This is an article in the series on Death, Eternal Life, and Eternal Torment.
While the church traditionally teaches that the lost (the people who are not saved) will suffer eternal torment, Annihilationism is the teaching that the lost will ultimately be put out of existence and not suffer everlasting torture. While other articles in this series discuss the objections to annihilationism, the current article presents the case for annihilationism.
This article shows that:
(a) Man after he was created, was not immortal.
(b) When man sinned, he was condemned to death.
(c) The NT teaches pervasively that sinners will be annihilated (destroyed).
(d) Immortality is a gift of God that He will give only to those who believe in Jesus.
(e) The Bible promises that a time will come when evil does not exist anywhere in the universe.
Adam died through disobedience.
God formed man from the dust and breathed into him the breath of life, and man “became a living soul” (Gen 2:7, AV), or “a living being” (NASB or Anchor Bible).
God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or he would die (Gen 2:17). Man, therefore, after he was created, was not immortal.
But the serpent told Eve that God lied and that they would not die. Rather, he said, they would gain knowledge, and lose nothing (Gen 3:4-5). As the story unfolds, we see that Satan was the one who lied. God would not allow sinful man to remain alive indefinitely. God said:
“The man … must not be allowed to reach out his hand
and take also from the tree of life and eat,
and live forever” (Gen 3:22).
Therefore, God drove the man out of the Garden of Eden and placed “the cherubim and the flaming sword” to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24).
When fallen man was not permitted to “live forever” (Gen 3:22), death entered the world. Unless something changes, death would be his end. But something did change:
“God so loved the world,
that He gave His only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in Him shall not perish,
but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This article elaborates on two profound principles in this statement:
- Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ will “perish.”
- Whoever believes in Him shall have “eternal life.”
Non-believers will perish.
The Greek word translated “perish” in John 3:16 is apollumi. Strong’s concordance explains this word as “to destroy, destroy utterly.” The New Testament frequently describes the fate of non-believers as total annihilation, expressed as dying or destruction. We will show this firstly using examples from Jesus, then from Paul, and then from other apostles:
“The gate is wide and the way is broad
that leads to destruction …
the gate is small and the way is narrow
that leads to life”
This presents the two possible outcomes of every person’s life in uncomplicated terms: life and destruction.
“Do not fear those who kill the body
but are unable to kill the soul;
but rather fear Him
who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell”
In this verse, the word “kill” is parallel to “destroy.” In other words, God will do to the soul of the wicked what humans do to the body when they kill it. After a soul has been destroyed, it does not go on to exist in a conscious state. God is able to destroy human beings entirely. Is that not also fairly obvious? How could it be impossible for God to destroy something which He created Himself?
We could try to avoid the annihilationist outcome of this verse by saying that this text merely asserts God’s ability to destroy people, not His intention to do so, but why would Jesus give such a warning if God will not actually “destroy both soul and body in hell?”
“So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire,
so shall it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send forth His angels,
and they will gather out of His kingdom all …
those who commit lawlessness,
and will throw them into the furnace of fire“ (Matt 13:40-42).
Just as weeds are destroyed in a furnace, evildoers will be rooted out and destroyed in “the furnace of fire” at the end of the age. Fire is often used to symbolize the annihilation of the lost (e.g., Matt 7:19; 3:10). The Baptist added:
“He will gather His wheat into the barn,
but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire”.
As shown in the article on the arguments against annihilationism, an “unquenchable fire” implies annihilation, for it is a fire that cannot be put out before it consumes whatever is thrown into it.
Paul taught that sinners will perish.
Paul consistently warns sinners that they will die:
“Those who practice such things
are worthy of death” (Rom 1:29-32).
“The things of which you are now ashamed …
the outcome of those things is death” (Rom 6:21; cf. 6:16).
“The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
“If you are living according to the flesh,
you must die“ (Rom 8:13).
Paul also taught that the lost will be destroyed:
The wicked would “reap corruption” (Gal 6:8);
The end of the “enemies of the cross,”
“is destruction” (Phil 3:18–19; cf. 1:28; 1 Cor 3:17).
On “the day of the Lord …
destruction will come upon them suddenly” (1 Thess 5:2-3).
“Those who do not know God …
will pay the penalty of eternal destruction”
(2 Thess 1:8-9)
Examples from other apostles
It is no different in any other New Testament book. Peter wrote:
“The day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7);
False teachers who bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). “Their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:3).
The “destruction” of Sodom and Gomorrah, when the Lord turned the inhabitants of these cities “to ashes,” serves as “an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter” (2 Peter 2:6).
And James wrote:
God “is able to save and to destroy” (James 4:12).
“When sin is accomplished,
it brings forth death” (James 1:15).
