The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Weakness of Annihilationism

During college as my faith in the doctrine of ECT began to fade, a professor handed me Edward Fudge’s book “The Fire that Consumes,” a seminal text for annihilationism (the belief that the lost, in some form or fashion, will cease to exist).

Upon reading the book I shifted toward annihilationism as it seemed to fix one of the biggest problems I had with ECT, the notion that God tortures persons forever. But I discovered that this fix was merely a patch as annihilationism didn’t address my deepest theological questions.

There were two interrelated concerns. The first had to do with what philosophers call moral luck. Our moral biographies are highly contingent. Some of us get head starts on Christianity (perhaps being raised by Christian families) while others don’t (perhaps being raised in a family or nation that isn’t Christian). How does it make sense that God will annihilate the latter and bless the former? More, the timing of death can radically affect our moral biographies. For example, what if the Prodigal Son got hit by a bus while living in the far country? He would have never been given the time to “come to his senses.” Does that mean, because the boy was unlucky, he would never get to feel the Father’s embrace? That the Prodigal Son would be annihilated? Is God’s love so fragile, contingent, and so easily derailed? I couldn’t see how annihilationism could handle questions like this.

A second and interrelated concern I had with annihilationism had to do with the problem of pain and suffering. Life is often a theater of suffering, trauma, torment, pain and horror. And according to annihilationism for most of the world that’s exactly how the story will end, for there will be no continuation, no second act. And I can’t reconcile that vision with the notion of a loving God.

And so my journey with annihilationism ended. Annihilationism does a good job getting around one particular theological problem, the E in ECT. But annihilationism is not theologically robust enough to handle the really big theological questions that many of us have.

I agree. Annihilation is certainly a better option than ECT in some respects, but you’re right, it definitely doesn’t do justice to the deeper questions, as well as ignores the witness of rather large chunks of scripture!

I read Fudge’s book too, back when I was just studying UR trying to refute it. And if not for all of the precious promises in scripture affirming the salvation of all, and the concept of judgment and punishment being remedial, not punitive, I would have likely landed in the annihilationist camp. Fudge did a pretty good job dismantling the concept of ECT, looking at what scripture actually affirms concerning the results of sin - death and destruction; but he doesn’t take into consideration, but quickly dismisses, passages that affirm UR.

Incidentally, Mr. Fudge’s book will be released in a new revision this winter: he brought along a pre-release printing of it at the Nashville conference on reconciliation, where they screened his new biography movie and he debated Jerry Walls and Thomas Talbott. (Tom and I, and a newly minted Christian universalist whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, teamed up on Jerry for an amicable discussion afterward. We were all very polite and friendly to Mr. Fudge, and I kind of felt sorry that in a way we weren’t including him, since he was sitting right there at the table–but he got to meet several fans. :slight_smile: And after all, he had had a whole film and a followup panel before then. :sunglasses: )

From what I gathered listening to him over three hours this summer, he doesn’t believe most people will be annihilated, but that the vast majority of people will be saved, and is positively agnostic (in a non-hostile way) about post-mortem salvation. He and Jerry Walls staked out the Lewisian position on each side (depending on whether one reads Lewis as ECT or as anni). The Calvinist annihilationists I know of tend to think the same thing. (Mr. F was originally Calv, then went to Arm in seminary–not sure where he is now.)

Maybe this is what prompted his new revision, or maybe I’m misremembering. I should go dig my notes out of my car! :laughing: (I was going to post notes I had taken over the three panels, but I wanted to hold off because the organizer of the final three-way debate was looking to use the material as a springboard for a joint book on the topic of ECT vs. Anni vs. UR.)

