Hell and Annihilationism
The word most often translated "hell" in the NT is Gehenna, the Greek equivalent for "the valley of Hinnom". This valley is immediately southwest of Jerusalem, still visible from the Mt. of Olives. At one time it was there that human sacrifices were made to the pagan deity Moloch (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; cf. Jer. 7:31; 19:5ff.). When King Josiah brought religious reform to the nation, Gehenna was condemned and came to be used as a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. In addition to common refuse, the corpses of criminals considered unworthy of burial were piled there. The smoldering fires of Gehenna never went out, its flames fanned and endlessly stoked by the continuous supply of refuse. In Jesus' day, Gehenna was a visible representation of Hell. Cf. Mark 9:47-48. Gehenna is used 11x in the synoptic gospels, always on the lips of Jesus.
The most explicit description of hell is found in Revelation 14:9ff.
The horrible nature of divine judgment is described in three phrases:
First, those who choose to "drink of the wine of the passion of her [Babylon"s] immorality" (v. 8) will, appropriately, be forced to "drink of the wine of the wrath of God" (v. 10; i.e., the wine which is His wrath). The image of pouring intoxicating wine from a cup often points to the experience of divine wrath and the suffering it inevitably brings (see Pss. 60:3; 75:8; Isa. 51:17,21-23; 63:6; Jer. 25:15-18; 51:17; Lam. 4:21; Ezek. 23:31-33; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). The intoxicating effect of drinking Babylon's wine is only temporary; it will wear off. But the effect of drinking the wine of God's wrath is eternal. Literally, the wine is "mixed unmixed" (v. 10). There are two options here. (1) It may mean that, contrary to normal practice, the wine that is prepared ("mixed") will not in any way be diluted with water (hence, "unmixed"). That is, God's wrath is utterly undiluted, being poured out in full strength, unmitigated, unmixed with mercy or longsuffering. (2) Or John may be alluding to Ps. 75:8 where wine is mixed with spices to increase its intensity (cf. Jer. 31:2). Thus "mixed" would refer to the addition of spices to increase the potency of the wine and "unmixed" to the fact that it is not diluted with water. On either reading, God's wrath is penal and in no way remedial. Longsuffering and patience have given way to the consummation of a promised day of reckoning.
Second, they will be "tormented with fire and brimstone" (v. 10b). Punishment with "fire and brimstone" is also found in Gen. 19:24 (Sodom and Gomorrah) Ps. 11:6; Isa. 30:33; Job 18:15. The combination of fire and brimstone (or sulphur) as a means of torment occurs 4x in Revelation (14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8). The nature of the "torment" is primarily spiritual and psychological (cf. Rev. 9:5-6; 18:7,10,15; 20:10), and thus the "fire and brimstone" are probably figurative. In other words, as literal fire and brimstone cause physical pain to the body, so the infliction of divine judgment on unbelievers will cause spiritual/psychological anguish to their souls. But could there also be a "physical" dimension to eternal punishment (see esp. John 5:28-29)? Moses Stuart contends that "the addition of brimstone to the imagery renders it exceedingly intense, for this not only makes the fire to rage with the greatest vehemence, but is noisome to the smell and suffocating to the breath" (2:298).
Third, public exposure is an added insult to the torment of the wicked, for we read that their punishment is in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. Cf. Rev. 19:1-10. One can't help but wonder: What will the angels and Jesus be thinking and feeling, at that time?
John goes on to describe the durationof this punishment in two statements in v. 11.
First, the smoke of their torment, i.e., the smoke of the fire and brimstone (v. 10) "goes up forever and ever". See Isa. 34:9-10 for the OT background. It is almost as if there is a smoldering testimony to the consequences of sin and the justice of God's wrath. The duration of this phenomenon is said to be, literally, "unto the ages of the ages". This terminology occurs 13x in Revelation: 3x with reference to the duration of praise, glory, and dominion given to God (1:6; 5:13; 7:12); 5x with reference to the length of life of God or Christ (1:18; 4:9,10; 10:6; 15:7); once referring to the length of God's reign in Christ (11:15); once referring to the length of the saints' reign (22:5); once referring to the ascension of the smoke of destroyed Babylon (19:3); once referring to the duration of torment of the devil, beast, and false prophet (20:10); and, of course, once here in 14:11.
