Chapter 8 - Human Destiny - ANNIHILATION

Chapter 8


THE natural immortality of man, we are told, is a theory of heathen philosophers, engrafted upon Christianity in post-apostolic days. Man is a dying creature, destined by the operation of natural laws to pass out of existence unless he receive eternal life in Christ. It is admitted, however, that the lost shall be raised from the dead by Divine power in order that in the body they may be judged and punished for their sins. In other words, creatures who are doomed by the law of their nature to decay and pass out of being altogether, are not only kept in existence, but recalled to active life in resurrection, solely in order that increased capacities for enduring torment may be added to the horrors of their doom. Not even the coarse hell of mediæval ignorance is more revolting, more incredible than this; and yet these views are held and taught on the plea that God is a God of love!

But Scripture plainly teaches that the destruction of the wicked - whatever destruction means - is the result, not of natural law, but of Divine judgment. When we read that "the wages of sin is death," we are to understand extinction of being. Now we know as a matter of experience and of fact that death often entails much antecedent suffering; but on the same ground we know also that this is purely accidental. Death does not necessarily involve any suffering whatever. If human law sentences a criminal to imprisonment, it consigns him to misery in many forms; but if it decrees his death, it scrupulously guards him from every kind of suffering save the necessary rigour of confinement. Nor is it that he is dismissed to receive his punishment from God. Our English law at least is not so cruel. The conventional language of the death sentence concludes with a prayer for Divine mercy on the condemned, and a minister of religion is appointed to attend him in his cell and on the scaffold. The last words that fall upon his ears are words that tell of pardon and a life beyond the grave. If capital punishment were abolished the public would probably insist on the free use of the lash for grave and brutal crimes; but how degraded would be the community which would decree a criminal's death, and yet torture him up to the very hour of his execution![1]

Now let us test the argument in the light of the inevitable admissions. If what we call death were the end of the sinner, all would be plain. But it is admitted that the lost dead are to be raised for judgment, and in their bodies subjected to punitive suffering for their sins; and that this suffering, though limited in duration, shall yet be terrible. Is not this open to every objection on the ground of reason and sentiment which is urged against the "orthodox faith"?  If there be some awful necessity, unexplained to us, why the sinner should continue to exist, we can understand that there may be a like necessity for future punishment; but if there be no such necessity, what is it but torturing helpless, hopeless victims who might at once be put out of misery, for extinction is their doom?

The author already quoted as the champion of conditional immortality is far too keen a reasoner to overlook this difficulty. He has met it boldly by “disclaiming the belief that ages of suffering are to precede that destruction," thus parting company with Scripture altogether. In his view the sufferings of the lost in the final state will be merely such as shall necessarily accompany their "death"; and we must read this statement in the light of the undoubted fact that no suffering whatever is involved in death when inflicted without cruelty. Is there then to be no suffering for sin? In reply the author will tell us that "the spirit may suffer in Hades for the sins of a lifetime." But what then becomes of the statement that at death the man is no more? If "the spirit" carries with it the moral guilt of life's sins and a capacity of suffering for those sins, this is the personality, this is "the man." Moreover, according to this theory, the amount of a sinner's punishment depends, not on the character of his sin, but on the epoch at which he lived on earth. In the antediluvian sinner it is measured by thousands of years: whereas for the awful Christ-rejecter of the last days it will be briefer than for all the rest; because Hades is to be cast into the lake of fire, and the lake of fire is absolute extinction of being.

But the suffering in Hades precedes the judgment. What room is there then for judgment at all? The object of the day of judgment is to fix the guilt and apportion the punishment of each, and it becomes but an idle pageant if all alike are to be hurried to a swift and common doom. To answer that its purpose will be to separate the redeemed from the impenitent is to ignore some of the plainest teaching of Scripture. That division will be manifested in and by the resurrection, for the redeemed shall be raised in "the image of the heavenly," and such are not to come into the judgment.[2] And what possible purpose can there be in this view for the resurrection of the lost? We are asked to believe that God not only maintains them in existence by miraculous interference, but that He puts forth His mighty power to raise them from the dead, solely and altogether for a magnificent display of wrath in annihilating them.

