Sunday, January 20, 2019

What about Annihilationism?

Hell is a topic that produces a lot of heated debate. Whether or not Hell is a place of eternal torment has recently been a hot topic at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. One burning issue is about the truth or falsity of annihilationism.
SBU, Briefly
June and I met as freshmen at Southwest Baptist College in 1955, when it was still a junior college. It was a conservative school then, but not really a fundamentalist one. Later it became a four-year university and through the years has maintained a rather moderately conservative stance.
During my family’s first missionary “furlough” in 1971-72, we lived in Bolivar and I taught a couple of courses at SBU. In 2016 our beloved granddaughter Katrina graduated from SBU—and married her college sweetheart soon after graduating as June and I did in 1957.
During our first year of retirement from 38 years as missionaries to Japan, we lived in Bolivar again for a year, and I had some contact with the faculty at SBU—especially Dr. Rodney Reeves, Dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry. Dr. Reeves was/is an impressive scholar, a powerful preacher, and a fine human being.
Toward the end of 2018, however, Dr. Reeves and others in Redford College became the target of criticism from conservative/fundamentalist Christians, especially by Clint Bass, an associate professor at Redford College.
Annhiliationism, Briefly
Primary among the charges of erroneous theological beliefs held by Dr. Reeves was that of annihilationism, the theological position that affirms the destruction of non-believers rather than their eternal punishment.
This position is also referred to as “conditional immortality.” The human soul, it asserts, is not inherently immortal; the latter is a Greek idea, not a biblical one. As the Bible says, “It is [God] alone who has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16).
While in seminary I began to shift to this position under the teaching of Dr. Dale Moody, who eludicates the teaching in his book The Hope of Glory (1966, pp. 105~110).That was long before the thoroughgoing affirmation of annihilationism by Edward Fudge, a pastor/scholar in the Churches of Christ tradition.
Fudge (1944~2017) was one of the most vocal evangelicals to affirm annihilationism. His 420-page book, The Fire that Consumes, was first published in 1982 and the third, definitive edition was issued in 2013. 
In addition to Fudge’s book, I also recommend the 2012 movie “Hell and Mr. Fudge,” which engagingly depicts Fudge’s personal and scholarly quest that led to his vigorous advocacy of annhiliationism.
Questions, Briefly
Here are just two of the many questions that might be raised about this hot issue:
** Why did Dr. Reeves post a Dec. 21 article on his blog under the title “Why I’m not an annihilationist”? Since he is employed by a Baptist-supported school, he likely felt considerable pressure to show his agreement with Baptist Faith and Message.
According to that document, with which all who are financially supported by Southern Baptists are required to agree, clearly states: “The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.”
** Here is the biggest question of all: Why do conservative Christians get so upset with the idea that most of the people of the world—that is, all who do not trust in Jesus as their Savior— might not be punished in Hell for all eternity?
There are many good people in this country who are not Christian believers—but I think especially of all my fine non-Christian Japanese friends. Why do Christian conservatives insist that the annihilation of such people is insufficient and that they must be consigned to eternal torture in Hell?


  1. Comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, as always, for your stimulating comments.

    "The Jehovah's Witnesses believe in annihilationism, although they do not use that term. For them, 144,000 chosen believers will go to heaven to rule with God and the remainder of believers (i.e., JWs and their families) will live eternally on a new, paradisaical earth. Since they also believe that the end times are very near (something they have been preaching for 150 years), and since there are only a few million JWs, this means that God will soon destroy six or seven billion people, all nonbelievers.

    "This strikes me as a rather odd concept of God, or God's intentions. It puts God in a box and assigns human emotions to God, which is presumptuous. Whatever are God's intentions, and one's religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), it is best to live as compassionately and humanely as possible and trust that God will be merciful."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric. I knew about Jehovah's Witnesses belief of 144,000 going to heaven, but I didn't realize that they held to annihilation of those who were not (JW) believers. That does call for the destruction of a huge number of people--but isn't that far less morally repugnant than the the traditional evangelical view that all non-believers will be eternally punished/tormented and not destroyed?

      [Note: Eric spelled correctly the word "paradisiacal" (= like paradise), but I was led by the spell checker into changing it into an incorrect spelling.]

  2. Local Thinking Friend David Fulk shares these comments:

    "My first thought on reading this, is that with all that’s going on in our country and world, this theological view seems so irrelevant. I suspect this group likely—and strongly—supports capital punishment. Yes? That seems inconsistent to me. If they want non-believers to suffer eternally, why wouldn’t they want murderers to spend a lifetime in prison suffering for their crimes? I’m sure this is a over generalization, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that those who want people to suffer eternally aren’t spending more time/effort worrying about how to relieve the suffering of those around them."

