Let’s review the first four arguments for annihilation and then discuss the final argument and rebuttal.
1. There are passages (Phil 3:19; 2 Peter 3:7; 1 Thess 5:3 and 2 Thess 1:9) that teach the total destruction of the sinner.
2. “Eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46) does not refer to eternal conscious suffering but the eternal consequences of no restoration after annihilation.
3. Sinners suffering eternally and consciously conflicts with the love of God.
4. Eternal punishment is not fair.
5. The imagery of fire is total consummation not the infliction of pain.
Annihiliationists argue that the images of Hell favor the cessation of existence in eternity. “The main function of fire is not to cause pain but to secure destruction as all the world’s incinerators bear witness” (Stott, 316). The chaff is burned up (Matthew 3:12) and also the garbage in Gehenna. Jesus used the image of Gehenna eleven of the twelve times the word is used. Evangelicals who accuse any person who preaches hell as a place of conscious torment of being sadist and savage and preaching a “doctrine of savagery” condemn Christ for He preached more on hell than heaven (Michael Green. Evangelizing Through the Local Church. Nashville: Nelson, 1992, 73). How did Jesus use the image of Gehenna?
“The word is derived from the ‘valley of Hinnom’ found in the Old Testament (Joshua 15:8; 2 Kings 23:10; Nehemiah 11:30). In that valley outside Jerusalem the Jews gave human sacrifices to pagan deities. There, too, the garbage of the city was thrown, where it bred worms. That explains why Christ referred to hell as the place where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). This picture of an unclean dump where fires and worms never die became to the Jewish mind an appropriate description of the ultimate fate of all idolaters. Thus the word became applied to the ultimate gehenna. The Jews taught, and Christ confirmed, that the wicked would suffer there forever. Body and soul would be in eternal torment” (Lutzer, 110, 111).
Carson admits that “there is a substantial metaphorical element in the Bible’s descriptions of hell….Hell is real; the question is how far the descriptions of it are to be taken literally. Normally, we do not think of unquenchable fire and worms coexisting: the former will devour the latter as easily as they will consume people. It is hard to imagine how a lake of fire coexists with utter darkness. And if one is cast into a lake of fire, what need of chains?” (Carson 524). Stott believes that the inferences of fire and worms or maggots are the total destruction of the sinner in Hell until nothing is left (Stott, 317). Jesus did not say the worm does not die, but “their worm” dies not. This must mean the sinner also does not cease to exist to whom the worm is bound.
If language in the Bible is symbolic then the meaning of the symbol is usually given in the context as in Revelation 1:12-20. The seven golden candle stick and stars are symbols of seven churches and pastor. The context tells us the symbolic meaning the these symbols. This does not occur in reference to images of hell: fire, worms, chains, and darkness.
If fire is not quenched as Jesus preached in Mark 9:44-48, and therefore is eternal, why does the fire not consume the worm whose purpose is complete with the total destruction of wicked. Why does the fire burn eternally, if the fire has destroyed the sinner’s body?
Could chains be literal? Even if the image is not literal that does not take away the literal truth that sinners are confined to Hell for eternity. In Revelation 20:1-3, Satan, an angel, is bound with a chain for 1000 years. Could this be a literal chain binding a spirit being? Angels sometimes acquired physical bodies as in Genesis 18 and 19 whose feet were washed (18:4; 19:2) and who ate food (18:8; 19:3). So is it very possible that Satan and the unsaved will be bound with literal chains.
Sinners are cast into “the outer darkness” in Matthew 25:30 which the annihiliationists see as conflicting with literal fire in Hell. There is no more contradiction between outer darkness and eternal fire than a house going up in flames at midnight or garbage burning in Hinnom in pitch black. We cannot dismiss the images of God’s Word and especially the literal truth the images teach.
There are two passages in Revelation that refute annihiliationism. The first is Revelation 14:10-11. The worshippers of the beast and his image “will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and is image, or for anyone who receives the mark of the name.” Fudge believes that the smoke memorializes the consumed sinner: “Actually torment is meted out according to the mixture of God’s cup. Then, as the next image points out, it is forever memorialized in the smoke that remains” (Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994, 297-298). The problem with that interpretation is that the text says the unsaved have “no rest day or night” and also it is “the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.”
The other passage in Revelation 20:10-15 which describes the Great White Throne Judgment. Stott believes the beast and false prophet are not real persons but symbols of hostility against God. This scene according to Stott predicts the ultimate destruction of enmity and resistance to God (Stott, 318). The literal hermeneutic of Scripture interprets these individuals as real persons used by Satan in the future Tribulation Period. If a person is not real and intended to be symbolic as with other symbols, then the meaning of symbolic person is given. An example is Revelation 12:1-6 which informs us that the woman symbolizes Israel and the child is Jesus. But no such meaning is given to the false prophet and the antichrist. So we must take these two individuals as real men who are eventually cast into hell. Stott believes Satan is a real person so why not these two men who assist him?
Stott who believes in a personal Devil, does not mention Satan’s suffering. If the person Satan can suffer consciously and eternally so can those who choose to follow him. The reality of at least one person suffering in Hell is proof that others will suffer as well. Stott also does not mention unsaved in verse 15: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” How can the same fire not consume Satan and consume these followers of him?
I have written polemically concerning Hell trying to hold my emotions in check. It is difficult to write academically about a place where some of our unsaved friends and loved ones are and unless we win them to Christ others will go. We should pray for our unsaved friends and family with Paul: “My heart’s desire and prayer for Israel is that they might be saved.” When we do pray, we pray to a God who said: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn you, turn you from your evil ways; for why will you die” (Ezekiel 33:11). We should also weep for their souls as Jesus wept over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that killed the prophets, and stoned them which are sent unto you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.” Before you click off this post, stop a minute and intercede for the salvation of that lost person that God brings to your mind (your dad, mom, brother, sister, son or daughter, neighbor, a friend from work). Pray that God will use you to prevent from them going to this place of eternal and conscious suffering. Pray that this soul for whom Christ died and provided an escape will “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.”