Responding to Arguments for Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the belief that the wicked will one day cease to exist and pass into non-existence rather than being tormented in the lake of fire for all eternity. Annihilationism has become a popular alternative to the traditional and orthodox doctrine of hell in spite of the biblical evidence to the contrary (Matt 25:46; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15). Saying that unbelievers will only be destroyed or extinguished softens the blow of the Christian doctrine of hell and the offense of the gospel. In annihilationism, God is simply giving unbelievers what they want and what they expect will happen to them when they die. Annihilationists can quote many passages of Scripture to attempt to support their view, and at first blush, can make a strong sounding argument.

The verse that is quoted most often by annihilationists is 2 Peter 2:6: “If by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” They argue that since Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed, the wicked will be destroyed and cease to exist. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of the enemies of God being destroyed or facing destruction. Hebrews 10:39 says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that unbelievers “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” Matthew 3:12 declares that “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

While I could respond to each text individually, it is much easier to point out the categorical fallacy and false assumption that is at play behind such argumentation. The key to answering the arguments for annihilationism is found in the book of 4 Maccabees. The book of 4 Maccabees was written in-between the Old and New Testaments and describes the sufferings of the Jews under Antiochus IV from 167-164 BC. In 4 Maccabees 10:15 we read: “No, by the blessed death of my brothers, by the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.” This verse, if removed from the context of the entire book, can be made into an argument for annihilationism. The author speaks of “the eternal destruction of the tyrant” which could be interpreted to mean that the tyrant will be annihilated and cease to exist. The same expression is used in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 when Paul speaks of “eternal destruction” demonstrating a theological link in the thought of both authors.

But the author of 4 Maccabees was no annihilationist. In fact, 4 Maccabees has the strongest theology of eternal torment in Judaism. The author writes: “But you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire” (9:9); “Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fire and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go” (12:12); “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God” (13:14-15). If the author of 4 Maccabees can utilize destruction language while still believing in the eternal torment of the wicked, why can’t the authors of the New Testament do the same? Therefore, the use of destruction language does not prove annihilationism any more than it proves that the author of 4 Maccabees was an annihilationist because he used such language. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture just as we interpret 4 Maccabees 10:15 in light of the rest of the book.

The problem with annihilationist arguments is that they misinterpret analogical statements as univocal ones. The wicked will be destroyed, but in the sense of eternal punishment. The fate of the wicked is analogous to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not in every sense. Trying to find a one-to-one correspondence between the destruction of those cities and the fate of the wicked contradicts the larger testimony of Scripture. 2 Peter 2:6 is parallel to Jude 1:7 which describes their punishment as one of “eternal fire.” Jude interprets Peter’s earlier statement as teaching eternal punishment, not annihilation. Otherwise, why would the fire need to be eternal? He says later that “the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 1:13). Why is this darkness reserved for them forever if the wicked will be annihilated? For more on this subject, I recommend Robert Morey’s book Death and the Afterlife.

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