Friday, July 11, 2014

Is Annihilationism an Unbiblical Side Issue? A Response to Cowboy Bob

Image Source: - a website I highly recommend
Recently I've been advocating on Facebook for the doctrine of annihilationism (aka Conditionalism) as I believe it's the most biblical position on hell. I've been leaning towards that position for some time now, but after seeing someone on Facebook raise the issue of a Christian friend of theirs who was seriously doubting their faith due in large part to the traditional doctrine of hell (eternal conscious torment) I felt it was right to suggest that this person could be encouraged and strengthened in their faith by looking into annihilationism. I also had come to the point where I no longer wanted to keep quiet on such an important topic just to keep the peace.

I wrote about this view on hell about a year ago in my blog post Misconceptions about Hell.
Not long after I wrote that article I got involved in a Facebook theological discussion group which I thought would be somewhere that people would be open to discussing different views on hell. Boy was I wrong. The discussions would go fine at first but as soon as we started to scratch below the surface and the biblical case for annihilationism became clearer many people became more and more defensive. In the end they shut down and deleted the two threads I'd started - "the discussion is over" I was told after it had only gotten up to 50 or 100 comments. I found out later that the group was a Calvinist group, and that it was not for open discussion about topics that were 'false doctrine'.

When a belief system is afraid of discussion something is seriously wrong. While I don't agree with everything in the following short trailer it raises the kind of issues I'm referring to.

Hellbound? (2 minute trailer)

So when I started openly challenging the traditional view of hell I was expecting a backlash. It didn't take long before I got banned from one Creationist page for basically asking too many questions. Then Bob Sorensen wrote an article that is attempting to address my 'false teaching'. Bob doesn't mention my name, but given the circumstances and the timing it's clear to me that the article is a direct response to things I've been saying recently. I feel a bit like Mr Fudge - see the following movie trailer...

Hell & Mr Fudge Trailer

So I'd like to respond to Bob's article and will respond to each section. Before beginning my critique of his article I'd like to assert that I see Bob as a brother in Christ and even if he continues to hold to the traditional view on hell I will continue to have a great respect for him and his ministry.

Bob's article is in bold, and my response is interspersed beneath each section.

Hell, Creation and Side Issues, by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

This article will undoubtedly upset some people.

Do creationists have any business complaining about others who emphasize theological "side issues", when creation science is one of them? Absolutely! There are different kinds of side issues, some marginal importance and others with tremendous importance.

I agree that the topic of hell is a side issue, and I also agree that it has tremendous importance. I'm a little upset at the way Bob seems to lump my beliefs on hell in with cults but I know that he is simply doing what he believes is right in terms of defending what he sees as the truth. I would like to know if he has watched any teaching videos, seen any debates, or read any books on this topic - or done a Bible study that carefully looks at every reference in the Bible to hell, destruction, sheol and hades. From reading his whole article I am concerned that he hasn't really done his homework but has simply reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to what he sees as an attack on the Bible.

What is a "side issue"?
People have their own opinions about and definitions for the term "side issue". One frequent connotation is that a side issue means something is not important. People are offended when they are told that the item they brought up is "just a side issue" and dismissed. For me, the best usage of "side issue" means that the subject under discussion is not essential to salvation. For example, belief in a literal six-day recent creation, belief in annihilation as opposed to eternal punishment in Hell, social concerns, speaking in tongues, forms of baptism and so on are not essential to salvation. The importance of those and other topics can be discussed.

I agree with what has been said here about side issues. However, based on what follows he seems to think it's much more than just a side issue. 

Whom do they glorify?

Sometimes nonessentials become elevated in people's minds so that little else matters. People may gravitate toward those things because it makes them feel good. The foundations of the Word of God, preaching the gospel, sound doctrine and so forth are pushed aside in the pursuit of the "cause". (Note that there is nothing wrong with giving emphasis to learning about a new topic for a while, as long as things do not get out of balance.) There is often an element of pride where people want to "be right" and look down on others who do not believe the way they do. The principle of, "In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love", is absent. This also goes for Calvinists who act like cultists, trying to convince other Christians that the Reformed view is the only correct one. Angry Arminians who condemn all Calvinists to Hell are also guilty of unchristian attitudes. Above all, we are to be glorifying Christ, not ourselves.

