In an article on “Evangelical Annihilationism” published twenty years ago J.I. Packer respectfully rebutted the arguments made by the likes of E.W. Fudge, John Wenham and John Stott in favour of a more benign understanding of “hell” not as a place of eternal conscious torment but as eternal annihilation or non-existence. The first part of the article is a brief overview of the debate up to that point. In the second part Packer puts forward a theological and exegetical defence of the traditional doctrine.
In his mind, it comes down to the question of whether, when Jesus sent the wicked away “into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), he “envisaged a state of penal pain that is endless, or an ending of conscious existence that is irrevocable: that is (for this is how the question is put), a punishment that is eternal in its length or in its effect”. I think that both the traditionalists and the annihilationists get this wrong, but the traditionalists more so. This is not the first time I have addressed this question, but it takes the argument in some different directions, and in passing makes note of the significance of the events of Easter week.
Packer begins with two “theological and pastoral caveats”. The second is that what we think about hell “should not be determined by considerations of comfort”, which is true but inconsequential. The first is more relevant: “Views about hell should not be discussed outside the frame of the Gospel.” Packer writes:
The Christian idea of hell is not a freestanding concept of pain for pain’s sake (the divine “savagery” and “sadism” and “cruelty” and “vindictiveness” that annihilationists accuse believers in an unending hell of asserting), but a Gospel-formed notion of three coordinate miseries, namely, exclusion from God’s gracious presence and fellowship, in punishment and with destruction, being visited on those whose negativity towards God’s humbling mercies has already excluded the Father and the Son from their hearts.
It’s difficult to see, in the first place, how connecting the idea of hell to the gospel is supposed to mitigate the moral problem. The argument would work just as well, and perhaps better, if the negative message built into the proclamation of good news was only that the wages of sin is death. This would tap into the core biblical idea that Israel was always faced with a choice between life and death: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). The choice was presented in stark and fully realistic terms to the inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time of the siege of the city by the Babylonians: “Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jer. 21:8). They could stay in the city and die, or they could surrender to the Chaldeans and live.
I think that Jesus had much the same concrete circumstances in mind when he urged the Jews to choose between a broad way leading to destruction and a narrow way leading to life. This brings us to the real question, which typically neither the traditionalists nor the annihilationists discuss: What was the gospel that Jesus proclaimed? If it was a gospel of personal salvation and eternal life for all humanity, then, yes, we can speculate about the metaphysics of “eternal punishment”.
But Jesus’ gospel was not the existential, supra-historical, metaphysical abstraction that modern evangelicalism has made of it. It was an announcement about the historical fate of first century Israel. Jesus was the Jewish prophet from Nazareth of Galilee, who rode into Jerusalem in the guise of Israel’s king, acclaimed by the crowds as the “Son of David” (Matt. 21:1-11), who threatened destruction upon the temple, who cursed the barren fig tree of Israel, who accused the corrupt leadership in Jerusalem of hypocrisy, who was deeply troubled by his conviction that this generation of Jews would suffer an appalling retribution for the long history of rebellion against YHWH (Matt. 23:29-36).
The “good news” was that there was also a narrow and difficult way of life, which would be found by those willing to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Eventually, this painful path would bring them to the life of the age to come and a new beginning for the people of God.
But this concrete historical prospect also determined the “bad news”: Jesus’ notion of “hell” was indeed “Gospel-formed”. Those who rejected the invitation—to repent in the first place, or to follow Jesus through the tribulations of the end of the age—would suffer destruction at the hands of Israel’s enemies and exclusion from the life of the age to come.
Here we have the narrative-historical frame for understanding Jesus’ language of Gehenna and exclusion from the kingdom of God. They represent two different aspects of the “punishment” that would come upon historical Israel. “Gehenna” is a coded prophetic reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; the imagery of exclusion, being cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, has reference to the state of affairs that would come after the catastrophic event of the war against Rome. This is what a “Gospel-formed notion” of hell should look like, but neither side in the debate takes this historical dimension into account.
So with the caveats out of the way, let’s move on…
Packer then sets out his objections to four main annihilationist arguments. The third and fourth are questions of a general theological-moral nature and are moot if we do not accept the exegetical conclusions reached under the first two points, which I don’t.
Punishment of the age
Annihilationists maintain that the phrase “eternal punishment” (kolasin aiōnion) refers not to an active punishment that goes on indefinitely but to the lasting consequences of the punishment of the wicked in the age to come. Basil Atkinson—described by Packer as an “eccentric bachelor academic”, which shows you how dated the article is—argued that when aiōnios is “used in Greek with nouns of action, it has reference to the result of that action, but not the process”.
Packer agrees that aiōnios means “belonging to the age to come” rather than simply “eternal”, but he thinks there is no exegetical support for Atkinson’s view and that annihilationists have not been able to show, in any case, that Jesus was talking about “a momentary rather than a sustained event”.
This is perhaps a difficult issue to settle. The expressions “everlasting redemption” (aiōnian lutrōsin: Heb. 9:12) and “everlasting salvation” (sōtērias aiōniou: Heb. 5:9) would appear to speak of the eternal consequences of the momentary act of redemption.