    1. David, thanks for sharing your views (and it was no problem that you were not able to post them here directly as you usually do).

      I found it interesting that you raise the question about the relevance of talking about Hell or annihilation. Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman, whom I think you know, wrote similarly: "What? This issue is still around?"

      Yes,for conservative evangelicals the issue of Hell is not only still around but from what I can tell it is still of utmost importance and relevance to them. And, to respond some to my own question, it seems to me that the opposition to annihilationism comes from fear that evangelistic zeal will be lost if people are "just" going to be destroyed instead of punished eternally.

      As to capital punishment, you are correct in assuming that evangelicals are mostly in favor of it. In an article published in 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 73% of white Protestant evangelicals approved of the use of capital punishment and only 19% opposed it. Perhaps most of those who approve don't think of the fact that in keeping with core evangelical beliefs, capital punishment removes non-believers from lifetime in prison where, possibly, they could convert to belief in Christ as Savior, and sends them more quickly to eternal punishment.

      I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, but for those who hold the traditional evangelical view of Hell, it seems to me that is an extremely cruel position.

    2. Here is David's response to my reply to him:

      "Temp was my key MRE professor at Midwestern, so to say that we had similar thoughts about this warms my heart. I respect him greatly. His teaching influence (and yours) is still felt.

      "I will never understand the need of some Christians to have a zeal about making people suffer. I guess that’s what makes it easy for Evangelicals to support the wall and the detention/separation of families seeking a better life here. I like the Facebook meme which says instead of building a higher wall, let’s build a longer table.

      "Thanks for another good, thoughtful conversation."

  3. Here are brief comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky.

    "You raise good questions, Leroy. I’m not sure I believe in annihilation, but separation from God would seem to imply something like that. My own preference is think that God’s infinite love never gives up even beyond this brief period in our lives."

    1. Dr. Hinson, thanks for commenting on this important subject.

      I would like to be able to hold a broad universalist position, but there is the problem of freedom, which I think is basic to human existence. We humans, I believe, have the ability and the responsibility to choose. So, like Dr. Rust used to say, "Hell is Love's rejection of the rejection of Love."

      And then I have a problem of what kind of existence beyond physical death would make it possible for people to choose then to accept God's grace. If one rejects the idea of "immortal souls," then how can people make choices after death?

    2. Dr. Hinson responded to my reply to him with the following comments:

      "I’m afraid that I have to leave those questions to our God of infinite Love. I have witnessed human rejections. Insofar as I can see, those are rooted in our human limitations to love others. Couldn’t God hold all—both good and bad, saints and sinners (which all of us are)—within the great sea of Love that God is and (as Origen argued) continue the transformation? I’m inclined to think so. I guess this is why the Church came up with the idea of Purgatory. May God help us to be more loving as God is!"

  4. Such debates were in the atmosphere I grew up in. I find it arrogant and, in a different way than usually used, humanistic, to indulge in them. My Grandpa Kraybill, a Mennonite pastor who in some other ways drank deeply from the waters of Moody revivalism, now long gone, still speak for me on this one. He's a pan-millenialist, he used to say with a twinkle. "I trust that everything will pan out in the end.

    Given the great gaps that separate humanity from true knowledge of the afterlife, I find it self-absorbed and far too confident in human ability to know mystery to make beliefs on such matters a test of anything. Singer Iris DeMent speaks for me in her song, "Let the Mystery Be" at

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ron. It is always good to hear from you.

      What your Grandpa Kraybill said was most likely uttered with reference to the debates about premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism. There was a time that those various positions were widely debated and some, such as your grandfather, wanted to distance themselves from the debate by taking the "pan-millenialism" position--and I certainly don't fault him, or others, for doing that.

      But at the same time, related to those various positions was belief in Heaven and Hell, which your grandfather probably also believed, as did almost all Christians at that time.

      I agree with your emphasis on mystery and the danger of arrogance in saying too much too dogmatically about the afterlife. At the same time, those who have a high view of the Bible and revelation through Jesus Christ think they have some basis for making some fairly definite statements about the afterlife.

      It also seems to me that everyone, regardless of their their religious faith or lack thereof, needs to reflect on the question about what happens upon death. Through the millennia (on this earth), human religions and philosophies have always engaged in considerable thought about the afterlife, and I don't know why that is not something worth thinking about in the 21st century.