Second, "they have no rest day and night" (the latter phrase being parallel to "forever and ever"). In Rev. 4:8 the same terminology occurs with regard to the duration of worship on the part of the four living creatures. That from which they have "no rest" is, presumably, the torment caused by the fire and brimstone.
This is one of the most difficult and unsettling doctrines in the Bible. Understandably, there is a theological debate raging in evangelicalism on this question: Do texts such as this speak of eternal punishing (with focus on the act of judging) or eternal punishment (with focus on the effect of judgment)? In other words, what is it that is eternal or unending: the act of punishing unbelievers, or the effect of their punishment? Again, is the torment of the lost a conscious experience that never ends? Or is the punishment a form of annihilation in which, after a just season of suffering in perfect proportion to sins committed, the soul ceases to exist? Does the ascending smoke of their torment point to the unending conscious experience of suffering they endure? Or does it signify a lasting, irreversible effect of their punishment in which they are annihilated? Those who argue for the latter view contend that there will be no rest "day or night" from torment while it continues or as long as it lasts. But whether or not it lasts forever or eternally must be determined on other grounds.
Two books that deny eternal conscious punishment are The Fire that Consumes, by Edward Fudge (Houston: Providential Press, 1982), and The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, by Jan Bonda (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). The book by Bonda also affirms the "hope" of universal salvation. Others who argue for some form of annihilationism include John Stott (tentatively), Phillip E. Hughes, John Wenham, Stephen Travis, Stephen Davis, and Clark Pinnock.
Many, but not all, of those who affirm annihilationism are also conditionalists. That is to say, they deny that the soul is inherently or naturally immortal and affirm that it acquires immortality only when conferred by God (most often as a constituent element in the gift of salvation). Annihilationists who reject conditionalism simply assert that God, as a punitive act, deprives the unbeliever of immortality at some point subsequent to the final judgment. Most traditionalists affirm that whereas only God is inherently immortal, he irrevocably confers immortality on humans at creation.
Books that affirm eternal conscious punishment are The Other Side of the Good News, by Larry Dixon (Wheaton: BridgePoint, 1992), Whatever Happened to Hell, by John Blanchard (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1993), Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, by Robert Peterson (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1995), Repent or Perish, by John Gerstner (Ligonier: SDG Publications, 1990), and The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, by W. G. T. Shedd (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1986 ). I especially recommend the chapter titled "On Banishing the Lake of Fire" in D. A. Carson's book, The Gagging of God (Zondervan, 1996, 515-36).
One book that presents a variety of views is Four Views on Hell, ed. by William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). See also Two Views of Hell, by Robert Peterson and Edward Fudge (IVP, 2000), and The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (London: Acute, 2000).
What reasons do people give for denying eternal conscious punishment and affirming annihilationism (or what is sometimes called "conditional immortality")?
(1) They appeal to the biblical language of hell, primarily the words "to destroy", "destruction", and "perish" (see Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7). The "fire" of hell burns up, consumes, and utterly "destroys" its object, leaving nothing (see Mt. 10:28). Thus, they interpret "destroy" to mean deprive of life and existence, hence the extinction of being.
(2) The Greek word often translated "forever" (aion) literally means "age". Whereas in some contexts the "age" may be endless, in others it may not be so.
(3) They appeal to an argument from justice: A "just" penalty will be in proportion to the crime or sin committed. How can a sin committed in time by a finite creature warrant eternal, unending torment?
(4) To suggest that hell lasts forever is to say that God does not, in actual fact, achieve victory over sin and evil. How can God be said to "win" if his enemies continue to exist forever? Would not eternal punishment entail an eternal cosmological dualism? Would not the eternally continuous existence of hell and its occupants mar the beauty and joy of heaven?
