Greetings, friends. This article is an update on my theological explorations, and my attempt to fully understand whether I can reconcile my belief in God’s sovereign control over the unfolding of all events with the Christian gospel.
When Christians discuss the doctrine of hell, they usually take one of three positions: traditionalism, conditionalism, or universalism. Some time ago I wrote this post which introduces the differences between these three positions.
There are scriptures that could be cited to support each of these three positions, but the position I find most persausive is conditionalism, with the associated doctrine of annihilationism. Annihilationism says that following death, the wicked will be punished for some time, but then their consciousness will cease (they will be annihilated).
I have experienced great despair when struggling to comprehend the traditionalist perspective, which supports the idea of eternal conscious torment. Christians often argue that eternal punishment for the wicked reflects God’s justice. ‘We all deserve hell’, they say in their evangelism. But I cannot see how, if a person were to commit a sexual sin for instance, this would warrant everlasting conscious torment? In all honesty, can anyone really argue that that’s a punishment appropriate to the crime?
In justice systems on Earth, which God has of course established (He establishes all things), people are given a punishment which is intended to be proportionate to their crime. So, after some time, and perhaps some rehabilitation, they are released. Or if they have been given multiple life sentences, they may die in prison, but even in this scenario the sentence that is dealt is not unlimited. This is a vision of justice that I can understand. But with eternal conscious torment, the punishment would always outweigh the gravity of any crime, at least as I currently understand things.
Of course, I’m aware of Romans 9:14-24, the passage where Paul suggests that it is not for the clay to question the actions of the potter. I fully accept that, and my overarching concern is to understand what Scripture teaches, and then live in accordance with that teaching. If that necessarily meant living with tremendous fear of everlasting conscious torment, then I would have accept that, however difficult it would make my evangelistic activities. God does whatever He wishes.
I do have a belief in the goodness of God. But I don’t know how I could ever rejoice in God’s goodness with the thought of eternal conscious torment being inflicted upon any person, or any creature. Is it possible to genuinely love God (which we are commanded to do), if God’s punishments are unbearably severe?
Fortunately, I believe there is a very strong argument in Scripture for annihilationism. It seems that there are many passages which refer to ‘death’ and ‘destruction’ for the wicked, but very few that seem to indicate eternal conscious torment.
Now I must offer the disclaimer that I have not studied Greek and Hebrew in depth, so I am relying to a large extent on the plain meaning of the text in the ESV Bible which I am currently using for reference. I am also exploring the views of scholarly theologians on the subject, and searching the Internet when necessary.
Some passages that point to annihilationism include Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 92:7, Matthew 10:28b, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, Philippians 3:19, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, James 4:12a, and others.
There is an argument which could be made which says that the power of the gospel is weakened if eternal conscious torment is not a reality. But I actually think that one of the main things which puts people off exploring the Christian faith is the severe picture of God that is often painted by evangelists. People simply cannot understand why God would be so cruel.
A belief in annihilationism (supported by Scripture) would not stop me from believing that we will all face judgement and that terrible punishment could result for those who have not repented and submitted to the authority of Jesus Christ. But a belief in annihilation as final punishment would appear to make God a just judge, and if this doctrine is true, it would enable me to more easily love God with my whole heart, as Jesus commands me to do.
I’m intending to read this book to enable me to reflect further on the subject: Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Robert A. Peterson and Edward William Fudge (InterVarsity Press, 2000). The book presents arguments in favour of both traditionalism and annihilationism, and is available on Amazon. God bless you and thank you for reading.