Is Annihilation an Evangelical Option?

Is Annihilation an Evangelical Option? February 2, 2015

When I was nearing the end of Seminary back in 2002, I’ll never forget hearing that the great Evangelical leader John Stott was an “Annihilationist;” that is, he believed that hell does not consist of everlasting conscious torment. I remember thinking, “What? I thought that John Stott was a Christian?” I then wrestled with how such a stalwart of the Evangelical johnstott_quote_medfaith could have been an imposture all these years. Since true Christian can’t loose their salvation, I found theological comfort in 1 John 2:19 which says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” John Stott’s exit from the Christian faith only showed that he was never truly saved. Being an Annihilationist and all.

Today, I look back on my theological response to Stott as immature and bizarre. The everlasting duration of hell is never mentioned in the Bible as part of a faith-confession. Romans 10:9 doesn’t say: “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and affirm the everlasting duration of hell.” Unfortunately, there are still Christians who would respond the same way I did if they hear about so-called Christians who don’t believe in the everlasting conscious torment of hell.

What are we to make of this? Is annihilation (or conditional immortality) an Evangelical option?

Fast forward to 2011. Francis Chan and I wrote a book titled Erasing Hell, where we argued that the Bible does instead teach that there is a literal hell, where punishment for the wicked is irreversible—there are no second chances after death. But as far as the duration of hell is concerned, we leaned toward everlasting conscious torment but tipped out hats to annihilation (see Erasing Hell, pp. 85-87).

Here’s the back-story to our position. When we began the project, neither of us had studied the topic of hell very thoroughly. We always believed in hell. Never questioned it. Affirmed all the stuff we were taught about hell growing up. (The worms always crept me out, and I never understood how “fire” Dore_woodcut_Divine_Comedy_01could exist alongside “outer darkness.”) But we’d never taken a fresh look at the doctrine with our Bibles open and assumptions laid aside. Therefore—that’s a very important “therefore,” by the way—we came before God and His word and committed to going where the text leads. If it leads to Universalism, we’ll go there. If it leads to the traditional view of hell, then we’ll go there. We’ll go where an honest reading of Bible takes us. Francis and I are, after all, Protestant and reformed (sort of). We believe in Sola Scriptura.

I was a few weeks into the research when I read an article by a renown Southern Baptist New Testament scholar named E. Earle Ellis titled “The New Testament Teaching on Hell.” In it, he argued fairly and thoroughly that the New Testament advocates for an annihilation view of hell. This caught me off guard; I didn’t know he was going to argue for this. I read the article very casually, thinking it was going to be yet another defense of the traditional view. After all, Ellis is Southern Baptist. He’s evangelical. And he didn’t front his view at the beginning. He simply looked at all the relevant passages, exegeted them (with the exegetical methods I was taught in seminary), and then concluded that hell would not last forever; that is, its inhabitants would not experience everlasting conscious torment. And Ellis argued this from the text.

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. I thought that that only Jehovah’s Witnesses, liberals, and apostates like John Stott believed in annihilation. As I re-read the article, I was able to critique some of his arguments, but there were others that were clearly good biblical arguments.

So I called Francis (he was living in SF at the time) and asked him about his assumptions regarding hell—details about hell that that he saw clearly in the text. Among those assumptions was ECT, or everlasting conscious torment. I slowly gulped and gathering my thoughts and said, “What if I told you that the duration of hell wasn’t that clear? What if I could show you some good, biblical arguments in favor of annihilation?” After summarizing a few of the strongest arguments in favor of annihilation, Francis—being the Biblicist that he is—responded, “Really? Wow. Hmm…I’ve never noticed that before. Well, if the text isn’t as clear as we thought, then we can only go as far as the text demands. We’re not allowed to go beyond the text.”

And that’s pretty much how I felt as well. We could only promote a view of hell that was clearly taught in Scripture. And so we ended up leaning toward everlasting conscious torment (ECT). Here’s why.

First, I still saw 2-3 passages that seemed to support ECT, the traditional view of hell: Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:9-11, and 20:10-16. The last one, though, was pretty weak, and I had more questions than answers about Revelation 14. Matthew 25:46, to my mind, was by far the strongest passage. In the context of final judgment, Jesus says: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” As you can see, the contrast between “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” appears to be symmetrical. If life is everlasting for the righteous, then the punishment also is everlasting for the wicked.

Second, although we’re both Protestants and committed to Sola Scriptura, we still have great respect for tradition and would be very cautious embracing or promoting a view that hasn’t been accepted by most Christians. Since ECT has been the main view of the church for the last 1500 years, we wanted to be extremely cautious in challenging it. Nevertheless, we couldn’t deny the biblical strength for annihilation, so we decided to stick with ECT but only mildly.

Third, our main point in Erasing Hell, the thing we saw most clearly in Scripture, was that the punishment in hell is very real and irreversible. The duration of hell doesn’t affect this. Whether hell lasts 10 minutes, 10 years, or 10 billion years, this didn’t alter the clear biblical point that there are no second chances in hell.

And so that’s where we stood. Leaning toward ECT.

Since then, I’ve continued to study the topic of hell (though not as thoroughly as I’d like). And the more I study it, the more I see a good deal of biblical support for annihilation. I don’t call myself an Annihilationist, however, and neither should you. I’m not there yet. (I actually refer to the doctrine as “terminal punishment” over annihilation or conditional immortality.) I still have a lot more study to do. I’ve tackled a lot of tough issues between 2011 and 2015 (violence, homosexuality, grace, etc.), so I haven’t had the time to sit down and work through all the texts and theological questions regarding hell. And until I do, I’m not going to commit to one side or the other. And until you do, you shouldn’t either. That is, if you believe the Bible is truly authoritative.

In the next post, I want to sum up those biblical arguments for (lets call it) terminal punishment and then I’ll sum up the strongest arguments in favor of ECT. I’m going to do my best not to argue for one view or the other; that’s for you to decide. But I will argue rather strongly that a terminal punishment view of hell is—for those of us to prioritize the Bible over tradition, who say we’re Protestant and reformed—an Evangelical option.

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