Originally published as A Survey of Annihilationism, The Biblical and Historical Evidence by Jason Wright
Annihilationism is rising in popularity amongst Christian believers today. The position of the Church concerning the fate of the unsaved dead has been consistent throughout the centuries; at the eschaton reprobate humanity will be resurrected unto Judgment followed by banishment in the Lake of Fire/Gehenna. This abode commonly referred to as Hell is described as an everlasting place of torment (Mark 9:43; Rev. 20:18, 21:18).
Irenaeus (189 AD) wrote; The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever (“Against Heresies” 4:28:2)
Contrary to this position the theory of Annihilationism asserts that at some future time the unsaved dead pass into non-existence. Some proponents teach that the unsaved dead suffer in Hell for varying periods of time according to individual sins then, once punitive justice is satisfied, the purged sinner is annihilated. Yet others teach entry into Hell means instant annihilation. Are these variants of annihilationism biblical?
The objective of this paper is to give a presentation of annihilationism juxtaposed with traditionalist dogma. Herein Biblical and historical evidence will refute annihilationism as a serious interpretive error.
Origins of Annihilationism
Annihilationism simply means extinction; non-existence. The theory was first proposed by Arnobius of Sicca (El Kaf, Tunisia) circa 303 A.D., Arnobius stated, “The wicked go into the fire of Gehenna [Hell], and will ultimately be consumed or annihilated”1
Historian Philip Schaff notes that Arnobius work as an apologist was: “meagre and unsatisfactory”2 despite his academic failings Arnobius sowed into Church history a teaching contrary to the historic position of the Church. In fact Annihilationism as a doctrine was condemned as heresy at the second council of Constantinople in A.D. 553. The protestant creeds flowing out of the reformation likewise rejected annihilationism (Westminster confession of Faith XXX2.1; XXXIII.2).
Nevertheless the seeds had been sown and like so many errors after centuries of incubation annihilationism reappeared in the works of Socinians like John Biddle (1615-62) and Arians like William Whiston (1667-1752).3
Interestingly the major proponents of annihilationism today are pseudo-Christian groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Armstrongites and Unitarians (socinians). However, many in the Church are also being swayed by this theory.4
In order to unpack the subject more fully this paper will explore:
• The meaning of destruction (Greek Apollumi)
• The meaning of Hell-Fire Imagery
• The duration of Hell
• The justice of God
The Meaning of Destruction (Greek Apollumi)
The teaching of annihilationism emerges from the view that the final state of the wicked is extinction. This argument is primarily based on the Greek word apollumi, which is a central motif in depicting hell5 and translated “destruction” in the majority of English Bibles.
• Matt. 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy (apollumi) both soul and body in hell.6
The above example highlights the word destroy (apollumi) and, at first glance appears, to support the annihilationist position that both body and soul will ultimately meet extinction in Hell. However apollumi carries the sense of loss, ruin and corruption; to destroy or to cause the destruction of persons, objects, or institutions—‘to ruin, to destroy, destruction.’7 When comparing other occurrences of apollumi in the N.T. we get a much closer correlation with loss and ruin.
• Luke 15:9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ (apollumi)
• 2 Peter 3:6 That by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished (apollumi)..
