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Annihilationism is belief that the final fate of the wicked is unconscious non-existence. It runs counter to the traditional Christian understanding of hell.
In contrast to Traditionalism, which holds that the wicked will suffer in torment forever, and universalism, which holds that all humanity will eventually be saved, annhilationism concludes that, although God may use hell to exact some conscious punishment for sins, he will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked completely, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality.
The doctrine is often, although not always, bound-up with the notion of Conditional Immortality, a belief that the soul is not innately immortal. At death, both the wicked and righteous will pass into non-existence, only to be resurrected (or more precisely re-created) at the final judgment. God, who alone is immortal, passes on the gift of immortality to the righteous, who will live forever in heaven or on an idyllic earth, while the wicked will ultimately face a second death.
Inherent in the annihilationist stance are notions of divine justice and love. Annihilationists claim that the idea of an eternal place of torment is morally repugnant, and an unfair punishment for finite sins. How can this accurately reflect Godâ€™s ultimate victory over suffering and evil, they argue, when it permanently installs a place of suffering in the final, eternal order? Likewise, how can the saved live in blissful joy knowing that some of their loved ones burn forever in hell? Traditionalists retort that only God is qualified to determine divine justice, and raise suspicions that annihilationists may be succumbing to modern cultural pressures.
Notions of hell depend on Greek ideas
Annihilationists also claim that traditional notions of hell depend on Greek ideas of an immortal soul, which have been erroneously read back into Christian scripture. Traditionalists find this irrelevant, pointing to passages in the Bible they claim support the idea of an immortal soul.
Literalism and symbolism
Much of the debate revolves around terminology and the symbolic imagery of Revelation. Annihilationists argue that passages that speak of the unsaved as perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matt. 10:28) should be taken literally. Traditionalists argue these should be taken metaphorically. Traditionalists argue that the passages in Revelation that speak of everlasting torment should be taken literally. Annihilationists claim the torment is limited in duration or metaphorical in meaning.
History of support
The vast majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, have held to traditional notions of hell. However, the annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Embryonic forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Theophilus of Antioch (d. 185), although Amobius (d. 330) was the first to defend annihilationism explicitly. The Second Council of Constantinople (553) and later the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) condemned the idea. Since the Reformation, annihilationism has periodically surfaced, as in the 1660 confession of the General Baptists.
Today the doctrine is most often associated with groups descended from William Miller and the Adventist movement of the mid-1800s (see Millerites), including Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the various Advent Christian churches. Recently, a handful of evangelical theologians, including John Sanders and the prominent evangelical Anglican author John Stott, have offered at least tentative support for the doctrine, touching off a heated debate within mainstream evangelical Christianity.
Since the 1960s, Annihilationism seems to be gaining as a legitimate minority opinion within modern, conservative Protestant theology. It has found support and acceptance among British evangelicals, although viewed with greater suspicion by their American counterparts.
- Unless Jesus Says Otherwise, Hell Exists, Asserts Evangelical Report, by Cedric Pulford
Favorable / sympathetic
- The Hermeneutics of Annihilationalism: The Theological Method of Edward Fudge, by Robert A. Peterson
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