Q&R Corner

Annihilationism, universalism and eternal conscious punishment

0 comment

Q&R corner provides responses to questions that readers may have about CCMBC and its work collaborating with provincial MB conferences in areas of spiritual health and theology, leadership development, mission, and organizational health in order to achieve the overall mission: “To cultivate a community and culture of healthy disciple-making churches and ministries, faithfully joining Jesus in his mission.” If you would like to contribute a question, please send it to questions@mbchurches.ca

Please note that we will not be using your name in the MB Herald Digest in order to respect those who prefer anonymity. There may not be space to respond to every question—and sometimes we might not really have the ability or authority to respond to some questions (for example, those that relate more directly to one of our provincial MB conferences or to a local church leadership). We apologize in advance if we are unable to publish a response to your specific question.


Annihilationism: Could you explain the pros and cons of annihilationism? How is it different from universalism? Do the MBs have a position on “eternal conscious punishment”? And why has annihilationism become much more acceptable among evangelical (incl. MB) churches in recent years?



Thanks, W., for your significant questions. It is probably best to begin by exploring briefly the three most common options held by Christians related to the nature of the punishment we associate with the word “hell.”

The first perspective is commonly called “eternal conscious torment” or “eternal conscious punishment.” This means that those who have rejected Christ will suffer in hell day and night for all eternity — with full awareness that they are suffering and with no opportunity to repent or change the future of their situation. The most common biblical support for this option comes from Revelation 20:10 which describes the lake of fire where the beast and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Although it does not specifically mention people being tormented forever, it does say that people whose names are not found in the book of life will join them there. Revelation 14:10-11 describes how the beast worshipers will be “tormented with burning sulfur” and “the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever.”

These verses, together with references to “eternal fire” (Matt 25:41; 18:8; Jude 1:7), “eternal punishment (Matt 25:46), and worms eating and never dying and a fire that is not quenched (Mark 9:48) have provided the biblical support for this perspective. Some people also assume that since people have a soul, their soul must (like God) be “eternal” and therefore exist eternally either with God in heaven or separately from God in hell. (There is obviously some strong opposition to this argument since it seems to be based less on the biblical view of human personhood and more on Greek/Platonic thought.) Some also point to the rich man’s torment in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30; opponents would point out that this seems to be a picture of hades or the intermediate state between death and final judgment and should not be used as evidence in this debate). Eternal conscious torment is specifically mentioned in the confessional statements of some denominational families (e.g., the Fellowship Baptist Pacific website states that the wicked will enter “into everlasting conscious suffering in Hell”; Vineyard USA mentions the “eternal conscious punishment of the wicked”).

The second option is what has normally been called “annihilationism” or “conditional mortality.” The main argument here is that, while some biblical writers employed the language of fire and torment (cf. Isa 50:11), they borrowed this language from the Old Testament where it is used emphati- cally and metaphorically to describe the complete and irreversible destruction of a person (Isa 33:14) or place (e.g., Edom [cf. Isaiah 34:9-10]). Even though the book of Isaiah mentions that Edom’s fire “will not be quenched night or day” and “its smoke will rise forever,” the fulfillment of these prophetic words was not about a fiery spectacle of visible everlasting flames, but about Edom becoming “desolate” and inhabited only by desert owl, screech owl, great owl, and the raven (Isa 34:10-11). If you visited Edom today, you would not see smoke still going up to the sky forever but a destroyed kingdom that never again reared its head.

Proponents of annihilationism mention that the Bible also uses the language of eternal destruction when it describes the fate of those who have rejected Christ: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:9; ESV). The words “destruction” (Matt 7:13-14) and “perish” (John 3:16) imply the absolute end of something or someone. Matthew 10:28 mentions that we should “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Destruction is not about an eternal and ongoing tormenting in hell but about the eventual complete and irreversible annihilation of those who end up there.