Anyway. In my experience, most annihilationists (I seem to recall Mr. Fudge being included) don’t think people are accidentally annihilated, but that God intentionally annihilates them. That either involves an Arminianistic predisposition of God to annihilate everyone (which conflicts with an Arm predisposition of God to save everyone!); or an Arminianistic universal pre/post-mortem evangelism (so that everyone does get a sufficiently fair opportunity to be saved and some people simply choose not to–which was Lewis’ position); or a Calvinistic notion of election (where God never intended to do anything but annihilate some sinners, possibly because they don’t really exist as people to begin with so there’s no loss–similar to how many Christians, especially theologians, nowadays deal with the notion of rebel angels. Satan isn’t really a person, so if God annihilates ‘satan’ out of existence a person isn’t actually lost. (Extra-parenthetically: that isn’t my position. :wink: ))

I regard annihilation of a person as the ‘natural’ result of sin, but not as a viable option of coherent trinitarian theology: my first and primary conceptual problem with it is that I understand God to act eternally toward the fulfillment of fair-togetherness between persons, first and foremost in the self-begetting self-begotten active self-existence of the Trinity as the one and only ultimate foundation and source of all reality. When we act toward fulfilling non-fair-togetherness between persons we’re acting (un-righteously) against the source of our own existence; if God did that (in any of the Persons) He would cease to exist, as would all dependent reality (and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the question!) When we do that, the only reason we don’t just as instantly cease to exist is precisely because God graciously keeps us in existence–which isn’t only prima facie evidence that God plans to keep us in existence despite our sins, but which exemplifies God’s commitment (rooted in His trinitarian characteristics) to bring about the fulfillment of love and justice between persons. If a sinner poofs out of existence, love and justice cannot be fulfilled in regard to the sins of that person, because the person no longer exists to eventually do love, with love’s fulfillment being justice, to God and to fellow creatures. Moreover, neither would God be acting toward fulfilling love in justice to that person: and having chosen that result, God Himself would be acting against the principle of His own self-existence!

Mr. Fudge would probably say that such theological logic is only speculation and that we have to go to the revelation of the Bible instead; but as he himself is aware the Bible apparently reveals universal salvation on occasion (even though he doesn’t think such occasions are as frequent as we have found :wink: ), so he himself (or any similarly exegetical theologian) has to interpret one kind of testimony in light of another kind of testimony by means of metaphysical principles. Which is exactly what he does. But then we’re back to metaphysical principles being decisively important in how we interpret what one revelation datum means in relation to another revelation datum.

I decided that if I was going to hold to trinitarian theism (which I agreed for many reasons that I should), then I should only hold to a soteriology that doesn’t conflict with orthodox trinitarian theism but which instead (if possible) follows as a logical corollary from ortho-trin. And so that’s how I ought to interpret scriptures. (Especially if the scriptures themselves add up to ortho-trin!)

I do think it’s possible to put together a narrative and thematic exegetical case for Christian universalism without appeal to ortho-trin per se (although appeal still has to be made to more basic theological positions, plus things like the law of non-contradiction which are necessary for trying to understand anything at all), but I think that’s more difficult and time-consuming to do, simply because there’s a ton more data to work with! :laughing: But hey, I’m good to go either way. :sunglasses:

Right Jason; so in other words, God gets to keep all of Himself! (Which is only right, since all things were created by, for, and to Him.) :wink:

One of the more interesting things I’ve run across in the book I’m currently reading (although I don’t quite agree with all the points or how they’re established when I do agree :wink: ), is the concept that people (as well as things) set aside for destruction were most holy to YHWH and He had a special concern for them.

While (as I said) I don’t entirely agree with how the author sets this up, his case is strong enough to be worthy of consideration, especially since it dovetails (as the author would no doubt agree) with both God’s attitude toward destroyed rebel Israel, and the Father’s attitude toward the Son: both concepts of which are typologically connected (by canonical NT authors and/or Jesus by report, not just by subsequent guesses) to the concept of ban/devotion.

What’s even more interesting is how the author ties this into typology of the four metals in both NT and OT poetic imagery, and how this connects with things like the fall of Jericho. The upshot of the argument is that precisely because God instructed certain people to be killed, therefore they should be regarded in proportion as especially likely to be collected and restored by God. To interpret God’s intentions toward them otherwise would be similar to the warrior Achor trying to keep some of the silver and gold looted from Jericho for himself. But the theme even follows his subsequent slaying, because God sends a prophecy later (to Haggai if I recall correctly [edited to correct: actually Hosea–see Cindy’s recap below]) that the “valley of Achor” (where he was buried and a memorial set up for him and his family :frowning: ) would one day become a “gate of hope”!

