The other day I received an email from a reader of my Swedish Atheist book. “Pat” was writing to express concern at the fact that the apologist in the book (an apologist fortuitously named “Randal”) was endorsing the doctrine of annihilationism according to which hell is understood to be the final destruction of the unregenerate rather than their perpetual torment. What struck me about Pat’s objection to annihilationism was the reasoning that motivated it. Pat wrote:
If those who do not believe will eventually be snuffed out and will no longer exist, what does it matter if they don’t know who Jesus is? Yeah, they may go through a time of torment, but it will end. […] Yet, if there really is a hell, and it is for all eternity in righteous torment, then I must share the Gospel in order to let others know that they are heading on a path that will lead to eternal conscious torment, so that they will be saved from that.
It is difficult to convey to you the sadness that I felt at reading these words. It seemed like annihilationism was sufficient to shake Pat’s faith. Strange as it may seem, it was as if the cornerstone of Pat’s faith, the rock on which it rested, was the doctrine of hell, and more specifically hell as eternal conscious torment. After all, Pat seemed to be saying if Jesus didn’t save us from eternal conscious torment — if he only saved us from absolute destruction — then what’s the point of telling anybody?
Now please indulge me while I approach this assumption from a few different angles.
What good news is worth sharing?
To begin with, I bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner awhile ago. I soon discovered that the hype was not, in fact, hype. I’ve had my share of Electroluxes and Dirt Devils but nothing sucks like a Dyson. Take your Dyson into a room that looks clean and start vacuuming. In a few minutes the clear plexiglass canister will be plugged up with a fine grey powder, hair and fluff. That’s my Dyson!
So what’s the result? Not surprisingly, I want to tell everybody about my Dyson. Even you all.
I hope you get the message. I am an evangelist for the Dyson despite the fact that it doesn’t save you from eternal conscious torment. The fact that it doesn’t do that is quite irrelevant. What it does do is amazing.
Now let’s take it up several notches. Imagine that you discover a cure for cancer. Would you want to tell the world? Would you want to shout it from the roof tops? Would you do so even though this cancer cure was ineffectual against lakes of burning sulfur? To ask that question is to answer it.
Now let’s take it up several more notches (and I do mean several). What if you discovered a cure for the sin that eats away at our souls every day? This cure would save you from being consumed by this soul-destroying virus we call original sin and would result in a resurrection into eternal, unimaginable blessedness. Would you want to tell everybody?
Now imagine the logic of somebody replying: “But wait. Does the soul-destroying virus result in the person suffering eternal conscious torment? Because if it doesn’t, I’ll have no reason to tell anybody about the cure.”
Such a response makes no sense. If you’d tell people about your Dyson and you’d tell them about your cancer cure, of course you’d want to tell absolutely everybody about this cure for the soul-destroying virus.
Beyond avoiding hell to the fullness of life
The discussion thus far has talked about the cure being a cure from something: dust and hair or cancer or the soul-destroying virus. But the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t simply a story about what we’re saved from but what we’re saved for. Indeed, it is here that we come to the beating heart of the good news.
Imagine that Brian the Bachelor asks Married Marvin why Brian should consider getting married. And imagine if Marvin’s only response was this: “Getting married keeps you from the debilitating pain of loneliness.”
That’s a legitimate answer for one reason to consider marriage. But it isn’t the main reason, is it? You see, “keeping away the loneliness” consists of merely neutralizing the negative. But the most important reason to get married is for the attainment of something positive, namely love and companionship (a love and companionship which commonly expands to include progeny).
Pat’s view of the gospel seems to be fixated on the negative “keeping away the loneliness”. Consequently, the extent to which the avoidance of the negative is softened from something maximally horrible, the center of Pat’s faith and missional impulse is shaken as well. But the heart of the gospel is not simply avoiding hell, it is being united with Christ and his restored kingdom. Consequently, if your motivation to share the gospel with others is motivated wholly by the avoidance of the negative then it is as deeply impoverished as Marvin’s view of marriage.
How bad is complete destruction?
In closing, I’ll note one more problem I have with Pat’s words. Pat seems to think that being resurrected to destruction is not so bad. Why, I cannot imagine. Go on death row and ask the inmates how many would be interested in a reprieve that would shift their sentence to life in prison. Then ask them how many would be interested in a process that would restore them to the community and see them released from prison altogether? If annihilationism is true then Christ offers something even greater than this death row offer. And the thought that anybody would be disinterested in sharing such an offer when they had already themselves received it, and when they’ve been given an explicit mandate to do so, would utterly and completely escape me.