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Annihilationism (from Latin annihilō) is a Christian belief that apart from salvation the final punishment of human beings results in their total destruction (annihilation) rather than their everlasting torment. It is directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Some annihilationists believe the wicked will be punished for their sins in the Lake of Fire in the process of being annihilated (e.g. Seventh-day Adventists), others that hell is a false doctrine of pagan origin (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses). It stands in contrast to the traditional and long standing view of eternal torment, and the view that everyone will be saved (universal reconciliation or simply "universalism").
The belief is a minority view, although it has appeared throughout Christian history. Since 1800 the alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians.
It experienced a resurgence in the 1980s when several prominent theologians including John Stott were prepared to argue that it could be held sincerely as a legitimate interpretation of biblical texts (alternative to the more traditional interpretation of them), by those who give supreme authority to Scripture. Earlier in the 20th century, some theologians at the University of Cambridge including Basil Atkinson supported the belief. 20th-century English theologians who favour annihilation include Bishop Charles Gore (1916), William Temple, 98th Archbishop of Canterbury (1924); Oliver Chase Quick, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury (1933), Ulrich Ernst Simon (1964), and G. B. Caird (1966).
Some Christian denominations which are annihilationist were influenced by the Millerite/Adventist movement of the mid-19th century. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, Christadelphians and the various Advent Christian churches. Additionally, the Church of England's Doctrine Commission reported in 1995 that "[h]ell is not eternal torment", but "non-being". Some Protestant and Anglican writers have also proposed annihilationist doctrines.
Annihilationists base the doctrine on their exegesis of Scripture, some early church writing, historical criticism of the doctrine of hell, and the concept of God as too loving to torment his creations forever. They claim that the popular conceptions of hell stem from Jewish speculation during the intertestamental period, belief in an immortal soul which originated in Greek philosophy and influenced Christian theologians, and also graphic and imaginative medieval art and poetry.
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Those who support annihilationism generally refer to New Testament texts such as Matthew 10:28 where Christ speaks of the wicked being destroyed "both body and soul" in fiery hell and to Old Testament texts such as Ezekiel 18:4 saying that "the soul that sins shall die". Their view of the afterlife generally appeals to New Testament references such as John 11:11 "our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep" and 1Thessalonians 4:15 "we shall not precede those who have fallen asleep". In this view mankind is mortal and the soul is in a dormant state having no concept of the passing of time when the body dies. According to this view, the dead in Christ are awaiting the resurrection of the dead mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. The ancient Hebrews, according to some modern scholars, had no concept of the eternal soul. The afterlife was simply Sheol, the abode of the dead, a bleak end to existence akin to the Greek Hades.
Those who oppose annihilationism generally refer to the New Testament, especially the story of Rich man and Lazarus. By the time of Christ, the Jews largely believed in a future resurrection of the dead. Some annihilationists take these references to portray the temporary suffering of those who will be destroyed. The parable shows the rich man suffering in the fiery part of Hades (en to hade), where however he could see Abraham and Lazarus and converse with Abraham. Although, the parable of Lazarus could also be interpreted in the sense that it states "being in hades he lifted up his eyes", meaning that the Rich Man was in hades and was then resurrected ("lifted up his eyes"), therefore stating that at the time of the torment described and conversing with Abraham, he was no-longer in hades, but facing the lake of fire.
A majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, have held to traditional notions of hell, especially Latin writers. However, the annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Early forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), Justin Martyr (d. 165), and Irenaeus (d. 202). However, the teachings of Arnobius (d. 330) are often interpreted as the first to defend annihilationism explicitly. One quote in particular stands out in Arnobius' second book of Against the Heathen:
Your interests are in jeopardy,-the salvation, I mean, of your souls; and unless you give yourselves to seek to know the Supreme God, a cruel death awaits you when freed from the bonds of body, not bringing sudden annihilation, but destroying by the bitterness of its grievous and long-protracted punishment.
Eternal hell/torment has been "the semiofficial position of the church since approximately the sixth century", according to Pinnock.
Additionally, at least one of John Wesley's recorded sermons are often reluctantly understood as implying annihilationism. Contrarily, the denominations of Methodism which arose through his influence typically do not agree with annihilationism.
Although the Church of England has through most of its history been closer to John Calvin's view of conscious continuation of the immortal soul, rather than Martin Luther's "soul sleep," the doctrine of annihilation of the "wicked" following a judgment day at a literal return of Christ has had a following in the Anglican communion. In 1945 a report by the Archbishops' Commission on Evangelism, Towards the conversion of England, caused controversy with statements including that "Judgment is the ultimate separation of the evil from the good, with the consequent destruction of all that opposes itself to God's will."