Many other examples could be given. The question is what do we observe regarding the use of apollumi? Did the coin or world cease to exist? No! Therefore as D. A. Carson notes, “It does not follow that those who suffer destruction [in Hell] cease to exist”.8 The final state of the wicked is utter loss, ruin and waste in the abode of Hell shut out from the presence of God eternally (cf. Matt. 25:41).9
The Meaning of Hell-Fire Imagery
Annihilationism argues that fire is a destructive force, which burns up that which is exposed to it. In other words fire relates to destruction and annihilation not ongoing suffering. Contrary to this position the writings of the N.T. set forth horrific images of human and angelic suffering in the Lake of Fire/Gehenna (Hell). Below are some examples:
• Matt. 13:40-41 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
• Matt. 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
• Rev. 20:10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
• Rev. 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
• Luke 16:25, 28 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish…for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
The language here employed is of weeping and gnashing of teeth, torment, anguish, a fiery furnace, and the duration of this torment is stated as eternal, day and night forever and ever. Both the Beast, the False Prophet, the Devil, his angels and those humans not found in the book of life end up in this fearful abode.10
Hell-fire imagery is drawn not so much from the Old Testament but from intertestamental literature.11 In other words Christ himself employed the eschatological language of his day concerning post-mortem retribution. There can be no ambiguity here, Jesus theology of the eternal state includes:
• Hell as the place of final Judgment (Matt. 23:33)
• Hell as the final destination of the wicked (Matt. 5:22; 23:33)
• Hell where the composite person; body, mind, soul are punished (Matt. 5:22;
10:28; Mark 9:43-48, cf. Rev. 20:1-15)
• Hell as the place of conscious torment (Mark 9:44-48; cf. Isaiah 66:24; Rev.14:9-11; Judith 16:17; Mid. Gen. 214)
• Hell as the place of eternal punishment (Matt. 5:29-30; Matt. 8:29; cf. Luke 16:19-31)
• Hell is the place of banishment from God’s presence and Kingdom (John 15:1-7; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Matt. 8:12; Matt. 25:10-12, 30)
Far from extinction, fire-imagery is linked to eternal torment. Likewise the early church attests to the view of everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked and unrepentant.
• “As regards the fate of the wicked…, the general view [of the early church fathers] was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission. As Basil put it, in hell the sinful soul is completely cut off from the Holy Spirit, and is therefore incapable of repentance; while Chrysostom pointed out that neither the bodies of the damned, which will become immortal, nor their souls will know any end of their sufferings. Neither time nor friendship nor hope nor expectation of death, not even the spectacle of other unhappy souls sharing their lot, will alleviate their pains…by the fifth century the stern doctrine that sinners will have no second chance after this life and that the fire which will devour them will never be extinguished was everywhere paramount.”12
The Duration of Hell
Annihilationists argue that Hell is an eternal punishment prepared solely for the Devil and His angels and therefore not designed for humans (Matt. 25:41). Moreover they teach that at the resurrection only the truly saved receive immortal bodies whereas the unsaved are raised in mortal bodies. Hell must therefore be a place of instantaneous and total destruction, after all how can a mortal body endure a lake of fire.13 At most the sinner may experience punitive14 action before extinction, which they conclude, is the “second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:18). This doctrine is known as conditional immortality.
What though does scripture teach?
• Rev. 19:20 the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur.
Note the beast and prophet are thrown alive into the lake of fire (Hell).
Later in Rev.20:10 the Devil joins them where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”. Next Death and Hades15 and finally lost humanity joins them (Rev. 20:14-15) herein the lake of fire is described as the “second death” in v.15.
Likewise Rev. 21:8 describes the portion of the lost “will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death”.
The “second death” then is not extinction but separation from God in the lake of fire (Hell). Evidently the unsaved dead will receive resurrection bodies that are different from their former mortal bodies these will be indestructible (not immortal) and fit for purpose in Hell.16
This understanding overturns the notion that the unsaved dead will be raised up in destructible bodies. At this juncture we might enquire; in annihilationist theory what is the point of raising a person from death simply to annihilate them? In fact how can extinction – even with punitive action – be classed as punishment, for once extinct, has not the sinner actually escaped punishment? This limited punishment theory actually fuels hedonism. After all why worry about punishment if your ultimate end is non-existence?
However a terse look at N.T. evidence underscores the concept of everlasting punishment for the unsaved dead.
• Matt. 18:8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.
• Mark 9:47-48 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
• Matt. 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
• Jude 1:7, 13c Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire…for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
The English word eternal translates the Greek word aion / aionias.17 Both can refer to an age (period of time) however it is context that dictates duration. The above quoted texts are clearly eschatological in nature and pertain not simply to an age to come but to the endless age to come, the final order in eternity.18 The Hebrew equivalent to aion is olam. Daniel eloquently explains the final order of things within the framework of olam:
• And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting (olam olam) life, and some to shame and everlasting (olam olam) contempt (Dan 12:2).
These are context specific words regarding the final judgment of the wicked and carry the sense of endlessness. Scripture is therefore without ambiguity; when dealing with the fate of rebel humanity everlasting punishment means just that – eternal – unending.
The Justice of God
Why should billions of innocent people suffer endless conscious punishment surely that’s “not fair” – so says the rebellious wicked heart. This argument is perhaps the driving force behind annihilationist theory. After all does not the scripture say that the unsaved dead are judged according to their works? (Rev. 20:12) surely past works are finite and should be punished accordingly.