I don't have any serious issues with what has been said here, although the unspoken feeling I get is that Bob thinks I'm in danger of glorifying myself and doing this to make myself feel good. This is a logically fallacious argument because he cannot know my motives. Only God knows my heart. If I wanted merely to feel good I would not have risked rocking the boat by speaking out against the status quo and risked alienating myself from many Christians in the process. To me what matters most is doing what I believe is right in the sight of God and pleasing him. I know that Bob also is motivated by this same love for God and desire to do what is right.

Division in the Church
People lacking discretion are known to give undue emphasis on unimportant side issues, creating strife and division. While truth is divisive by nature (Matthew 10.34-39), dividing over unimportant matters and pride is unchristian (John 13.35).

My father was a pastor in the liberal (and now thoroughly apostate) United Methodist Church many years ago. He was strongly opposed to people speaking in tongues in the church, since he had seen them get so wrapped up in it that the issue divided churches.

I'm not trying to create division, but truth has a higher priority than keeping the peace. We live in a day and age when for many people the greatest sin is seen as saying anything controversial that goes against the majority view. While we should not cause unnecessary arguments about trivial things there is a time when arguing for the truth is biblical. See my blog post - Is it Wrong for Christians to Argue?

A Note of Hell
The subject of Hell has been coming up lately. It had been put aside by "seeker-friendly" and liberal churches and by people who are simply uncomfortable with it. While it is good to preach the love and forgiveness of Jesus, that is an incomplete gospel. All have sinned (Romans 3.23), and all deserve death (Romans 6.23, Matthew 13.41-43) and need to repent (Luke 24.46-47 NASB). We need to tell people why Jesus died on the cross and bodily rose on the third day (Ephesians 5.6). Hell is real (and some of my atheist critics wish that it is real enough for me to go there — which is not possible).
I agree that hell is real and the topic shouldn't be avoided. I also agree that liberalism is an attack on the authority of the Bible.

Some people are teaching the heresy of Universalism, where everyone is saved anyway.

I agree that universalism is unbiblical. However, I'm concerned that labeling something as heresy can sometimes be a cover to avoid dealing with the uncomfortable questions that are being raised that those holding to the traditional view of hell don't want to deal with.

Others teach the unbiblical doctrine of annihilationism, which says every condemned sinner is burned up and consumed. This minority viewpoint flies in the face of the plain reading of the Scriptures (for example, Luke 3.17). Instead, they use amazing eisegesis and hermeneutical gymnastics to finagle ways around what the Bible says (i.e., it is cultural, symbolic, a false doctrine that infiltrated the church &c). So, their special interpretations tell you what the Bible really says and means. Annihilationism is considered by some to be an outright heresy. Personally, I believe it is heterodox.

Now we get to the real beef Bob has - annihilationism is in his view unbiblical heterodoxy. That's the real issue - is it unbiblical or not? An increasing number of people are saying that it's not unbiblical at all. Bob calls it a minority view - which is true - but as Bob will know it's a logical fallacy to imply that something is wrong based on how many people believe it.

From my study of the issue it is the traditional view that "flies in the face of the plain reading of the Scriptures" and it's the traditional view that has to do eisegetical "gymnastics" to leap over what the Bible actually teaches. For example the Bible says in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin are death (not eternal conscious torment). And Jude 1:7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an example for those who will suffer the punishment of eternal fire (not the punishing of eternal fire). We know that Sodom and Gomorrah aren't still burning today, and we know that fire consumes that which it burns, so the plain reading of this text is that the eternal fire will be eternal destruction in terms of its results, not in terms of its ongoing punishing - i.e. the annihilation of the wicked.

He then gives one example to back up his whole argument as if one "proof-text" can dismiss my whole position. (An all too common practice amongst those holding to the traditional view). So let's look at the verse in Luke 3:17 that he's offered as a proof-text:

"His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

The plain reading of this scripture seems clear to me - the wicked will be burned up like chaff - and when chaff is burned up it is consumed and becomes no more. The fire is unquenchable means that God's judgement cannot be stopped, just like a fire that cannot be put out until it has consumed everything. For more on this verse see this article:

I am not into "guilty by association", but there are some things to consider. First, annihilationism has always had a minority viewpoint throughout Christian history. Second, cults like various Adventist groups, Armstrongites (the former Worldwide Church of God), Jehovah's Witness and the like hold to this view, which I though should give someone a reason to pause before embracing this view. Also, many cults that hold to annihilationism also believe in another heterodox item called "soul sleep".

