Concerning the final fate of those who die unreconciled to Jesus Christ and as a result whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life and suffer judgment, punishment, the lake of fire, the second death, the historic position based on the plain readings of scripture has been burning eternally in the lake of fire. However, this doctrine has been under attack at least since the time of Origen, who proposed that punishment in the lake of fire would be temporary and rehabilitative, and after the period of rehabilitation everyone – humans and demons – will be forgiven. A more recent doctrinal trend rejects Origen’s universalism (and his rehabilitative punishment idea, in which the roots of the Roman Catholic purgatory doctrine can be found) in favor of annhiliationaism, the idea that rather than burning for an eternity, human souls will simply be consumed.
Now of course, this ignores that the Bible explicitly states that both wicked and saints will be resurrected from the dead, and at that time both wicked and saints will receive bodies that are eternal and indestructible, and that their torment would last forever. However, the annihilationist view rejects those in favor of various scriptures cited out of context to support the idea that the wicked will simply be instantly consumed, and that the references to eternal punishment mean that the wicked will cease to exist forever.
First, we have to consider the motivations for adopting this doctrine. Its adherents plainly state that it is because an eternity in the lake of fire is too cruel a punishment and therefore unjustifiable. Of course, this is a direct attack against and outright denial of God’s sovereignty, not far removed from the universalist position that a loving God would not condemn anyone. Further, this doctrine appears to be gaining traction when those consider the plight of people who were never exposed to the gospel. Free will-Wesleyan-Arminian-“Biblicist” annihilationists take the position that God cannot impose so severe a punishment on those who by their time and place of birth never had the opportunity to be saved through the exercise of their free will decision for Jesus Christ. (The extreme position of this view is taken by Clark Pinnock, who states that it is unfair for God to so severely punish even those who use their free moral agency to REJECT Jesus Christ, because that would place God at fault for giving us free will and the opportunity to reject Him in the first place.)
Reformed-Calvinist annihilationists have problems with the opposite end of the soteriology question: they cannot reconcile eternal punishment with a God who elects and predestines people to avoid it. Again, God’s sovereignty is in view here. Stating that God does not have the right to deal with His creation in any way that He chooses so long as His dealings are consistent with His nature is tantamount to suggesting that God had no right to undertake and accomplish creation in the first place. Amazingly, both the free will and predestinarian annihilationists have no problem with God punishing demons, evil spirits, forever. If it the issue truly is how a loving God is obligated to behave towards His creation, fallen angels should be the first issue of concern, as no redemption plan exists for them. Instead, it is only God’s prerogative with humans that drives doctrines that attack His sovereignty, which shows that humanism – a manifestation of the pride of life – is what is truly behind them, not the honest pursuit of theology, doctrines or theodicy. So, these folks start with the perspective of humanistic philosophy, wrap it in scriptures, and come up with a pious and spiritual sounding but ultimately false theology
However, it is rather simple to oppose this humanistic philosophy masquerading as theology with, well, theistic philosophy. Where humanistic philosophy that leads to the position adopted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of England (annihilationism), starting with the Person of Jesus Christ leads to a philosophically different viewpoint. Go right to the cross, and consider the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (which incidentally Roman Catholics reject). Substitutionary atonement is the Biblical truth that Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place, Himself taking the punishment of death for sin that God’s righteousness demands (Ezekiel 18) in our stead.
This is the rub: Jesus Christ was and is no mere man. Instead, He is the Word of God, the eternal second Person of the Holy Trinity! Meanwhile, humans are not eternal. We will exist forever FORWARD into eternity either in heaven or the lake of fire. But as creatures (created beings) we have no part in eternity PAST. Instead, we have a definite, finite point of origin. So, when Jesus Christ took the sins of the elect, the church on the cross and died, it was the ETERNAL Son of God dying. Metaphysically, cosmically, the punishment was ETERNAL, and Jesus Christ took an ETERNAL punishment in our place because God is ETERNAL.
And this is fitting the nature of sin. Sin is a crime against a holy ETERNAL God that has ETERNAL consequences. Paying those eternal consequences for a crime that offends an eternal God requires an eternal punishment, an eternal payment. Being eternal, Jesus Christ satisfied the consequences of this eternal punishment with His own death. So, the eternal punishment of sins, to be meted out to those who will exist forever, is paid. But for those who do not participate in the atoning redemption given by the eternal Son of God’s work still have to pay themselves.
Suggesting otherwise ignores the eternal consequences of sin and its affront to the holiness of God. So, in addition to being an attack against God’s sovereignty, annihilationism denies His holiness.