I’ll have to research that more, but it looks like another ironic strong warning in the scriptures against holding a non-universalistic attitude. Anyway, it’s further evidence that annihilation isn’t the ultimate doom of some of the unjust.

(I meant to add earlier, that I’ve long since pre-ordered a copy of Mr. Fudge’s forthcoming 3rd edition with plans to comment on it for the forum. :slight_smile: )

Hi again Richard:

I was raised in an annihilationist tradition (SDA) so of course was always taught it’s superiority to ECT. That seemed self evident. Now I’m fully convinced of UR – however my transition from there to here still intrigues me.

But first I want to note a certain sympathy for what I see as the primary intent of this annihilationist philosophy. Specifically, it seems to it’s adherents to protect God from being blamed for all this death and loss and destruction. That impulse to protect God’s reputation should be noted, and perhaps admired and appreciated. (oddly, to do this God must move to a very passive role; He doesn’t “kill” so much as just “let go” type of thing… But how can one read scripture and find a God who is passive when it comes to Loving us??!!!)

That said however, I find it hard to pinpoint the precise moment the doctrine of annihilation began to unravel for me. I’m not sure at all if I began to drop annihilationism as I began to embrace Universal Reconciliation, or if in dropping annihilationism the path was prepared for my embrace of UR. That seems a worthwhile distinction to note…

Perhaps the immediately antecedent step to questioning annihilation was my growing rejection of penal substitution models of the atonement. God “needing” the violent and lawless death of His own Son, as, so the theory goes, payment. Thus, slowly, I began to wonder what annihilation solved. Nothing, really, I decided … except as a means to dispose of all those bodies.

There was another aspect that bothered me however and, sad to say it, I just saw this idea reiterated in an essay I read just this morning! In the essay, an ancient and respected leader (now retired) of our denomination wrote, with sadness, of the “forever heartache” God must endure because of the lost; ie those annihilated. In essence, God in a state of perpetual mourning (which makes some sense if He’s forever loving…) Also this; Love wins, but it also loses.

Over the years I’ve asked, in vain, for biblical confirmation that God’s Victory is less than complete; that God, in essence, is only partially successful in His mission of salvation; that God lives in an endless condition of mourning for those for whom He could “do no more”.

It just isn’t there Richard! Talbott speaks of the condition of eternal blessedness which we shall experience with God, forever. This simply cannot, to my thinking, be by way of some kind of psychological trick God plays upon Himself to allow Himself to cope with His failures and His loss. Blessedness, the eternal condition of joy, simply makes little sense apart from the reunion of God with His entire creation. Hence, annihilation fails.

Of course the culprit here is a flawed view of “freedom” – which we’ve talked about before. So much is said about God not being willing to “violate our freedom” and “not being willing to be worshiped by robots”.

But isn’t the converse also true? That we are unable to violate GOD’S freedom! And God is, in fact FREE to pursue us as relentlessly as He wants, and for as LONG as He wants, to retain His OWN freedom. – How often do we pause to wonder if, in our “choice” to annihilate ourselves, we thereby deprive GOD of HIS “free choice” to SAVE??

Satisfactory resolution comes when we accept that yes, there will be annihilation. But it is the annihilation of the delusional self and all it’s pretense and illusions.

One last note – and I’m not very good at understanding this, nor at articulating it, but I’ll give it a go…

In the beginning, when sin/rebellion entered (be it with Lucifer, or Adam/Eve or whatever) the central issue seems to revolve around our autonomy and independence. Is it even logically conceivable – is it even in the realm of reality – to live, or find life, apart from union with God?? The answer is, as I survey history and the cross, no. God is life’s author. Plain and simple. To claim another way is to enter the realm of utter delusion and insanity. The central temptation then may be seen in terms of being and seeing ourselves as the cause and source of our own existence and well being. But no creature choses to exist – that choice has already been made. Thus, neither do we have the choice not to exist; that too is out of our hands.

Belief in annihilation then seems to emerge from the false belief – the central deception – that we control our existence and final fate and destiny. God gives us choices yes, and control of many things to be sure. But our actual existence is not one of those things. Annihilation thus denies GOD as ultimate cause and source of life! God as cause – and we as the “un-cause”?? Just doesn’t work that way.

