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TEXT: II Thessalonians 1:1-10
SUBJECT: Doctrine of Hell #5: Annihilationism (Part 1)
This afternoon brings us to the fifth part in our study of the terrible-but true-Doctrine of Hell. No decent person gloats over the reality of Hell, but we need to believe and preach it because our Lord Jesus Christ told us to. And He knows best.
For Christians, the doctrine of Hell is designed to fill us with relief and joy. Because, while we deserve Eternal Damnation as much as anyone else, we have been delivered from it by the Sacrifice of Christ in our place. In a word, we don't go to Hell when we die because He went to Hell when He died-on the Cross. For us.
For unbelievers, the doctrine of Hell is meant to get them off the Broad Path that leads to Destruction and onto the Narrow Way that leads to Life. Fear may not be the highest motive for fleeing the Wrath to Come, but it is a motive, and we ought to use it as such. Many Christians will bear witness to the fact that 'the fear of Hell' got them into Christ more than what we might think of as higher or purer motives.
That was my own experience. When I was converted as a boy, to be honest, I didn't feel all that guilty and my heart wasn't bursting with love for Christ. But I didn't want to go to Hell, and I knew that unless I 'accepted Jesus as my Personal Savior' that's what would happen to me. And so, for me, it was the Doctrine of Hell that brought me to Christ more than any other motive I'm aware of.
Most people say they don't really believe in the Doctrine of Hell, and there's a variety of reasons for their unbelief. But I don't care about every reason for denying or watering down the Doctrine of Hell, but only two of them, because these two rise-not from secularism or Buddhism or some other non-Christian source, but from people who profess faith in Christ, some of whom sincerely believe the Bible.
The two great 'Christian Rivals' to the Doctrine of Hell are (1) Universalism and (2) Annihilationism. Last week, we examined the former, now, the latter.
What is Annihilationism? It is the belief that, when the wicked die, they cease to exist. Some advocates believe this happens the moment they die, others that there is a brief stint in the Lake of Fire, but, bottom line: Nobody goes to Hell forever!
As you know, I very much disagree with this doctrine, but.to give the devil his due.it is not the same thing as Universalism; and, in my opinion, while it is a serious error, it is not heresy; it does not overthrow the faith. Here's why:
THE FOUR ARGUMENTS
On the surface, at least, the Bible definitely teaches Eternal Damnation, that is, the conscious and never-ending punishment of the lost. The Church Universal also has put it in our Confessions of Faith and so on. So.why have some men with solid professions of faith and strong ties to the Church come to wonder about it or even deny it? What are the intelligent arguments for Annihilationism?
In my reading, I have found five of them, the first four being (fairly) easy to answer, the fifth quite a bit harder. Here are the four, as set out by John RW Stott.
FIRST TWO REBUTTALS
These are the four arguments advanced by Stott, one of the great Christians leaders of the 20th Century. Unlike some who have taught it, Stott was neither stupid nor uneducated; nor did he resort to kooky principles of interpretation. Still, his arguments are no good. We'll look at the first two today (which are easier to answer) and next time, the others (which are much harder). Along with one other, that Stott doesn't mention, but most Annihilationists do.
Firstly: He denies that words like 'destroy and perish' always mean 'forever' But, of course they don't! When our Lord said New wine put in old wineskins will destroy them, He didn't mean they would be damned forever! Or that the skins might not be re-cycled and put to some other use.
In the storm, when Peter cried out-
Carest thou not that we perish?
He was referring to this life only; not the life to come.
The question, then, is not 'Does Destroy or Perish' always mean 'forever'? But rather, 'Does it mean 'forever' when it's applied to the fate of the wicked?' It seems to me, it does.
Start with v.9 of today's text. When the Lord comes, He will punish the wicked with everlasting destruction. If this means 'annihilation' why doesn't Paul simply say, 'They'll be destroyed?' What might everlasting add to their punishment? Because paper was expensive, ancient authors wrote as few words as possible-especially a poor man like Paul! Why pay more to get nothing more? Everlasting Destruction, therefore, seems to mean just what it sounds like: Punishment that never ends.
