The most important Scriptures for weighing these two alternatives are summarized as follows:
|1)||Hell is described by Jesus as “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” (Matt. 25:41, 46)|
|2)||Hell is described by Jesus as a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:48)|
|3)||Hell is described by Jesus as “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:12, 22:13, 25:30)|
|4)||Hell is described by Jesus as a place where God will “destroy both body and soul.” (Matt. 10:28)|
|5)||Hell is described by Paul as “eternal destruction.” (2 Thess. 1:9)|
|6)||Hell is described in Revelation as a place where the worshipers of the beast will be “tormented with fire and brimstone . . . and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” and where they will “have no rest day and night.” (Rev. 14:10-11)|
|7)||Hell is described in Revelation as “the second death” and a “lake of fire” in which the beast and false prophet are “cast alive” and “tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14)|
Note: I have left out the graphic parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31) from this list, not only because it is difficult to know how literally to take parables, but also because this does not seem to refer to the final judgment in any case, but rather to an intermediate state known as Hades.
What are we to make of these descriptions of hell? We will start with the ones that seem to favor the traditional view most explicitly, namely the descriptions in Revelation. It is difficult for the annihilationist to explain these. To be fair, however, in the case of the worshipers of the beast (#6), the fact that it is only the smoke of their torment that is specifically described as eternal and not the torment itself may possibly leave room for an annihilation after a suitable time of judgment. This alternative is emphatically not left open for the beast and the false prophet (#7), but even this passage may not be absolutely decisive, given the symbolic nature of the book and the very real possibility that the beast and false prophet may not even be individual human beings to begin with but symbols for something else. The fact that death and Hades are also said to be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14) cautions against taking this passage in completely literal fashion, to say the least. So the conclusion seems to be that the book of Revelation strongly suggests, but does not absolutely prove, an eternal conscious torment in hell.
Turning our attention to the explicit teachings of Jesus, we must acknowledge that His descriptions are also somewhat symbolic, given that literal fire (#1, 2) is not literal darkness (#3). Nevertheless, He clearly conveyed with respect to hell the ideas of both eternity (#1, 2) and consciousness (#3). In favor of the traditional view, the natural implication would be that the eternity of hell is therefore an eternity of conscious torment. However, this implication is admittedly not made absolutely explicit in these passages, so a slim possibility seems to remain that there could be an annihilation after some period of conscious judgment, with hell itself continuing to “burn on” into eternity.
Jesus also described hell as a place where the soul is destroyed (#4). In favor of the annihilation view, it is perhaps most natural to take this as implying the extinction of consciousness. This seems far from conclusive, however, as it is difficult to pin down the meaning of the soul precisely, and as the destruction involved could possibly mean something other than complete annihilation. Still, this seems to be a point that is more easily accommodated by the annihilation view than by the traditional view.
Echoing the significant features of hell described by Jesus, Paul also emphasized that the final judgment was both eternal and destructive (#5). This does not really add anything new to the analysis already presented. However, with the eternal aspect seeming to favor the traditional view and the destructive aspect seeming to favor the annihilation view, I believe Paul’s “eternal destruction” terminology does suggest a nice synthesis of the two positions. This synthesis is what I am calling the progressive annihilation concept of hell.
The basic idea is simply that hell is indeed a place of eternal conscious torment as in the traditional view, but is also a place where the soul is progressively destroyed, which I take to imply that the consciousness and therefore torment of those in hell would gradually fade away in a continual decay that lasts forever.
This idea that the soul could be gradually annihilated is admittedly contrary to how many Christians probably envision its ontological status as a discrete entity or monad. However, as the advocates of classic annihilationism point out, the early church’s assumption that the soul was intrinsically eternal was probably borrowed from ancient Greek philosophy rather than grounded in anything taught by Jesus or the apostles. Similarly, it seems to me that we ought to be open to the possibility that the ontology of the soul might be very different from how it is usually conceived. Indeed, if we take the soul as the seat of consciousness, then I think we have every reason to suspect that it is not a discrete entity at all. If nature suggests anything about consciousness, it is that it seems to come in degrees. Presumably a fetus does not attain full-on consciousness at a moment in time, but rather consciousness develops gradually along with the brain. Similarly, the natural presumption would not be that some species of animals have full consciousness and others have none, but rather that there is a spectrum of how much consciousness a creature can have. Or at least, while I acknowledge that this idea cannot be proven, it seems like the most natural assumption to me. Therefore, we need not think of the annihilation of consciousness as an instantaneous event, but rather it could indeed quite possibly fade out over time.
What I am suggesting, then, is that the “eternal destruction” character of hell as described by Paul may well be the progressive annihilation of consciousness for all eternity. I doubt if this concept of hell is a new one, though I have not personally seen it discussed in the literature. In any case, while I offer it only as a possibility and not as a dogma, it seems like a fairly natural implication of Scripture to me. By making good sense of both the eternal torment and the soul-destroying aspects of hell as taught by Jesus, it seems to me to be more strongly suggested than are either the traditional view or the classic annihilation view.
