Revelation (Part 21): Annihilationism
The last few verses of chapter 20 speak of final judgment. The sea gives up its dead. Death and Hades personified give up their dead. Death and Hades themselves are said to be thrown into the lake of fire—the second death. And in fact, the climax is that all who are not found written in the book (scroll) of life—on the very heart of our Redeemer—are cast into this second death, this lake of fire, this final judgment.
Thinking of any fire on earth, we would imagine the fire burning up whatever was in it. And often, through the Bible, the punishment or judgment of God seems as if God is saying that evil, sin, wickedness, and all the doers of evil will be destroyed, done away with, everlastingly ended. The chaff in Psalm 1:4 is blown away. The wicked in Psalm 1:6 end in ruin. They will be shattered like pottery in Psalm 2:9. They will be torn apart without rescue in Psalm 50:22. They will be erased from the book of life in Psalm 69:28. And listen to this description in Deuteronomy 29:22-25: “Future generations of your children who follow you and the foreigner who comes from a distant country will see the plagues of the land and the sicknesses the Lord has inflicted on it. All its soil will be a burning waste of sulfur and salt, unsown producing nothing with no plant growing on it, just like the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord demolished in His fierce anger. All the nations will ask, ‘Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ Then people will answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of Yahweh, the God of their fathers, which He had made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
Notice that the destruction came from a “great outburst of anger.” The stricken was not continually burning or being destroyed, but rather the outburst came and the land was forever separated from the living. Much of the Bible’s judgment of destruction presents this kind of picture. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed and done with—not continued suffering for perpetual ages. And verse after verse of the New Testament uses language that suggests finality of destruction: Mt 7:13, John 3:16, John 17:12, Acts 8:20, Rom 9:22-23, Phil 1:28, Phil 3:19, 1 Thess 5:3, 2 Thess 1:9, 2 Thess 2:3, I Tim 6:9, Heb 10:39, and 2 Pet 2:1. And, of course, there are the images themselves of chaff, trees, weeds, and branches all burned up (Mt 3:12, Mt 7:19, Mt 13:40, Jn 15:6);; destroyed house (Mt 7:27), discarded fish (Mt 13:48), uprooted plant (Mt 15:13), and chopped down tree (Lk 13:7). We are also told by Peter that Sodom and Gomorrah turning to ash and ruin was to be an example to the ungodly. If that is the example, and it was destroyed, not perpetually tormented, should we not consider the punishment of all ungodly in the same way?
And yet there are a few verses that do seem to indicate that torment will be everlasting. Mark 9:43-44 talks about fire that is not quenched where the worm does not die. Rev 14:9-11a says that smoke from the torment of the beast worshippers will rise forever and ever. And even in the passage we had just been considering in Rev 20, verse 10 explicitly says that the Devil, beast, and false prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
The question is a difficult one because we can’t build a foundation simply by saying, “I think this verse is simpler to understand plainly than another.” Of course, there are explanations offered by whichever side for the apparent destruction verses or, conversely, the perpetual torment verses.
The annihilationists insist that the Greek of “forever” or “for ever” uses the word aion, meaning eon—period of time, which inherently gives a limitation to the length. They argue that the Bible’s emphasis is not on length, but rather the fact that after physical death no hope remains forever and ever (eon and eon or this age and the next). The emphasis, therefore, is on the impossibility of reversal to the situation and the end of hope rather than that God will order everlasting suffering because he feels offended.
The perpetual torment defenders argue more from the aspect of consequence for defying our sovereign Lord who is all truth, goodness, and beauty. If all truth, goodness, and beauty rest only in God and with God, those who are dead (ever separated from God) must logically exist in that which is not truth, goodness, and beauty—the exact opposite of TGB or pain, evil, and suffering.
I believe that my last statement hinted of the real crux to the whole discussion. First, I do not believe that any of us (Christians) would or should attribute feeling or thoughts of glee and pleasure to God in making people suffer in unspeakable torment forever. We all believe (or should believe) that, although sin does absolutely separate a soul from God, the heart of our good God of God breaks at any evil, including pain and suffering. It would make sense that a truly good and loving God would eliminate permanently those with whom (because of their sin and unwillingness of faith) God cannot have relationship. Elimination of conscious existence seems more in line for this good God than perpetually guarding over the conscious horrid suffering of people forever.
Since we do all believe God not only to act in goodness and love but to BE goodness and love, why isn’t everyone an annihilationist? Those biblical statements that seemingly point to everlasting torture have made Christians balance their harshness with God’s goodness by arguing that God’s conscious creation cannot be annihilated—cannot be made unconscious. The creation God made from nothing cannot, by virtue of God’s act in creating, ever be undone. Therefore, they say, it is not a choice by God to annihilate or make suffer forever (which we almost have to decide that a good God would not do). Rather it is that since these creatures must remain conscious forever and they must remain apart from God forever, they logically must be in perpetual torment forever.
This is the conclusion I had come to as one who believed in everlasting conscious torment. But I no longer believe that. I no longer believe it because I think one of my premises supporting my logical conclusion is actually false. I no longer believe that created beings were created without possibility for being obliterated. I base this conclusion on the emphasis throughout Scripture, which comes to a pointed burst of revelation in 1 Timothy 6:15b-16. There, Paul recounts the nature of our God, saying, “He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen.”
The important point in this statement for our discussion is right in the middle. God is “the only one who has immortality.” God is the only one who continues forever. It is not that all things or people God created, simply by virtue of creation, must be consciously alive forever. Rather ALL things, except God, are temporal, mortal, non-perpetuating, limited. It is only with God—the only immortal one—that we have hope of immortality. We must be born into God’s family, becoming a child of God, to gain that everlasting life (John 3:16). Without God we will surely end. Why? Because God is “the only One who has immortality.”
This certainly changes the nature of things. If I truly believe that only God is immortal and therefore only those born to God in relationship have hope of immortality, I must believe that all those not born of God, going to the second death, must end. That belief is consistent with the nature of God, both in his sole immortality and in his infinite love and goodness. It is also consistent with the emphasis of destruction in Scripture. The punishment will never end. That means that those without God will never have a chance to reverse their death.