Is Universalism the new Annihilationism?

Thanks to a prod from Graham Ware, I’m currently reading Clark. H. Pinnock’s excellent essay The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent. Published in 1990, Pinnock’s essay critiques the “traditional” doctrine of hell as eternal torment for the wicked and argues for the (then) radical notion of Annihilationism–the belief that the “impenitent wicked suffer extinction and annihilation” rather than unending torment in hell.

Early on in the essay, Pinnock recognizes that he is embracing a minority view. Even though other prominent evangelicals, such as John Stott, were coming to similar conclusions at the time, Pinnock expresses some concerns about going public with his beliefs:

In defending the annihilation of the wicked, I realize that this is the view of a minority among evangelical theologians and church leaders and that I place myself at risk when I oppose the traditional view of hell as endless agony and torment. After all, it is a well-established tradition, and one does not oppose such a tradition without paying a price in terms of one’s reputation. Even worse, I recognize that this puts me in some odd company, a fact which is regularly used against the position I am defending, for it is usually argued that only heretics or near-heretics deny the doctrine of everlasting punishment and defend extinction. The idea is that if the Adventists or the liberals hold such a view, the view must be wrong. In this way the position can be discredited by association and not need to be taken seriously or worried about. Of course it is not much of an argument, but it proves effective with ignorant people who are taken in by rhetoric of this kind.

Fast-forward to the present, and the landscape has changed considerably. Annihilationism is still a minority position, but just over two decades after Pinnock wrote his essay, it is no longer considered an emblem of heresy or near-heresy. Even a brass-knuckled, fire and brimstone preacher like Mark Driscoll accepts Annihilationists into the fold. He still thinks they’re wrong, just not dangerously wrong. That’s a far cry from the uproar John Stott created when he “came out” as an Annihilationist in the late 1980s.

As I reflect back on all of the fuss Rob Bell caused last year with his book Love Wins, I can’t help but wonder if we are witnessing a similar seismic shift within evangelicalism. The parallels are striking. For example, the first few pages of Pinnock’s essay–in which he critiques eternal torment–could easily have been written by Bell. Even though he doesn’t come out nearly as strong in favor of Universalism (or Ultimate Reconciliation) as Pinnock does for Annihilationism, Bell could have still expressed the same concerns as Pinnock about the consequences of challenging the traditional view. And with good reason, as the ongoing reaction to Love Wins demonstrates.

Like Pinnock, Bell is not alone in his views. Thomas Talbott, Brian McLaren, Sharon Baker, Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory McDonald), Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak and many others have been making similar arguments for years. However, also like Pinnock, these people had a whiff of heresy or near-heresy about them long before they expressed their skepticism about eternal torment. So it’s easy for so-called traditionalists to write them off.

The way I see it, the only thing missing right now is a theologian on the level of Stott–a bastion of evangelical orthodoxy–who publicly expresses a change of heart. I’m not even sure I can name a candidate right now. But I can say that if and when that occurs, mark my words, within a couple of decades we will look back at Love Wins and wonder what all the fuss was about.

The Universalists may still be sitting off in a corner getting strange looks from passers-by, but at least they’ll be inside the fold. And I can only wonder who the next object of theological derision will be…

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