Recently the doctrine has been most often associated with groups descended from or with influences from the Millerite movement of the mid-19th century. These include the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of God (7th day) - Salem Conference, the Bible Students, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Christadelphians, the followers of Herbert Armstrong, and the various Advent Christian churches. (The Millerite movement consisted of 50,000 to 100,000 people in the United States who eagerly expected the soon return of Jesus, and originated around William Miller).
George Storrs introduced the belief to the Millerites. He had been a Methodist minister and antislavery advocate. He was introduced to the view when in 1837 he read a pamphlet by Henry Grew. He published tracts in 1841 and 1842 arguing for conditionalism and annihilation. He became a Millerite, and started the Bible Examiner in 1843 to promote these views. However most leaders of the movement rejected these beliefs, other than Charles Fitch who accepted conditionalism. Still, in 1844 the movement officially decided these issues were not essential points of belief.
The Millerites expected Jesus to return around 1843 or 1844, based on Bible texts including Daniel 8:14, and one Hebrew Calendar. When the most expected date of Jesus' return (October 22, 1844) passed uneventfully, the "Great Disappointment" resulted. Followers met in 1845 to discuss the future direction of the movement, and were henceforth known as "Adventists". However they split on the issues of conditionalism and annihilation. The dominant group, which published the Advent Herald, adopted the traditional position of the immortal soul, and became the American Evangelical Adventist Conference. On the other hand, groups behind the Bible Advocate and Second Advent Watchman adopted conditionalism. Later, the main advocate of conditionalism became the World's Crisis publication, which started in the early 1850s, and played a key part in the origin of the Advent Christian Church. Storrs came to believe the wicked would never be resurrected. He and like-minded others formed the Life and Advent Union in 1863.
Ellen G. White rejected the immortal soul concept in 1843. Her husband James White, along with Joseph Bates, formerly belonged to the conditionalist Christian Connection, and hinted at this belief in early publications. Together, the three constitute the primary founders of the church.
Articles appeared in the primary magazine of the movement in the 1850s, and two books were published. The view was apparently established by the middle of that decade. (In the 1860s, the group adopted the name "Seventh-day Adventist" and organized more formally.) D. M. Canright and Uriah Smith produced later books.
A publication with noticeable impact in the wider Christian world was The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers (2 vols, 1965–1966) by Le Roy Froom. It has been described as "a classic defense of conditionalism" by Clark Pinnock. It is a lengthy historical work, documenting the supporters throughout history.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that the wicked will be punished in the lake of fire, before ultimately being destroyed. Their reading of biblical texts that are used in support of the traditional doctrine of hell is that these texts can be harmonized with this particular annihilationist understanding of hell. The Seventh-day Adventist view is that these biblical texts refer to the destructive forces that are employed and the results of this punishment as being eternal, and not that the wicked specifically experience conscious torment throughout eternity.
According to the Church of God (7th day) – Salem Conference, the dead are unconscious in their graves and immortality is conditional. when God formed Adam, out of the dust of the ground, and before Adam could live, God breathed the breath of life into his body: "And man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). See also Ezekiel 18:4, 20. Psalm 146:4 says, "His (man's) breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth (dust); in that very day his thoughts perish." No man has ascended to heaven except Jesus Christ (John 3:13).
Annihilationism seems to be gaining as a legitimate minority opinion within modern, conservative Protestant theology since the 1960s, and particularly since the 1980s. It has found support and acceptance among some British evangelicals, although viewed with greater suspicion by their American counterparts. Recently, a handful of evangelical theologians, including the prominent evangelical Anglican author John Stott, have offered at least tentative support for the doctrine, touching off a heated debate within mainstream evangelical Christianity.
The subject really gained attention in the late 1980s, from publications by two evangelical Anglicans, John Stott and Philip Hughes. Stott advocated the view in the 1988 book Essentials: A Liberal–Evangelical Dialogue with liberal David Edwards, the first time he publicly did so. However 5 years later he said he had held this view for around fifty years. Stott wrote, "Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain." Yet he considers emotions unreliable, and affords supreme authority to the Bible. Stott supports annihilation, yet cautions, "I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively... I believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment." Philip Hughes published The True Image in 1989, which has been called "[o]ne of the most significant books" in the debate. A portion deals with this issue in particular.
John Wenham's 1974 book The Goodness of God contained a chapter which challenged the traditional view, and was the first book from an evangelical publishing house to do so. It was republished later as The Enigma of Evil. He contributed a chapter on conditionalism in the 1992 book Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. He later published Facing Hell: An Autobiography 1913–1996, which explores the doctrine through an autobiographical approach. His interest in the topic stemmed from the 1930s as a student at the University of Cambridge, where he was influenced by Basil Atkinson. (Wenham is best known for his The Elements of New Testament Greek, which has been a standard textbook for students). He wrote:
The Fire that Consumes was published in 1982 by Edward Fudge of the Churches of Christ. It was described as "the best book" by Clark Pinnock, as of a decade later. John Gerstner called it "the ablest critique of hell by a believer in the inspiration of the Bible." Clark Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College has defended annihilation. Earlier, Atkinson had self-published the book Life and Immortality. Theologians from Cambridge have been influential in supporting the annihilationist position, particularly Atkinson.
