A persistent heresy, always enjoying a certain amount of popularity, and, like crab-grass, cropping up under the driest conditions, is that of destructionism, the theory that the final end of men, at least the wicked, is a total extinction of being. This is certainly the view of the pure Pelagian, the man on the street, and of the atheist, the materialistic destructionist; for they all suppose that human beings at death pass out, or are put out of existence altogether. Advocating one form or other of the theory of annihilationism,—for that is the term which more currently identifies the subject under review,—are such philosophers as Epicurus, Spinoza, Hegel, Hume, Voltaire and Locke. Among the anti-Christian cults, two, especially, hold to the annihilation of the wicked, namely, Seventh-Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The founder of the latter, “Pastor” Russell, said to be of a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian legacy (“Chaos of Cults”), and said to be originally a Congregationalist (Die. of Amer. Biog., XVI, 240), became a Seventh-Day Adventist, then made this error a part of his own “Kingdom Hall” religion. Within the church, variations of the error were adopted by R.W. Dale, Congregationalist, author of a work on the Ten Commandments; before his conversion, by John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace;” by Joseph Nicol Scott, M.D., assistant minister to his father, Rev. Thos. Scott, the Bible commentator; John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians; Joseph D. Wilson, pastor of St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Chicago; Horace Bushnell of the liberal New England school of thought, and Edward White, Congregationalist. The latter, in his “Life in Christ,” calls the doctrine of the so-called immortality of the soul “an intolerable assumption,” . . . “the root of all evil in theology,” . . . “the direct cause of the creation of a God-dishonoring theology” (Laidlaw, “The Bible Doctrine of Man”). There are three main forms of destructionism or annihilationism, which are: 1) pure mortality of the soul. All souls, being mortal, at death cease to exist; 2) conditional immortality, i.e., souls are naturally mortal, the souls of the wicked being ultimately annihilated, but those continue in life which are by God gifted with immortality. 3) Last, there is annihilationalism proper—souls are naturally immortal and persist in existence until destroyed by an inimical power.
What is the meaning of the word “annihilation?” Annihilation is the act of reducing to nothing, of putting out of existence, of destroying absolutely; it is a complete extinction of being. It is certain that man can neither create nor annihilate matter; nor is there any evidence that any matter since the original fiat of creation has ever been annihilated. The omnipotent God, who alone can create, has the power to annihilate; but there is no evidence that He has ever annihilated any part of His creation. He alone has the power to annihilate one atom of matter, yet nowhere has He ever told us that He has ever done so or ever would do so. There is no evidence that any thing brought into existence will ever be put out of existence. Therefore to suppose that the souls and bodies of a portion of humanity will be annihilated is unphilosophical, unscientific, and unscriptural.
What is the meaning of the term “death”? Annihilationists say that it means “cessation of existence” or “absolute non-existence.” This supposition involves us in absurdity; for the penalty threatened against Adam would then imply, “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt cease to exist.” Or then, (“when we were dead in sins, He hath quickened us” would mean, “When we were annihilated, He made us alive!” Death is first of all spiritual; and by spiritual death is meant a total spiritual inability, not a destruction of man’s nature or spirit. Physical death is separation of the soul from the body; it is corruption of the body and deprivation of the soul. It certainly is not an annihilation of either body or soul. Eternal death is the separation of body and soul from God in hell. In the Old Testament there are about 45 different Hebrew words translated “destroy” or “destruction,” which in their root meanings denote a calamity, confusion, a treading down, a sweeping away, an infliction of pestilence, a crushing, a swallowing up, to be silenced, to tear down, to bind, to dry up, to break up, to bring to an end, to cut off, to beat, to blot out, to pluck up, to cut down, to make desolate, to lay waste, to spoil, to bereave, to deal violently. None of these words means to annihilate as they refer to man in history, or to his destiny in an existence beyond this life.
