“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” –Daniel 12:2
Some argue that the punishment of sinners is annihilation. This means that after someone dies apart from faith, they suffer for a fitting period of time and then simply cease to exist so that hell is not eternal in duration. In question is the nature and length of the punishment.
Despite having proponents who are otherwise fine Bible teachers (such as John Stott),137 annihilationism is simply not what the Bible teaches. Jesus speaks of those who “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”138 Grammatically, there is no difference here between the length of time mentioned for life and that for punishment; rather, there is simply eternal life and eternal death.
The Bible tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image”139 and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”140 The word forever (Greek aion) means unending. This word is used to describe the blessedness of God,141 Jesus after His resurrection,142 the presence of God,143 and God Himself.144 As uncomfortable as some may be with it, it also describes eternal, conscious punishment.
The key arguments for annihilationism are (1) the nature of fire (which consumes), (2) the use of the word destroy, which means “the extinction of being,” (3) the concept of justice, whereby God punishes “according to what they had done,”145 and (4) the passages that speak of God triumphing over evil, so that God is all in all and reconciles all things to Himself.146 We’ll address each point in turn.
Fire does consume but only things that are inherently destructible. For example, if you put metal in a fire it burns forever, but it does not cease to exist.147 Humans, like angels, are created for unending existence; hence their contempt and punishment is forever and ever. Thus, the result of the unpardonable sin is eternal punishment.148 Hebrews 6:2 establishes eternal judgment as a fundamental doctrine.
The English words destroy and destruction do seem to indicate the end of existence. If so, passages such as Matthew 10:28 and Philippians 3:19 that describe the destiny of the wicked with these words would mean that these people would cease to exist. However, the Greek words (noun olethros; verb apollumi) never mean the end of existence. In the three parables in Luke 15, the coin, the sheep, and the son are “lost.” Likewise, destroyed wineskins do not cease to exist but become useless.149 Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”150 The lost life continues. The people upon whom “sudden destruction will come” at the end of the age still appear before the judgment seat.151 The temptations of riches that “plunge people into ruin and destruction” ruin them but do not end their existence.152 Paul explains the meaning of “the punishment of eternal destruction” as being “away from the presence of the Lord.”153 This rules out the idea that destruction means extinction. Only those who exist can be excluded from God’s presence.
The point of the destruction of the wicked is that they are wrecked, ruined, and useless. Thus, destruction is a sudden loss of all that gives worth and meaning to existence. Those who are destroyed are like the prodigal son: far from home and father. They continue to exist but are broken in spirit, miserable, and without hope in that state.
This is why the Bible speaks of hell as conscious, eternal punishment.
Do you believe that both Christians and non-Christians live forever?
137 Evangelical proponents of annihilationism include John Stott, John Wenham, Clark Pinnock, and Edward Fudge. J. I. Packer’s excellent article addressing this topic, “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review,” Reformation & Revival, vol. 6 (Spring 1997), is available at http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html.
138 Matt. 25:46.
139 Rev. 14:11.
140 Rev. 20:10.
141 Rom. 1:25.
142 Rev. 1:18.
143 1 Pet. 1:25.
144 Rev. 4:9.
145 Rev. 20:12.
146 E.g., 1 Cor. 15:28; Col. 1:20.
147 Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3; Rev. 3:18.
148 Mark 3:29.
149 Matt. 9:17.
150 Luke 9:24.
151 1 Thess. 5:3.
152 1 Tim. 6:9.
153 2 Thess. 1:9.