What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks?!? Part 15: Was Paul an Annihilationist?

I want to get back to unpacking my thoughts and conclusions and continued deliberations on the doctrine of hell and final punishment. There were several things I said I would do, but haven’t yet. Early on I covered the discussion of hell in the gospels (i.e. the instances in which Jesus is recorded as speaking about hell by name- where he uses the word gehenna). I did suggest I would get into broader discussions of final punishment where the term gehenna may not be present, but the biblical authors are speaking on God’s final judgment.

Earlier today, Scot McKnight unpacked Edward Fudge’s analysis of the final judgment in the Epistles. Fudge is a strong defender of annihilationism- he argues that the New Testament reveals that God will destroy the unrepentant sinner, and they will cease to exist forever. This of course got my brain going on the thoughts I’ve been gathering on Paul’s depiction of judgment. So what does Paul say? Does Paul suggest that God will punish the unrepentant eternally and consciously with fire? Will God destroy the unrepentant? Will he purify them with fire?

So, where does Paul speak of the final judgment? Can we conclude anything from these mentions? And is Paul in agreement or disagreement with Jesus?

First, here’s a quick scan of some of the key references of Paul to final judgment:

Romans 2:1-16 (NRSV):

2 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Ok, so God is angered with lack of repentance (v. 5). He has wrath against sin. He will give eternal life to those who seek him (i.e. no one is by nature immortal; a key aspect of the conditionalist/annihilationist argument- that people are not by nature immortal and will necessarily exist forever in heave or in hell). “There will be anguish and distress”- it will not be pleasant for the unrepentant.

What’s important here is verse 12- those who sin apart from the law will “perish” (ἀπολοῦνται, from apollumi – perish or destroy). Unrepentant Gentiles (those without the law) will be destroyed, and those under the law who sin will be judged. Not definitive, but this seems to lend to the annihilationist argument. Of course, Paul in this passage is not trying to give a full description of judgment. The point of Romans 2-3 is that all (Gentile and Jew) have sinned, and need repentance and faith to be made righteous.

Next, let’s check out Philippians 1:27-28:

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.

The context of these verses is encouragement to persecuted Christians to “stay the course”. The Philippian refusal to be intimidated by their persecutors is “evidence of their [the persecutors] destruction [ἀπωλείας, also from apollumi].”

Later in Philippians we read (3:18-21):

18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Enemies of the cross can expect an end which is destruction (ἀπώλεια). This seems to imply a cessation of existence. There is an end to them. Those who belong to the Saviour will be transformed and conformed to the image of Christ. Presumably this means we are given unperishable bodies (See 1 Cor. 9:25, 15:42-52) which is not given to the unrepentant (Rom. 6:23, See also John 3:16). Those who remain unrepentant will not receive eternal life, but can expect the opposite. The opposite of eternal life- is eternal conscious torment the opposite of eternal life? Wouldn’t non-life be the opposite? That seems to be what Paul says.

Next, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10:

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

God is just, and will “afflict” those who “afflict” God’s people. Is this “affliction” for all unrepentant sinners or specifically for those who persecute God’s people? Verse 8 tells us that in fire, God will bring vengence on those who do not know God or obey the gospel. So it does seem to be a blanket afflicting. But they will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον). ὄλεθρον can carry a meaning of “ruin” but typically means destruction. In this case it isn’t 100% clear if this means extinction/annihilation. The verb (pay or suffer) is a future active indicative, but does this refer to an ongoing punishment or a one time thing. John Stott noted: “It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and, as you put it, it is ‘difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing’.” (David Edwards & John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 315-316). Presumably this refers to an end to the existence for those who refuse God’s grace in life. This is only one of four instances in the epistles in which “eternal” is coupled with judgment (here, plus Heb. 6:2, Jude 1:6 & 7), which is worth noting. This is the only one of those 4 examples in which eternal and destruction are paired together. Never is eternal coupled with the experience of torment in judgment. That which is eternal about judgment is never explicitly said to be the conscious experience of torment; Jesus and Jude both describe the fires as eternal (Mt. 18:8, Jude 1:7). But here in Paul we have this unique construct in which destruction is described as eternal- a clear tension as that which is eternal is by nature never-ending. Thus “eternal destruction” we can reasonably understand to mean destroyed never to exist again. To me, that is the most reasonable conclusion.

This, I would argue is reiterated by the fact that those who experience this destruction are destroyed from the presence and glory of God. If God is omnipresent, being destoryed from his presence  implies being removed from existence (from, that apo in Greek, can mean the destruction which comes from God’s presence, or destruction which moves the person away from God’s presence, I tend to prefer the latter, but I am open to the former as certainly possible). While neither statement (“eternal destruction” and “from the presence”) on its own is conclusive, taken together, we have fairly solid grounds on which to believe Paul is suggesting that the unrepentant are annihilated.

In each of these examples Paul appears to be suggesting that God’s punishment of unrepentant sinners is annihilation. While not conclusive, the choice of language here in Paul (destruction/perishing) seems to imply the same as Jesus’ choice of language (destroy, consume, burn up, see part 3: Hell in the Gospels). Jesus speaks of God destroying in gehenna (Mt. 10:28) and uses the image of chaff being burned up (Mt. 3:12, 13:40; Lk. 3:17). So there is continuity between Jesus and Paul (See also the apocryphal text Sirach 36:8-11), although Jesus’ words have more often been appealed to as evidence for eternal conscious torment.