Then there is the word “to perish,” which does not at all mean to put out of existence; for one who is rendered extinct cannot then enter into peace. “But “the righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart, and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil. He shall enter into peace” (Is. 57:1, 2). The body perishes in death, but the soul enters into peace. The word “perish” (abhadh) does not touch upon man’s future destiny. This word is also translated “destruction.” “Hell (sheol) anddestruction are before the Lord” (Pro. 15:11). This refers to the condition of the dead, that although perished or destroyed, they are still in a stave of existence and are before God’s face:, i.e., within His cognizance. The physical death of the wicked is-neither unconsciousness, nor annihilation. The New Testament word for destruction, apollumi, is used of the destruction of physical objects such as wine-skins, gold, food, and the hair of the head, without any reference to annihilation, but rather to such injury as renders the objects practically useless. A ship at sea destroyed in a storm, becomes dismasted, rudderless, sides smashed, totally ruined, but not annihilated.Apollumi is used to express a “lost” sheep, a “lost” coin, or a “lost” son; but in no case may the idea of annihilation be forced upon the word: The destruction of the world by fire (II Pet. 3:6) is no annihilation, but a rendering useless as a human habitation. Yet after that destruction there is a restoration and renewal, which could nap be the case if the world were snuffed out into oblivion. This word is also used of the perishing or being destroyed from off the face of the earth in death when the body is destroyed. The Bible speaks of the body being planted as a seed, of dissolving and disintegrating as a germinating seed, which renders the body as to its intended purpose temporarily useless; but this is not annihilation.
The term “immortality” does not mean endless existence. The word appears about five times in Scripture and never has reference to the immortality of the soul, but rather to the immorality of the body (I Cor. 15:50, 53, 54; I Tim. 6:16; II Tim. 1:10), and has the meaning “not subject to death” or “deathlessness.” What Paul said was not that this mortal body must put on endless existence, but that “this corruptible must put on incorruptibility, and this subject to death must put on deathlessness. So when . . . this subject to death shall have put on deathlessness, then shall be brought to pass the saying . . . ‘Death is swallowed up in victory'” (I Cor. 15:53f). Death being swallowed up does not mean extinction, nor, aside from the elimination of physical death for the righteous, does it mean that there is no eternal death except in the sense that oblivion is everlastingly final. For in the second death there is consciousness (tormented), it is constant (day and night), and it is everlasting (for ever and ever). See Rev. 14:11, 20:10. It is conscious, unremittent, eternal torment, since it is a “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). There is no suffering, torment, vengeance nor eternal fire in final oblivion. The “furnace of fire” ofMatthew 13:42 cannot be twisted to mean extinction of being, for there, not in oblivion, but “there (in the furnace of fire) shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth!”
We cannot define life, but “life” and “existence” are not synonymous terms. Inanimate objects have existence, but not life. The difference between life and existence is that life is a condition of existence. Death is another condition of existence. Life is an existence characterized by a vibrant, harmonious unity. Death is an existence of a different kind, characterized by decay, dissolution and separation; and when that separation is final, it is eternal death. Scripture informs us that God’s favor is life, that to know God is eternal life, that to be spiritually minded is life, while to be carnally minded is death. Life is not mere conscious being, but the normal state of being in the likeness, fellowship and enjoyment of God.
Mal. 4:1 is cited as proof of the fires of divine judgment so destroying the wicked as to “leave them neither root nor branch,” i.e., to annihilate them; but this text has no more of annihilation than the destruction of the many human bodies which in this worlds have been consumed by fire. For in the resurrection, these bodies shall come forth entire, shall be united with their souls, and then cast into eternal torment in hell. According to this heresy, however, hell is not a place of eternal torment, but is the “everlasting destruction” brought about by the act of annihilating. The wicked then become “non-existent” and their extinction is “eternal punishment.” But annihilation would make endless punishment and eternal torment impossible. Then it could not be said that “the devil . . . the Beast and the false prophet . . . shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). A Russellite when asked the meaning of “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever,” answered, “Danger!” But if for the wicked extinction of being must necessarily end their torment, then danger of what? Once annihilation has gone into effect, what danger can there be? And why does their smoke continue to arise, and that forever? Jesus taught that “hell” is “the fire that never shall be quenched,” and is a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48). This makes annihilation impossible, for on the supposition of it, the fire is not quenched, their worm would die, and “the smoke of their torment” would not exist, and so couldnot “ascend up for ever and ever” (Rev. 14:11). Furthermore, the wicked are to be hurled alive into the Lake of Fire, the word “alive” signifying no cessation of being, but existence in a human body. Annihilation would render all suffering and misery impossible. Total extinction of the soul and body does not permit of any more being, acting or suffering. But Scripture teaches that for the wicked there are degrees of punishment. Some are to be beaten with few, others with many stripes. However, on the theory of annihilation, there can be no degrees, as there can be no degrees of nothingness. As Spurgeon well said, “Annihilation would be ended punishment, not endless.” Also we are inclined to agree with Biederwolf, that “A man who can read annihilation into Scriptures like these can discover a Beethoven symphony in the croaking of a frog pond.”