The view is also held by some liberal Christians within mainstream denominations.
The Church of England's Doctrine Commission reported in February 1995 that Hell is not eternal torment. The report, entitled "The Mystery of Salvation" states, "Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster. ... Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being." The British Evangelical Alliance ACUTE report (published in 2000) states the doctrine is a "significant minority evangelical view" that has "grown within evangelicalism in recent years". A 2011 study of British evangelicals showed 19% disagreed a little or a lot with eternal conscious torment, and 31% were unsure.
Several evangelical reactions to the view were published. Another critique was by Paul Helm in 1989. In 1990, J. I. Packer delivered several lectures supporting the traditional view. The reluctance of many evangelicals is illustrated by the fact that proponents have had trouble publishing their views with evangelical publishing houses, with Wenham's 1973 book being the first.
Some well respected authors have remained neutral. F. F. Bruce wrote, "annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages ... For myself, I remain agnostic. Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God." Comparatively, C. S. Lewis did not systematize his own views. He rejected traditional pictures of the "tortures" of hell, as in The Great Divorce where he pictured it as a drab "grey town". Yet in The Problem of Pain, "Lewis sounds much like an annihilationist." He wrote:
The 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (1992) describes hell as 'eternal death' (para 1861) and elsewhere states that 'the chief punishment of hell is that of eternal separation from God' (para 1035). What does 'eternal' mean in this context? St Thomas Aquinas, following Boethius, states that 'eternity is the full, perfect and simultaneous possession of unending life' (Summa Theologica I, question 10), so apparently eternal separation from God is a 'negative eternity', a complete and permanent separation from God. In the Collect (opening prayer) for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost in the Tridentine missal, we find the words 'qui sine te esse non possumus', meaning 'we who without Thee cannot be (or exist)'. Putting these two citations together in a literal sense would seem to suggest annihilationism, which, however, is contrary to Catholic teaching.
It is interesting to note that the Collect mentioned above found its way into the Anglican prayer-book, as the collect for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, but mistranslated so that it reads 'we who cannot do anything that is good without Thee'. Perhaps the Anglican translators (in the 16th century) feared that a correct translation of the Latin text might undermine the doctrine of everlasting torment in hell. In the modern ordinary form of the Mass of the Catholic Church, in the collect is included again, used on Thursday in the first week of Lent.
The doctrine is often, although not always, bound up with the notion of "conditional immortality", a belief that the soul is not innately immortal. They are related yet distinct. At death, both the wicked and righteous will pass into non-existence, only to be resurrected at the final judgment. God, who alone is immortal, passes on the gift of immortality to the righteous, who will live forever in heaven or on an idyllic earth or World to Come, while the wicked will ultimately face a second death.[Rev 2:11][20:6][20:14][21:8]
Those who describe and/or those who believe in this doctrine may not use "annihilationist" to define the belief, and the terms "mortalist" and "conditionalist" are often used. Edward Fudge (1982) uses "annihilationist" to refer to the both "mortalists" and "conditionalists" who believe in a universal resurrection, as well as those groups which hold that not all the wicked will rise to face the New Testament's "resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust".
Some Annihilationists ask the question—why would God choose the words like "destroy, destruction, perish, death" to signify something other than their plain meaning? While a denial of the existence of Hell is not necessary, in this view, the suffering of the souls that inhabit it is terminated by their eventual death. Adventists, and perhaps others, then understand the term "hell" to refer to the process of destruction, not as a geographical location nor a permanently existing process.
|Psalm 1:6||... but the way of the ungodly shall perish|
|Psalm 92:7||... shall be destroyed forever|
|Matthew 10:28b||Rather, fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.|
|John 3:16||... whosoever believeth in him should not perish (Greek: destroyed) ...|
|Romans 6:23||For the wages of sin is death …|
|Philippians 3:19||whose end is "destruction" ...|
|2 Thessalonians 1:9||who shall be punished with everlasting destruction ...|
|Hebrews 10:39||But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition (Greek: destruction); but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.|
|James 4:12a||There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.|
|Revelation 20:14||This is the second death...|
Annihilationists understand there will be suffering in the death process, but ultimately the wages of sin is death, not eternal existence. Many affirm that Jesus taught limited conscience physical sufferings upon the guilty:
The adjectives "many" and "few" in Luke 12 could not be used if eternal conscious torment was what Jesus was teaching. He would have used "heavier" and "lighter" if the duration of conscious sufferings were eternal because when the "few" stripes were over there could be no more suffering. By very definition "few" and "many" declare not unlimited (or eternal) sufferings.