Also Jesus says that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal (aiōniou) sin” (Mk. 3:29). The “sin” is the specific action of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit; it is not the action that is aiōnios but the consequences—there will be no forgiveness. Perhaps Jesus means that rejection of the work of the Spirit is rejection of the life of the age to come.
But the more important point is that from Jesus’ perspective the current age (aiōn) would end within the lifetime of some of his followers. The mission of his followers would be completed (Matt. 28:19-20), there would be a great judgment of Israel when the temple would be cast down (Matt. 13:39-40; 24:3), some at least of Israel’s dead would be raised (Lk. 20:34-35), and a new age of life according to the Spirit would get under way (Matt. 12:32; Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30), throughout which Jesus would rule over the house of Jacob (Lk. 1:33). Whatever the “punishment of the age” was, it had something to do with this narrative. In my view, it was a somewhat notional aspect of the judgment of the nations that would follow the renewal of Israel, related to their treatment of Jesus’ emissaries.
The argument about the immortality of the soul
Annihilationists usually argue that the idea of the “intrinsic immortality of the soul” is a second century Neo-Platonist intrusion into Christian thought. Biblically speaking, the person is a psychosomatic unity, so “the only natural meaning of the New Testament imagery of death, destruction, fire and darkness as indicators of the destiny of unbelievers is that such persons cease to be”. You can’t destroy the body without also destroying the soul.
Packer’s response to this is that although “there are texts which, taken in isolation, might carry annihilationist implications, there are others that cannot naturally be fitted into any form of this scheme”. There are texts, for example, which suggest that “darkness” is not non-existence but a “state of deprivation and distress”, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). The dead are not extinguished but go to Sheol or Hades. In Jesus’ story a callous rich man suffers conscious torment in the fires of Hades (Lk. 16:24; cf. Matt. 13:42, 50; Rev. 14:10; 19:20; 20:10). When Paul says that the persecutors of the churches will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction”, he adds that they will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9), which ‘rules out the idea that “destruction” meant extinction. Only those who exist can be excluded.’
Packer describes this as an argument from the “inner coherence” of scripture, but this is a coherence gained at the expense of narrative-historical distinctions that are critical for understanding how biblical language works. He makes the classic false assumption made by systematic theologians and dogmaticians—that biblical truths are simple, coherent and unitary but are refracted through the literary material of the Bible in subtly different colours. My argument, to the contrary, is that biblical “truth” is of its essence structured historically because the Bible is a witness not to eternal Platonic-Christian realities but to the historical experience of the people of God.
Packer is right to highlight the fact that many of the “hell” passages seem to assume a continued existence. But I made the point earlier that there are two aspects to divine judgment in the New Testament: there is the event of judgment and there is what comes next, the concrete experience of the age to come.
It is this latter aspect that accounts for the idea of continued existence. The distress experienced in the outer darkness by some Jews and Gentiles simply speaks of the fact that those who historically rejected the proclamation of YHWH’s impending rule over the nations would be alienated from the new order of things—in real terms, excluded from Christendom.
The “fiery furnace” at the close of the age of second temple Judaism will destroy “all causes of sin (skandala) and those doing lawlessness” (Matt. 13:41)—meaning that the metaphorical conflagration of the war against Rome would finally put an end to the chronic rebelliousness and defiance that was bringing wrath upon this generation of Jews. I think that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is another way of talking about this.
But this is not the same “fire” that is described in Revelation 14:11. John Stott argued that it is not the torment of those who worshipped the beast that is eternal but the smoke—that is, the “evidence that the fire has done its work”. Packer quotes the retort of Robert Peterson that we would expect the rising smoke to disappear once the fire had done its work. In fact, the smoke continues to rise because “There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image.” Packer says: “There seems no answer to this.”
Well, there is an answer to it. Nothing in the passage tells us that John has in mind what will happen to people after death. Again, both the traditionalists and the annihilationists are operating from a false premise. The whole debate is misconceived. What John describes, in vivid prophetic-apocalyptic language, is the historical “punishment” of “Babylon the great” (Rev. 14:8), pagan Rome, and of those most deeply committed to its beliefs and values.
He has taken the imagery from Isaiah’s description of YHWH’s “day of vengeance” against Edom:
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulphur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever. (Is. 34:9–10)
The smoke of Edom’s destruction would rise forever as a perpetual sign that this was a final judgment. In the same way, the smoke from the destruction of pagan Rome would rise forever as a perpetual sign of the finality of God’s judgment on the whole pagan system, in “recompense” for the cause of his people (cf. Is. 34:8). All John has done is highlight the fact that the “punishment” of Rome would be experienced by real people—by those who had worshipped the “beast” of idolatrous Roman imperialism.
We are still left with the lake of fire which is the second death. Briefly, I made the point recently that there is no reference to torment after the final judgment. Judgment by fire meant different things for Israel and Rome and for the symbolic figures who are thrown into the lake of fire following the defeat of pagan Rome. In these situations it undoubtedly entailed great pain, whether the pain of war or the pain of civilisational overthrow. But in the new heaven and new earth the function of the lake of fire seems to be to ensure quite simply that evil in all its forms, including the final evil of death, is no more. No one is tormented in this lake of fire, not even Hades itself. This is a final destruction.