A question about annihilationism

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A couple of questions were sent to me recently regarding my view on “hell”. I have blogged far more than I ever intended to on the subject over the last year, mainly because Rob Bell’s Love Wins put the Emergent cat among the excitable Reformed pigeons. I take a rather distinctive line on the matter. I think that, for the most part, when the New Testament speaks of wrath or judgment or gehenna, it speaks prophetically of foreseeable historical events, in particular the devastating war between Israel and Rome and—less distinctly—the overthrow of the whole system of classical paganism. The doctrine of “hell” as we know it developed as a later misreading of New Testament apocalyptic, as European metaphysics won out over Jewish narrative. The final judgment on sin is destruction and death—the destruction of societies or civilizations, on the one hand; the death of individuals, on the other. The final judgment on sinful humanity is the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (Rev. 21:8).

This argument is close to the standard alternative to the “eternal conscious torment” view of “hell”, annihilationism, but it is not exactly the same, which brings us to the two questions. The first, which I will address today, has to do with sources. The second, which I will keep for tomorrow, concerns the resurrection of the unrighteous.

What books would you point me to in order to get your view? I get the feeling you hold to something like annihilation, but better. I like that you place the statements on “hell” in their historical context rather than use them as a both / and warning (hell and 70 AD). Edward Fudge might come close but I have a feeling your more nuanced than him or Pinnock. Am I right?

I have a hard time answering this. I think my understanding of the “hell” passages has developed out of a broad historical-critical approach to the New Testament coupled with an appreciation of the controlling effect of intertextuality (see below). So scholars working in the area of historical Jesus research (especially those who emphasize the apocalyptic dimension), the New Perspective, and to some extent imperial-critical interpretations of Paul have been important sources for me; but studies that examine the relation between the Old and New Testaments have also been influential. I make extensive use of critical commentaries. One of these days I will get round to putting together a proper reading list. This is not the first time that I have been asked. But, in a way, the hermeneutic is more important than any particular sources.

I have a copy of Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, but I have to confess that I haven’t read it. Nor have I read much of Pinnock’s work—I have not really thought of him as an exegete.

Fudge appears—on belated perusal—to be making a classic case for the annihilation of the wicked at the final judgment as a theological position. The historical aspect to the argument appears to be largely absent. He notes that Jeremiah predicted that the Valley of Hinnom “would be filled to overflowing with Israelite corpses when God judged the nation for its sins”, and that “Josephus indicates that the same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews following the Roman siege of Jerusalem” (96). But he assumes that Jesus nevertheless uses the imagery to speak of a final judgment of all humanity, not merely a temporal judgment of Israel. I see no justification for this assumption. I see no reason to push Jesus of the path that runs directly between Jeremiah and Josephus.

If it’s of interest, my methodology is rather straightforward. It is a matter, first, of adopting a historical perspective, of trying to read from within the confined space of the New Testament rather than from our modern theologically constructed vantage point; secondly, of exploring the intertextual background—the Jewish narratives that shape the language and thought of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament; and thirdly, of working with large literary structures—narratives and arguments—rather than fragmented and isolated texts.

My conclusions about hell are the result (I hope) of pursuing this methodology consistently. I think the “both/and” approach (both temporal judgment and final judgment) is to be resisted unless there is clear literary evidence that this is what was intended (I don’t think there generally is). In most instances interpreters are trying to have their cake and eat it—they are unwilling to let go of their theology and trust what the Bible is actually saying.

Steven Opp | Wed, 11/30/2011 - 21:03 | Permalink

I wonder if part of the reason annihilationism is resisted is because of the 1st Law of Thermodynamics (matter cannot be destroyed or created).  Therefore, to say a human soul could be annihilated for all eternity doesn't line up with anything we've seen.  Perhaps a new word should be used instead of annihilationism.

You wrote this in another post which I found helpful:

"...my understanding is that the basic biblical view is that we do not have a 'soul' that survives death. The 'soul' is the life-principle that returns to the giver of life when a person dies, but it is not some conscious, immortal aspect of a person’s identity."

