A Critique of Annihilationism
In an article entitled The Nature of Hell: An Eternal Punishment or Eternal Torment?, respected prophecy teacher Dr. David Reagan offers what he calls the “conditionalist” view of the fate of the lost, as opposed to what he terms the “traditionalist” view. I will briefly summarize his presentation of both views, and then offer a counter-argument to his conclusion. For convenience, “traditionalist” will be abbreviated as TRAD, and “conditionalist” as COND. Likewise, Old and New Testament will be abbreviated as OT and NT respectively.
Dr. Reagan begins with some definitions of various terms in scripture used for the place of the dead. The OT does not say much about it beyond poetic expression and passing reference, and we certainly wouldn't want to get precise theology about it from there. But we are given more detail and precision in the NT, which Dr. Reagan explains in the article. The most important detail in his description is that he equates “hell” with “the lake of fire”, a permanent prison originally designed for the devil and his angels.
Then Dr. Reagan prefaces his case with the acknowledgment that regardless of the differences in the two views, hell is a terrible place that should be avoided by any means. Yet here I see a problem with the logic of a temporary punishment: if the lost are ultimately to be destroyed, what is the purpose of the suffering? We will return to this central question later. Above all, he stresses the fact that this is not an issue over which Christians should divide or retain hostility toward each other.
Before Dr. Reagan examines the duration of hell, he gives a fair and accurate description of TRAD. But then he questions the willingness of TRAD to consider other viewpoints, due to their being held by many cults denying the reality of hell completely. But I strongly disagree with his assertion that fear is the reason TRAD will not “dare to challenge” its own view. Dr. Reagan has already acknowledged the quality and faithfulness of TRAD believers, which makes this questioning of their character inconsistent. Personally, I have made a point throughout my life to focus on that which challenges my beliefs, and I reach my conclusions out of such examinations rather than fear, an approach I believe holds true for the majority of TRAD believers. The mere fact that one may change their mind does not make the former belief erroneous. This entire point is not only unfair to TRAD believers, but also irrelevant; it is the teaching that is being questioned, not the teachers.
Now Dr. Reagan begins to examine the difficulties he sees with TRAD teachings. He sees TRAD as impugning the character of God, as he deems eternal torment incompatible with the love and justice of God, turning Him into “a cosmic sadist”. Yet one could as easily accuse God of such sadism by a cursory glance at human history, which is filled with the suffering of the innocent. Critics of our faith point to the pervasive evil of the world as proof that God is indeed sadistic, or at least indifferent, if they believe He exists at all. Who would say that ten years of torture, rape, neglect, or other suffering is in any way better or less sadistic than ten million years of such suffering? The duration is irrelevant.
Dr. Reagan then cites several OT examples of God immediately destroying people without first making them suffer, arguing that this proves God does not ever engage in prolonged torment of His enemies. Points are well taken that God never ordered torture of criminals, and even animal sacrifices were to be done quickly and humanely… but of course, animals were not sinners, so this doesn't bolster the argument.
Yet those same ancient laws also ordered “an eye for an eye”, a cost to be paid, even if the loss or injury was due to negligence. Taking someone's eye certainly causes more than momentary suffering. Granted that the eye is not continuously plucked out, but the one losing the eye will never get it back and must suffer the rest of their natural life without it. And how much punishment did the nation of Israel endure whenever they defied God? Generations of them suffered the wrath of God all their lives, for deeds done by their ancestors. Clearly, God's judgments are not always quick and short-lived.
Dr. Reagan then argues that the term “second death” conflicts with TRAD. But the conflict is really with the definiton of “death” he is using. Certainly the death of a physical body causes it to decompose, yet it is never completely gone. But if death means “separation”, then the conflict disappears. At physical death the body is separated from the spirit, but at spiritual death (which TRAD defines as “second”) the spirit is separated from God forever. Dr. Reagan notes that the term “second death” only appears in Revelation, but that same book also states that the “second death” is the Lake of Fire itself (Rev. 20:14, 21:8), which includes the souls of those who took the Mark of the Beast, along with the Beast and the False Prophet. Since the torment of the latter is conscious and eternal, there is no justification for saying that the human souls in that same place will not suffer eternally and consciously as well, though Dr. Reagan will argue to the contrary.
Next is a discussion of the word “destruction”, which in essence is no different from that of the word “death”. If, as Dr. Reagan argues, hell is the Lake of Fire, we have already seen that this place allows eternal conscious suffering in spite of terms like “death” and “destruction”. He also cites the phrase “eternal destruction” from 2 Thes. 1:9 as meaning “eternally destroyed”, not “eternally being destroyed”. But is there any such thing as being “temporarily destroyed”? If destruction means permanent nonexistence, then adding the word “eternal” is redundant. At any rate, this passage is simply saying that God will wreak vengeance on His enemies, and it must be considered along with all other teachings about the fate of the lost.
