Monday, 28 May 2018

Five Misconceptions about Annihilationism

In the future I hope to publish a book exploring the three views of hell as well as two differing perceptions of heaven. The main reason for this is that I find that most people have astonishingly little knowledge of the views outside of what they themselves hold to and therefore most arguments could be avoided if we were to clarify exactly what others believe and teach and avoid any and all false assumptions being made against one another. And because the topic of hell just happened to be the theme for this months resurrected (pun intended) synchroblog group, I thought that I would share what I believe to be five misconceptions that people often accuse those who hold to annihilation of that are simply not true.

For those who do not know, annihilationism  is a term used to describe those that believe that people who are not in Christ will one day be raised up for judgment and ultimately perish and cease to exist rather than be granted eternal life or immortality in hell. Thus, another label and one that I prefer for this position is Conditionalists, which means that they believe that immortality or eternal life has a condition attached to it (belief in and union with Christ). Or to state it negatively, people who are thrown into the Lake of Fire will experience a second death literally as opposed to experiencing an eternal, ongoing state of consciousness separated from God. So without further ado, here are five misplaced accusations that are often made against those who believe in annihilationism. If you are going to argue against the merits of annihilationism, then avoid these points.

1 - Annihilationists don’t believe in hell

This argument can be an emotional, knee jerk reaction against conditionalists. While many people, regardless of which of the three views of hell they believe in, acknowledge that the English word hell comes from a Latin word which is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna which in turn is a transliteration of the Hebrew name for the ‘Valley of Hinnom’, a literal place outside the old walls of Jerusalem where the Hebrew people sacrificed their children to Molech, it does not mean that the concept of a place of punishment in the afterlife is denied. Essentially, the difference between the three camps is not whether or not a place of punishment which we commonly refer to as hell exists in the afterlife or not but rather what the nature of the ‘fire’ is. Universalists believe that the fire is refining and that all who are in it will eventually repent and be saved. Those who believe in eternal conscious torment believe that the fires of hell will torment its inhabitants forever, either because sin against an eternal God deserves infinite punishment or because it somehow glorifies God to do this. Likewise annihilationists do not deny the concept of punishment, there is still room for weeping and gnashing of teeth in this view but ultimately they believe that the goats separated from the sheep that do not inherit the kingdom will go into the fire and be destroyed.
2 - Annihilationists believe in limited punishment

Some people accuse annihilationists of believing in limited, rather than eternal punishment. Matthew 25:46 therefore becomes a proof text charged against them as it says, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. While some annihilationists do believe that there will be a measured amount of physical punishment to endure before death, this is not really the central point as ultimately conditionalists believe that death itself is the punishment and that death is everlasting. Dozens of scriptures can be pointed to which contrast the fate of the wicked with the inheritance of those in Christ. Consider John 3:16, one group receives eternal life, the other perishes, In Romans 6:23 the wages of sin (the punishment) IS death but the gift of God is eternal life (living forever). Matthew 25:46 itself even contrasts everlasting punishment (being dead forever) with eternal life.

3 - Annihilation is what the cults (and atheists) teach

Normally one of the first responses to the annihilationist view is that it sides with what some of the cults and atheists teach. This is not entirely true either though. What atheists and some of the cults teach is that there is nothing beyond this life whereas conditionalists believe that every person will be raised for judgment before God. Some will inherit eternal life while the rest will suffer the ‘second death’. Much speculation surrounds the reason for God raising the wicked only to see them die once more. Some might say that they need to give account of themselves before God; others might say that they will be punished according to their works before they can die. There could be several other reasons as well but in the end Annihilationists would answer that the theories for this should be discussed in a non-dogmatic way, they can only be sure that all will be raised and appear before God because they see it in the Bible, even if the reason for it is not abundantly clear.

4 - Annihilation is an emotional argument

Another favourite accusation against conditionalists is that people are letting their emotions persuade their theology. I find this strange because annihilationists are in no way minimizing the seriousness of sin or downplaying its destructive force. To hear people say that death is not a punishment and that people can therefore just live as they wish because there are no serious consequences for ones actions is utterly bizarre. Moreover, it has been my experience that people who have rejected the traditional view of hell have done so knowing that they would suffer because of it. Generally speaking people tend to be pretty convinced doctrinally of their position before they are prepared to go public with it so I would suggest that emotions are more likely a deterrent than a motivator when going against the status quo. Truthfully, people in all three groups are probably susceptible to being influenced by their emotions. Some people reject eternal conscious torment because they cannot reconcile the idea of a loving God torturing His enemies forever while others may hold on to the view simply because most people around them believe it to be true or maybe they need to feel that without the threat of unimaginable and eternal torments people won’t be motivated to follow God or perhaps some people even feel the need for God to hurt those who have hurt them and others without mercy. At the end of the day, all three positions on hell should be assessed by what scripture says on the topic rather than by what may or may not drive any individual persuasions.
5 - Annihilationism negatively affects evangelism

Another response to the idea of annihilation that I have often heard is that if conditionalism is true then why should people repent and follow Jesus? This is another bizarre accusation to make. Firstly, because annihilation does not suggest that rejecting Jesus is without consequences, far from it! But more importantly, this accusation worryingly reveals that for many people Christianity is not about knowing God or about following Jesus but about escaping punishment. It blows my mind that we don’t think that Jesus is sufficient in Himself to draw people to God. Instead we rely on the threat of hell, “If you die tonight where will you go?” type evangelism. The reason I believe that this modern evangelistic technique is absent from the New Testament scriptures is because they didn’t believe in it either. Paul said in Romans 2 that it is the goodness of God that leads people to repentance.

That is my list, do you agree or disagree with it? What other points would you have added to it?

PS – This post was part of a Synchroblog on the topic of hell, be sure to check out what other people wrote about on the links below.