There are two related but quite different versions of annihilationism. The first could be called “immediate annihilationism.” In this version, at the judgment seat of Christ, those who have rejected Jesus will experience the withdrawal of God’s life from them (viz., body, soul, mind, and spirit) and they will stop existing as persons altogether. The second version of annihilationism is probably best called “terminal punishment” (but some might prefer the title “eventual annihilationism”). The idea here is that those who have rejected Jesus will face the judgment seat of Christ where the ultimate wise and all-knowing Judge will condemn them to punishment for the period of time that perfectly and justly fits their sin of rejection and their unrighteous deeds. They will experience fully conscious punishment for what could be millions of years. The righteous Judge will determine this for each person. However, since the fire never goes out and the worm never dies, the destruction and the separation from God will be “eternal” in that there will be no hope of its reversal or of one’s escape from it (2 Thess 1:9; Matt 10:28). That is the point of highlighting that the fire and worm will not suddenly end prior to complete destruction. This terminal punishment is both “terminal” in that the punishment is a final and complete destruction, and “eternal” in that the destruction is absolutely permanent and irreversible.

The third option involves various versions of universalism — which commonly has meant that God will welcome all people either immediately or eventually into his eternal heavenly presence in the new creation. Some find Christian support for universalism because Romans 5 states that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (v.18 emphasis added; cf. 1 Cor 15:22; Col 1:19-20). They assume that if all people are guilty in Adam, all people must be saved in Christ. However, the larger biblical story as represented in the teachings of Jesus (Matt 10:28; Mark 9:43), the words of Paul (Romans 10), and all of the New Testament teachings seem fundamentally incompatible with universalism in all its forms.

The most enticing version of universalism for evangelicals is what I would call “by faith in Christ alone universalism.” This suggests that no one will ever be welcomed into God’s eternal presence simply because they do good things or because they have a “sincere faith” in something — but only through faith in Christ (sola fide). Because God wants “everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), the assumption here is that God’s love is endlessly reaching out to everyone who lacks faith in Jesus and inviting them into his joyous presence. This happens both during one’s life on earth and also after one dies (cf. 1 Pet 3:18-19; 4:6). This is commonly called post-mortem (post-death) evangelism. Presumably, Jesus will never stop inviting all people (before and after death) to faith in him, and Jesus will even descend into hell to preach there until everyone finally responds and is reunited with God in the new creation. Some believe that this is implied in Revelation 21:25 which states that “on no day will its gates ever be shut.”

The assumption of this form of universalism is that eventually all people will respond to Jesus either in this life or after — making “hell” a temporary entity that will at some point be entirely vacant of human inhabitants.

In order to answer your question about whether MBs have a “position on eternal conscious punishment,” we need to look at what Article 18 of our Confession of Faith (1999) actually states under the paragraph titled “Judgment”:

When Christ returns, He will destroy all evil powers, including the Antichrist. Satan and all those who have rejected Christ will be condemned to eternal punishment in hell, forever separated from the presence of God. Believers must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to have their lives examined and their labours rewarded. By God’s grace, they will enter into the joy of God’s eternal reign. (emphasis added)

Our 1999 Confession highlights that all of this process of judgment is in the hands of “Christ” and we can have great confidence that everything will be consistent with what we know about the loving, just, and good character of Jesus. However, our MB Confession leaves no space for universalism The language of “eternal punishment” and “forever separated from the presence of God” rules out the universal welcome of all people into God’s Kingdom and/or the eventual redemption of all people after death.

In terms of the other two options, some have read the language of “eternal punishment” to be in full and exclusive support of eternal conscious torment. However, others have argued that the language of “destroy all evil powers” and the focus on the irreversible separation from God, allows space for MBs to hold terminal punishment for example.

It is difficult to be definitive here about an “MB position” since, unlike numerous other denominational groups, none of our MB Confessions past or present (1902, 1975, or 1999) made the effort to explicitly use the language of “conscious punishment” or “conscious torment.” While it may be appropriate to call the debate between eternal conscious punishment and terminal punishment a disputable matter, our MB Confession paints a profoundly sober picture of the nature of final punishment for those who have rejected Jesus. As Tim Keller stated, while “virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical…the reality will be far worse than the image” (“The Importance of Hell” See here). Both eternal conscious torment and terminal punishment describe a reality that is the opposite of life, love, hope, and shalom.

We may need to have more conversation as an MB family before I can unequivocally state whether MBs support one specific position on the topic or whether there is room for this topic being a “disputable matter.” Thank you for your excellent questions.

Blessings and Shalom in Jesus!

Leave a Comment