The subject of hell has been one of the most hated beliefs by those who aren't a part of Christianity, and is not generally well-loved within Christian circles, either. Why? Well, obviously, the thought that a loving God would torture people for all eternity is...confusing, at best. It has been tempered throughout the centuries, of course: Dante had those in hell tormenting themselves with their own sins, philosophers like William Lang Craig hold to it as mere isolation from God, etc.
For me, the concept of God eternally torturing people was too much to swallow. I found myself holding two very contradictory beliefs: that God loved everyone, and that God wanted to torture some of those people for all eternity, or at least was willing to. It was proving too much to handle; I had to study this subject, as I could not continue to hold these two opposing views in my head. This led me to an understanding that allowed me to hold together both the justice and goodness of God: annihilationism.
I will be doing a multi-part series on what led me to annihilationism, or conditionalism: the belief that God destroys the wicked to where they no longer exist. It makes sense to me to start with the philosophy of it rather than exclusively the Scriptural support. The reason is that we always bring philosophy to the Scriptures; it's impossible to do otherwise. This way, we can understand the lens we will be using when we do search Scripture to understand how it is supported. Otherwise, an article starting off the series with a bunch of passages will look like nothing more than proof texting. I want to point out that these points will be revisited in the next article, to show why they are important to Scripture; as well, I will allude to various passages in Scripture in this article, though not elaborate much on them.
The Reasons for Punishment
First, it is important to understand WHY God has to punish the wicked. It makes little to no sense for God to keep wicked people alive for all eternity. Why? If sin and sinners are the problem, then why not actually get rid of them? If, as Scripture says, ALL of creation is going to be renewed and there will be no more sin, then how can it be that God will, somewhere in creation, still have a place wholly dedicated to sin and sinners? If God's desire is to rid creation of sin, then it makes sense to wholly rid creation of sin by utterly destroying said sinners to the point of no life whatsoever, not merely keeping them alive enough to continue in sin.
Generally, an informed Christian might argue that sin against an infinite God requires infinite punishment. I don't necessarily disagree with that, which leads me to my second point: the nature of the punishment is the question, not the duration.
The Nature of Punishment
Conditionalists generally hold to the understanding that our position IS one of eternal punishment. We see that the punishment is the destruction of the wicked, not torture/isolation. While torture or isolation may be involved, that's not the punishment itself. So we don't say that Bob the Mass Murderer is tortured for 100 years in hell, then after the punishment of his torture he is puffed out of existence. No, the idea is that, however long the "pain" part of it lasts, or how severe, or if there even is any, the punishment itself is the death, the destruction. That death, that destruction called "the second death" in Revelation, will be forever, unlike the first death (the death we all face in this life).
Imagine a man sentenced to die. He may be placed in a jail cell for a few years, but that is not, in and of itself, his punishment. His punishment is death. Contrast that with a man sentenced to life without parole: that punishment is NOT a punishment in which someone is killed. That punishment is one in which the isolation itself is the punishment. When the annihilationist repeatedly sees passages indicating that the punishment for sin is death or destruction, (s)he sees that the punishment is really the actual death/destruction, the ending of life.
The Goals of Punishment
This obviously ties in with the first point. What is God's desire in punishing these people? To rid the world of wickedness. Passages like Romans 11, Revelation 22, and others seem to indicate that the whole of creation will be restored to perfection. This would indicate that there will be no more sin. To argue that the sinners will be in another part of creation (hell was created by God, if God created everything in creation) doesn't work: that's still a part of creation that is imperfect and, well, literally full of sin. The annihilationist holds that the punishment, destruction, has a goal: rid the world of evil. The traditional view doesn't rid the world of evil, only concentrates it into one spot. That's not the same thing.
These three points helped me in voicing my problems with the traditional view of hell; with them, I went into looking at what the Scriptures said about the subject. In the next article we will revisit these three points, developing their strength by pointing to Scriptural evidence of them, and pointing to passages that seem to speak outright of annihilationism as the punishment for sin. Expect to see the second article within a few weeks. Until then, RethinkingHell.com is a great resource for more information on annihilationism; specifically, this is one of the best podcasts in support of the topic. Hope you have a happy Halloween, and don't forget to be at Mass for All Saints Day!