We humans know instinctively that needless suffering is bad. When we have a sick or injured animal, we have it put down, because we do not want to see them suffer. We feel grieved when we hear of people dying slowly of cancer, and are upset by images of starving people on television. We know that the boy who pulls the wings off flies is cruel—recognising that even flies should not have to suffer needlessly.
If we, as seriously flawed humans, know that we must alleviate suffering, how much more will God, who is all-good and all-perfect, prevent the suffering of His creatures? If we shoot a horse with a broken leg, or put a wounded cat to sleep, how could God tolerate the eternal torment of humans?
We know that a person dying of cancer should be given pain relief—to withhold morphine would be inhuman. Suffering in this situation may only continue for weeks or months—but even this would be intolerable for us. How could God, then, withhold “pain relief” for those in hell, whose suffering does not last for months, but for trillions and trillions of years, and on into eternity?
We may, conceivably, tolerate the eternal suffering of what me might call “truly wicked men” like Hitler and Pol Pot—but Evangelicals imagine that all those who have not made a personal, conscious decision to “accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour” will be thrown into hell forever. This means that otherwise moral people, who are non-Christians, will be eternally tortured.
If I were to burn my daughter with cigarettes or poke out my son’s eyes with a pencil, I would be arrested and sent to prison. Even the most irreligious of people would find my behaviour to be obscene. Yet this is precisely what many Evangelicals believe about God, who is portrayed as One who inflicts torture on a truly massive scale—eternally afflicting His children. If, as a defence, I said that I burned my daughter and blinded my son because I was holy, and my righteousness demanded that I punish sin, people would be repulsed. An act of brutality would not be a manifestation of righteousness, but of unrighteousness—not of holiness, but of terrible evil. Yet Christians say that hell exists because God is holy, and His righteousness demands that He must punish sin.
While I certainly believe God to be both righteous and holy, if hell is an eternal torment of all non-Christians, then God would be neither. He would not deserve our worship but our scorn.
The theory of annihilationism has certain implications, especially for evangelism. Interestingly, the response of many Christians when they hear an annihilationist position is: “What is the point of being a Christian then?” The prospect of an eternal torment in hell is a motivating force for many people to remain believers—if no such punishment exists, surely we are free to eat, drink and be merry, for the worst that will happen is that we cease to be!
But the question must be, what are we saved from and what are we saved to? Jesus offers life, in all its fullness and abundance. We cannot say that if there is no endless torture for unbelievers that “there is no point” in believing. We are believers not because we want to avoid hell, but because we want to have unending fellowship with God, and because we desire the life He offers us. The fact that unbelievers miss out on his fellowship and life is not a reason for us to turn to “wine, women and song”!
Our desire should be to present this offer of eternal bliss to others, so that they too may know God and have fellowship with Him. Evangelism should not be to save people from the torment of hell, but to save people to life. Too often our presentation of the Gospel has been negative—hell has been a big stick with which God will (eternally!) hit people who do not accept Him. Our evangelism is therefore undermined by an inherent contradiction: on the one hand, God loves you; on the other, if you do not believe that He loves you He will torture you forever!
However, from an annihilationist perspective, we may present the love and mercy of God to others, and His offer of eternal life, in a way that does not do violence to the character and nature of God.
The idea of annihilation seems to fit more with what we know of God, as revealed in the Bible: the God who is loving and merciful, and whose holiness compels Him to destroy the evil which He cannot co-exist with. The theory of annihilationism also fits better with what we know of the Jewish context in which Jesus spoke. At the same time, annihilationism remains just a theory (although the traditional view is also just a theory).
Which view most accurately represents what the destiny of the unrepentant will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, we should, at the very least, recognise that annihilationism is, increasingly, a valid evangelical option. In the words of John Stott, annihilationism should “be accepted as a legitimate, biblically sound alternative to [the doctrine of] eternal conscious torment” (Stott 319-32).