Annihilationism

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The word is from the Latin nihil, "nothing," and expresses the position of those who hold that some, if not all, human souls will cease to exist after death. As observed by Warfield, this point of view may take three main forms: (1) that all human beings inevitably cease to exist altogether at death (materialist); (2) that, while human beings are naturally mortal, God imparts to the redeemed the gift of immorality and allows the rest of humanity to sink into nothingness (conditional immortality); (3) that man, being created immortal, fulfills his destiny in salvation, while the reprobates fall into nonexistence either through a direct act of God or through the corrosive effect of evil (annihilationism proper).

The distinction between conditionalism and annihilationism, as indicated above, is frequently not observed, and these two terms are commonly used as practical synonyms. A fourth form of advocacy of the ultimate extinction of evil is the view that God will finally redeem all rational beings (universalism). Over against all the above positions, historic orthodoxy has always maintained both that human souls will eternally endure and that their destiny is irrevocably sealed at death.

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The question whether or not man is naturally immortal pertains to the subject of immortality. The present article will be limited to stating and appraising briefly the main evidence advanced in support of the cessation of the wicked.

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God alone, it is urged, has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16; 1:17). This argument, if it proves anything, proves too much. In fact, God who alone has immortality in himself may and does communicate it to some of his creatures.

Immortality, it is urged, is represented as a special gift connected with redemption in Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53 - 54; 2 Tim. 1:10). The same may be said of life, or eternal life (John 10:28; Rom. 6:22 - 23; Gal. 6:8; etc.). It is freely granted that in all such passages life and immortality are represented as the privileged possession of the redeemed, but it is claimed that in these connections these terms do not represent merely continued existence, but rather connote existence in joyful fulfillment of man's high destiny in true fellowship with God (John 17:3).

Cessation of existence, it is urged, is implied in various scriptural terms applied to the destiny of the wicked, such as death (Rom. 6:23; James 5:20; Rev. 20:14; etc.), destruction (Matt. 7:13; 10:28; 1 Thess. 1:9, etc.), perishing (John 3:16, etc.). But these expressions do not so much imply annihilation as complete deprivation of some element essential to normal existence. Physical death does not mean that body or soul vanishes, but rather that an abnormal separation takes place which severs their natural relationship until God's appointed time.

Spiritual death, or the "second death" (Rev. 20:14; 21:8), does not mean that the soul or personality lapses into nonbeing, but rather that it is ultimately and finally deprived of that presence of God and fellowship with him which is the chief end of man and the essential condition of worthwhile existence. To be bereft of it is to perish, to be reduced to utter insignificance, to sink into abysmal futility. An automobile is said to be wrecked, ruined, destroyed, not only when its constituent parts have been melted or scattered away, but also when they have been so damaged and distorted that the car has become completely unserviceable.

It is inconsistent with God's love, it is urged, to allow any of his creatures to endure forever in torment. Furthermore, the continuance of evil would spell some area of permanent defeat for the divine sovereignty, a dark corner marring perpetually the glory of his universe.

These considerations are not without weight, and a complete answer may not be possible in the present state of our knowledge. They are not adjudged by traditional orthodoxy as sufficient to overthrow the substantial weight of scriptural evidence to the effect that the wicked will be consigned to endless conscious sorrow. This is apparent from the expressions "fire unquenchable" (Isa. 66:24; Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17), or "that never shall be quenched" (Mark 9:43, 45), the worm that "dieth not" (Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:44, 46, 48), "the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36), as well as from the use of "everlasting" or "forever," applying to chains, contempt, destruction, fire or burning, punishment, torment (Isa. 33:14; Jer. 17:4; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 18:8; 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 6 - 7; Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10).

It is worthy of note that, in the biblical record, those who spoke most about future punishment in its irrevocable finality are Jesus and the apostle John, the very ones who also represented most glowingly the supreme glory of God's love and the unshakable certainty of his ultimate triumph.

R Nicole
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
B B Warfield, S H E R K, I, 183 - 86; G C Joyce in H E R E. In support of annihilationism: H Constable, The Duration and Nature of Future Punishmen; C H Hewitt, A classbook in Eschatology; E Lewis, Life and Immortality; F L Piper, Conditionalism. In opposition to annihilationism: H Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment; R Garrigou - Lagrange, Life Everlasting; W G T Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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