July 3, 2005

An Edwardsian Argument Against Annihilationalism

I have spoken with some professing Christians online about the issue of Annihilationalism. They prefer to call it Conditional Immortality (CI). They maintain that after death and final judgement by Christ, men will have to endure suffering for a time, after which they will cease to exist. Annihilationists do not say that men are immediately extinguished after the great white throne judgement, but they undergo temporary hell torment and then are extinguished.

There are a number of problems with this view. One can argue exegetically against this position in a number of ways, but the CI (conditional immortality) advocates have ways of twisting texts to try to escape the implications of passages of scripture. One can point out the theological ramifications for harmartiology. The CI view entails finite guilt for sin, such that it deserves a temporary time of punishment. If they admit that CI entails finite guilt for sin, then one can show how their view undermines the necessity of the Godman in the satisfaction (contra Anselm). A mere creature can atone for finite guilt by means of finite sufferings and death. It is no surprise that CI usually goes hand in hand with Christological heresies that deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Or if they admit his deity, there is a different conception of deity than the historical Christian view. Some Open Theists hold to CI. Open Theism is a version of finite godism. One's view of hell impacts a number of other doctrines and interpretations of scripture.

In the conversations I have had online, none of the CI advocates have been able to deal with an argument I gave by Jonathan Edwards. They have sought to change the subject or evade the question in one way or another. I have yet to hear or read a single CI advocate refute this particular argument.

John Gerstner has written a good book dealing with Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell published by Soli Deo Gloria. Gerstner, on page 76, describes Edwards as saying, "Sinners after death will continue to hate God, as we have seen, and will, therefore, continue endlessly to incur his wrath. If it was imagined that human guilt was only finite, men would sin endlessly in hell, and that would bring endless pains, anyway (Miscellanies 574)." Edwards says, "if we should suppose that the punishment that the sins of this life deserve is but finite; that it deserves only temporary misery, yet while they are suffering that they continue sinning still and so contract a new debt, and again while they are paying that they contract another, and so in infinitum." As Gerstner expresses it elsewhere, it is as if sinners in hell are constantly picking up sticks for their own fire.

Those arguing that annihilation occurs after a time of suffering are inconsistent. They have to cheat in order to make their system work. They know that the bible teaches at least a time of hell torment, but they want to say that it is only temporary because of God's loving nature and for other reasons. The God of the everlasting hell advocates is a cruel God etc. Annihilationists imagine God as so "loving" that he could not torment a sinner in hell everlastingly, yet they cannot escape that the bible says that he does torment them for a time. They cannot say that God immediately annhilates the soul of a sinner because of this fact.

Why can't God immediately extinguish the existence of a sinner's soul right after judgement? Are not they open to the cruel God accusation as well? After all, if annihilation can qualify as an adequate judgement for the guilt of sins, then why delay and torment those souls for awhile? Is it so they can pay for their sins? Why do they have to pay for their sins by way of temporary torment rather then by ceasing to exist? Will sinners cease from sinning after their death? If God is just, wouldn't he have to punish those sins as well so that payment goes on and on? Isn't it the case that they hate God in their hearts even while engulfed in the flames? That's the sin of blasphemy. The wicked in hell will be like those in these verses:

NKJ Revelation 16:9 And men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory. 10 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. 11 They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds.

The greatest commandment is to love God, and those in hell are continually breaking that commandment, unless we posit that they cease from sinning while there. But if they cease from sinning, why not then let them in heaven at that time? It doesn't make any sense.

Edwards is right. If we should suppose, as the Annihilationists must suppose, that the guilt of sins is finite, then hell would still have to be everlasting because sinners in hell constantly pick up more sticks for their own fire. While paying for one sin, they incur more guilt and more time of torment. I am not saying that this is an accurate portrayal of biblical teaching, but I am presupposing an Annihilationalist harmartiology in order to refute it by a reductio ad absurdum as Edwards does. I have not heard a satisfactory response to this argument from any of the annihilationalists I have spoken with. I honestly do not see how they can answer it.
"When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; tis inexpressible and inconceivable. For, who knows the power of God's anger?"
Quoted in John Gerstner's Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 77-78.

If you are interested in good books dealing with the doctrine of hell and the afterlife, pick up the following:

Gerstner, John. Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell. Soli Deo Gloria, 1999.

Gerstner, John. Repent or Perish. Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990.

Morey, Bob. Death and the Afterlife. Bethany House Publishers, 1984.

Peterson, Robert A. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995.

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