      What do you think?

  5. Some topics drive me back to R. Kirby Godsey's 1996 book, "When We Talk About God...Let's Be Honest." On MLK Day am I actually discussing the relative merits of the theologies of hell and annihilationism? (My spell-checker does not think "annihilationism" is even a word!) I give Godsey the last word, "Doctrinal soundness is arrogant theological nonsense. We are substituting our doctrinal constructions for God's reality. God's truth gives hope. Our propositions of belief inevitably fade." (page 17)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig--and for your reference again to Godsey's book, which I read shortly after it came out and generally thought that it was quite good. I don't have his book available to me now, but I don't really know what he means by the first sentence you cited, or the context in which it was written. I just wrote about "the danger of arrogance" in my response to the comment above, but I strongly think that there is value in thoroughgoing thinking about theological issues even though there will never be final agreement on the correctness or soundness of any given position.

      While I might not agree with them, and also while I was happy to spend two hours in a MLK activity yesterday, I think we have to recognize that there is a very sizable percentage of Christians who believe that there is nothing more important than trying to save people from Hell through the Gospel of Jesus Christ--and that working against the eternal segregation (separation in Heaven and Hell) of believers and non-believers is far more important than working against segregation/discrimination on this earth now.

      As I said, I don't agree with them, especially in the traditional view of Hell as eternal punishment--and certainly don't think that we have to choose between thinking about the afterlife and thinking about life now in this world. But since there are so many who believe in Hell as eternal punishment, as supposedly all who sign they agree with the Baptist Faith & Message do, it seems that it is legitimate, even on MLK day, to give some thought to the matter.

      But the main thing I want people to think about in this regard is the possibility of annihilation rather than eternal punishment after death--and that is in spite or your (and my) spell-checker being rather theologically limited (until I added the legitimate theological word to it).

  6. “When I was a child … I thought as a child…” I blithely accepted the fire-&-brimstone-kind-of-God that the adults preached to me. I’d think, “God’s ways are mysterious, all right—but who are we to question God’s justice?” I led philosophical discussions with my fellow 10-year-olds about just how painful hell might be.

    I’d like to think that growing up, that a lifetime of trying to walk with Jesus — who I learned was love incarnate, whose actions regularly shocked the religious establishment by their opposition to its judgmentalism — will turn all our hearts toward mercy … thinking about the other … putting away childish things.

    Otherwise, we’ll have a helluva religion, and remain bullying, mean-spirited children. Which is the religion we still see, making the most noise in this country.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Fred. I appreciate you posting comments here, and, as you know, I share much of the same background and a similar current position with you. I fully agree with your reference to Jesus as "love incarnate" and your affirming his actions being opposed to judgmentalism.

      I also agree that there are many bullying, mean-spirited "Christians" making a lot of noise in this country. But I think we must be careful of over-generalizing here. I know several quite conservative evangelical Christians who probably hold to the traditional view of Hell but who are kind, loving people and who firmly believe that sharing the "good news" about Jesus is a most loving thing to do.

  7. Late yesterday afternoon I received the following comments from Glen Davis, one of my Canadian Thinking Friends and a close personal friend when we lived in the same city in Japan:

    "I guess I’m in a different place in my Christian thinking. I can’t imagine this as a “hot topic” among serious Christians. That is: Hmmm… those non-believers: annihilate them or condemn them to eternal punishment?

    "How about another option: commend them to the grace and mercy of an all-compassionate God who sent his Son into the world so that the world might be saved? Jesus came not to condemn but to redeem. Our job is not to judge and condemn. Our job is to proclaim the great good news of the gospel and leave judgement to God. I expect that we will all be surprised at some of the folk we meet in heaven: folk from the east and west, from the north (even Canada!) and south. I’m looking forward to sitting down with them in the Kingdom of God. Hope to see you there too!"

    1. I have been blessed by receiving comments this time from some of my favorite people, and you are one of them, Glen. Thanks for your comments that lead me to make what I think is a quite important point.

      First, let me just say that the topic or Hell or annihilation might not be a "hot topic" among progressive Presbyterians, but it is certainly just that among the Christians at Southwest Baptist University and would likely be in any Southern Baptist setting where there was a direct expression of disagreement with the Baptist Faith & Message. My guess is that it would also be a "hot topic" in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that was started by Machen (whom I cited in my 1/15 article).

      But what I really want to say here is that the emphasis on annihilation is made in the context of the doctrine of Hell as eternal punishment. It is a doctrine that allows us to understand God as other than One who eternally punishes people, even those who have had little or no chance of knowing God through Jesus Christ. So as an alternative to the traditional doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal punishment, I find annihilationism to be a tremendously better theological position.