(5) They find it morally repugnant and emotionally abhorrent to suggest that a God of love and mercy and kindness would "torture" (their word) people in hell forever and ever. No matter how grievous the sin(s), horrific pain, whether spiritual or physical or both, that goes on and on for billions of years, and after that for billions of years, ad infinitum, is more than they can tolerate. John Stott puts it this way:
"I find the concept [of eternal conscious punishment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be -- and is -- not what does my heart tell me, but what does God's word say?" (Essentials, 314-15).
But there are other considerations as well.
(1) The word group which includes "destroy" and its synonyms is used in a variety of ways, some of which do not require or even imply the cessation of existence. In other words, a careful examination of usage indicates that destruction can occur without extinction of being. Likewise with the imagery of "fire" in hell, we must acknowledge that this is metaphor, and thus not press the terms to prove something about hell's duration they were never intended to communicate. Just think of hell in the NT being described at one time as "utter darkness" and at another time as "a lake of fire". How do these two coexist if they are strictly literal. Thus we must be cautious in drawing rigid doctrinal conclusions about the supposed "function" of fire in hell. One cannot help but wonder about Mt. 18:8 which speaks of those who are thrown into the "eternal" fire. As Carson says, "one is surely entitled to ask why the fires should burn forever and the worms not die [cf. Mark 9:47-48] if their purpose comes to an end" (525).
(2) There are as many texts where aion means eternal as there are where it refers to a more limited period of time. This argument is indecisive on both sides of the debate.
(3) As for the argument from justice, we humans are hardly the ones to assess the enormity of our sins. "Is the magnitude of our sin established by our own status, or by the degree of offense against the sovereign, transcendent God? (Carson, 534)" Says Piper: "The essential thing is that degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offend? (Let the Nations Be Glad! 127). In other words, our sin is deserving of infinite punishment because of the infinite glory of the One against whom it is perpetrated. No one expressed this more clearly than Jonathan Edwards:
"The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionably more or less heinous, as he was under greater or less obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligation to love, and honor, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty.
Our obligation to love, honor and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority. . . . But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. . . .
So sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving infinite punishment. . . . The eternity of the punishment of ungodly men renders it infinite . . . and therefore renders it no more than proportionable to the heinousness of what they are guilty of? ("The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners," The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:669).
(4) Only sin that goes unpunished would indicate a failure of justice and a defeat of God's purpose. The ongoing existence of hell and its occupants would just as readily reflect on the glory of God's holiness and his righteous opposition to evil.
(5) Perhaps the idea of endless punishing is less offensive when the idea of endless sinning is considered. In other words, if those in hell never cease to sin, why should they ever cease to suffer? See Rev. 22:10-11. On this latter text Carson comments: "If the holy and those who do right continue to be holy and to do right, in anticipation of the perfect holiness and rightness to be lived and practiced throughout all eternity, should we not also conclude that the vile continue in their vileness in anticipation of the vileness they will live and practice throughout all eternity (533)?" If one should reject this notion and argue that people pay fully for their sins in hell and at some point cease to sin, why can't they then be brought into heaven (thereby turning hell into purgatory)? If their sins have not been fully paid for in hell, on what grounds does justice permit them to be annihilated?
On this last point I suspect the annihilationist could respond by saying that extinction of being is itself the payment for sin. The ultimate destruction of the soul, i.e., obliteration, is itself the full and final judicial consequence for sin. One's legal debt for sins committed can never be thought of as fully paid until one is annihilated.
(6) In addition, one must explain Mt. 25:46 and Rev. 20:10-15. Regardless of what one thinks about the identity of the beast and false prophet, no evangelical denies that Satan is a sentient being. Thus here is at least one such "person" who clearly suffers eternal conscious torment. "We may not feel as much sympathy for him as for fellow human beings, and we may cheerfully insist that he is more evil than any human being, but even so, it is hard to see how the arguments deployed against the notion of eternal conscious suffering of sinful human beings would be any less cogent against the devil" (Carson, 527). See especially 20:15 ("if anyone"s name", not just the beast and false prophet) and 21:8.