But apart from the essential incredibility of such a theory, we must reject it as opposed to the plain testimony of Scripture. We turn, therefore, to seek the explanation from another writer, whose published sermons on this subject are held in high repute by all believers in conditional immortality. He will tell us that the doom of the impenitent "will not be a simple act of annihilation, but a process of destruction. The fire of God's wrath will not consume them at once, but they will be tormented in it day and night for the ages of ages that they have yet to live." "Many or few stripes will be inflicted, according to each one's deserts, while in every case it will end in the final loss of life as the necessary consequence of not being in Christ." In terms at least this is consistent with the language of Scripture, and therefore it claims consideration.

Does not this suggest the inquiry how suicide is to be prevented in the lake of fire? God must put forth His miraculous power to keep in being the victims of His wrath, until the last of the "many or few stripes" which each one deserves shall have been inflicted! Disguise it as we may, the fact is obvious that in this theory the annihilation of the lost is God's act of mercy to close their suffering. It is impious to suppose that their release could be delayed wantonly and cruelly. The delay, therefore, must be due to the righteous necessity of exacting the full meed of punishment the sin of each deserves. Why then should a God "Who is willing that all men should be saved," not let the damned pass from the scene of torment to some place of rest, instead of putting forth His power to annihilate them?

Further, if annihilation be the penalty of sin, then, as already shown, Christ has not borne that penalty. If it be a term of suffering, from which annihilation gives release, redemption is seriously depreciated. This view is beset by difficulties akin to those which led us to abandon. the "wider hope," and in addition to these it presents a difficulty of another and far graver kind. As the writer last quoted puts it, the punishment "will be inflicted according to each one's deserts," the annihilation will be "the necessary consequence of not being in Christ." We are thus asked to believe in a God who puts forth His power solely to keep His creatures in existence until "the uttermost farthing" of penalty has been exacted, and who then, when every question of righteous claim is settled, and love might pity and save, turns away to leave them to their fate. And this, too, on the plea that God is a God of love!

Either there exists a righteous necessity to punish sin, or there does not. If there be no such necessity, then all punitive suffering is inflicted wantonly and cruelly. If, on the other hand, sin must be punished, how and when is that punishment to cease? The hell of the Bible is consistent with Divine love, but the hell of the annihilationist is more horrible even than the conventional hell of popular theology. Is such a hell to make men righteous and holy - this awful pit of shrieking, cursing men, made desperate by despair, and maddened by the knowledge that if God would only let them alone their torment would cease for ever? These sins of the lake of fire, are they to go unpunished? Does the quality of guilt depend on the atmosphere of earth, and not on the unchanging laws of God?

The only difference between the hell of the annihilationist and the coarse hell of mediæval theologians consists in the duration of the sinner's misery. And yet, while we are told that reason and conscience and natural affection, and our apprehension of the character of God, revolt against the belief in eternal punishment, we are to be satisfied with belief in ages of torment for the sinner, albeit the only possible explanation of hell, consistently with Divine love, is no longer applicable. If there be some necessity of which we know nothing, why fallen beings should continue to exist, then we can understand the Devil's presence in Eden and the fact of an eternal hell; but if the theories of conditional immortality be accepted, the continuance of evil in this world is no longer an intellectual difficulty only, but a moral difficulty of the gravest kind, and hell stands out as a hideous exhibition of wanton and remorseless wrath.

What then is the cost at which the theories of the annihilationist may be accepted as an article of the Christian faith?  First, we must assume that death is extinction of being, which the Scripture unequivocally teaches it is not. Next, we must believe that God's first solemn warning against sin was an idle threat, which He had no intention of fulfilling; and that the truest word spoken to Adam was that which, for six thousand years, men have called "the Devil's lie," "Ye shall not surely die." More than this, we must recognise that the death of Christ was the destruction of His humanity, and His resurrection a piece of transcendental jugglery to conceal the Devil's triumph and deceive the saints of God, who for eighteen centuries have believed that the Blessed One Who wept at the grave of Lazarus, and sat travel-soiled and weary at Sychar's well, was upon the Father's throne as MAN, whereas His manhood perished upon Calvary, and He is no longer Man but only God. And all this mingled folly and error must be accepted, forsooth, to screen the reputation of Almighty God, now endangered by our belief in hell in the midst of nineteenth-century enlightenment!

[1] Some of the Italian tyrants in the Middle Ages did this very thing; and a reverend opponent of eternal punishment has had the temerity to compare God to such a monster, if there be an endless hell.  If the author were not given up to a reprobate mind, he would have seen as he wrote the blasphemy that a thirty days hell followed by extinction would more fully satisfy the analogy. His argument is against any hell whatever.

[2] See p. 40 ante.