Hell as Total Annihilation?

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If you’ve never seen the film Pan’s Labyrinth, I highly recommend it, with the caveat that you’ll be disturbed. One scene in particular was burned into my mind since the first viewing, and it had nothing to do with the monsters or fantastical creatures (which are all amazingly rendered), but with human-on-human violence. The bad guy in the film is perhaps the most evil, wicked man I have ever seen in a story. You want absolutely terrible things to happen to him. I have often wrestled with whether or not Del Toro’s comeuppance was satisfying enough for the man, but I will get to that in a moment.

Lately my theological curiosity has led me down a rabbithole of exploring the various views of hell — what is it? What does it consist of? Is it eternal and conscious and all of the things we are taught by angry men with cardboard signs?

I have devoured podcasts and multiple books on the subject and must admit that the most persuasive view, in my opinion, is the Annihilation view, also known as terminal punishment, conditional immortality, or existential cessation. I’ve become a ‘terminator.’ In essence, it means that all unrepentant evil people will eventually cease to exist after a period of punishment. They will not be tortured forever, nor will they ultimately end up in heaven.

Without doing full word studies on every relevant text or scouring the scriptures for each passage that presents a helpful or contending viewpoint, I want to rattle off a few reasons this has become the most convincing argument for me.

For one, what we believe about hell in some way shapes what we believe about God. Every biblical view of God ultimately boils down to two key attributes: holiness and love, or some similar combination. Embedded in His holiness is the idea of wrath and justice; the fact that nothing un-holy can stand in His presence and survive. Of course, love is the side of Him that chases after sinners despite their missteps and sacrifices Himself on our behalf.

As John Stackhouse submits, the Annihilation view rightly sets these two attributes at ease with one another. It’s terrifying to believe in a God who could torment His own creatures for eternity (Eternal Conscious Torment, ECT, or the Traditional View of hell). Doesn’t this contradict not only His loving nature, but the very laws He gave to us and presented them as ‘just’?

Look at pre-Old Testament history. If someone chopped off your finger, you would go out and murder him and his whole family. The punishment far exceeded the original crime. Then, in the Code of Hammurabi and eventually in the Torah, the idea of “an eye for an eye” was introduced. The punishment could not be greater than the crime.

The traditional view of hell seems to contradict the very heart of this commandment: God unleashes eternal punishment to atone for 80 years of sin.

One may say, Yes, but when we sin against humans it is different than sinning against a holy, perfect, infinite God, so the punishment should be infinite. This is a philosophical question, but also violates some other key biblical principles. For instance, when David sins with Bathsheba, he later repents by telling God, “Against You and You alone have I sinned.” Therefore, sin against another human is a sin against God. It’s also worth asking, is a finite sin committed by a finite human actually infinite just because God is? Does He not know that we — and our rebellion against Him — is necessarily limited to our humanity? I don’t believe that God is actually harmed when we sin; grieved, yes, but not hurt in any substantial way.

In this view of punishment, we see that God executes His justice by wiping evil from the universe, yet inHis love, does not let the suffering go on forever. His love, joy and peace eventually fill the cosmos because there is no longer any location for evil, suffering, or rebellion.

For the purpose of illustration, picture a 16-year-old gang member from the South Side of Chicago. He was raised without a father, never had education, was abused by a pastor when he was young, and was killed in a gang fight. Are we to assume that he should receive the same punishment as Hitler, who conscientiously eradicated millions of people? This framework creates a system in which the punishment better fits the crime: Hitler may be punished for 6 million years before ceasing to exist, while the teen will only be punished a few years before being put to rest. Both are not eternally tormented equally, as if they were guilty of the same tier and number of sins.

So all this leaves the biggest question: What does the Bible actually say about the fate of the wicked?

Well, if we erase all of our reformed programming from our minds and look at what the Bible actually says, we find that it is pretty consistent about the wicked being killed. When we use this word, it does not typically refer to ongoing punishment, but to cessation of existence. Look at John 3:16, the most famous verse in there. It says that people who believe in Jesus “will not perish, but have everlasting life.” What happens to the wicked? They perish. It is even contrasted against the opposite, everlasting life. The implication is that you go on living, or you don’t.

Several passages in the New Testament compare the wicked’s fate to that of Sodom and Gomorra, which begs the question, did those cities suffer eternally, or were they immediately wiped from the face of the earth?

In countless places, their fate is compared to being burnt up, or thrown into “an unquenchable fire,” or consumed by “a worm that does not die.” First of all, when you put someone in fire, do they suffer forever, or do they die pretty quickly? Note that the ‘unquenchable’ and ‘immortal worm’ refer to those entities, not the people who are consumed by them. If you saw a bunch of corpses who were burning and eaten by worms, you would not look at them and think, Man, those guys are really suffering!

The punishment spoken of in scripture is indeed eternal and permanent; someone who undergoes “the second death” will surely stay dead!

Daniel 12 speaks of some people experiencing everlasting life, and others to everlasting shame and contempt. This is another place where it is important not to read our programmed view into the text. Does someone need to be present to experience shame and contempt? This is where Pan’s Labyrinth comes back around. In the end, the evil antagonist deserves torture and a long, slow painful death. Instead, his servant girl bluntly tells him, “Your son won’t even know your name,” then shoots him in the cheek.

We wanted to see him suffer for days on end, but all he got was a quick ending and the promise that his absence will only be marked by…shame and contempt. Del Toro saw this as a fitting punishment for all the crimes perpetrated by the man. Perhaps the same promise is made to all unrepentant wicked people: You will be gone, in every sense of the word, but your name, if it lives on, will only be for condemnation and further shame.

In purely numeric values, the number of verses that support annihilation far outweighs that of ECT, which when analyzed, boils down to about 2 or 3. This doctrine is not a central doctrine to salvation or orthodox Christianity, so it’s not a hill worth dying on. However, as I said above, what we believe about hell can help round out our views on God, and this is one area where it is worthwhile to return to scripture and examine what we believe based on what it actually says.

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