In the past, the doctrine of annihilation has been taught by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists as well as some other groups which are usually viewed as cults. Today, unfortunately, the doctrine has begun to invade evangelicalism. This trend does fit in well with the current heavy emphasis in so many pulpits on a God who isn’t particularly interested in judging anyone, but simply wants everyone to be happy, and pretty much guarantees that everyone will end up in heaven.
What is the teaching of annihilation? The basic teaching is that when God judges the unbeliever, He will judge them by causing them to cease existing. This judgment, which will bring about the cessation of their existence, is “eternal” in that it last forever. The view denies that punishing itself goes on forever. In other words, the unbeliever will not suffer torment for all eternity because he no longer exists. This condition will last forever; thus, the judgment is in a sense eternal.
Why is this view held? The position of annihilationism comes primarily from a misguided desire to defend the character and actions of God. It is said that God is loving and gracious (and He certainly is), but it is felt that God would go against His very character if He allowed people to suffer in torment forever and ever. God would then, they believe, be cruel and vindictive, and be a monster akin to Satan. So God’s love prohibits Him from causing unbelievers to suffer eternally. This idea is compatible with so much preaching today, which avoids any real discussion of hell and judgment.
Responding to Annihilationism. There are several basic responses to this distorted doctrine that the Bible believing Christian needs to make.
(1) Jesus’ clear teaching on the subject. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus declared that the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Jesus used the same word (Gk. aionios) when speaking of the eternal destiny of both the righteous and the wicked. Since one cannot legitimately have the same word mean two entirely different things in one context (and one verse!), it must be concluded that Jesus was teaching that the duration of the righteous and the duration of the wicked are the same. If the righteous live forever, then the wicked also live forever. The Scriptures teach that the punishment of the wicked is everlasting.
(2) Annihilation is not really logical and is not a punishment at all. Nonexistence is certainly not an adequate punishment for sin, and the wicked would not feel constrained to cease sinning if that is all they faced. This would, in fact, be a blessing. He would have no pain, no remorse, no guilt and no regrets. Man has sinned against an eternal being and the punishment must fit the crime. God is not only love, but He is also characterized by holiness. He is, therefore, righteous in all His dealings which requires that evil be punished.
(3) Others, besides Jesus, teach the everlasting nature of the punishment of the wicked. Such passages as Daniel 12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude l:6-13; Revelation 14:11; 19:3 and 20:10 inform us that the unbeliever faces a conscious eternal torment. It should be noted that the Scriptures speak of “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment” (cf. Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Mark 9:43). In these passages “gehenna” was the name used. This valley south of Jerusalem, commonly called the Hinnom Valley, came to be equated with the fiery judgment of apocalyptic literature, because human sacrifices were made there and it was a place of burning. We need to observe that “hell” is not the place of eternal punishing (though it is very frequently used that way by Christians). Death and hell are temporary places and will eventually be cast into the “lake of fire”; and, it is the “lake of fire” that is designated as the place of eternal residence of the unbeliever.
(4) The proper understanding of “destroy”. Annihilationists commonly interpret words that speak of the destruction of the wicked as meaning the cessation of their being. But the word for destroy (apollymi) does not mean annihilation but rather “loss” or “ruin.” For example, its means “lost” in the parables of Luke 15. It can be applied to that which has become “useless”, as in the case of the wineskins in Jesus’ parable (Matt. 9:17) or the idea of Judas Iscariot having already “perished” in John 17:12. In none of these passages would the idea of annihilation be appropriate. And it questionable that it is ever used that way. To destroy simply is to ruin something.
Another word for “destroy” (olethros) is found in a key passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. There the word emphasizes the point of the ruination of people; that is, they are away from God and their lives no longer have the value and meaning that God originally intended for mankind. Their very purpose for their being is gone and will never be retrieved. There is no full, meaningful lives for these, but rather the loss of well-being; the ruination of the very purpose of their being. Originally intended to be ruling the planet and in fellowship with God, they have nothing. They are separated from God and even from His “common grace.” Their condition will be one of everlasting depression.
A Conclusion. Although annihilation might appeal to human sentiment and human wisdom, it is not a doctrine that emerges from a study of the Scriptures. We must never forget that the Judge of the Earth will always do what is right and will maintain the perfect and proper balance between love, justice, patience and holiness. In the Gospels, the Lord Jesus taught and warned people to escape from hell (Gehenna/Lake of fire) more than any other individual. Instead, He encouraged people to enter the joy and blessing of the Lord forever.
People today need constant reminding that there is not only a heaven to gain but a hell to avoid. As we share the whole counsel of God, we do no favors to anyone when we cut the bad news out from the good news.