Clark Pinnock has set forth his case bluntly. For this I am grateful. His honesty may have its risks, but it would be a sad day for all of us if interpretations of Scripture such as his could not be debated publicly.

Pinnock’s case for annihilation rests on two assumptions. First, he believes that words such as death, perish, and destruction should be taken literally to mean the permanent loss of spiritual existence. His references to judgment need to be interpreted in this light (e.g., Matt. 3:10, 12; 5:22; 10:18; 25:46).

Second, Pinnock argues that annihilationism has morality on its side. It refuses to accept that God is “vindictive,” forever punishing unbelievers in his “torture chamber.” For an evangelical, however, this second argument has validity only to the extent that the first is a correct reading of Scripture. Paul, after all, can speak of unbelievers as objects of divine wrath, “prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22) and, without blinking, he dismisses the moral outrage that follows by asking, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:19). Pinnock’s expressions of moral horror, therefore, need to be heard, but then set on one side so that we can concentrate more clearly on the biblical data.

The weakness of Pinnock’s case is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in his handling of Matthew 25:46. In this text, the existence of believers and that of unbelievers are set in parallel. Both forms of existence are said to be “eternal,” the same word (aiōnion) being used in both instances. Pinnock arbitrarily claims that in the case of believers, the text is talking of eternal effects, but in the case of unbelievers, only of eternal actions. In their case, the judgment is eternal only in God’s mind and not in their experience since they do not exist; in the case of believers, “eternal” means the experience of endless life. This produces two, competing meanings, of “eternal”—all in the same verse!

This text is a microcosm of what we have throughout the New Testament. Unbelievers, no less than believers, are resurrected (John 5:28–29; cf: Dan. 12:2) so they might realize that immortality which is theirs by creation. By direct assertion and by implication, unbelievers are described as being “eternal,” and the same language is used of them as is used of believers (See 2 Thess. 1:9 and 2:16; Heb. 5:9 and 6:2; Mark 3:29; Matt. 18:8; Rev. 14:11; cf. Rev. 20:10). But if their existence is preserved by God, what do we actually know about it?

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What we are told is that God will assign unbelievers to “blackest darkness,” a realm that has been “reserved for them” (2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13). This correlates with Jesus’ own words of warning of the realm where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), which would hardly be true of those who do not exist! This awesome reality was, indeed, pictured in Jesus’ mind when he viewed the garbage dump outside Jerusalem.

But even here Pinnock misses the point. What makes this reality so bad is not that people disappear forever once they are tossed in the dump, but that while they are there, “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). And this is surely the point brought home in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man who was in the “fire” (Luke 16:19–31). To propose that the rich man’s postlife existence was but a temporary interlude before his final disappearance is to impose a meaning on the text for which there simply is no warrant. Annihilation would be instant destruction, not the “everlasting destruction” of which Paul spoke (2 Thess. 1:9; cf. Rev. 22:14) and to which Jesus here appears to refer.

But can we not read annihilation into some of the words used to describe the fate of unbelievers? The words commonly cited actually have a range of meanings and cannot be reduced to a single overly literal translation. Sinners are “cut off” (Ps. 37:9, 22, 28, 34, 38), but so was the Messiah (Dan. 9:26); sinners are “destroyed” (Ps. 143:12), but so was Israel (Hos. 13:9; cf. Isa. 9:14) and so were the sheep and coins (Luke 15:4, 8) that were then found; unbelievers are said to “die,” but then all of us have always been “dead” (Rom. 6:13; 7:4; Eph. 2:1, 5; cf. Rom. 7:10, 13; 8:2, 6; 1 Tim. 5:6; Col. 2:13; Rev. 3:1), and that surely does not mean we have been without existence and consciousness.

The theological issues that annihilationism seems to answer may, however, weigh more heavily in their appeal than the linguistic considerations. Specifically, is an everlasting punishment not disproportionate to the offense unbelievers have committed—as disproportionate, say, as a judge handing out a life imprisonment for a traffic violation? If the punishment is disproportionate, then it is unethical, and obliteration, though terrible, would at least seem moral. Might it, then, not be sufficient for God to satisfy his justice by annihilating sinners and, in so doing, also show his mercy toward them?

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This solution is viable if its views of sin and of God’s character are biblical. But I am doubtful that is the case. If God is as good as the Bible says he is, if his character is as pure, if his life is as infinite, then sin is infinitely unpardonable and not merely momentarily mischievous. To be commensurate with the offense, God’s response must be correspondingly infinite. Annihilationism looks instead for a finished, finite, temporal response.

An infinite response, however, is what we see occurring at the Cross. Christ stood in the place of those whom he represented, and bore their punishment. In so doing, was he annihilated? Of course not. What we see is Christ bearing their actual punishment, and he could exhaust it because he himself was the eternal and infinite God. He did not bear a punishment merely like that which sinners deserved, one that was merely analogous to theirs.

A gospel, then, that trades on a diminished view of sin, a modified notion of divine righteousness, and a restructured Atonement is not one that is more appealing, as Pinnock thinks, but one that is less. It is a gospel that has lost its nerve because it has lost its majesty.

Pinnock has tried to revive the old argument that the judgment of God raises moral problems. I assert the opposite: God’s judgment settles all moral problems. Specifically, it addresses the question as to how God can still be powerful and just if there is evil in the world. It sees this present life as an interim period at the end of which God will publicly vindicate his character. This vindication (which cannot be “vindictive,” as Pinnock claims) will set truth forever on the throne and error forever on the scaffold. This will be the moment of final liberation and the cause of endless praise (Rev. 6:10; 11:17–19; 19:1–8).

It is both a sad and glorious fact that human beings are immortal. No one will ever be snuffed out like a spent candle. The sadness in this is inescapable. The glory of it is that people are who God has said they are: beings of surpassing worth and ineradicable dignity because they bear the divine image. And that is something our generation needs to hear.

David F. Wells is an Andrew Mutch Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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