There appears to be a growing tendency by a minority element associated with “Christendom” to contend that the fate of the wicked will be utter annihilation (non-existence), as opposed to a conscious suffering in an eternal hell. This departure from biblical truth has been gradual but steady.
In his book, Repent or Perish (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), noted theologian John Gerstner has a chapter entitled, “The Conservative Revolt Against Hell” (pp. 29-65). Therein, he shows how the earlier champions of “neo-orthodoxy” (e.g., Bultmann and Tillich) rejected the scriptural doctrine of hell, and that the influence of those leaders has had a “trickle-down” effect on numerous others in varying degrees.
Some have opted for the dogma of “universalism” (the idea that all mankind will be saved ultimately); others argue for the “extinction” theory (the notion that the lost will finally cease to exist). Each group claims biblical support for its ideology.
Rarely, until relatively recent times, has this error made its way into the bosom of genuine Christianity. In 1982, however, Edward Fudge, a Texas preacher-turned-lawyer, produced his book, The Fire That Consumes (Houston: Providential Press). It attempted to prove that hell will involve the total extinction of the condemned. Since then, others have joined the Fudge chorus, singing the praises of “annihilation.” The late Homer Hailey, just before his death at the age of 97, produced a small work advocating the extermination doctrine. F. LaGard Smith of Lipscomb University (Nashville, Tennessee) has asserted the “extinction” position (After Life, Nashville: Cotswold, 2003).
Recently, Star Publications (Fort Worth, TX) published a small work titled, Immortality: Only In Christ (2002). In this brief presentation, the author vigorously contends that the “second death” mentioned in the book of Revelation constitutes the event “in which [wicked] man is annihilated” (p. 44), though the author confesses that he does not know how long the annihilation process will take (p. 37).
In a brief article, such as this one, we cannot respond to the multiple errors that burden this anti-biblical theory. We will, however, comment upon the contention that “the second death” is a biblical expression for the extermination of the condemned.
The concept of “death,” or the state of being “dead,” is a prevailing theme in the New Testament. These terms are found collectively some 250 times. Though the use of the words may vary, depending upon the context, the underlying sense of “death” is that of “separation” —not “annihilation.”
The physical death process involves the separation of the human spirit or soul from the physical body. The death of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was described as her “soul” departing from her “body” (Gen. 35:18). At the point of death, the body returns to the dust, but the spirit returns to God (Eccl. 12:6-7) —who will deal with it appropriately (Gen. 18:25).
The death of the body is biblically defined by the departure of the spirit (Jas. 2:26). Scholars have noted that for the “vast mass of mankind” death has never been viewed as nonexistence (J.S. Clemens, Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989, p. 181).
Spiritual death is the condition of being alienated from Jehovah. Since sin separates a person from God (Isa. 59:1-2), the state of being estranged from the Creator is depicted metaphorically as the person being dead. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, that very “day” they died (Gen. 2:17; cf. 3:8,23), i.e., they were separated from fellowship with the Lord (though other implications likely are involved as well; see 3:19).
Prior to their conversion, the Ephesian saints had been spiritually “dead” (Eph. 2:1), i.e., alienated from the Lord (2:12-13). It is possible to be “dead” spiritually while alive physically. Paul declared that the widow who devotes herself to pleasure is “dead,” even though she is alive (1 Tim. 5:6). Christ wrote a letter to the church in Sardis wherein he described a significant portion of these disciples as “dead” (Rev. 3:1), that is they had drifted from Christian fidelity.
The “Second Death”
The second death is an ultimate and eternal separation from God. The expression is found four times in the book of Revelation ( 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8). J.H. Thayer defined the “second death” as “the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 283).
This condition is characterized as the second death because it follows physical death; it is designated as death because it is the terminal separation from the Lord (Mt. 7:23; 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:9). Try substituting the term “annihilation” for “death” in the Revelation passages and see what sort of sense it makes, e.g., “the second annihilation.” The very expression represents an absurdity. There is absolutely no biblical evidence that “hell” will involve the extermination of either Satan, evil angels, or wicked humans (Mt. 25:41,46; Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10).
The dogma of annihilation is not an innocent view with harmless consequences. It is a concept that undermines the full force of that fearful warning of which the Almighty God would have men be aware. There is many a rebel who would gladly indulge himself in a lifetime of sin for an eternal nothingness.