On the Gospel Coalition site Gavin Ortlund has summarily restated J.I. Packer’s response to annihilationist arguments. Here I restate my arguments against the arguments against annihilationism, while noting at the same time that annihilationism as a reading of New Testament eschatology is itself largely misconceived. For the most part, the texts under discussion refer not to what happens to individuals after they die—whether eternal conscious torment or annihilation—but to what happens to peoples and nations when they are judged by the living God in the course of history.
Packer maintains that the question boils down to whether, when Jesus spoke of some people departing “into eternal punishment” at the “final judgment” (Matt. 25:46), he “envisaged a state of penal pain that is endless, or an ending of conscious existence that is irrevocable: that is…, a punishment that is eternal in its length or in its effect”.
It’s a good example of how even the most highly regarded theologians will ignore the context if it suits them. Matthew does not say that this is a “final judgment”. It is a judgment that takes place when “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matt 25:31), and Matthew has already told us that this will happen “immediately after” the catastrophe of the war against Rome (24:29-31). It is not a judgment of all humanity. It is a judgment of the nations to which the disciples of Jesus had been sent in the period leading up to this catastrophic “end” (24:14). Finally, there is no suggestion that the nations have all suddenly died. The Son of Man has come from heaven to earth to judge living peoples.
So there’s a basic exegetical problem to start with. But now to the arguments against annihilationism….
1. Annihilationists argue that aiōnios means “once and for all” rather than “everlasting”, but they are wrong.
In the sheep and goats passage “everlasting life” equates to inheriting “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). The kingdom of God is not a metaphysical state, a condition that transcends history; it is not heaven. The kingdom of God was to be God ruling over his people and over the nations. The kingdom of God would be a historical state of affairs, and the life of the age to come would be participation in this new political-religious reality. So the rewards and punishments of the “age to come” belong to history, not to a post-historical eternity. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus presupposes the same context.
In Matthew’s Gospel the “fire of the age to come” (to pur to aiōnion) is the fire of Gehenna which will be judgment on Israel (Matt. 18:8-9). It is the “unquenchable fire” with which the chaff of unrighteous Israel will be burned (Matt. 3:12). It is not a fire of endless suffering for all and sundry after death. What Jesus is saying to the nations, therefore, is that the righteous will share in the renewed life of the people of God but the “cursed” will share the fate of unrighteous Israel.
The fire is “everlasting” or “unquenchable” in the sense determined by Isaiah 66:24: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” These corpses are not suffering eternally. They are dead bodies being endlessly consumed by worms and burned as a perpetual sign to the world that YHWH does not allow rebellion to go unpunished.
2. The language of exclusion and distress rules out the annihilationist argument that a person is not intrinsically immortal and therefore is destroyed by the eternal fire.
Ortlund—or Packer—notes Jesus’ saying that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness”, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; cf. 22:13; 25:30). This is not annihilation: “only those who exist can weep and gnash their teeth, as those banished into the darkness are said to do”. But Jesus is not speaking about something that happens after death. He has in mind the coming judgment against Israel and the restoration that will follow. Those leaders of Israel who survive the fire of Gehenna—the horror of the siege and the destruction of the city—will find themselves excluded from the new covenant people, looking in from the outside.
Similar language is used to describe the coming judgment on the enemies of God. When John says that the worshippers of the beast will be “tormented with fire and sulphur”, the frame of reference is judgment on Babylon the great—that is, Rome (Rev. 14:6-11). He is describing a historical judgment, just as Jesus had spoken of a historical judgment against Jerusalem. We still have to decide how best to interpret the apocalyptic language in this context (“the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever”, etc.), but this is not a post mortem or post-resurrection punishment. Both the eternal conscious torment folk and the annihilationists miss the narrative setting here.
Throughout history Sheol is the place of the dead, Hades, the grave. Whether it suggests some sort of continuing existence after death, as Ortlund thinks, is beside the point. In the new heaven and new earth “Death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14). Sheol is destroyed. The argument cannot be made, therefore, from any supposed real existence of the dead in Hades, that the wicked are indestructible and must suffer endlessly in the lake of fire.
3. For God to visit punitive retribution endlessly on the lost is not disproportionate and unjust.
Ortlund’s argument is that if annihilationists admit that “there will be some pain inflicted after judgment and prior to extinction”, they still have the problem that any suffering is more than the justice of God, in their terms, requires. It’s all rather convoluted, as arguments about hell tend to be, but the point I will make again here is that any torment or pain involved in judgment comes before not after death. Jesus understood very well that the coming judgment on Israel would entail immense suffering and loss of life. It was there in the prophets. This is what Jeremiah had to say about the judgment of Gehenna:
And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them. (Jer. 19:7–9)
4. Christians in heaven will not be troubled by the fact that people—including friends and relatives—are suffering an eternity of torment in hell.
Oh, really. Here is Ortlund’s—Packer’s—explanation; it needs no comment:
…since in heaven Christians will be like God in character, loving what he loves and taking joy in all his self-manifestation—including the manifestation of his justice (in which indeed the saints in Scripture take joy already in this world)—there is no reason to think their eternal joy will be impaired in this way.