Your idea of "life principle" aligns with what James Jordan calls "life bond" found here: http://biblicalhorizons.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/biblical-theology-basi…

Jordan says hell is people residing in the presence of God (the lake of fire in the throne room, Rev. 14:10) forever because they hate being in God's presence, and their "life-bond" is still intact but they experience God's presence in a negative way (this is in my opinion more biblically consistent than those who would say hell is eternal "separation" from God).

While your interpretation makes more sense to me than Jordan's (whose interpretation makes more sense than most others), it seems like the metaphysics still need to be worked out a little.  If the life principle/bond is lost at death, is it restored at the resurrection?  Then, those who are annhilated lose it again and their identity is reabsorbed into God?  That seems the best way to look at it in my view, though it seems like speculation on what happens to souls after death is perhaps too far beyond the human capacities to even begin to understand, but it seems we have to go there to some extent to defend the "annhiliation" view...


I understand your point about the logical concept of annhilation, but I think that John Walton's point in "the Lost World of Genesis One" should be a guiding principle:  It's unfair to view the world of scripture through the lense of Newtonian (or modern) physics when their use of imagery and argumentation couldn't have conceived of it.  But, I agree with your point that we should come up with more Biblical terminology.  I suggest "Second Death".


It sounds like Jordan's view is very similar to the EO approach.  So, you can claim a strong historical precident in church doctrine there.

Doug in CO | Wed, 11/30/2011 - 21:10 | Permalink

In conversations I've had on the difference between Gehenna and the Lake of Fire I think that the majority of emotion shown by the rejectors of Andrew's position comes from people assuming that the result will be universalism.  If Gehenna is simply the local military national disaster, and we assume that the Lake of Fire is the same thing (it has always been the same thing in their minds), then we are saying that there is no final judgment.  So, it's critical to articulate the separation of the two concepts.  To separate the two concepts doesn't mean that one has to take any particular position on whether the Lake of Fire is annhilation, eternal conscious torment, or any other view.  If you can swallow that Gehenna is a different concept, and then embrace that Jesus was referring to Jeremiah 7 and Isaiah 66 when he taught about Gehenna, then this allows you to start to see the urgency of the message in 30AD.

I thought the value of Fudge's book was that he did a good job of showing that Gehenna was a temporary event with perpetual results.  But, he missed the boat in making Gehenna the same as the Lake of Fire.

Barney | Thu, 12/01/2011 - 07:04 | Permalink

I like your methodology but I don't see why a theology couldn't be built from it. Couldn't you simply trace the principles of God's historical judgement on historical situations back to consistent characteristics of God, and then apply those consistent characteristics abstractly to similar situations? For example, if Jerusalem will be destroyed unless she repents, then God is a God who destroys people unless they repent, so you and I will also be destroyed unless we repent. Perhaps this is what you're doing, but you seem reluctant to call it theology.

Yes, of course. Part of the problem is just trying to preserve some methodological distinctions without over-complicating the terminology. There is the theology (1) that we inherit by virtue of being part of the modern church, and which causes us to misunderstand the New Testament to whatever degree. There is the theology (2) that is intrinsic to the New Testament, which is narratively constructed, and which it would be misleading to call a “New Testament theology”. And there is the theology (3) that we might potentially generate having recovered theology (2).

For example, if Jerusalem will be destroyed unless she repents, then God is a God who destroys people unless they repent, so you and I will also be destroyed unless we repent.

I’m not sure this is the best example, though. First, the destruction of death as a universal judgment on human sinfulness logically precedes the destruction of Jerusalem. Secondly, a narrative-historical methodology puts contingency before universals, so we have to consider the possibility that the destruction of Jerusalem is not simply an instance of a general principle, or that it marks the last instance of a general principle.

So, yes, we can work backwards from historical judgment to the general principle that the wages of sin is death. But I’m not sure we can work forward from the destruction of Jerusalem without simply allegorizing it.

I suppose the question is: Do we think that God judges his people as a people today? Do we think that God judges societies and cultures today?

But your basic point is correct. We will always want to think beyond the New Testament material, extrapolate, rationalize. I just want to avoid doing that at the expense of our understanding of the New Testament itself.

N.T. Wright's explanations of Jesus' teaching in historical context went a long way toward clarifying this topic for me. I've gone from belief in endless, conscious suffering as "hell" to something akin to annihilationism over the past few years. Still much to think about.