If you aren't into guilty by association then why are you using this logical fallacy? If you want to play that game then let's not forget that Islam and a number of cults such as Mormonism believe in eternal conscious torment. Jehovah's witnesses also claim to believe in God and the innerancy of scripture. By your logic we should also abandon these beliefs. As for soul sleep, this is a tangent to the main issue as not all annihilationists believe it, but it is a belief that has strong biblical support and was held to by Martin Luther amongst others. (See here for more on soul sleep).

Some are abrasive and do not even have their false doctrine correct.
I have yet to see convincing evidence that Hell is a Roman Catholic invention
that is not based on "guilt by association".
They believe in the Trinity, should we discard that, too?
Kind of pushy, this was posted at The Question Evolution Project, of all places.

I agree that this person has been quite strong in their assertions, and the word heresy is a loaded term. However, they aren't name calling and are asking a legitimate question. If the Bible doesn't teach eternal conscious torment as annihilationists believe, then it is unbiblical and an argument can be made that it has come from the Catholic church. Augustine seems to be the first person to teach eternal conscious torment and following him the rest of the Church by-in-large followed suit.

This short video discusses early church fathers in relation to conditionalism.

It is distressing when people will promote annihilationism and leave their original calling. I have seen people who were doing apologetics and evangelism lose their focus so they could argue with other Christians and try to "convert" them to their point of view. Some people are primarily known for arguing annihilationism with Christians, and doing little else.

I agree that the gospel is our primary calling. But I also believe that everyone has different callings. I can imagine during the Reformation the Catholics criticising Luther and saying he was spending too much time trying to convert Christians to his point of view when he should be out prosyletizing, but history has shown he was doing God's will in bringing reformation to the Church. I believe that the Reformation didn't go far enough and that further reformation of the Church is needed on the doctrine of hell amongst other things. We need to come back to the word of God.

One annihilationist said that it's important to "have a right view of God", or "proper understanding of the Bible". To me, that implies, "I have the right view of God/the Bible because I believe in the annihilation of the wicked, and your view is wrong". One Christian was saying how annihilationism was ridiculous and simply did not make sense (a sentiment I agree with), and the annihilationist tried to make the other guy look like a faulty Christian. The annihilationist was accused of acting like an atheist. Well, he did use atheist tactics of turning the subject around, avoiding questions put to him, and trying to put the other guy on the defensive.

We all think that we have the right view. Bob thinks that his view is right, and it could be - but based on the study I've done I'm pretty confident that eternal conscious torment is not biblical. I believe this comment is directed directly at me, and unfortunately I cannot provide a screenshot of the conversation because I was banned from the page and my comments deleted. I wasn't using atheist tactics at all (more guilt by association), but was simply challenging the person to back up from the Bible what they were saying.

EDIT: People sometimes use the word "torture" when discussing Hell. That is wrong, misrepresenting Hell and also God. Torture involves sadistic pleasure at the pain of someone else, and God is not like that. Hell is eternal punishment and justice, not a matter of God getting thrills from inflicting pain.

The traditional view seems pretty much to me like it's making God out to be a torturer. If the soul is not intrinsically immortal then God has to miraculously sustain the soul of the sinner in hell in order to continue their torment. I agree though that the traditional view is not saying that God gets sadistic pleasure out of punishing the wicked. I wonder what traditionalists think about this question - will the redeemed be able to see the lost in hell being punished for all eternity? Doesn't sound like heaven to me.

The big question is whether or not annihilationism is biblical. And a key question to think about is this - is the punishing eternal or is it the results of the punishment that are eternal (as in eternal destruction and becoming no more)?

Commonality with Old-Earthers
Theistic evolutionists and other old-earthers compromise on the integrity of Scripture and elevate the current trends of science philosophies above it. That is, "science" interprets Scripture. They, too, require eisegesis to force their views into the Bible, and want to get biblical creationists to compromise and embrace old-earth views. Things that old-earthers and annihilationists have in common include efforts to recruit others to their viewpoint, eisegesis, pride, and requiring acceptance of their understanding of the Bible because humanity now has the wisdom of science.

Woah. More guilt by association. I'm not an "old-earther" (old earth creationist / OEC). I'm a young earth creationist (YEC). Neither do I believe I'm doing eisegesis or being prideful. I believe it is precisely because of my love of scripture that I've been compelled to believe in annihilationism. From my point of view it is those who hold to the traditional view who are doing eisegesis and reading scripture through the worldview glasses of eternal torment.

