The last great disappearing act

Well this is my last post on the subject of hell (for a while at least).  As I explained in previous posts,  I recently taught a 3-part series on this topic at our church.  If you believe (like – really believe) there’s a Heaven then you have to believe in Hell.  You simply can’t have one without the other.  Although many do try.

There are four major views of Hell. They can be broken down into the following categories: the Classical view, the Purgatorial view, Universalism, and Annihilationism.  Here’s a helpful chart to see the differences (thanks for this):

4 categories

The traditional teaching of the church fits into the CLASSICAL view; that is Hell is forever and those that go there will be conscious of their suffering.  Although the most difficult one to swallow, that’s what I’ve been teaching at our church.  The PURGATORIAL view is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.  It’s where naughty Catholics go to have their souls purified by punishment.  The problem is no such place exists in the Bible.  It was simply invented by someone who thought it sounded good.  The third view is UNIVERSALISM and I covered that in my post Smile – there is no hell.  Universalism teaches that all individuals will eventually go to Heaven – regardless of what they have believed or how they have behaved.  Universalism has a very popular following even among those who don’t believe the Bible (I guess it’s good to hedge your bets).  But you have to do some pretty hefty Scripture twisting to get this to fit with the Bible.

So that leaves the fourth view – ANNIHILATIONISM.  This is the most complicated view due to the various nuances that it takes.  There are three forms of Annihilationism which you ought to be aware of:

  1. The first says human life is purely mortal and bound to the physical body. When a person dies he simply passes out of existence. This is the view of the atheist and the secular humanist, not the Christian.
  2. The second view states humans are naturally mortal but they can attain immortality through belief in the gospel. This view also goes by the name of Conditional Immortality.
  3. The third view (also known as Annihilationism proper) says human are naturally immortal, not mortal. The soul does not pass out of existence at death but is annihilated by God’s direct intervention at the final judgment.

So in summary some Annihilationists believe everyone ceases to exist at death, some believe only unbelievers cease to exist at death, and others believe unbelievers cease to exist at the final judgment. So how can they justify their position from Scripture? They base their belief on three main arguments:

  1. Things cannot be destroyed forever
  2. Fire does not burn forever
  3. People do not naturally exist forever

We haven’t the time to go into great detail on each one but a brief look will be helpful.

Argument #1: Things cannot be destroyed forever

One very popular text for Annihilationists is Matthew 10:28 where Jesus says,

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

They make the argument that to kill is to deprive the body of life (the normal way we understand the term “kill”).  Kill the body and physical life ceases to exist. Kill the soul and body and both cease to exist. Therefore hell is deprivation of all physical and spiritual life.  They then build on this using other texts such as Matthew 7:13-14 where Jesus says, “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many,” and James 4:12, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.”

If Scripture gave us no other teaching on the destiny of the wicked then we might conclude that Annihilationism would be a viable option. But this is not the only data we have to work on.  In the book of 2 Thessalonians Paul writes to a group of Christians that are suffering for their faith and he encourages them by reminding them that God will one day bring about their vindication, and as for their tormentors, he says

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

Note those words “eternal destruction” – that does not sound like annihilation. And don’t the words “away from the presence of the Lord” imply their existence, not their annihilation?  We see that when we take in all of Scripture and not just some parts, Annihilationism doesn’t really square up.

Argument #2: Fire does not burn forever

You are likely to be familiar with the fire imagery associated with hell in the Bible. Jesus referred to it often. Annihilationists argue the main function of a fire is to consume, not to cause pain. The fire that Jesus speaks of here is intended to utterly destroy, not punish.  That all sounds fairly convincing except that it ignores the fact that the main function of a fire changes depending on who it is that lights it!  Fires may be lit for cooking purposes, for light, or even providing a romantic atmosphere.  Some light fires to heat their house. My two sons lit fires for the pure fun of it. Making an arbitrary judgment that the fire of hell must be for the purpose of annihilating unbelievers is not a strong argument.

But there’s a stronger rebuttal than this. There are two examples in Scripture where there was a fire that did not consume. The first is in Exodus chapter 3 where the Lord appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush. What got Moses’ attention was not the fact that the bush was burning but that it was not being consumed (Exodus 3:2).  The second example is in the book of Daniel where three of Daniel’s friends were thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to bow down to his statue. The heat was so intense it instantly incinerated the soldiers who had the unfortunate job of escorting them in. And yet some time later these same three men walked out again and Daniel tells us, “The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.” (Daniel 3:27)

So there is such a thing in Scripture as a fire which does not consume.

Argument #3: Souls do not naturally exist forever

This view (known also as conditional immortality) teaches that souls are not naturally immortal, but that immortality is a gift given by God only to believers, who as a result will live forever after death. Everyone else passes out of existence.  How do they arrive at this?  They claim, using 1 Timothy 6:15-16 that only God is immortal. This at first seems perfectly reasonable, until we realize that it misses Paul’s point. Paul is making a distinction between God’s immortality and ours. God is immortal because of His essence; we are immortal only because it has been endowed upon us.

The Conditional immortality adherents call for proof-texts to show them where in the Bible it says the soul of man is immortal. But like the doctrine of the trinity it is everywhere inferred. God has set eternity in our hearts Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us. And at the end of the book the author concludes with,

“And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

What is that supposed to mean except that there is existence of the soul beyond death? God breathed into man the breath of life and he became nephesh – a living creature (Genesis 2:7). We are more than animal. We are made in the image of God. We have souls, which enable us to commune with God forever.


We have considered the case for the various alternative teachings on hell – purgatory, universalism and annihilationism. We have weighed their arguments on the scales of Scripture and found them wanting. In the process, I believe we have reaffirmed the church’s historic doctrine of hell. I think there are a number of important applications that follow from our conclusions:

1. Universalism – the view that all will be saved is an unbiblical teaching and should be rejected outright by anyone who claims to be a Christian. It directly undermines the gospel and renders Christ’s atoning work unnecessary and redundant.

2. Annihilationism – though less damaging, is a serious error because it encourages unbelievers to continue living blissfully in a life of sin and rejection of God with the thought that if they do have to face God, it will be brief and they will simply pass out of existence. The unsaved prefer annihilationism to be true.

3. The biblical teaching on hell – as place of eternal suffering for the unrepentant, is the only truthful and loving option that ought to be considered. It is a constant reminder to us all there is a final accountability for our beliefs and behaviors in this life. It is a constant reminder that this life is a time of decision – of either accepting or rejecting Jesus as the rightful King and Lord of our lives.


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