Matthew 10:28 is even harder to square with Annihilationism. There, Jesus tells us to not fear men who can do nothing more than kill the body, but to fear only God who can-
Destroy both body and soul in Hell.
If Hell means nothing more than 'going out of existence', why does our Lord put the word, Hell (Gehenna, the strongest word for it) in this passage? Why not contrast human power that destroys only the body to Divine power that destroys both body and soul? Why add Hell?
And if He had to say it, why didn't He choose the 'softer' version of it, Sheol, a word that can mean Hell, but more often, means 'the realm of the dead?' Why bring up the image of the Valley of Hinnom? The uncleanest place in the world, a place where children were once sacrificed to the gods of Canaan, and that later became a garbage dump? It seems clear that the Justice of God can do more than give us a very long nap!
God is not a Cosmic Anesthesiologist! He is-
The Judge of the Living and the Dead!
Not putting His enemies to sleep, but punishing them for their crimes. Forever!
The second argument is the nature of fire itself. Fire doesn't punish, it consumes. Even people who burn to death in a house fire, don't keep on burning; they only burn till there's nothing left of them. This is what John Stott believed, and more or less the view of my beloved CS Lewis.
This may be the purpose of fire on earth, but is it the purpose of Hell Fire? Are the damned burned forever in the fire, or-like weeds and chaff and fruitless trees--are they actually burned up? Do they cease to exist the moment they die or after some temporary punishment?
If you check my references-fruitless trees, chaff, and tares, you'll find Jesus or John, again, suggesting these fires last quite a bit longer than the fires we're used to.
John the Baptist calls it-
Jesus connects it to-
Weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Not by those 'left behind'-that's good, to grieve for the dead. But by the people who suffer this Fire. Some of these verses do not exactly 'prove' Eternal Damnation, but they all make Annihilationism very hard to believe (unless you only believe in it because you want to).
Then, there are counter passages; parts of the Bible that are impossible to turn the fires of Hell into a brief or temporary punishment. Revelation 19 has the devil chained in Hell for a thousand years. That's an awfully long time (probably longer than 1,000 years). But his punishment is not through, not by a long shot! Because in Revelation 20, the same devil is-
Cast into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever.
I cannot see how you can read the devil's punishment as anything like being 'burning up' after a good long time. But that's the devil. Hardly anyone thinks his punishment is temporary. But here's the thing: in Revelation 20, the devil is not the only inmate of the Eternal Prison. John also says the Beast and false prophet are already there!
This perfectly fits what Jesus said a generation earlier in His Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where the latter are consigned to-
The Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
In a word, neither the devil nor his servants-demonic and human-don't burn up in Hell. They just burn. Forever. Their smoke rises up forever for the simple reason that they'll be in a Fire that is never quenched.
GOOD MOTIVES AND BAD DOCTRINES
I do not believe Annihilationists are all bad men who find satisfaction or money or popularity or uniqueness in denying the doctrine of Eternal Damnation. What I think they are-the thoughtful ones, I mean-are good men with soft hearts. They want to bring comfort to Christian women whose husbands died in unbelief. And they don't want anyone to think of God as mean and hateful, a god drinking the blood of His enemies.
To their way of thinking, Annihilationism protects the reputation of God and comforts grief-stricken people whose loved ones died outside of Christ.
These motives are good, and in criticizing the doctrine, we mustn't attack the character of the people who believe it. We can leave their judgment to God. Let Him sort it out!
But if John RW Stott or Harold Camping were good men, their teaching on this point was bad! The Hope of Annihilationism is a False Hope! The Comfort it gives weeping widows is an empty one.
We do no one a favor by lying! And, least of all, do we glorify the God who cannot lie by doing it ourselves. What comfort do we give the bereaved? We give them the comfort of God's Wisdom in always doing what's right, His Promise to draw near to us when we're in pain, and the Hope that, in the end, they'll be fully and forever Happy among the Blessed. In short, it's the hope of Glory, a hope that will-
Never be put to shame.
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