      At the same time, I certainly do not hold that annihilation is a vindictive action on God's part, as is implied in your opening question. As a believer in "conditional immortality," I think that "annihilation" is not something that God actively does. Rather it is just something that happens--because there is no natural immortality.

      I fully agree with your second paragraph, and through my decades in ministry one of my most emphasized Bible verses was John 3:17 -- "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

      But as I wrote above in my response to my Thinking Friend who is two "n" Glenn, as a firm believer in human freedom I have never been able to come to a universalist position. As I also mentioned above, part of the reason I find universalism problematic is because of my rejection of the idea of "immortal souls."

  8. And then about an hour ago Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan in Louisiana send a fairly lengthy email. The last part was about Professor Dale Moody, but I will just share here Dan's comments directly related to annihilationism.

    "Thanks, Leroy. I cannot answer anyone's 'why' questions. I cannot be the doctrinal tsar for anyone else. All I know is that if anyone receives Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord, turns from his sin to Christ, he is going to be with Jesus for eternity. As for those who reject Christ and reject all of this, and good luck to them.

    "Previously, I mentioned I believed in the Judgment Seat Of Christ. I believe that the Judgment Seat of Christ is necessary because there must be a place for Christians to work out their personal differences and doctrinal differences before we all enter the final state of heaven, and spend eternity together with Christ.

    "I personally believe we can start here by not using pejoratives like Fundamentalists and Liberals. I am insulted when I am called a Fundamentalist and I have friends who are insulted when they are called Liberals. Forget the labels, Machen.

    "How long will heaven last? eternally. How long will heaven last? Just as long as hell does. I have talked to people who believed in Annihilationism, and they used that as an excuse to justify their sinful lifestyle on the grounds that hell would be over a moment. Puff, and it is over. Finally, theologians have always talked about heaven and hell as the final states. If hell is not the final states of the lost, what is the next state? Nothingness? Can anything else not be used as an excuse to reject Christ?"

  9. Earlier I received the following brief comments from a Thinking Friend I will leave unidentified:

    "Leroy, reading this brings to my mind the words of Rhett Butler in 'Gone with the Wind': 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.' A Shakespeare play also comes to mind: 'Much ado about nothing.'"

    1. My previous blog article (posted on 1/15) was titled "Two Christianities." The comments above leads me to think that, yes, there seems to be so much difference between Christian views on many subjects, such as Hell and annihilationism, that they perhaps indicate a difference in kind and not just difference in degrees.

      If a huge number of contemporary Christians believe there is nothing more important than people finding through Jesus Christ salvation from everlasting punishment in Hell and other Christians, such as this TF (who is a Christian), "don't give a damn" about that issue and think that those of us who are trying to find a position that is less morally offensive are creating "much ado about nothing," then, yes, perhaps there are two (or more) Christianities rather than just diversity within one religion known as Christianity.

  10. Thanks for sharing about the topic of annihilationism. I'm one of a growing number of theologically conservative, evangelical Christians who have shifted from belief in eternal conscious torment to belief in annihilationism (aka conditional immortality). Like many, I found Fudge's book that you mention to be a great resource. I hope you don't mind me sharing some other resources for those interested in studying and discussing conditional immortality:

    1. The Bible! (of course)
    2. A group called Rethinking Hell has a great website with lots of articles, podcasts, links to debates, and a couple of books on this topic. Rethinking Hell also has a Facebook Group where this topic is discussed, resources are shared, and there is some debate. The group is well moderated and emphasizes both GRACE and TRUTH. Rethinking Hell should be easy to find, if anyone has questions just ask me.
    3. In addition to contributing a few articles to the Rethinking Hell group, I've got my own blog which has about 20 articles related to this topic. I've made one blog post that is basically a summary of all these, plus a few videos. You may find it here:

    Grace and Peace,
    Mark (with Hope and Joy!)
    p.s. I thank God for your service among the people of Japan. May the Lord cause seeds planted there to produce an abundant harvest of eternal fruit for His glory!

    1. I pray that God will open the door for your article at Word & Way and that He will use it for His glory!


    2. Mark, thank you so much for your comments. I was happy to hear from you and to learn about the Rethinking Hell website and other articles that you and your friends have written on this subject. I hope to be in further contact with you.

      I am currently working on an article on annhilationism for Word&Way, the historic Missouri Baptist paper and I may be able to make some introduction to you and your writing on the subject.