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Problem with Annhiliationism

By Paul So ~

A recent article in this website criticized Annhiliationism specifically because it assumes that God’s divine retribution on people are unjust, and from there the author of the article made an analogy between God’s divine retribution and Hitler’s holocaust. While the analogy, indubitably, conveys a strong rhetorical and moral appeal, I personally believe that Annhiliationism has other serious flaws that must be addressed. Before I do this, however, I want to explain Annhiliationism in contrast to another position that believes in the eternal punishment, which I would call Eternalism. After I explain the theological differences, and the brief background context of those positions, I am going to criticize Annihiliationism by arguing that while it does avoid some of the moral problems of Eternalism (namely, infinite duration of punishment for a finite crime), it fails to avoid another moral problem of Eternalism which is the kinds of actions that are culpable for eternal death.

Annhiliationism is the theological position of Divine Retribution which believes that hell is a temporary process which annihilates the unrepentant sinner rather than punishing it through eternal torment. Theological Eternalism, on the other hand, believes that the person is being punished for infinite duration. Eternalism, however, might vary in what kind of punishment is being employed unto the unrepentant sinner: eternal alienation which only involves an existential, spiritual, and emotional suffering whereas the traditional eternal punishment involves a physical torment.

There are two major reasons why proponents of Annhiliationism support it. First, the biblical and linguistic reason is the argument which asserts that the term “forever” in the book of revelation has two distinct meanings: the first being the literal and eternal punishment, while the last conveys the meaning “until it is done”. This argument implies that the term “forever” has been mistranslated to the literal meaning of forever. Another supporting argument for this one cited texts that implies that the divine punishment is temporary i.e. "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.” (Luke 12:47-48).

The second reason, however, is equally essential: Annihilationist argue that the deep flaw in Eternalism is that eternal punishment seems incompatible with God’s benevolence and justice. To punish a finite act of sin with an infinite duration of torture is unjust, since justice strives not only to punish sin but also to enforce a proportionate punishment that fits with the respective finite sin. Also, to impose infinite suffering, which is unbearable for a finite creature, is intuitively malevolent and malicious for a benevolent being. These are the common criticisms that Annihilationist has against Eternalism.

The Annihilationist’s position is theologically and morally appealing since it discards eternal punishment in favor of a temporary finite punishment proportionate to finite sinful acts. Such discarding is not only morally appealing, but also theologically appealing since it seems intuitively consistent with the notion of Justice and Benevolence which predicates on God as his attributes. However this is where I would disagree with the Annihilationist position, which is what I am going to address.

Imposing death penalty on sins such as stealing, adultery, lying, cheating, etc. is not sensible Annhiliationism has successfully avoided a certain problem that Eternalism has, namely that of eternal torment which involves infinite punishment on finite transgression. However it argues that the temporal/finite process of punishment, along with death, is proportionate and just. This is the specific premise that I disagree with. I do not disagree with the idea of temporal finite process of punishment, but I do strongly disagree with the aspect that inevitably involves death. In other words, God’s divine punishment sounds too similar to the death penalty of Medieval Europe, Islamic Sub Saharan Sharia law, and other death penalties commonly found in societies with theocratic judicial system. In these societies (though not all of them) death as a punishment is imposed on crimes such as apostasy, adultery, and stealing (though some societies cut off hands instead).

In our democratic society, where we have freedom of religion and freedom from religion, we respect people’s beliefs enough to tolerate deviation from religious norms. We do not coerce against those who disbelieve or leave their religious community, since this would violate the fundamental rights to belief and opinion. Also we do not impose death penalties on adultery, stealing, cheating, and other vices for a certain reason: Adultery is the violation of marriage contract, Stealing is the violation of ownership, Lying is the violation of trust, etc.; however none of these vices are not a legal violation of life, which Murder or Homicide fits in. We impose death penalty only on crimes that consists in the violation of life, but not the violation of marriage contract, ownership, and other duties, because none of these violations sensibly corresponds the punishment of death penalty.

Many societies impose death penalty mostly on crimes of homicide since homicide is the violation of life. I am not arguing for capital punishment, however, but I am arguing that some societies that do accept capital punishment usually impose death penalty mostly on those who allegedly committed homicide. The reason is clear, since homicide is the violation of life which deserves death penalty, not stealing, adultery, lying, and disbelief.

Even though Divine Punishment, in the Annihilationist view, would be temporary, it still begs the question as to whether the crimes being punished are really crimes and crimes that really deserves death. A Christian might point out that “All sin leads to death” but this only goes in circles because the assertion merely repeats the assumption that all crimes deserves death, but never providing justification or reasons why it does deserve death. But one of the basic perquisite for damnation (or death) is disbelief in God and the existence of God (hence Christ’s salvation), but the problem seems clear to us skeptics and non-believers (agnostics and atheists); does a lack or rejection of belief (whether true or not) deserve death in spite of other positive virtues? Does a faithful husband and loving father, who is an Atheist (or Agnostic), deserve death simply because he lacks the belief?

Annhiliationism, then, still faces the similar problem that Eternalism faces: Divine punishment on disbelief on the basis of evidence is unfair, and imposing death penalty on sins such as stealing, adultery, lying, cheating, etc. is not sensible since they do not violate the right to life; such indiscriminant death penalty reduces all sins as equally deserving death, when in fact it is our moral intuition that all crimes are different, hence requiring different consequences. Eternalism similarly faces this problem in that it reduces all crimes as equal deserving eternal punishment; the only difference is that Annihilationist believes all sins deserve death.