Annihilationists declare eternal existence and life is a gift gotten only from believing the gospel; (John 3:16) Paul calls this gift (immortality) an integral part of the gospel message. "...who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and 'immortality' to light through the gospel." (2 Timothy 1:10). If all souls are born immortal, then why is humanity encouraged to seek it by Paul? "To them who by patient continuance in well doing 'seek' for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:" (Romans 2:7) And also, why would Jesus offer humanity an opportunity to "live forever", if all live forever? …"if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever:" (John 6:51).
The foundation of the annihilationist view is based on passages that speak of the unsaved as perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matthew 10:28). Annihilationists believe that verses speaking of the second death refer to ceasing to exist. Opponents of this view argue that the second death is the spiritual death (separation from God) that occurs after physical death (separation of soul and body). Annihilationists are quick to point out that spiritual death happens the moment one sins and that it is illogical to believe further separation from God can take place. In addition, annihilationists claim that complete separation from God conflicts the doctrine of omnipresence in which God is present everywhere, including hell. Some annihilationists accept the position that hell is a separation from God by taking the position that God sustains the life of his creations: when separated from God, one simply ceases to exist.
Opponents of annihilationism often argue that ceasing to exist is not eternal punishment and therefore conflicts with passages such as Matthew 25:46: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment but the righteous into eternal life." This argument uses a definition of the word "punishment" that must include some form of suffering. However, in common usage, punishment might be described as "an authorized imposition of deprivations—of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens—because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically (though not invariably) involving harm to the innocent" (according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). By this definition, annihilationism is a form of punishment in which deprivation of existence occurs, and the punishment is eternal.
We may note that the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (1992), para. 1472, states that 'grave sin deprives us of communion with God, and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the 'eternal punishment' of sin.'
John Wenham has classified the New Testament texts on the fate of the lost:
Wenham claims that just a single verse (Revelation 14:11) sounds like eternal torment. This is out of a total of 264 references. Ralph Bowles argues the word order of the verse was chosen to fit a chiastic structure, and does not support eternal punishment.
These Christians point to biblical references to eternal punishment, as well as eternal elements of this punishment, such as the unquenchable fire, the everlasting shame, the "worm" that never dies, and the smoke that rises forever, as consistent with the traditional view of eternal, conscious torment of the wicked in hell although those who hold to annihilationism have written credible responses to these scriptures.
Inherent in the annihilationist stance are notions of divine justice and love[1John 4:16]. Some Annihilationists[who?] claim that the idea of an eternal place of torment is morally repugnant, and an unfair punishment for allegedly finite sins. How can this accurately reflect God's ultimate victory over suffering and evil, they argue, when it permanently installs a place of suffering in the final, eternal order? It also questioned how can the saved live in blissful joy knowing that some of their loved ones suffer forever in hell, in spite of the Bible showing what seems to be a joyful chorus of the saved because of the condemnation of the Devil[Revelation 19:1–3], which takes place along with the non-saved[Revelation 14:9–12] Opponents of this view respond that only God is qualified to determine divine justice, and raise suspicions that Annihilationists may be succumbing to modern cultural pressures and worldliness. Also the Bible In response to the suggestion that unrepentant sinners aren't deserving of eternal punishment, advocates of the sola scriptura doctrine also believe in the concept of grace, i.e. that the people who receive salvation receive it even though they don't deserve it.
The traditional doctrine of eternal torment in hell could seem to suggest that torment, or torture, is a legitimate form of punishment, since God Himself employs it, but it's clearly stated in Christian Scriptures that only God is liable to do this[Romans 12:19][Hebrews 10:30]. Also, the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' (paras 2297–8) states that 'torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity'. Admitting and regretting that the Church did in the past sometimes tolerate the use of torture, the Catechism continues: 'it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person...it is necessary to work for their abolition.' However, any punishment inflicts some sort of pain (or it would not be punishment), and the Catechism does not more than give the Church's stand about what punishments are to be inflicted by temporal powers, who do not punish sins as infinite offenses.
Besides, in argumenting against suicide St. Thomas teaches that “everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can.” Thus it might seem that although the damned themselves may by bad judgment prefer their own non-existence, on the objective side annihilation be a far greater, not lesser punishment. If this is true, Divine Goodness and Mercy is no argument for, but against annihilationism; the problem of hell remains but is treated elsewhere.
Many annihilationists[who?] believe that the concept of an immortal soul separate from the body comes from Greek philosophy, particularly from Plato. For example, Plato's Myth of Er depicts disembodied souls being sent underground to be punished after death. Hellenistic culture had a significant influence on the early Christian church, see also Hellenistic Judaism. By this scenario, the soul does not appear in the Bible and is seen there only by those taught to assume that the soul exists in the first place.
Others have remained "agnostic", not taking a stand on the issue of hell. The two listed are also British:
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