“He who turns a sinner from the error of his way
will save his soul from death” (James 5:19).
Even the Old Testament, although it does not speak so plainly about eternity, says that judgment day shall come “burning like a furnace” and “every evildoer will be chaff.” The judgment thus “will set them ablaze” (Mal 4:1).
Death is the opposite of Eternal Life.
In many of the examples above, the fate of the lost is described as “death.” But that is not the first and temporary death that faces all people. Rather, it is that awful and irreversible death that only sinners will suffer, which Revelation refers to as “the second death” (Rev 20:14; cf. 20:6; 21:8). We can see this in the many texts that contrast “death” with “eternal life:
“He who … believes Him who sent Me,
has eternal life, and …
has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
“You are slaves … either of sin resulting in death, … (or)
enslaved to God … the outcome, eternal life.” (Rom 6:16, 21-22; cf. 5:21))
“The wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Rom 6:23; cf. 8:13).
“Our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death
and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10).
The last verse does not refer to eternal life, but the combination of “life” and “immortality” has the same meaning.
“The one who sows to his own flesh
will from the flesh reap corruption,
but the one who sows to the Spirit
will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:8).
“Corruption” in this verse has been translated from the Greek word phthora. Strong’s concordance defines this word as “destruction, corruption.” 1 Corinthians 15:42 uses this word to describe our existing bodies as “perishable.”
The contrast in these passages between “death” and “eternal life” is quite incompatible with the contrast between eternal life in happiness and eternal life in torment that the traditional teaching presents.
The traditionalist response is to claim that “destroy,” and similar words in Scripture should not be taken literally. However:
When the verb apollumi (destroy) is used elsewhere in the synoptic Gospels to refer to the actions of one person against another (e.g. Matt 2:13, Mark 9:22), it always refers to someone literally killing another.
In 2 Peter 3:6-7, Peter writes that the world of wicked people living at the time of the flood was “destroyed,” and the world is now reserved for fire until the day of the “destruction” of ungodly men. Peter used the same Greek word to describe what the flood did to those living long ago and to describe what God will do in the future to the lost. In one instance, he used the verb form of the word, and in the other, the noun form. Fair exegesis suggests literal total destruction, i.e., cessation of existence.
While the traditional view is that “the evil ones … shall be made immortal – but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire” (Belgic Confession; article 37), when all the biblical evidence is assessed, it becomes clear that the fate of the wicked is annihilation.
The Bible is packed with affirmations that the lost will be annihilated (destroyed). The risk is that we have become so accustomed to these statements that we simply don’t notice them anymore. We should allow these texts to say what they say, and not subconsciously filter them out.
Whoever believes in Him
shall have Eternal Life.
This is the other profound principle from John 3:16. Scripture sees immortality as something that belongs to God alone (I Tim 6:16; cf. Rev 4:9). Our only hope of immortality is in Christ. For example:
“You (the Father) gave Him (the Son) authority over all flesh,
that to all whom You have given Him,
He may give eternal life” (John 17:2).
“We believe in Him FOR eternal life“ (1 Tim 1:16).
“Christ Jesus … has destroyed death and has
brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:9-10)
For similar statements, see also John 10:28; Rom 2:5-8; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53, 54; Gal 6:8; 1 John 5:11; Titus 1:2; 3:7 and 1 Tim 6:12. The Bible teaches that immortality is NOT something which people already have, but a gift of God that He will give only to “those who persevere in doing good” (Rom 2:7) on “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom 2:5). (For a discussion, see Man is judged by his deeds.)
The tragic consequence is that if you reject the Gospel, following the pattern of Adam and Eve when God denied them access to “the tree of life” (Gen 3:22-24), you will not receive immortality, but the death which God warned Adam about.
Traditionalists agree that people do not have inherent (essential) immortality independent of God. Humans do not have souls that are immune from divine destruction. The idea that God made something that He cannot destroy is illogical. In fact, even the immortality that the saved will one day receive is not immortality in this strong sense. It will be immortality through the sustaining power of God.
However, based on texts that seem to teach eternal torment, traditionalists respond that God will make the lost immortal, as per the Belgic Confession quoted above. Traditionalists argue that God will keep sinners in existence endlessly in order to punish them.
But this goes right against what the Bible teaches, for the Bible makes it clear that sinners will die and that immortality is a gift that only the saved will receive. Therefore, the traditional interpretations of verses that seem to teach eternal torment must be incorrect. The evidence for eternal torment is discussed in three articles:
In my view, the evidence for eternal torment is weak. Actually, I concluded that if one understands the symbolism of Revelation and that Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24, then the evidence for eternal torment becomes evidence for annihilation. On the other hand, I believe that the evidence for destruction, as presented in the current article, is strong.