Such subtle reasoning can sway the unwary into thinking that annihilationism fits God’s character of love much better than the teaching of everlasting conscious punishment. However our touchstone is not our feelings or sense of justice but what the scripture actually says. This short paper has refuted the text-based arguments of annihilationism, but what of the wider theological implication pertaining to God’s justice?
To begin we might ask the annihilationist a question. Is it fair for the Devil and his hoards to spend eternity in torment? What difference is there between the angelic and human realm in terms of will-full sin? Surely it would be right for God to sentence ALL rebels to a period of punishment commensurate with their sins and then annihilate them. Is there really any difference?
Thus we must seek another explanation. To do so we must properly understand the ontological condition of mankind. According to scripture humanity is not innocent – far from it – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Genesis 3:1-19; Rom.5:12-15; Is. 64:6; Rom 3:10). Every human is thus trapped in a sin-nature, which could be likened to having an incurable disease (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:12, 23; Ecc. 7:20; Ps. 51:5).
Diseases produce symptoms similarly the sin-nature produces symptoms namely unholy, ungodly thoughts and actions that alienate man from God but more importantly for our study ensures eternal punishment (Rom.3:23; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 2:1-3; 2 Thess. 1:9). Pragmatically sin against an eternal God invariably leads to eternal consequences i.e. damnation.
Yet the heart of God is to rescue sinners from such a fate. Herein is the great salvific truth of Holy writ; through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ forgiveness of sin is possible (John 3:16; Eph. 2:4-5). The truly saved are thus imputed with the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 4:5, 5:15; Phil. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21) and become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The sin-nature is emasculated.19 In juxtaposition the unsaved remain under the wrath of God (John 3:36; Eph. 2:3; Rom. 1:18; Rev. 14:9-10) dead in their sins and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:1, 12).
• “God’s justice stands forever against the sinner in utter severity. The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions. It hushes their fears and allows them to practice all pleasant forms of iniquity while death draws every day nearer and the command to repent goes disregarded. As responsible moral beings we dare not so trifle with our eternal future.”20
• “If we once saw sin as God sees it, we would understand why a place such as hell exists.”21
Thus the justice of God is bound up in his essential character. Mankind is by nature sinful consequently the righteousness and holiness of God demands judgment against sin. In all humility we must concede that as sovereign creator God has every right to deal with his creation however he wants (Rom. 9:20, 11:33-36; Is. 45:9).
We have explored the major claims of annihilationism; collectively the evidence upholds the traditional position of the Church through the ages, namely:
• The meaning of destruction (Greek apollumi) was clarified as carrying the sense of loss, ruin, corruption and destruction in the abode of Hell for all eternity. The assertion that apollumi means extinction is completely alien to the original meaning and to be rejected.
• Hell-Fire Imagery presented Hell in graphic terms of suffering and torment, a place of banishment for both fallen angels and the unsaved dead. The point of this imagery is to convey the horrors of that abode.
• The duration of Hell was confirmed as eternal. The words aion, aionias and olam olam applied eschatologically all carried the thought of endlessness, eternity. All who enter this abode both fallen angels and the unsaved dead (possessing indestructible bodies) incur everlasting conscious punishment.
• The Justice of God is subject to his will and sovereignty as expressed through his perfect righteousness and holiness. As such the Justice of God demands the punishment of sin supervened in the abode of Hell for all eternity.
Lost humanity will suffer eternally, such reality should motive us as believers to sow the Gospel message with ever more vigour, working alongside the Holy Spirit; saving of souls before the end of this age must be our priority.
This essay only skims the surface of what is a huge subject, for those wishing to explore the eternal state in more depth, please review the bibliography.
