THE ANNIHILATION OF THE WICKED
By: Rex Deckard
One of the most controversial issues confronting religious movements is the afterlife. Theological responses range from reincarnation to eternal marriage vows to a denial of any resurrection. The majority of world religions allow for a reward or heaven-like state for the believer, but fiercely debate the destiny of the wicked. The Protestant Reformation and succeeding reform movements did not clarify the issue. Instead, they often muddied the theological waters with even more bizarre, pseudo-Christian doctrines and philosophies.
One of the most popular theories to evolve since the time of the Reformation is the concept that the wicked dead are in an unconscious state, awaiting the final judgment. This doctrine teaches that the wicked will be annihilated, and that their soul will cease to exist. This doctrine, because of its appeal to rational philosophy and emotion, has infiltrated numerous religious schools. This theory is that the soul of man is not immortal, and can only become so through redemption. Thus, the only creatures to inhabit eternity future, are the redeemed. Unbelievers simply cease to exist. This doctrine denies that human souls live forever, and that all the teachings of Christ and the Apostles concerning hell are figurative, applicable only to the lifespan of the hearer.
Although the doctrine of annihilation existed in various forms for centuries, its introduction to the modern world came largely through new schools of religious though that developed in the middle of the 19th century. Quakers relegated most beliefs concerning the afterlife to personal conviction. Baptists, although commonly preaching eternal punishment, had no official creed in which to require this theology of their followers.
Universalists Unitarians repudiated the classic doctrines of Heaven and Hell. Certainly there was confusion on the issue. Roman Catholics, who believed in literal, eternal punishment for the wicked, were largely disregarded by the American reformers because of the other Roman Catholic positions on the afterlife. Out of this religious climate evolved the Adventist movement of William Miller. Later, Miller himself left the movement which largely disbanded, but a smaller group founded what was to become the Seventh Day Adventist church. The state of the wicked dead was determined to be mortal, with no everlasting retribution. This position has taken on varied nuances as differing religious bodies have attempted to mold it to their particular belief systems.
In “Truth That Leads to Eternal Life,” (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1968, p. 41), it is asked, “Is hell a hot place? Do sheol and hades refer to some place where the wicked suffer after death? It is plain that they do not, for we have already seen that the dead are not conscious and therefore cannot suffer…” The book also states that since Sheol and Hades mean only the grave, they cannot have any reference to an eternal place of retribution. They further explain that Gehenna, the Hebrew word translated “hell”
was figurative. They compared the Valley of Hinnom, where refuse and corpses were burned outside Jerusalem, to the state of being eternally “dead,” not in conscious torment. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:22-31 (which uses hades in the context of torment), they say, is figurative- “…the rich man stood for the class of religious leaders who rejected and later killed Jesus. Lazarus pictures the common people who accepted Him. The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a
great change in one’s life or course of action.” (Ibid. p.43).
In comparing these positions to Bible truth, let us consider several things. To begin with, although figurative elements are present in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (meek spirit, versus haughty spirit) the essence of the story is literal. The interpretation given by the Watchtower Society is inconsistent.
The common people did share in the rejection and killing of Jesus. The rich class did share in accepting of Him (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and etc.). Furthermore, Jesus never refers to this incident as a parable. The rich man was in his afterlife, not his present life, as was Lazarus. The rich man was not unconscious, but aware of what was happening, and even spoke of his brothers who were still living on the earth. He communicated with Abraham who had been dead nearly 2,000 years. Clearly, he was not in an
earthly state, but rather, in a conscious afterlife.
If Hell is a one-time annihilation of the unbeliever, it is strange that Scripture would use descriptive terms such as “everlasting” (Matthew 25:4-6), “where the worm dieth not” (Mark 9:4-6) “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1;9), “their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11),
“everlasting contempt,” (Daniel 12:2), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “no rest day nor night” (Revelation 14:11), etc. God apparently wanted to accentuate the eternality of our future estate, be it good or evil. That the afterlife continues indefinitely for both the believer and the wicked, is taught by
Daniel 12:2 – “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” If this is a literal reference to resurrection of the just, it is likewise literal for the unjust.
There is no debate on the point that sheol and hades generally refer to the grave. In this sense, Jesus went to hades or the grave (Luke 23:53). David also went there (Acts 2:29). This does not, however, negate that for the wicked there is punishment coming immediately (Luke 16:23) and eventually (Revelation 20:14)
in the Lake of Fire when death and the wicked dead will be cast there (Revelation 21:8).
It is not necessary to understand every theological aspect of the hereafter to be saved. Many prophetic points are open to interpretation. However, it is important to realize that every soul will spend eternity somewhere, and for the believer there is a Heaven to gain and for the unbeliever, there will be everlasting
retribution from a just God. Philosophical reasoning may blunt the fears of many, but the truth does not change.
(The above material appeared in the September 1992 issue of The Gospel Tidings.)
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