So belief in annihilation is, ultimately, a denial of God as Creator and Sustainer of life I think….

Enough rambling, thanks for the provocative thoughts Richard!!


Or passive when it comes to punishing us for that matter. :wink:

Hear hear! :sunglasses: This is also one of my standard answers to people pushing human free will as justification for some kind of final hopelessnes–and I answer that as someone whose metaphysics strongly anchor on the logical existence of human free will, so I’m certainly not throwing that under the bus!

Very much agreed, although I’ll also point out that only a softer version of Arminianism goes this route. Calvs, and Arms who don’t disassociate God from punishment of sinners, still insist on God’s action in annihilation thus on God’s control of our existence and final destiny. (Obviously I’m talking about Calv and Arm annihilationists, not those who hold to eternal conscious torment of some kind.)

I find it very interesting that Arminians seem to me to be increasingly disassociating God from active punishment in order to keep a doctrine of final hopelessness (whether ECT or anni). Although I find it even more interesting when I run across a Calvinist who attempts to go the same route! (God doesn’t really punish the sinners He chose to create as sinners and never intended to save from sin and never gave any ability to repent and be saved–He just puts them out of existence, or lets them put themselves out of existence, or lets them live somewhere they can suffer their condition of being sinners, perhaps oppressed by other sinners, forever! He makes them to want X and then gives them some of what they want which is to live as X. Who says God is an evil tyrant punishing people for what they can’t help being??! He isn’t “punishing” them at all! :unamused: )

If that was rambling, it was a very clear and solid ramble! Ramble on, Bob! :slight_smile:

I have a question for you all.

Is it possible that the annihilation concepts / passages in the Bible are referring to the destruction of our old carnal natures? Further, that the language of God being angry, wrathful, etc. is directed only towards our carnal nature and the ultimate viscous destruction of this nature will bring complete freedom and full restoration for the “real person”.

I’m not a theology buff so I don’t know if this is even a position that has been debated in the hallowed schools of thought or not.

If it has not been considered then why?

If it has been then why isn’t it presented as a more readily available option?

I think most or all Christian ultra-universalists do interpret them that way, David; and ultra-u’s are not a small minority of us. (Maybe a minority, maybe not. I think they’re a definite minority on this forum, but I’m not even altogether sure of that! We need a new poll. :slight_smile: )

I regard them as being expressions more of the kind of entity men (and angels) are (i.e. derivative compared to God), especially in their vulnerability to God’s punishment when God gets serious and (temporarily) stops being longsuffering over them. Also, the language of ruination and destruction is sometimes obviously applied to people and things which clearly aren’t annihilated out of existence, so the language doesn’t intrinsically have to mean technical annihilation.

Most importantly, though, there are instances where people have been punished using language interpreted as annihilation language by annis, who in narrative context still exist (even if not physically alive on earth anymore) and are even restored to God eventually. Not only do I take this as conclusive thematic/narrative context exegetical evidence that annihilation isn’t intended where restoration happens not to be mentioned (on the principle that testimony the story continues to Z should explain testimony where the story only goes as far as U); I also take it as conclusive evidence that the language doesn’t only mean the destruction of evil tendencies in a person. (Which is an interpretation that doesn’t really fit the imagery usually anyway.) Otherwise, if the language only referred to what happened to evil tendencies in a person (and not to the person with evil tendencies), it would be the evil tendencies (not the person) which are restored by God!–which would not only be ridiculous, but which would not fit the language of repentance. A person repents of evil and becomes righteous; an evil tendency doesn’t repent, much less become (in itself) righteous. Which of course is exactly why interpreters of the language as referring to evil tendencies treat the tendencies, not the person, as being annihilated.

Okay I get (I think) that there are some instances where a particular “whole person” my be punished, or dealt with via annihilation (at least the language of) only to have that very same person restored, and that there are clearly cases where it is just too much of a stretch to apply the separation concept.

What about the parables like sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, which end with the annihilation of (apparently) some set of “folks”, and the salvation of some other set. Would this be a prime candidate for the case of God separating the evil tendencies from the actual person? Depart from me you “evil tendency” into everlasting destruction for I never knew you.

So, possibly the application of “whole person” punishment vs separation of evil tendencies is really determined on a case by case basis of the particular story, parable, scripture etc.?

