then the only way we live after death is if God gives us life. Of course, for those of us who die in Christ Jesus, we believe we will be raised immortal through His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53). But for those who die in Adam (to use Paul’s language of corporate identity), the wicked must be raised to suffer God’s judgment on the last day—what both Jesus and the Revelation of John refer to as the “resurrection of judgment/[second] resurrection” (John 5:29; Rev. 20:5-6, 13). That means God has to raise the wicked from the dead, keeping them alive, as it were, in order to torture them forever in a fiery hell/lake of fire—an offensive picture these days. And yet, for me, such an objection doesn’t carry a lot of weight since the Scriptures are filled with many things that offend modern sensibilities, e.g., Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies, Paul’s emphasis that weakness is strength, that Jesus and Paul taught a strict sexual ethic, that Jesus performed miracles, that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, that Jesus will return one day. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive to many, never acceptable to the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1:18-25)
But that is not to say that some of the arguments for annihilation regarding the nature of punishment of the wicked are not persuasive. For example some scholars point out that Jesus said that hell was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). And, since angels are immortal, that’s why hell has to be a place of eternal torment. But, since humans are mortal, eternal hell will destroy unredeemed humanity.
And yet, there are at least two passages of Scripture that affirm eternal punishment of the wicked: one from Jesus, the other from Paul. During that same parable, Jesus sums up the final destiny of sheep and goats: the goats “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46). It’s one thing for Jesus to talk about hell as a place of eternal fire (v. 41). But, it’s quite something else for Jesus to describe the “accursed ones” as having to suffer eternal punishment. Also, Paul claims that, when Jesus returns, he will “deal out retribution to those who don’t know God and to those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8). What that means, according to Paul, is that the wicked will “pay the penalty of eternal ruin, away from the face of the Lord and the glory of his strength” (v. 19). There it is again: Paul doesn’t write about a place of eternal punishment but that the damned will suffer eternal ruin. Annihilationists argue that “eternal” in both places can mean “permanent” rather than “endless.” But, it seems to me both Jesus and Paul are emphasizing the kind of judgment (punishment, ruin) not the result. So, because of the way I read these two texts, I am not an annihilationist.
But we’re still left with the problem: how do we reconcile these two different ideas about hell? How can hell be both destruction and eternal punishment? I used to say that I “lean” toward annihilation since passages about hell as destruction and hell as an eternal place of judgment outnumber passages that imply endless torment of the damned. And yet, like other paradoxes in Scripture, I now affirm both at the same time: hell is both endless punishment and destruction. We could speculate about how both can be true, e.g., does Jesus provide a clue when he says that hell will be “more tolerable” for some (Matt. 11:22, 24), i.e., destruction? But that is merely suggestive and not definitive. And so we are left with the paradox.
But that’s fine with me. The older I get, the more comfortable I am affirming paradoxes in Scripture. I no longer feel obliged to solve the riddle but, instead, I revel in it. I always want to affirm all of Scripture not just the parts that confirm my interpretation. And so, I believe that hell is destruction and eternal punishment.