I don’t believe in hell. I think I’m an annihilationist.* For those unfamiliar with the term, basically it’s the idea that the soul is not eternal by design (an idea which the Church got from the Greeks, not the Bible) and therefore, if you die “unsaved” - and that's also a term that needs some defining - then you eventually just wink out of existence. Or in the more classical annihilationist view, you await the day of judgment and then you wink out of existence, or are “thrown into the fire” and immediately gone like Frodo did with the One Ring, probably accompanied with shame and weeping, but not an eternity of torture and pain.
Now this might sound radical to some of my more conservative friends and family, especially if you have never heard any other option before, but it’s really not. An annihilationist view, or something very similar to it, is something that goes back to the founding of the church, although it has always represented a minority. “Eternal Conscious Torment” (the stereotypical view of hell as a place where billions of souls are suffering for all eternity) has been taught as the majority view for a long time, but it is not directly taught anywhere in the Bible.
Is hell really a non-negotiable?
In the second half of this article I’ll go ahead and back that claim up, so if your hackles go up at that statement you might want to skip there first before angrily closing this window and judging me as a heretic. But first let me get to my main point, which isn’t to argue for one view of the afterlife against another. It’s to ask a more fundamental question: why (the hell) does our belief about hell warrant making it into a binding doctrinal statement?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t state your beliefs clearly, but I’m curious why hell has to be a non-negotiable one. After all, the statement of faith itself is meant to identify all of our fundamental beliefs as Christians. I’ve been part of several organizations now where the belief in “eternal conscious torment” was a part of the statement of faith that I was expected to sign. The way I see it, this means two things:
Our view of hell is the right one, and if you disagree, you are outside of our statement of faith. And since our statement of faith encompasses all of the “fundamentals” of Christian belief, you are presumably a heretic, or at least a follower/teacher of false doctrine.
Since this belief was important enough to make it into our statement, and since you are being asked to sign it before working here, then presumably disagreeing with us over the issue of hell could potentially become a fireable (or non-hireable) offense.
What is this all about? If I don’t believe in hell, does that mean I’m going there? It seems like that might be the case, at least in the minds of some people. And in my mind, that’s pretty ridiculous. To be honest, this is going to open up a whole can of worms, but I think the question is worth raising: what doctrines are essential and non-negotiable?
I don’t think I need to have a whole lot of certainty about what happens after death in order to live a Christ-centered life before it. (Click to share on Twitter)
I’ve written before about how I think a literal 7-day view of Creation simply misses the point of the original text; and yet many, many organizations include this doctrine in their statements of faith. Does this mean that disagreeing on that point of doctrine means we cannot be true Jesus-followers?
There are also plenty of varying interpretations of what exactly happened on the cross or in the resurrection that defeated sin and death, but they all agree on the basic fact that sin and death were defeated. I happen to agree with some of those interpretations and disagree with others. Yet many statements of faith include one of those specific interpretations (if you’ve done any reading in theology, you’ll know what I’m talking about here) as the only one. Does that mean that if we disagree on the mechanics of the matter then we cannot experience new life in Christ?
Theology is good and important. It has major impacts on our view of God, humanity, and the world. It’s impossible not to have it - I always want to laugh at those who say, “I don’t have theology. I just read the Bible.” Since I’ve spent seven years of my life in Biblical and theological studies in undergrad and seminary, I’m not about to suggest throwing it all out. But the question has to be asked: which theological views are essential, and which are open to discussion? I’ve got my own views (well, actually views shared by a whole lot of other people) about creation and atonement, but I’m not at the point of trying to force others to believe them - even when I think the other views are wrong and (sometimes) even harmful.
The part where I talk about the Bible
From a direct reading of Scripture, there are just three places where a place of pain and suffering after death, called Hades or Gehenna, seems most clearly taught. I’m not going to give my thoughts on how we should interpret them, but it’s worth noting two things.
First, two of those three times are just a single phrase or sentence in the book of Revelation, a book which is already highly symbolic and with layers of meaning that go far beyond the “literal” translation as well as some very specific references to its own original context. The third is an extended parable of Jesus (Luke 16:19-31) which seems to give us the clearest picture of “hell,” although it is worth noting that parables tend to be symbolic and allegorical.
Second, at the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 20, Hades as well as Satan himself are cast into a fire that burns up all things, called “the second death.” And in my mind, “the second death” sounds like a pretty good name for the end of a soul’s existence.
If you believe in the traditional kind of hell, you’ve no doubt been taught it from the Bible, but with a whole lot of interpretive assumptions made before reading them. Seriously, go back and read the verses from Jesus, Paul, and the Old Testament that were used to explain hell to you. Take off your interpretive lenses for a minute, and realize that eternal conscious torment is not clearly taught in any of them. (Again, I’ll freely admit there are three problematic cases, but it’s not my aim to address them in this article; and as I said, with the verse from Revelation 20 we have no reason to believe they are describing eternal suffering.)
For some people, this paragraph might be the most important one in the whole article:
It’s true, we have lots and lots of verses about eternal punishment. But to assume that this means that conscious souls are preserved to face pain and suffering forever and ever is a huge leap in logic. Stop and think about it: annihilation - simply “ceasing to be” - is also an eternally binding punishment. There is presumably no coming back from it, so it is eternal. Assuming the King makes a decree that these souls will no longer exist, that is an eternal decree.
The part where I talk about the history of theology (yawn)
So why has the picture of an eternity of suffering been so prevalent? It certainly doesn’t seem to match the character of the God we meet in Jesus! Well, this isn’t a theology or church history lesson - in fact, I’ve already gone way further down the theology rabbit hole than I intended to make the point I want to make in this article. But basically, as I implied in the first few sentences, a whole lot of our ideas about the “soul” come from Greek philosophy (Platonic and Neoplatonic) rather than from Ancient Near Eastern (i.e. Jewish/Palestinian) thought - or even from the Bible.
These ideas were burned so deep into Christian thought by titans of theology like Augustine that they came to be accepted as unquestionable for a very, very long time. The eternal nature of the soul is clearly taught in Platonic philosophy (and therefore, Augustinian theology), but it is not clearly taught anywhere in the Bible. In fact, there are a lot of places where the soul is said not to be eternal, but rather that eternal life is a gift from God. I will provide a laundry list of those verses below** for those who are interested.
Alright, that’s about as much as I’m going to say on the theology and history side for now; if you’re interested in reading more about the issue, go ahead and Google annihilationism or look up a few good books on Amazon. They’ll likely say all of this a lot better than I can.
*My views on the afterlife are a work in progress, although in most cases I just have to say,“I don’t know.” I don’t think I need to have a whole lot of certainty about what happens after death in order to live a Christ-centered life before it.
**I really don’t like providing a long list of single verses taken out of context to prove a point, because I think it is a misuse of the Bible, but some people want that sort of thing, so here is a list that support my point:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 - ironically usually used to justify belief in eternal suffering, but it seems to suggest the opposite: that eternality is only a gift from God for those who believe)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
[God], who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light. (1 Timothy 6:16)
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:50)
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence. (Psalm 115:17)
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)