The doctrine of eschatology as it pertains to the afterlife is a hotly contested issue.  Christians vary in their particular interpretations of Scripture that split the issue into three camps:  Universalism; annihilationism; and eternal punishment.

Universalism holds to the notion that all will go to Heaven, although there are differing views on when, specifically, this will take place.  Some hold to an immediate reconciliation while others require a previous “necessary period of purgation”.[1]  Annihilationism is the belief that the unregenerate will cease to exist after death.  As with universalism, Christians perceive different applications for annihilationism.  Some think that God grants immortality to believers only and lets the rest “sink into nothingness” while others think that evil itself is the thing that dissolves the soul at death.[2]  Lastly, eternal punishment is the view that consistently holds to all passages of eschatological Scripture.  The notion hinges on the usage of the Greek aion (“old age”) and aionion (“eternal”, “everlasting”) in the New Testament (ex. Matt 18:8; 25:46; 2 Thess 1:9) that speaks to the duration of punishment for sins.[3]

Christians also differ on where the unregenerate go after death.  In the Old Testament, the notion of “sheol”, “an intermediate state in which souls are dealt with according to their lives on earth,”[4] was introduced.  In the New Testament sheol was translated into “hades” and was emphasized to be an abode of punishment.  While there is no principle difference between sheol and hades, Jesus established another word for a more nuanced concept of the sinner’s destination – “gehenna”.  Taken from the Valley of Hinnom where the Israelites burned their children in worship to Molech, gehenna, “came to be used metaphorically for the hell of fire, the place of everlasting punishment for the wicked.”[5]  Therefore, the principle difference between all three terms hinges on the final judgment of God.  While sheol and hades appear to be a temporary interim before judgment, as V. Cruz points out, gehenna is the final destination after judgment.[6]

As mentioned earlier, the notion of eternal punishment is the most respectful of the range of eschatological passages and is, therefore, the correct view to hold on this issue.  Dan 12:2 says that some of the dead will awaken to “everlasting contempt” while Heb 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment”.  Matt 25:46 clearly showcases the dichotomy of eternalities as those who are righteous go to “eternal life” while the unrighteous to “eternal punishment”.   Jesus cannot be any clearer by employing the Greek “aionio” which means “eternal”, “everlasting”, and “forever”.  There is no other meaning in view, especially in light of the clear parallel Christ draws between “punishment” and “life”.

An annihilationist might argue that “punishment” is open to interpretation and that Christ is simply contrasting life to non-life in Matt 25:46.  However, the key word in play (“eternal”) is tied to the parallel between both “punishment” and “life” requiring that both concepts last an equal duration.  If an annihilationist wishes to get rid of eternal punishment and refer to it as the momentary ceasing of existence, then it stands to reason that Christ’s granting of the righteous individual’s “life” can only last momentarily as well.

Another argument against eternal punishment is that it is contradictory to say that God is love (1 John 4:8) while He would allow His creation to endure anguish and torment forever.[7]  But J.P. Moreland points out that, if everyone went to Heaven, then God would be immorally dehumanizing the sinner’s free choice to live their lives apart from Him.  Rather it is due to the fact that God respects free will that he views individuals with intrinsic worth and honors their ultimate choice in the afterlife.[8]

We were not created by a God of love alone.  We were created by a Being with a full range of characteristics and attributes – one of which is also justice.  A just and loving God honors the individual while maintaining goodness and fairness in His own Kingdom.  The two concepts of love and justice, therefore, are not mutually exclusive but work symbiotically to, “reward everyone according to what they have done. (Psalm 62:12)”

The notion of eternal punishment matches the urgency in the voices of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament.  By adopting either universalism or annihilationism the Gospel loses its potency – especially with universalism since there would be no need to repent or believe in Christ at all.  Without eternal punishment or the need for faith, Scripture’s entire thesis is nothing more than empty rhetoric.  Yet, because of the truth of this horrific potentiality for sinners, the urgency to spread the gospel should light a daily fire in the heart of evangelists all over the world.

[1] J.R. Root, “Universalism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 1233, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[2] R. Nicole, “Annihilationism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 64, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[3] L.L. Morris, “Eternal Punishment.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 395, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[4] W.A. Van Gemeron, “Sheol.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 1098, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[5] V. Cruz, “Gehenna.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 480, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[6] Ibid.

[7] R. Nicole, “Annihilationism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., 64, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

[8] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 182-183.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Your conclusions with regards to universalism are strawmen. I would direct you to read Thomas Talbot who systematically and logically presents the argument for universalism and superbly defends it. No theologian or philosopher in my estimation has so far successfully weakened his argument.

  2. There are only two options – a state of eternal life or a state of eternal death. We are all resurrected to one or the other (unless we are alive at the Second Coming). The state of being dead is everlasting, this is a punishment but not a continuous torture. The words “immortal soul” are not in the Bible. Only God has immortality. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with eternal fire but are not burning today.

    • If a state of eternal death is a true condition for at least any one person, it logically follows then that God has not achieved complete victory over death.

  3. There is much more of a biblical case for annihilationism than than the handful of anti-annihilationist sources cited would tell you.

    Aside from great resources available for purchase, such as Edward Fudge’s __The Fire that Consumes_, now available in a revised 3rd edition, there are good free resources available online. One I’m partial to (because I contribute to it lol) is Rethinking Hell (click on my name for the link). Articles on the website address many issues and important passages, including Matthew 25:46. We’re well aware of what eternal means and what Jesus said – but annihilation is in fact a form of eternal punishment even though the unsaved are not consciously punished throughout eternity. More on why that is can be found on the Rethinking Hell Website (or in Fudge’s book, or in various other books). Ironically, Hebrews 6:2, the passage referencing “eternal judgment,” is a key element of the explanation.

  4. “(1) All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.
    (2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.
    (3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever.”

    Of these three propositions, not all can be simultaneously true. It may be that all are false or only one may be true, but if you hold any two of them as true, as I do and as almost all followers of Christ do, then it must logically follow the third is false. Now it seems to me that to hold proposition two and three as true is to deny that proposition one is true and to affirm that God doesn’t sincerely will that all sinners be reconciled to Himself. And to hold that propositions one and three are true is to deny proposition two and to affirm that the scope of God’s victory will not be total and to affirm that ultimately His will will not be done. Only when one holds proposition one and two to be true do you both affirm that God wills all sinners to be reconciled to Himself as objects of His redemptive love and that his will will be accomplished and the scope of his victory over both sin and death is maximally total.

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