Is Hell Annihilation?

By James M. Rochford

I don’t take the subject of hell lightly. This is one of the most difficult doctrines of Christianity to consider. If you’re new to this concept, I suggest you read my earlier article titled, “Is Hell Divine Overkill?” This helps to defend and explain the doctrine of hell. However, if you’ve already read that, I hope this article will help you to discern what the Bible teaches on this subject. Some interpreters[1] argue that the judgment of hell is actually the destruction of the soul. The unsaved dead do not exist in eternity. Instead, they are judged by having their souls annihilated or destroyed.

CLAIM #1: Annihilationists argue that the biblical teaching on hell is eternal in its effects, rather than in its duration. They understand that the verses about hell teach that God’s judgment will last eternally, but this means that a person is eternally snuffed out of existence.

RESPONSE: In Matthew 25:46, Jesus contrasts eternal life with eternal punishment. If he meant extinction, why didn’t he contrast eternal life with eternal death? It appears that believers will enjoy life for eternity in the same way that unbelievers will suffer punishment for eternity.

CLAIM #2: Annihilationists argue that the agents of judgment are eternal, but the act of judgment is finite. That is, while the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48), the person in the afterlife does die and is quenched. The Bible describes the “eternal fire” (Mt. 18:8; 25:41) and the “smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:11). While the smoke and fire are eternal, this doesn’t mean that their torment is eternal. The smoke and fire might be a memorial to the judgment of God.

RESPONSE: The rest of the verse in Revelation 14:11 reads: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image…” This implies that those in hell will be conscious and alive.

CLAIM #3: The Bible teaches that our souls will be “destroyed” in hell (Mt. 10:28; Jas. 4:12). The concept of an immortal soul is a Greek concept, which is foreign to the Bible. God alone is said to possess immortality (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), which is given in the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).

RESPONSE: Actually, in biblical thought, it isn’t the soul that is eternal in the afterlife; it is the resurrected body that is eternal (1 Cor. 15:53). Moreover, the rich man was in conscious torment in Hades (Lk. 16:22-28). Jesus said that people would be “weeping” and “gnashing” their teeth in hell (Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Without a conscious person, it would be impossible to pay a “penalty of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9).

Finally, in his article refuting annihilationism,[2] Robert Peterson claims that there are really only four major books written on the subject of annihilationism. It is not a popular view. Furthermore, in Revelation 17:8 and 11, we find that it is predicted that there will be “destruction” for the Beast. In Revelation 20:10, we find that this “destruction” is actualized by the Beast and the False Prophet (both humans) being “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Archer points out that the Greek used in Revelation 20:10 (“they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”) is the same used of the Lord Jesus in Revelation 1:17-18 (“I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore”). In each case, the life of Jesus and the judgment of God’s enemies are said to be eternal (eis tous aionas ton aionon).[3]

Destruction is not non-existence; it is conscious existence. Speaking about Judas, Jesus said, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mt. 26:24). If Judas eventually went to heaven in the end, then it would have been good for him to be born. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that we are sent away to hell to the place where Satan is punished. Since we know that Satan will endure eternal conscious torment, it seems that unbelievers will as well.

[1] See Edwards, David L., and John R. W. Stott. Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-evangelical Dialogue. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989. 312-329. Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. Chapter 2.

[2] Robert Peterson “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism” JETS 37/4 (December 1994) 553-568.

[3] Archer, Gleason L., and Kenneth S. Kantzer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982. See comments on Colossians 1:20.