The following is a response to a friend about the idea of annihilationism.
Thank you R----, I appreciate your thoughts. You argued your points very well.
I have heard many of these arguments before (not everything you raised, but I've gotten the idea). It is true that many, if not most, of the verses in the Bible about the punishment of the afterlife can be interpreted as annihilation, but they can also be interpreted as eternal conscious punishment. In the last analysis, many of the passages are ambiguous and can go either way. I think both sides should admit this.
What keeps me believing in the traditional view of hell are the following considerations:
1) Clear evidence that the Jewish people in Jesus' day believed in eternal conscious punishment, and Jesus doesn't go out of His way to correct them. They would have interpreted His words as eternal conscious punishment. To this I would again add the witness of the early church (see here).
2) Annihilation arguments tend to make the Scripture contradictory. There are statements that a thing will be forever, yet it is argued that a later verse shows this is not the case. For example, "the worm doesn't die and the fire is not quenched." You argue this is referring solely to the corpses of the ungodly. But you also believe the earth will be renewed and perfected. Are we to believe that these corpses will continue to burn forever in the new Jerusalem? I don't think anyone would say that. But then "forever" is controverted.
3) I think we can all concede that the lake of fire exists forever, and the devil, the man of sin, and the false prophet will be tormented in it forever (to this we can also add those who take the mark of the beast, Rev. 14:11). Therefore even annihilationists believe in eternal conscious punishment and have to reckon with it theologically like the rest of us. But Revelation 20 says that all the unrighteous dead are thrown into the lake of fire where these are, and the natural implication is that they will suffer the same eternal punishment there with them. It seems forced and unnatural to say that they are thrown in to join those who are there, but then are annihilated while the others are not. Why the disparity? Is one group made up of worse sinners than the other? On the contrary, I think when sin is rightly understood, it will be seen that the sin of the devil, the angels, the man of sin, and the false prophet is all of a piece with the sin of the whole world (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 5:19). The most natural reading of Revelation 20 is eternal conscious punishment.
4) The theological point that there is such a crime that merits the traditional punishment of hell: hatred of God (see here). There is a being in the world who is that worthy. Minimize the punishment, minimize God.
5) The personal experience of people throughout history and today. Many believers can say that God brought them to Christ by opening their eyes to the fact they were heading to hell, in the traditional sense. And such Christians find Christ and His love exceedingly precious because of it. Also, there are unbelievers who have experienced terror thinking about the wrath of God that is coming. As they should (Ps. 90:11). I believe all of this is of God. Because the wages of sin is death, when you get a sense of sin, as the old theologians used to call it, you also get a sense of dread regarding what it deserves.
In any group you will always find a variety of views, the Jews notwithstanding. You're always going to find people everywhere on the spectrum. This can be said of Evangelical Christianity... the fact that some evangelicals believe in annihilation (ex. John Stott) doesn't affect the fact that Evangelicalism as a whole does not. The Sadducees certainly represented an important 1st century Jewish group that didn't believe in an afterlife at all. But they were a tiny minority. What's important is that mainstream Judaism, as represented by the Pharisees, believed in a traditional form of hell. That was Jewish orthodoxy at the time of Jesus.
Josephus wrote this about the Pharisees:
"Now for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the contract of reason: and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do: and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years: nor are they so bold as to contradict them in any thing which they have introduced. And when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit: since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament; whereby what he wills is done; but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously. They also believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them: and that under the earth there will be rewards, or punishments; according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life: and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison; but that the former shall have power to revive and live again. On account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people: and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction. Insomuch, that the cities give great attestations to them, on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives, and their discourses also. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this; that souls die with the bodies. Nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them. For they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent. But this doctrine is received but by a few: yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves. For when they become magistrates; as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be; they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees: because the multitude would not otherwise bear them." (Antiquities, Book 18.1.3-4)
This shows clearly that the Pharisees 1) were traditionalists, 2) were followed by the majority of people in Israel, 3) believed in the immortality of the soul, 4) believed in the eternal imprisonment of the wicked.
Thanks for sharing that article. Instone-Brewer's comments on Yohanan ben Zakkai confirm Josephus's account, that eternal conscious punishment was the view of the Jews in Jesus' day. He wrote, "...though before 70 CE (i.e. during Yohanan's earlier career) it [eternal conscious punishment] was an acceptable point of view that would have been regarded as traditional or already old fashioned by most hearers."
I grant that the Jewish view is not identical to the Christian view. Unlike Evangelicals, the Jews believe there are generally three categories of mankind, the good, the bad, and those in the middle. So they believed those in the middle will suffer for a time and then attain eternal life. But the bad go to hell forever, which is the traditional idea of eternal conscious punishment. The only difference is that Evangelicals don't believe there are three groups, but only two, the good and the bad. So the idea of hell is the same, but the anthropology is different. Actually, the Jewish view is very similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but we wouldn't say these don't believe in eternal punishment.
I would add to my above reasons that the concept of annihilation is actually a comforting doctrine for many sinners. They can snub God now and face a RIP eternity. It's a shortcut to nirvana. It's the same disturbing logic of suicide... to die and end it all is better than to continue in pain. Annihilation can thus be seen as a refuge from the wrath of God. In fact, that's the very impression I get from Isaiah 2, Luke 23 and the Book of Revelation.
"Men will go into caves of the rocks and into holes of the ground before the terror of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty, when He arises to make the earth tremble." (Is. 2:19)
"Then they will say to the mountains, "Cover us!" And to the hills, "Fall on us!"" (Hosea 10:8, Luke 23:30)
"Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Rev. 6:15-17)
"And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them." (Rev. 9:6)
When people face the wrath of God, and see what God does to Satan, the man of sin, the false prophet, and all those who follow him, annihilation will seem like a gospel!
But there's only one gospel and one refuge from the wrath of God, that is Jesus, "who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thess. 1:10)