Whoops, thanks for that edit Jason. Should’ve done that myself.

Actually, I rarely see the language applied to particular people. It’s usually to groups of people. The Stepmom-Sleeping Guy in 1 Corinthians would be an example of the former. Rebel oppressors of Christians in 2 Thessalonians would be an example of the latter. (The same term happens to be used by the same author in both, which is why it’s such a useful example.) Paul puts oppressive Jews in the category of rebel oppressors of Christians in 2 Thess, but the two scriptures he’s referencing from Jeremiah and Isaiah also talk about rebel Jews being punished along with rebel Gentiles.

Interestingly, the examples where specific people are in mind could be interpreted more easily as a separation of their evil tendencies from them, the SSG himself being a prime example of that: St. Paul decides to hand him over to Satan for the whole-ruination of his flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord to come! (But then again, by putting it that way, the implication is that the SSG won’t be alive on earth in that day as a result of the whole-ruination.)

The context sure doesn’t read that way for the sheep and the goats, although the chaff example looks close to an evil tendency destruction. The thematic contexts there involve Christ baptizing the people JohnBapt is denouncing with “spirit even fire”, so the chaff being burned with the same unquenchable fire would (by poetic analogy) represent evil tendencies winnowed out by Christ and burned away in the baptism of fire which is equivalent to the baptism of spirit we hope for when we’re being loyal to God! The only difference seems to be in current attitudes of the hypocrites denounced by John, to which God’s love will correspond in a mode of {orgê} or “wrath” or “indignation” or “anger”. (“You sons of vipers! Who hinted to you to be fleeing from the coming indignation!?” And “The axe is already laying at the root of the trees! Every tree therefore which isn’t producing ideal fruit is chopped and thrown into the fire!” GosMatt 3:7-12, with parallels in GosLuke, although Luke for whatever reason doesn’t include some of the extra details.)

So the warning is about punishment of particular people (particular trees), and is aimed at punishing a particular group of people (the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John’s baptism), but is also intended to destroy evil tendencies and save good ones (the chaff and the wheat).

The tendency co-interpretation is strengthened by NT evidence that the barley, wheat and grape harvests involve purging people for God’s service, some being harder to purge than others.

(In that sense, John was actually kind-of flattering them by putting them in the wheat category rather than the grape! But it’s also possible John didn’t have that much distinction in mind for the application of the imagery, since after all he includes the axe-at-the-root imagery which is very extreme. It’s also entirely possible, based on narrative contexts later, that John didn’t really understand the punishment to be hopeful even though he was speaking in inspiration: he has trouble accepting that Jesus is going around healing people, which would only make sense in troubling him if John was expecting immediate butt-kicking. :wink: Notably, when Jesus sends back a reply via John’s disciples, He quotes that famous portion of Isaiah which in its own context involves God saving and healing people, specifically rebel Israel, who are currently suffering due to having been punished by God for their sins!)

In the case of the sheep (or mature flock–the term there can include sheep and goats) and the baby goats (the term there is definitely “baby-goat”), the sheep are pretty clearly distinguished from the goats by their attitudes and actions toward people whom Christ regards as the least of Christ’s flock. The huge (and very typical) Synoptic irony reversal of the judgment is that the baby-goats themselves are quite literally the least of Christ’s flock, and are sent into conditions which they themselves refused to be merciful about: if we connect Matt 25 with other typical punishment statements (OT and NT) they’re now going to be hungry and thirsty and sick and excluded and imprisoned. (The further irony is that, based on comparisons of how they approach their judgment compared to the “sheep”, and based on comparison with contexts of the prior two judgment parables, the baby-goats are people who thought they were serving the Lord while the sheep are surprised about having done so.)

Thus comes the interpretative challenge. The parable is set up as a judgment test for the hearer/reader. Do we (attending to the warning along with the in-story audience, the apostles and disciples of Christ there on the Mount of Olives) interpret the term {kolasis} and the parallel/contrasting eonians (for life and for kolasis) the way the baby-goats would (as hopeless punishment from God)?–or the way the good sheep (following the Good Shepherd) would?