Soli Deo Gloria
Bernstein, A. E. (1993) “The Formation of Hell – Death and Retribution in the
Ancient and Early Christian Worlds ” UCL Press
Boa, K. D. & Bowman, R. M. (2007) “Sense & Nonsense About Heaven & Hell”
Carson, D. A. (1996) “The Gagging of God: Christianity and Pluralism” Zondervan
Charlesworth, J. H. (2009) “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. I” Hendrickson Publishers
Coxe, A. C. & Donaldson A. R. J. (1885) “The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4: Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second” Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company
Fudge, W. F. (2001) “The Fire that Consumes – A Biblical & Historical Study of the
Doctrine of Final Punishment” iUniverse.com publishers
Hayes, Z. J., Pinnock, C. H., & Walvoord. J. F. (1996) “Four Views of Hell”
Johnston, P. S. (2002) “Shades of Sheol – Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament” IVP Academic
Kelly, J. N. D.  (2000) “Early Christian doctrines” London: Continuum
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) New York: United Bible Societies.
Morey, R. A. (1984) “Death and the Afterlife” Bethany House Publishing
Morgan, C. W. & Peterson, R. A. Ed. (2004) “Hell Under Fire” Zondervan Murray, J. H. (1983) “Raised Immortal, Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament” William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Pawson, D. (2014) “The Road to Hell – Everlasting Torment or Annihilation?”
Anchor Recordings Ltd
Peterson, R. A. (1995) “Hell on Trial – The case for Eternal Punishment” P&R
Peterson, R. A. (1994) “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for
Annihilationism” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:4 (December
Schaff, P. [1858-1890] (2015) “History of the Christian Church, Vol. I-8” Arkose
Strong, J. (2009) Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible Hendrickson
Tozer, A. W. (reprint 2009) “Knowledge of the Holy” Authentic Media
Westminster confession of Faith – retrieved 13/8/2018 https://reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/
Wiersbe, Warren W. (1989) “The Bible Exposition Commentary” Wheaton: Victor Books, Scripture Press
Copyright © 2018 Jason J. E. Wright All Rights Reserved
1 Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, pp. 859f.
2 bid., p. 858f.
3 C. W. Morgan., & R. A. Peterson Editors. (2004) Hell Under Fire p. 197. Zondervan
4 Shockingly, some evangelical Christians have adopted annihilationism including scholars Edward Fudge and John Stott.
5 C. W. Morgan., & R. A. Peterson Editors. (2004) Hell Under Fire p. 146. Zondervan
6 An often-missed point is the contrast Jesus makes between what man can do; kill (Grk. apokteino) in contrast to what God can do; destroy (Grk. apollumi) in Hell. The fact two different Greek words are employed show that destruction is not extinction but the beginning of a new ontological state.
7 Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on
semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) p. 231. New York: United Bible Societies.
8 D. A. Carson. (1996) The Gagging of God: Christianity and Pluralism p. 552. Zondervan.
9 2 Thess. 1:9 is sometimes employed to prove extinction. The Greek word employed for destruction is olethros not apollumi. Two points should be noted 1) olethros still implies ruin, that is, death, punishment. 2) the context of v.9 is banishment being driven “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” consequently the punishment in view is eternal banishment not annihilation/extinction.
10 While all manner of metaphor are employed to describe suffering in Hell metaphysical explanations of the true nature of this suffering are conjecture. All we know for sure is the unsaved will suffer irreversible alienation and separation from God for all eternity experiencing everlasting conscious punishment.
11 Intertestamental literature includes the Pseudepigrapha and Apocryphal writings written between the Old and New Testament period. While not inspired the language of post-mortem retribution cross-pollinates reoccurring in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and for that reason this literature offers extremely important lines of corroborative evidence.
12 J.N.D. Kelly  (2000) Early Christian doctrines, 5th rev. ed., pp. 484-484 London : Continuum
13 The fact that Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were not completely consumed by the fiery
furnace adds further weight to the argument that God can place and maintain a human in “fire” without total destruction (Daniel 3:16-28)
14 Purgatory in Roman Catholicism is similarly punitive
15 A personification of the physical and spiritual consequences of death
16 See Robert A. Peterson, “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:4 (December 1994):553-68.
17 Strong’s Concordance  defines aion/ aionias as; age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.
18 Morey, R. A. (1984) Death and the Afterlife p. 128-129 Bethany House Publishers
19 Final freedom from the consequences of sin will not be realized until the glorification of the church when believes receive their immortal bodies.
20 A. W. Tozer. (reprint 2009) Knowledge of the Holy p. 62 Authentic Media
21 Wiersbe, Warren W. (1989) The Bible Exposition Commentary. 2:261 Wheaton: Victor Books, Scripture Press.