This is the second of two questions about annihilationism. The first had to do with the origins of the argument that the “hell” language in the New Testament refers not to suffering after death but to historical events interpreted as divine judgment, which could be quite unpleasant enough enough. This second question raises a more specific issue: Is it necessary to believe that the unrighteous are also raised at the end, only to be destroyed again?
Is it possible to hold to conditional immortality w/out annihilationism, in that immortality is a gift, but not believe that God will resurrect the unrepentant only to destroy them again? I guess what I’m getting at is I wonder if the “dead” (nonbelievers) will simply remain dead after they take their last breath. What am I to do with the passages about the resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous?
I understand what this is getting at, but it seems a funny way of putting it. It sounds as though we’re looking for acceptable doctrinal options rather than trying to understand the New Testament. It is possible to hold to whatever we like and to not believe whatever we like. If we don’t like the passages about the resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous, well, we are free to disregard them. We do that all the time.
But I think the challenge that we face at the moment is, as best we can, to suspend the urge to read according to what we consider morally or theologically possible or desirable and let the text say what it wants to say. A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to learn to respect the Bible for what it is, not for what we would like it to be. If we are uncomfortable with what we find, that is simply part of the total narrative of the people of God.
Now to the question. I wonder, in the first place, whether a doctrine of annihilation necessarily requires a resurrection and second death of the unrighteous. In other words, we could start from the assumption that conditional immortality by definition entails annihilation. Annihilation is just the destruction that is death, a fact of life, the basic given. The idea of a second annihilation is a development—and perhaps only a peripheral development—from the existential position.
It seems to me that it is only in Revelation 20:11-15 that we have an unequivocal account of a resurrection of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous, for judgment. Daniel 12:2-3, with its distinction between those who are raised to “everlasting life” and those who are raised to “shame and everlasting contempt” has left its mark on the New Testament (eg. Matt. 13:43; perhaps John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). But this is a resurrection closely associated with the restoration of Israel rather than with cosmic renewal, and it is very difficult to determine exactly what resurrection looks like under these circumstances (consider the problems generated by Matt. 27:52-53). Apart from Acts 24:15, Paul has nothing to say about a resurrection of the unrighteous.
Given this, we may have the option of understanding the final judgment of all the dead somewhat symbolically. It could be argued that the “second death” is only a symbolic reinforcement or restatement of the fundamental existential judgment on human sinfulness, which is death (cf. Rom. 6:23). The risk here is that by the same demythologizing sleight of hand we inadvertently make the participation of the just in a renewed creation disappear. But I guess the symbolic reinforcement or restatement of life, if it is to have any meaning at all, must presuppose a new ontology, a new creation existence. In any case, Revelation 20-21 is not a passage to be interpreted too literally.