Keep in mind that the evidence for annihilation is thematic arguments rather than proof texts. The arguments that sinners will be destroyed and that eternal life is only available through Jesus Christ are themes that are developed throughout the Bible; not solely derived from one verse per argument or anything like that. The evidence for eternal torment, in contrast, dare I say(?), is based on isolated texts.
The Biblical vision of Eternity
Above, two broad biblical themes that support annihilationism have been discussed, namely:
- The lost will be destroyed.
- Immortality is only available through Christ.
The current section presents a third theme in support of annihilationism, namely that a time will come when evil will not exist anywhere in the universe.
The example of the flood
As an illustration, recall the biblical account of the flood of Noah’s day. God said:
“I will wipe mankind, whom I have created,
from the face of the earth …
for I am grieved that I have made them” (Gen 6:7-8).
This shows how God deals with the problem of sin, namely, by destroying all people except the chosen few, who become the inhabitants of a new world. This illustration is relevant because Peter used the flood as a picture that foreshadows God’s final punishment of the lost (2 Peter 3:3-13).
God will be All in All.
The teaching that people and fallen angels will be tormented throughout eternity contradicts the Bible’s teaching that eternity will be a place of perfect unity and peace everywhere:
“The fullness of the times, that is,
the summing up of all things in Christ,
things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:10)
In other words, God will bring everything in creation—not only the saved—together under Christ. A time will come when there will be no people who are not part of His kingdom. 1 Corinthians 15 also discusses the End:
“Then comes the end,
when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father …
then the Son Himself also will be subjected
to the One who subjected all things to Him,
so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:24, 28).
When God is all in all, His enemies are no more.
“At the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW,
of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11; cf. Rom 14:11)
Revelation 21 contains the following profound statement:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth passed away …
3 … I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying,
“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, …
4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes;
and there will no longer be any death;
there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain;
the first things have passed away.”
5 And He who sits on the throne said,
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
Traditionalists propose an Eternal Dualism.
Perversely, instead of a glorious universal kingdom unblemished by any stain, defenders of the doctrine of eternal torment teach that creation will forever be divided into an ugly dualism of happiness and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12) as multitudes suffer endlessly.
It’s not clear how heaven could ever truly be happy if it co-exists alongside an eternal hell. How could we enjoy our new existence when we know that fellow human beings — and perhaps our loved ones — are being tormented with no hope that the pain will ever stop?
God is Love.
The central revelation of God in the New Testament is that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). How could a loving God keep the damned in existence for the sole purpose of torturing them? And this pain is without hope of ever being terminated or relieved. Does this seem like the sort of thing the Father of Jesus would do? Is this view really compatible with a God whose heart was expressed in Jesus’ dying prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)? The teaching of eternal torment presents God as the cruelest being that we are able to conceive; retaliated on his foes with this sort of unmitigated, insatiable vengeance.
Some say this should not be used as an argument in this debate, but our salvation depends on our faith or trust. How could we trust God if this is what He is like? God so loved the world … If God torments His enemies with an insatiable vengeance, why did Christ teach that we must love our enemies (Luke 6:35)? Do we exist in an incomprehensible dualistic creation in which what is good for God is bad for man?
When non-Jews became allowed to become Christians without first becoming Jewish proselytes (See Early Church History), it was generally accepted in the Hellenistic (Greek) philosophical tradition that people have immortal souls. This is one of the Hellenistic ideas that came into the church with the influx of Gentiles. It became a traditional teaching of the church; not because it is taught by the Scriptures, but because it was the established view of the Gentiles who became Christians. And since people are assumed to have immortal souls, the church had to develop an understanding of what will happen to the lost in eternity. In this regard, the texts that seem to talk about eternal torment provided a solution. Thus, the dominant view of hell, throughout Church history, is that the lost will suffer unending torment.
But behind this, we must see Satan’s hand. Continuing his first lie to the human race; “You surely will not die!” (Gen 3:4), Satan managed to convince the church that God will keep people alive for all eternity with the sole purpose of tormenting them. This is what the church has come to accept as gospel truth. Since man becomes like the god he worships, this teaching has helped Satan to convert the bride of Christ into the antichrist; killing millions of God’s true people over the centuries, namely those people who resist the church’s blasphemous teachings.
Conclusions relevant for other discussions include the following:
- The New Testament describes the fate of non-believers as total annihilation.
- The death that the New Testament warns about is the second and irreversible death.
- In the traditional view, “the evil ones … shall be made immortal – but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire” (Belgic Confession; article 37).
- Immortality is a gift of God that He will give only to those who believe in Jesus.
- In eternity, evil will not exist anywhere in the universe.