If the baby-goats represented evil tendencies in an individual, then the narrative/thematic thrust of the parable would be that as good sheep we ought to expect God to save and restore those evil tendencies! That might be a legitimate interpretation in principle, in that God will take corrupted tendencies and heal them; but in practice the evil tendency under condemnation is hopeless unmercy compared to saving mercy. If the parable was about tendencies in an individual, the tendency of saving mercy would already exist and would be kept, so healing a corrupted tendency to unmercy would seem very redundant: it ought to be simply expunged. But then that would break the thematic logic of expecting the baby-goats to be treated the way the Shepherd and the mature flock have treated other “leasts” of Christ’s flock: not with annihilation but with saving mercy.

Maybe something about tendencies could still be teased out, but only by acknowledging that the tendency to unmercy is a corrupted version of some tendency that ought to be working together with the tendency of saving mercy. The only feasible such tendency I can think of that would fit such a scenario, is the tendency to expect God to punish sinners: the corrupted tendency would consider that a hopeless punishment but the healed and redeemed tendency would regard such punishment as hopeful and helpful not hopeless. And so we’re back to a right understanding of God’s real punishment of sinners anyway!

Yes, I think that’s true. I wouldn’t want to say that there are no examples of separation of evil tendencies in the scripture; just that they tend to be put in language that also suggests active punishment from God that the person isn’t going to appreciate at first. It’s possible that Paul wasn’t talking about punishment at all, for example, when speaking in 1 Cor 3 about the things we build on the foundation of Christ being kept or burnt up according to their quality, with the person forfeiting what is lost and being saved as through fire. I think that’s a good example of the “zorching evil tendencies in the person” concept. We ought to be praying for God to do that, and we ought to be looking to cooperate with it now and later. Still, if God does that to someone who isn’t cooperating with it yet, it’s going to be a punishment, too.

So it depends perhaps more on the attitude of the person. We all like to pray the 23rd Psalm in our favor, and that makes sense when we’re cooperating with God; but the language in Hebrew can also apply to God running down and overthrowing rebels, and what John sees in RevJohn 19 applies the 23rd Psalm language in ways (be those ways literal or figurative or some combination thereof) that the objects of the application are definitely not going to like. (Even though we see them later, after the resurrection, entering into the New Jerusalem and bringing the glories of the pagans in along with them.)

Putting it another way: if I clip out an entire post requoted in followup, in order to help the thread read more smoothly, I’m not doing it to punish someone else. Which Mel understands (and would have done so himself first had he thought about it) and so we’re all good. But consider if it was someone generally hostile to me who regarded any interference from me as oppression and who insisted on doing whatever he wanted at the expense of harmony in the thread: to such a person, editing his post would be a terribly insulting and maybe even emotionally traumatic punishment! And if I know ahead of time that’s how he’s going to take it and I do it anyway, then yep I’m intentionally choosing to punish him.

The difference of course is that I’m not God so my motives could really be questioned as not having the good of the person as well as of everyone else in view.

Thank you Jason for taking the time to respond so completely! It was very helpful to me.

I’m still wondering if the topic, separation of evil tendencies vs. outright annihilation, has been prominently considered through the centuries or is it an obscure tangent?

I’m just now discovering this thread, so please forgive me for going wa-a-a-ay back up there to a previous post of Jason’s in which he mentions the “Gate of Achor.” Thank you so much, Jason. I searched it out and I think this obscure passage is going to become one of my new favorites. Here it is:

Wow! Isn’t that amazing and beautiful? I’m all tearing up, and the strength of this passage is in remembering poor Achor’s name (which I never did before – I’m terrible at names) and his family, for whom I have always mourned since I first read the story. That incredibly sad and pitiable mound of rocks all alone there in the valley . . . and I love that the CLV calls it a “vale” because it brings up the connotation of a veil, in the sense of the veil separating us from our loved ones who have already passed through. Coincidental, yes, but it does work because a gate or portal is also equated with the vale. :wink:

God’s word is so incredibly deep. You know, it is a place to meet Him far, far more than it is a thing to study. I’ve been wavering between doing my next study on either Hosea or Hebrews (but I’m only just getting a good start on Romans), and this definitely pushes the weight toward Hosea . . .

Thanks, Jason!