Dr. Reagan makes a similar argument with regards to the word “punish”, such that “eternal punishment” is not the same as “eternal punishing”. Yet if one ceases to exist, one is not being punished eternally. The fact that it is called punishment tells us that it is being experienced by someone, and when used with the word “eternal”, the meaning is inescapable. The -ing suffix does not change this. This becomes clearer if we say something like “The judgment against the traitor was eternal banishment from the country”. Would the duration of the banishment change if instead the word had been “banishing”? Not at all, since banishment is a state of being that does not require the judge to keep banishing the traitor forever.
Dr. Reagan unwittingly supports this counter-argument in noting that “Likewise, the Bible speaks of eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). But this does not mean that Christ will continue the act of redemption eternally.” Since our redemption was accomplished “once for all” yet has continuing consequences, so also does the “punishment” of the wicked have lasting consequences. Dr. Reagan is arguing that the consequences are simply that the wicked cease to exist, but lack of existence cannot be made to mean “punishment”. Granted that capital “punishment” means that the criminal no longer exists in our physical world, but we cannot arbitrarily apply the physical to the spiritual. Calvinism makes the same error when it takes spiritual death as exactly like physical death, in that the physically dead cannot hear or see (or sin, if they were consistent with their analogy).
Then Dr. Reagan makes the same argument as standard Annihilationism: that “the smoke of their torment rises forever” only means the smoke, not the torment. But smoke is a result, not a cause; that is, it indicates something being burned. If the smoke rises forever, so also must the burning go on forever. And if the burning goes on forever, there must be something forever being burned. We might see this problem more clearly by citing “the sign of the Son of Man”; surely where the sign is, so also is the Son of Man. Or as the saying goes, “Where there's smoke, there's fire”. Again Dr. Reagan argues, as does Annihilationism, that this all speaks of consequences rather than continual punishment. Yet we have already presented the counter-argument that as with banishment, punishment is a state of being rather than a mere result.
Next Dr. Reagan argues that the human soul is not immortal in its created state, but that it only becomes eternal at salvation (no attempt is made to explain how the souls of those who die as babies go to heaven). He cites 1 Tim. 6:15-16 as proof that only God is immortal, yet this would defeat his own argument as well, since it is in the present tense (God is, not was). This claim would also contradict the earlier admission that the fallen angels will suffer forever. Clearly Paul is saying that only God had no beginning, not that only God will live forever.
It is never wise to base a claim on a single verse, and Dr. Reagan offers nothing else to support this one about mortal souls. And if only the redeemed have eternal souls, then who are the dead that are raised and judged and sent to the Lake of Fire? If their souls are as mortal as their bodies, then why don't their souls die at the same time as their bodies? What purpose would a non-sadistic God have in making their souls live in torment for either a minute or a millennium (or more, depending on exactly when in human history they died), raise them up to be judged, and then annihilate them in fire? This argument for COND is no improvement at all over TRAD. There is no sense in punishing the wicked if they are to be annihilated, just as there's no sense in punishing a criminal who is to be put to death. Of course some societies do this anyway, but it has nothing to do with justice or protecting society, but only the sadism of the punishers. Yet COND would make God equally sadistic.
Dr. Reagan makes a brief appeal to historical concepts both in scripture and outside of it, but this again is irrelevant if we want to study scripture. All kinds of ideas can be found among professing believers of all ages, and mere proximity to the time of Christ is no guarantee of orthodoxy. Paul wrote much of the NT in an effort to combat false teachings in his own day, after all. So as Dr. Reagan admitted, history cannot help us in this regard. Yet it wouldn't have mattered anyway, since it is not history but scripture that carries the authority to teach us the fate of the lost. Even if all Christian writings after the last NT book was written supported COND, it would not carry any authority in this debate.
If we end the rebuttal to this challenge of TRAD as it began— with a question about the character of God— then we would argue that the honor of God is not salvaged by having Him first torment souls, then pronounce judgment, and then wipe them out. Though the fallen angels are eternal beings who will spend eternity in conscious suffering, they too had a beginning, just as humans do. So if the character of God is impugned by the eternal suffering of one group of beings who had a beginning, then it is also impugned if the same holds true for the other group of beings. Since Dr. Reagan acknowledges the eternal conscious torment of fallen angels, then he cannot justify rejecting the same for fallen humans by claiming that unregenerate human souls are mortal.
I want to make it clear that I hold Dr. Reagan in the highest respect, having learned much from his material on eschatology over the years, and I am grateful that he has made his teachings available for free online. So in no way am I disparaging his character or faithfulness as a Christian, but only disagreeing with his position on this matter. He is certainly not the only popular Bible teacher to change positions on a matter, and not the only one who, in my opinion, has moved from a valid position to an invalid one.
Certainly we can disagree on this topic, but those who are teachers are held to a higher standard (James 3:1). Ideas do have consequences, and many see the TRAD view as repugnant and turning the lost away from salvation. But the Gospel itself is such a “stumbling stone”, and any judgment from God even in this life is often cited as the reason people turn away from Jesus. So this rejection in itself is not a reason to reject a teaching. What matters is whether God values justice as much as mercy, holiness as much as compassion, and love for the victims as much as love for the perpetrators.