Cultic Attitudes
Several marks of cults can be found in some of the people who hold to side issues. The ones that stand out are:

   - Belief in having the only correct view
   - Anger at having unimportant side issues kept as unimportant
   - Exclusivity, where people who do not agree are "not as good as us"
   - Special revelation or new understanding of the Bible
   - Persecuted minority, their view is right but has been suppressed by Christianity for many years (this does not mean that just because a view is commonly accepted that it is right, since organized religion suppressed teachings of the Scriptures for many years, and opposed making the Bible available to the people)

Cultic attitude? Woah - for someone who says he isn't into guilt by association there is a whole lot of it going on. I'm open to the possibility that the traditional view is correct, and I'd be happy if Christians would just accept annihilationism as a valid biblical alternative to the traditional view.

How is Biblical Creation Science Any Different?
For the most part, biblical creationists hold to the authority of Scripture. Creation scientists will disagree about the interpretations of facts and about their models of, say, Flood geology or explanations for the distant starlight question, but they uphold the Bible.

Genesis is the foundation, as all major Christian doctrines are found there. Creation science, the global Noachian Flood, the age of the earth, six-day recent creation, death entered the world only after Adam sinned — these are indeed side issues because they are not essential to salvation. They are, however, extremely important to understanding Scripture and avoiding the domino effect of compromise.
Agreed. However to suggest that belief in annihilationism is compromising biblical authority is unfounded.

Also, you do not need a code book or massive eisegesis to make sense of Genesis. There are resources available to make our understanding more complete, but unlike the annihilationists, old-earthers, cults and so on, biblical creationists appeal to the plain reading of Scripture.

Yet more guilt by association! I appeal to the plain reading of scripture too - and it's exactly because of that I'm convinced that annihilationism is true.

For another response to Bob's article please refer to EJ Hill's article - A Response to "Hell Creation and Side Issues" by Bob Sorensen, and Part 2 here. EJ goes into a lot more detail about the scriptural backing for conditionalism and reasons why Bob's articles fail to seriously challenge it. He also rightly pointed out that one of the fallacies Bob used was the motive logical fallacy.

I'd like to add that in all of this I plead with opponents of conditionalism to actually do some research on the topic before automatically discounting it based on their presupposition that eternal conscious torment must be true because it's the traditional view and seems in your opinion to be supported by the Bible. Even if such research doesn't change your mind on the traditional view I hope that at the very least it will help you to see that conditionalism is not an attack on the Bible but is a valid scriptural view that attempts to be faithful to what the Bible says.

If you hold to the traditional view, try for a while to take off your eternal torment glasses and put on the conditionalist glasses and you might just realise that the conditionalist glasses are a much better fit. The cartoon below is on a different topic but illustrates the nature of cognitive bias that one must overcome in order to try to understand a position that differs from your own. I'm not saying that it's a no God vs God's word issue in this case of course, but to get an idea of what I think is the problem replace the 'no God' glasses with glasses that say 'TRADITION' and the top speech blurb with 'You annihilationists are so biased when you look at the Bible.' 

Another thing I'd like to add are 3 reasons why this is a very important issue:

1. If eternal torment is not correct then it is misrepresenting the character of God - something that God would not be pleased about.

2. If eternal torment is not correct then it is creating an unnecessary stumbling block for evangelism - it is often mocked by unbelievers as contradicting the love of God and being cruel and inhumane.

3. If eternal torment is not correct then it is hindering the discipleship process for Christians who struggle to sense God's love for them.

So to sum up - annihilationism is not unbiblical, and while it is a side issue in a sense that one is not saved by having a right view of hell, it is still a very important issue because it relates to evangelism and the character of God.

Thanks for reading this important article. Please also take a few seconds to vote on my poll on hell on the top right corner of the blog.

For further research:

Check out They have a lot of great articles, information, and a very interesting video debate on this topic. There is also a Rethinking Hell Facebook page, and Rethinking Hell Facebook group where you can ask questions and explore the topic further.

I also recommend this YouTube video for a very civil and relaxed discussion of the issues:
Hellbound debate - Universalism vs Eternal Torment vs Annihilationism.

And this YouTube debate is very good:
Debate on the Doctrine of Hell: James White vs Roger and Faith Forster.