It remains to consider how this concept of hell handles the philosophical objections that are usually raised against the traditional view. These philosophical objections center around the charge that the idea of hell seems to be inconsistent with the absolute goodness of God. Specifically, the objections are summarized as follows:
|1)||It is charged that a good God would not punish a finitely long crime with an infinitely long punishment.|
|2)||It is charged that a good God would not create a system in which the total amount of evil and suffering was infinite.|
|3)||It is charged that a good God would not be content to leave evil and suffering to exist forever.|
Objection #1 is often answered by postulating that a sin against an infinite God is an infinite crime, and therefore worthy of an infinite punishment. I am frankly not sure whether or not this response is adequate. But even if not, the objection is not valid in my opinion. The reason is that it assumes those in hell have suddenly ceased to be sinners, so that their crime is only finite in duration. Quite the opposite is actually suggested by Scripture. Hell is a place where God withdraws His “presence” in some sense (2 Thess. 1:9), which would most probably include the operation of His “common grace” that makes unbelievers the generally decent people they are while here on earth. All that will be left in hell is the corrupt, sinful nature of who they are without God, which can never reform apart from God’s grace. Therefore, as long as they continue to exist in hell, they will continue amassing for themselves increased guilt, so that an infinitely long punishment is precisely what is required to satisfy the demands of perfect justice. I believe this consideration fully answers the objection even on the traditional view of hell, as well as on the progressive annihilation view. Even if this explanation is rejected, however, the answer to the next objection will show that an infinitely long punishment of the kind proposed by the progressive annihilation view is not necessarily incommensurate with a finite crime.
Objection #2 is more difficult for the traditional view to answer. I do not know if the idea of an infinitely long punishment being just (in answer to objection #1) is sufficient reason for a good God to allow the total amount of evil and suffering in His creation to rival the total amount of good. Perhaps it is, but even if not, an infinite amount of evil and suffering may not necessarily be ruled out. The reason is that there are actually “degrees” of infinity (as famously shown by the mathematician Georg Cantor), so that an infinite amount of evil and suffering could still possibly pale to zero in comparison to the total amount of goodness, as the number of integers pales to zero in comparison to the number of reals. Whether or not this is a sufficient answer to the objection I also do not know. But if not, the progressive annihilation concept has an advantage over the traditional view here, because it actually does not necessarily imply an infinite amount of evil and suffering at all. That is, assuming the cumulative amount of evil and suffering are proportional to the cumulative amount of consciousness in hell, this cumulative amount could actually quite naturally be finite on the progressive annihilation view, even though it lasts forever. This may seem paradoxical to non-mathematicians, but can easily be grasped by a consideration of the infinite series (1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + . . .), which clearly has a finite total of 2 even though it never ends. Thus, if the continuous decay of consciousness in hell were to follow a similar pattern, such that it was reduced by half every 1000 years for all eternity, for example, then hell would be a place of eternal evil and suffering and yet the total amount of evil and suffering would still be finite. It could even be that the rate of decay is tuned differently by God for each individual, so that their total amount of suffering is commensurate with their sin, even though in all cases it lasts for all eternity. So the progressive annihilation view has a nice answer to this objection which can also be applied to the first objection if needed.
Objection #3 is perhaps the most difficult for the progressive annihilation view. Admittedly, it might seem that a perfectly good God would purpose to eventually put a complete end to all evil and suffering, as the classic annihilation position supposes. But I am not personally convinced of this. God’s intrinsic relation to time is an extremely difficult philosophical issue, but it seems reasonable to believe that He is at least not bound to it in quite the same way that His creation will always be. Therefore, from His perspective the fact that evil and suffering are actually reduced to zero in the limit of infinity might well be very relevant to this issue. And from His creation’s perspective, the fact that time is always moving towards that state of perfection that only He can fully reach may be all that is required or could even possibly be desired. In other words, it seems to me that if God is, from our time-bound perspective, always and for all eternity in the process of reducing and therefore conquering the evil and suffering in His creation, then His goodness and glory are just as sufficiently and meaningfully manifested, or perhaps more so, than if He chose to accomplish the full victory in an instant. So I think the progressive annihilation view has a better answer to this objection than the traditional view, and probably just as good or better than the classic annihilation view as well.
Finally, a consideration of the subjective or aesthetic appropriateness of this concept should be attempted. If the “eternal destruction” of hell involves a progressive annihilation of consciousness as I am proposing, does this make sense of our natural intuitions of justice? I believe it does. In contrast to the traditional view, there is no equilibrium or stasis in the judgment of hell, no potential ground for the rebel sinner to boast defiantly that since he has already endured his torment for 1000 years, he can go on existing in that evil state for all eternity. In contrast to the classic annihilation position, there is no looking forward on the part of the rebel sinner to a time when his sentence will finally be over, a time just before his annihilation when he can finally shake his metaphorical fist in God’s face with the impudence of knowing he will suffer no additional conscious judgment for this final act of defiance. Rather, every sin will meet its just punishment, a punishment which will include a reduction in consciousness and therefore a reduction in, but not elimination of, the capability for further sin.
There is also a certain parallel here to the expectation that the redeemed may forever enjoy a progressive increase of consciousness, as we are forever growing in our awareness of the glory of God. While I do not have any definite Scriptural support for this idea of heaven, it seems very reasonable to me. Assuming we continue to exist in time, we must continue to exist in a state of change of some kind. I take it we will always be fully blessed to capacity, so the change we continue to experience would have to be to our capacity itself. This seems to me to imply an eternal growth of consciousness or the soul, in contrast to the eternal destruction of the same in hell, according to the view I am proposing.
In conclusion, I believe the progressive annihilation concept of hell shows that it is possible to make reasonable sense of the Biblical descriptions of hell, including both the aspect of eternal conscious torment and the aspect of the destruction of the soul, in a way that is fully consistent with the goodness of God. I freely acknowledge that this view is speculative. I am not insisting that it is necessarily the correct concept, or that the traditional and classic annihilation views are impossible. I only propose it as a legitimate, worthy possibility that helps satisfy my own struggles as to how we can understand and appreciate this admittedly difficult, seemingly terrible, and yet ultimately glorious Christian doctrine of hell.
This page copyright © 2011 Edward A. Morris. Created March 3, 2011. Last updated March 5, 2011.
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