The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Annihilationism Isn't Theology

Sorry for the provocative title, but it concisely communicates the point I’d like to make.

Many people who grow disillusioned with the doctrine of ECT drift toward annihilationism. Which is reasonable given that annihilationism addresses the most horrific aspect of ECT, its never-ending vision of pain. And yet, as many proponents of UR can attest, there is something unsatisfactory about annihilationism. I’d like to argue it’s because annihilationism isn’t theology.

This struck me the other day as I was reviewing Thomas Talbott’s propositions. Apologies to review these again, but you never know who might be reading. So a quick recap. Knowledgeable readers might want to skip the review and go to the point I make below.

To review, Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:

Proposition #1:
God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.

Proposition #2:
Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.

Proposition #3:
Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.

Talbott points out that while each proposition has ample biblical support you cannot logically endorse all three. You have to accept two of the propositions and reject a third. And depending upon which propositions you accept or reject you end up with either Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universalism:

**Calvinism: **
Adopts Propositions #2 and #3. God will accomplish God’s plans and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #1, that God wills to save all humanity.

**Arminianism: **
Adopts Propositions #1 and #3. God wills to save all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #2 as God will fail to accomplish something God wills (i.e., to save all people).

**Universalism: **
Adopts Propositions #1 and #2. God wills to save all people and God will accomplish God’s purposes. This implies a rejection of Proposition #3, that some people will be separated from God forever.

Okay, here’s what struck me the other day about Talbott’s propositions:

**Where’s annihilationism? **

It struck me as strange given the popularity of annihilationism that it wasn’t captured in Talbott’s propositions. Why is that?

It’s because annihilationism isn’t a belief about God and God’s grand purposes for Creation. Unlike Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universalism annihilationism doesn’t deal with the grand narrative of Scripture–Creation, Fall and Redemption.

Basically, annihilationism isn’t theology.

It’s a belief about hell to be sure, but it has very little to say about God.

Hi Richard

As a previous Arminian Annihilationist (before coming to UR)
I simply believed choices were limited to this life, Immortality was conditional.
I believed in proposition #1 and #3, just that separation from God for eternity meant non-existence for eternity rather than ECT.
This would be seen as the actions of a more loving God who didn’t delight in torture; but as eradication of sin was the objective as well as eternal communion with God those who hadn’t come on board through Christ in this life were seen as unfit for this and would not be ultimately happy apart from God. He simply withdraws the gift of life, they are destroyed by fire with all else to cleanse the earth (including The Devil and his echelons) prior to refurbishing of the new earth.

I would find that a more acceptable theology, but many of the inherent weaknesses that are seen in ECT are still there; God is still unable to achieve his will or desire, His mercy does not endure forever, still he would have created many knowing they would live a miserable existence only to be ultimately destroyed, etc etc

Think I’ll stick with the God of UR.
Cheers S

I agree and that’s very much to the point I was attempting to make. Annihilationism seems more like a tweak on the doctrine of hell than getting to the deep, truly theological issues about the nature of God.

Because it was? :wink:

Arminianism and Calvinism both have proponents of annihilationism, and each deals just as much with the grand narrative of scripture (or not) as ECT proponents in each school. Annihilationists talk just as much about the necessity of hopeless punishment vs. salvation for the glory of God (especially if they’re Calvs) or just as much about God respecting free will so much that He allows free willed creatures to freely destroy their free will (especially if they’re Arms) as ECTists do. They only differ with their colleague ECTists on the flavor of hopeless outcome.

Tom’s propositions aren’t specifically about what it means to be lost. When he was debating Mr. Fudge and Dr. Walls (both Arminian) last year at Nashville (and afterward with Dr. Walls again and someone else whom I forget for the anni side), no one had to make guesses about how Tom’s propositions cash out for annihilation. “Separated from God forever” means annihilation to an annist. In that regard they’re slightly ahead theologically compared to ECTists who inadvertently hold that something can continue to exist apart from God’s omnipresence! (Though some ECTists acknowledge that the eternally damned exist in the presence of God.)

(I’ll try pinging [tag]tomtalbott[/tag] and see if he’ll contribute a comment about whether he thinks his trilemma is neutral to the question of ECT vs anni.)

Granted, I do think anni theology is just as broken as ECT, but that’s because the underlying rationales (whether Calv or Arm either way) end up contravening some portion of trinitarian theism (or even merely supernaturalistic theism). But I wouldn’t say annihilationism isn’t theology. It isn’t as though they have no (attempts at) theological rationales at all; anni isn’t fideism. Annists say the exact same things about God as ECTists do, perhaps with a bit more emphasis on God’s mercy based on the idea that somehow a creature would be better off after ceasing to exist than hopelessly suffering forever. (Or on the less nonsensical plan that the survivors would be better off knowing that some people had ceased to exist rather than hopelessly suffering forever; since after all the survivors do continue existing to be comparatively ‘better off’ than if the other people had continued to exist.)

Hi Richard:

While I agree that the annihilationism view is just as wrong (ie incorrect) as the ECT view, I can’t join you in saying “Annihilationism Isn’t Theology”.

Talbot, in his 3rd proposition, basically says that it is possible, and not unreasonable, to make a biblical case for eternal separation from God; ie what has also been called ‘lostness’. Annihilation, being the other form of lostness, must be seen as “theological” then in, and in the same sense that, ECT is considered to be a “theologic” position.