This is an excellent teaching video:
Lecture - Edward Fudge - The Fire that Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Hell.


  1. I think you need to learn about logical fallacies before accusing me of doing them. Also, appeal to motive is a biggie. Both you and someone else (a very arrogant hypercalvinist) decided to eviscerate both the article and me. Unlike that other guy, you agree with me on some points, and you are not acting like an atheist. Both of you prove my point by insisting on the extreme importance of annihilationism, and attempting to get other people on your side. For a side issue like this? It reminds me of extreme charismatics who abuse the Bible to prove that we *must* speak in tongues, and if you even dare to question it, they go off. I won't comment any more.

    1. //I think you need to learn about logical fallacies before accusing me of doing them.//

      You've just used tu quoque fallacy unfortunately.

      // Also, appeal to motive is a biggie.//

      Yes, it's a logical fallacy to presume to know a persons motive and then to say that that undermines the argument without actually dealing with the argument.

      // Both you and someone else (a very arrogant hypercalvinist)//

      And yet more use of the fallacy of guilt by association, plus question begging epithet fallacy. It's much easier to use ad hom attacks than actually deal with the arguments at hand and look at the scriptures. It's a shame that it would seem that you've not done any real study of this issue, otherwise I'm sure you'd have mentioned a few key conditionalist books or videos that you've looked into.

      // decided to eviscerate both the article and me.//

      It's nothing personal Bob. I like you as a person and have attempted to look at the argument on its merits in an unbiased fashion. I hope that you can do the same thing.

      // Unlike that other guy, you agree with me on some points, and you are not acting like an atheist.//

      I've read EJ's article and although he's made some strong statements I don't see where he's acted like an atheist. But again you're using the guilt by association fallacy.

      // Both of you prove my point by insisting on the extreme importance of annihilationism, and attempting to get other people on your side.//

      Seems to me that you're attempting to get people to your side and stop people from adopting annihilationism. The real issue though is which view is the most biblical.

      // For a side issue like this? It reminds me of extreme charismatics who abuse the Bible to prove that we *must* speak in tongues, and if you even dare to question it, they go off. I won't comment any more.//

      Sigh. Yet more use of guilt by association. It's a shame you're off on another red herring instead of actually dealing with what the Bible says. You're welcome to comment further if you'd like, but please stop with the guilt by association tactic and actually look at what the Bible says and try to evaluate the argument in an unbiased fashion.

  2. "For the past century there has been a battle for the traditional doctrine of Hell. The results of the battle have culminated in the erroneous teachings of various evangelical Christian leaders as well as the cults of Christianity.

    Why has the belief in a literal, eternal hell as a punishment for those who reject God become so unpopular?

    Is it because new exegetical discoveries in modern biblical scholarship have ruled out the traditional view of hell? Not at all.

    Regarding the traditional view of hell, one author says, “These truths have become awkward and disconcerting to hold not because of new light from the Bible but because of new darkness from the culture.”

    The darkness of the culture has produced a rejection of the doctrine of hell. In its place, a growing number of scholars, evangelical and non-evangelical alike, have embraced a view of the destiny of the unbeliever called annihilationism or conditional immortality.

    This teaching denies the eternal punishing of the unbeliever, and thus, the orthodox Christian doctrine of hell.

    It is the purpose of this paper to examine the teachings of Clark Pinnock and John R. W. Stott, two evangelical scholars who teach annihilationism. It is my desire to demonstrate that annihilationism is untrue, being built on faulty reason and unsound biblical interpretation.

    Thus, I place myself in the company of those who hold the orthodox doctrine of the eternal punishing of the unbeliever in a literal place called hell, “where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:48; cf. Isaiah 66:24).

    Read the in-depth examination and refutation of the error of annihilationism here:

    1. Whyman - you're very good at cutting and pasting articles and links that support your views. What research have you done to look at the other side of the story? Did you even read my article? (I've got no way of knowing because you've not shown any indication of interacting with it.) If you've read even 1 book or video putting forth the case for annihilationism it would be good to know.

    2. From the article: "To put it another way, hell is God’s loving gift to those who reject Him. To annihilate those who reject Him would be akin to killing a child because he does not obey. Therefore, annihilation is more unloving than allowing the unbeliever to live in hell forever."

      So basically eternal torture is loving and annihilation is unloving? That's some serious mental gymnastics going on. It must be tiring having to do that.