Annihilationism and Universalism

Dan Lenington on December 9, 2019


       Recently, I spoke with a number of individuals who had questions about what the Bible teaches on man’s eternal condition after death. Some suggest the Bible indicates a general ultimate salvation for all of mankind including all angelic beings. This position is typically known as Universalism. Another belief is that the Bible suggests that all who reject salvation in Christ will cease to exist at some point after death. This is known as Annihilationism. To address these views we turn now to the Scriptures for Isaiah 8:20 says, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

       To begin, let us examine a few passages which indicate what happens to people after death. Luke 16:19-31 records the account of a rich man and a man named Lazarus who both died. The rich man found himself in hell a place of conscious torment. Here, the Greek word for hell is Hades. In Revelation 20:13-14, we learn that the dead (death) and those in hell (hades) are cast into the lake of fire. Hades is therefore the temporary hell. However, in other places, the English word hell translates the Greek word Gehenna (from the Hebrew word describing a valley near Jerusalem where rubbish was always burning). Jesus said that ultimately the wicked would be cast into Gehenna (Matt. 5:22; 23:33). According to Mark 9:43-45, the fires of hell in Gehenna will never be quenched. Some may suppose that to be cast into the lake of fire (or Gehenna) results in annihilation. (I wonder why they are never quenched if everything cast into them burns up immediately). Matthew 10:28 may seem to support this view on the surface. It says, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” How does hell (Gehenna) destroy both body and soul? The term “destroy” is a compound word that literally means “from ruin.” Its definitions are, “to kill, to render useless, to destroy, and to punish.” The term doesn’t specifically mean annihilation. In fact, we learn from Revelation 20:10 that when the devil is cast into the lake of fire (another name for Gehenna) 1000 years after the beast (antichrist) and his false prophet are cast into it (Rev. 19:20), they “are” still there not annihilated. Verse 10 also tells us that when the devil is cast in, “he shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” We will return to the terms forever and ever below but let us make a connection. Revelation 14:9-11 tells us that those who receive the mark of the beast (antichrist) are under the wrath of God. These are “tormented with fire and brimstone… and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night.” This torment would appear to be an everlasting conscious torment.

       Now, some have suggested that for ever and ever doesn’t really mean forever.  Therefore, we will examine the definitions and use of the terms which point toward everlasting punishment. Let’s begin in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word “Olam” is commonly translated with the terms “everlasting” or “eternal.” Strong’s gives a literal definition of “time out of mind, or the vanishing point.” It is often found modifying words like “everlasting covenant, everlasting possession, everlasting God, everlasting priesthood, everlasting arms, mercy, kingdom, and wisdom.” These are positive contexts for the term everlasting. Therefore if everlasting means everlasting in relation to God’s eternality then it should mean the same in other contexts. In Daniel 12:2, we find this term. “And 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 everlasting means everlasting in relation to life then it must mean everlasting in relation to shame and contempt. Contempt means rejection by God. Therefore, we do not find indication in the Old Testament of ultimate reconciliation of the wicked with God as suggested by Universalism.

       In the New Testament, Bible translators use the term everlasting to translate the Greek term “aionios.” This term literally means perpetual. In 2 Corinthians 4:18 it is specifically contrasted with that which is temporary. It is often found modifying terms like everlasting life but is also used to refer to God being everlasting (Rom. 16:26). It describes “eternal redemption” in Heb. 9:12, and eternal inheritance in Hebrews. 9:15. We generally accept the meaning of the term as “everlasting/eternal” in these good contexts, but it also is found describing everlasting fire (Matt. 18:8; 25:41) where the wicked are cast. It is found describing the everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46) of the wicked. It describes everlasting destruction (olethros) in 2 Thess. 1:9 which means ruin, death, and punishment. It describes eternal damnation (condemnation, judgment) in Mark 3:29. In Hebrews 6:2, it describes eternal judgment. Therefore, just as in the Old Testament the term “Olam” means everlasting in both good and negative contexts, so also in the New Testament the term “aionios” means everlasting in both contexts.

       Another New Testament term translated into English as “forever” is the Greek word “aion.” This term is more flexible in its meaning and usage. In the singular, it can mean an “age” of limited or unlimited duration depending on the context. In many places it is found in the plural where in means the “ages.” In these contexts, it can easily stretch one’s concept of time into the undetermined future or eternity. It is often found describing the worthiness of God to receive glory forever (Matt. 6:13); the forever kingdom of Christ (Luke 1:33); and the forever life found in Christ (John 6:58). In some cases, it is not only plural but compounded when the term is repeated twice. Literally, it could be translated “into the ages of the ages.” The idea is age, after age, after age stretching indefinitely into the future. In this construct, it describes the glory due to God (Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17), the throne of Christ lasting forever (Heb. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:11; 5:11; Rev. 11:15), and the existence of God lasting forever and ever (Rev. 4:9-10; 5:14; 10:6). Now we return to the verses mentioned above that describe the torment of the wicked (Rev. 14:9-11) and of the devil (Rev. 20:10) lasting “forever and ever.” Certainly, the term “aion” can mean an age rather than eternity but then it doesn’t mean instant annihilation either! When it is found in the plural it describes other things that are clearly intended to last “forever.” No arguments are made against forever meaning forever in these positive contexts. Finally, when “aion” is not only found in the plural, but is also compounded by repetition it speaks of things that should or will continue “forever and ever.” No argument is made against the lasting nature of these good contexts. Therefore, the meaning of the literary construction “forever and ever” cannot be altered in the two negative contexts highlighted above.  

       In conclusion, the Scriptures tell us that those who reject the salvation offered by Christ will suffer everlasting death. Death is by definition a separation. Physical death is the separation of the spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God (2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:14). Just as the body does not cease to exist when it dies, neither does the spirit cease to exist when it is separated from God. While some hold out hope that all will at some point be saved after death, Scripture tells us plainly that it is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27; John 5:28-29). It gives me no pleasure to set forth the clear teaching of Scripture on this point. However, my purpose for defending the biblical position is to motivate us that since one has only this life to make a decision for Christ, we must warn people with great urgency to place their faith in Christ now. Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 6:2 that “now is the day of salvation.” We must also remember that God never created the everlasting fires of Gehenna for man. He created this punishment for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). If one rejects the salvation offered through Christ then there is no other place that he can be except separated from God in this place of torment. We may wonder why God wouldn’t annihilate people who reject him. I must simply say that the human soul is an eternal soul. It will spend an eternity somewhere, either in the New Heaven and Earth or in the Lake of Fire. God provided atonement for the sin of the entire world (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10). However, He has chosen only to extend the benefits of this atonement to those who exercise personal faith in the payment of Christ’s death on the cross (John 1:12; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9). Therefore, neither the Universalist position nor the Annihilationist position can be maintained by appealing to Scripture.