While this is not a comprehensive study of everything Paul has to say about judgment and wrath, what becomes clear to me is that the argument for eternal conscious torment of unrepentant sinners gets little or no support from Paul. Paul’s few comments on the issue use terminology of destruction. This choice by Paul to refer to the ultimate fate of the unrepentant as destruction should be taken seriously. The Greek apollumi, implies complete or utter and irreversible destruction. How are those who are utterly destroyed to endure eternal torment?

Jesus’ statements on hell are murkier. Paul seems more clear. The author of Hebrews and James, Peter, John and Jude offer little evidence of eternal torment (the word destruction/destroy turns up there too; see esp. 2 Pet. chapters 2-3). So we have some difficult language, which we have to tread carefully with.

4 Comments on “What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks?!? Part 15: Was Paul an Annihilationist?

  1. I think we are right to prioritize New Testament writers in any study, but of course for any systematized doctrine there should be a way to understand the full range of texts together. What was so compelling to me in a comprehensive study of the fate of the wicked (where Fudge’s “The Fire That Consumes,” 3rd Ed. is an excellent guide), was that there was no need to reach for a principle, such as progressive revelation, in order to gather the relevant texts together. There is no unexpected twist, conceptual or semantic. There is only straightforward development of the singular theme of being forever cut off, sometimes with attendant imagery.

    By the time of Christ, death and taxes were of a certainty; resurrection was the thing in dispute. Justice was pretty well-understood in terms of the two destinies: life and death, but it was not clear to everyone how it could ultimately be exacted. Well, it is clear to us now: an act of God will resurrect all human beings. This means that while the wicked did seem to prosper in the end (contrary to God’s promises), God hasn’t finished. But the general resurrection does not change the fates of the righteous and wicked as they were laid out in the Old Testament. Ultimate justice is simply justice in the end.

  2. Thanks for that Peter. I am not sure it’s as clear cut as you are suggesting. I see conditionalism/annihilationism as having stronger basis, but I am not yet completely convinced. Rev. 14:11 & Matt. 25:41 seem to imply an ongoing eternal punishment, as well as the apocryphal texts like 1 & 2 Enoch do state that gehenna is a place of eternal punishment, and Jesus seems to be invoking an understood concept when speaking of gehenna. That understood concept includes some hints that gehenna is eternal. Unfortunately it is not entirely straightforward. I do see a stronger argument for conditionalism, but not the only valid interpretation.

  3. Actually, Pastor, I am glad you brought up Revelation 14:11. On its face, when taken literally, this idea of ever-rising smoke would seem to indicate everlasting burning, and since the burning causes their torment, it would seem to teach everlasting torment.

    However, this is complicated by the fact that this isn’t the only place where we see ever-rising smoke. This language is almost identical to that of Isaiah 34:8-10. Regarding Edom (mentioned in Verse 5),

    “For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    A year of recompense for the [i]cause of Zion.
    Its streams will be turned into pitch,
    And its loose earth into brimstone,
    And its land will become burning pitch.
    It will not be quenched night or day;
    From generation to generation it will be desolate;
    None will pass through it forever and ever.” (Emphasis added)

    Certainly, Edom is not still on fire! Isaiah used this phrase, this imagery of ever-rising smoke, to make the point that Edom would be destroyed. My guess is, this was an appeal to the immediate aftermath of a fiery destruction, where smoke still rises for a while though the fire has mostly died out. It would be like what we see in Genesis 19:28 when Abraham sees the smoke rising from the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah the following morning.

    Now, it’s not a sure thing that John was appealing to Isaiah 34 or that he meant rising smoke in the same idiomatic way Isaiah did, referring to destruction. However, in a book as saturated with non-literal, Old Testament imagery, I believe we cannot say that it is not at least a reasonable probability. As for the reference to them having no rest day or night, that does not tell us the duration of what occurs. It only tells us that it is continuous while it occurs, but so was the fire that destroyed Edom which was not “quenched day or night.” I would say that with this in mind, Revelation 14:11 certainly is not as conclusive as many say it is. With Isaiah in mind, it is definitely consistent with annihilationism, though it in itself does not prove the doctrine true.

    If I may suggest some further reading (aside from what Peter has already mentioned, which discusses Gehenna), a friend of Peter and I, Dr. Glenn Peoples, wrote a little something about this that deals with Revelation, with Matthew 25:46, and some other passages that weren’t mentioned but that are often said to demonstrate that hell is a place of eternal torment (such as Mark 9:48). It’s basically the transcript of three episodes of his podcast, “Say Hello to My Little Friend,” where he deals with this topic. And it’s free! Lol. [http://www.beretta-online.com/articles/theology/annihilationist.pdf]

    Anyway, hopefully some questions and concerns you have will be answered, and thank you for your thoughtful look at this topic.

  4. Thanks for the links and insights Joseph. I certainly do agree that Rev. 14:11 doesn’t definitively speak of eternal punishment. But for me there are enough question marks on the issue to not speak as absolutely as some do. I certainly lean toward conditionalism, but I’m not prepared to say with absolute certainty that it is the only interpretive option.

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