The fact remains that, for a large majority (but shrinking) of the Christian world, eternal lostness is synonymous with ECT. Your assertion may confer on ECT the status of being “theology” simply because it is common, or prevalent???

Annihilationism, the tradition in which I was raised, and the milieu in which I currently worship (SDA – also where sturmy was raised) certainly would contest the claim it isn’t theology. Perhaps what we mean is that it is “bad theology”…. but the same could also be said of ECT then I suppose… Tough to foresee a cordial discussion with Annihilationists with a starting premise that asserts their position isn’t theology…

As an aside, but perhaps related, there are the few instances in scripture where the statement is made that it would be better if this person “had never been born” – or, were “as if he never was”. That interests – and troubles me too – because I’ve heard this concept all my life: that Annihilationism is God’s rendering people “as if they never were”. I’ve long been skeptical of the possibility of such a thing (how does one make things “un-happen”??) and now as a convinced Universalist find it utterly implausible. But the idea is there, in scripture, which must make it “theology” in some sense it seems to me…

Those who hold that proposition #3 represents reality – the actual way of things – most often (this is speculation on my part – but based on observation and experience) do not think of this eternal lostness in terms of people being irrevocably settled into a stance of rejecting God. However, most of these same people do tend to believe that this stance is what has been freely chosen by that person; that God gives them, in the end, what they “want”; or, per CS Lewis, the door to Hell is locked from the INside, and so on. Now Annihilationists actually appeal to this logic too. Annihilation is freely chosen because that’s what the person “prefers” or “wants” or is the condition that would bring “greater happiness”. (Ignoring for the moment that happiness has no place in a person who no longer exists!!) So it seems self-evident then that annihilation would be a “happier” state than ECT – if in fact that is a valid option. And surely a loving God would also prefer to offer the “happier” option – should it in fact exist. Which could be said to be “theology”.

What I find interesting is that while most Christians accept proposition #3 they also hold to very robust notions of God’s love and power and good intentions towards us. This must mean that practically the entire weight of proposition #3 rests on their belief not on God, but rests on their insistence on the human capacity to become irrevocably settled into falseness! It’s as if their faith in God is replaced by faith in man!! – faith in man’s ability to become irrevocably settled into error.

I should think that, when presented this way, these Christians would be more willing to reconsider. To hold that one can forever resist God and chose to become irretrievably settled into lostness seems a far more dubious premise than the more sure foundations of God’s love and good intentions; yet that is the tradeoff being made! Such is the nature of most Christians misconceptions about “free will”.

It’s odd isn’t it; the condition of sin is held to be excessive self interest yet when a person “choses” something so clearly self destructive that seems the exact opposite!!

Anyway, interesting conversation…


Hi Jason & Total Victory,
No doubt the statement “annihilationism isn’t theology” is overblown, perhaps way overblown. The main thing I’m trying to communicate is that a lot of people debate things like “lostness,” which, yes, is a theological conversation, but never get around to pondering the nature of God and the grand drama of Scripture. That’s the true focus of theo-logy–speaking about God.

So my argument here is that a lot of the discussion supporting annihilationism is too narrow, not theological enough, to make much progress. Any narrow debate about what “lostness” looks like isn’t going to be very theological or fruitful. Until the nature of God is worked out any debate about the “nature of hell” isn’t theology. IMHO.

Well, the problem as I see it is not so much that it’s not about God so much as it’s about a very poor (ie inaccurate) picture of God. Problem also that for most folks they think there are only 2 options; ECT or annihilation. So growing up I heard all the time that a truly loving God would never allow ECT hell! For these, Annihilation was evidence of God’s love!

What’s bothered me however is that far too many folks allow themselves to really distort their own visions of love – ie God’s pure/perfect love by associating it with some really nasty, violent, awful things. eg ECT or annihilation. I mean that if human “love” gets manifested in ways that God is allowed to demonstrate His “love” we lock those folks up! When I suggest to them that this is not actually “love” (ie annihilation or ECT) and that they should tweak their definitions of love in a different direction – ie in that direction that always gets confused with violation of human free will – the resistance is fierce! So they are strangely careless with God;s love when it comes to allowing Him great leeway in doing violence and harm to us – but very careful not to allow God’s love to be used (sometimes forcefully) in saving directions.

So what I’m suggesting is that the narrowness of the discussion among Annihilationists and ECT folks (you’re right about that) is borne of the same self centeredness that sin itself is; namely we’ve given ourselves power over God (perhaps the original sin?) and disallow His love the freedom to “force” us into seeing the truth and acting on it. So the bad theology extends beyond the nature of God to the nature of man as well! A person who persistently and irrationally refuses God’s overtures of love is clearly not free, but acting on a delusion. And it was from this condition that God insists on freeing us…

…but if one is unable to see UR as even an option, then of course he’s stuck with two bad alternatives (anni and ECT) and the discussion is necessarily narrow and limited.


Maybe we should distinguish between apples and oranges. Comparing Universal Reconciliation to Annihilationism is like comparing apples to oranges. That is, they seek to answer two different questions.

Apples (who will be saved and how?) - Calvinism, Arminianism, Universalism

Oranges (what is the nature of the judgment at the resurrection?) - ECT, annihilation, reconciliatory.

The “oranges” of ECT and annihilation can be aligned with the “apples” of Calvinism and Arminianism, but not Universalism.
The “orange” of reconciliation can be aligned with the “apples” of Universalism and possibly Arminianism, if the Arminian allows for the post-mortem salvation of some.

Very well put, Dan! – I like that categorical distinction.