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Q: What is the teaching that says the unsaved will be annihilated rather than suffer eternally in hell? Do any evangelical theologians believe this?

A: The traditional teaching of the church—that the lost will suffer unending conscious torment in hell—has repeatedly been challenged by "universalists" since the third century. They believe that in the end, all will be saved. After the Reformation, a third viewpoint, "annihilationism" emerged as a minority position—for example, in the 1660 confession of the General Baptists, and among the Seventh-day Adventists and several other evangelical groups in the nineteenth century. Since 1960, several prominent British evangelicals, as well as Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, have embraced this view. John Stott has likewise expressed sympathy for annihilationism while choosing to remain "agnostic" on the question.

One key difference between universalists and annihilationists is that annihilationists agree with traditionalists that many will indeed be lost eternally. By this, however, they mean that the unsaved will cease to exist for all eternity. They argue that because eternal torment serves no remedial purpose, the traditional concept of hell paints a portrait of God as a vindictive despot incompatible with the loving Father revealed in Jesus. Further, they claim that the presence of people in hell throughout eternity contradicts the Christian truth that Christ has conquered every evil foe and God will reconcile all things in Christ.

Some annihilationists who are better described as holding to "conditional immortality" claim the idea of eternal conscious punishment depends on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul, which they say is wrongly read back into ...

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October 5, 1998

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