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Annihilationism: A Feel-Good Doctrine for Nice Christians 

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Many Christians — especially those of a liberal/progressive bent — now believe that non-Christians will be annihilated after death. Queasy over the notion of their “Loving” God eternally torturing unbelievers in Hell, these Christians say that God will instead obliterate non-Christians, wiping them from the pages of human existence. Some Protestant Christians think unbelievers will be tortured for a certain amount of time, and then, having satisfied God’s torture-lust, will be burned up and remembered no more.

While it is certainly possible to selectively read and interpret the Bible and conclude that God will annihilate non-Christians, the historic Christian position remains this: God torturing conscious people for eternity. In recent years, thanks to authors such as Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott, Evangelicals have become more sympathetic towards annihilationism. The question I want to raise in this post is WHY they have become more sympathetic to this view.

What causes staunch, Bible-believing Evangelicals to abandon the doctrine of endless punishment? Have they changed their view as a result of diligently studying the Bible? While I am sure that some Evangelicals have abandoned this doctrine for intellectual reasons, the real reason is more emotional in nature. By carefully examining increasing Evangelical support for same-sex marriage, I think we can understand why many Evangelicals no longer think non-believers will be eternally tortured in Hell (actually the Lake of Fire). Younger Evangelicals — having watched their parents and grandparents turn Evangelicalism into one of the most hated American religions — want to put a kinder, gentler face on Christianity. Many of them — deeply affected by postmodern thinking — have moved leftward, away from the culture war and the endless battles over doctrine. No longer wanting to be viewed in a negative light, younger Evangelicals strive to be accepted by the world. More accepting of evolution and science, tolerant, temperate Evangelicals genuinely want to be liked by others — bristling when lumped in with culture warriors and Fundamentalists.

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These worldly Evangelicals know and associate with people older Evangelicals have, in times past, consigned to the flames of Hell. It is hard for them to look at Lesbian Angela, Gay Harper, and Atheist Laura and think these friends of theirs will be endlessly tortured by God. As in the case of LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage, once people actually meet and know people who are happy unbelievers, their viewpoint often changes as well. Their parents and grandparents — fearing contamination by the “world” — walled themselves off from the influences of non-Christians. Younger Evangelicals — often educated at secular colleges — are more comfortable among non-Christians. Once exposed to the “world,” it is unlikely they will return to the Fundamentalism of their Evangelical forefathers.

As atheists, should we be appreciative of the fact that some Evangelicals think God will annihilate us some day, and not endlessly torture us? Ponder for a moment the fact that many annihilationists think God will — for a time — torture unbelievers before turning them into ash heaps. How is this really any better than eternal hellfire and damnation? The fact remains that the Christian God will reward or punish people based on their beliefs. Believe the right things and a home in Heaven awaits. Believe the wrong things and God will erase your name from the book of the living. I get it . . . many Evangelicals are tired of being viewed as mean and hateful, and liberal and progressive Christians are weary of being lumped together with Fundamentalists. However, the fact remains that annihilation is a form of punishment reserved for those who are members of the wrong religious club. This means that good people will be burnt to a crisp for no other reason than that their God was some other deity but Jesus. Forgive me if I don’t find such beliefs “comforting.”

Here’s the good news. Many Christians, having tried on annihilationism for a time, eventually realize that it is just endless-punishment-lite. Once annihilationism is abandoned, universalism awaits. All paths now lead to eternal bliss, so there is no need to evangelize or argue doctrine. Imagine a world without theocratic demands of fealty, arguments over theology, or threats of God’s judgment. Why, such a world would be Heaven on earth — a Heaven where even atheists are welcome.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Melody

    It shows that isolation works in keeping people in rigid dogma’s and non-isolation helps in changing people’s views. Once you know an atheist and they become your friend, which happened to me in college, it’s much harder to see people as the enemy, especially that person. So you begin to doubt this whole ‘everyone who’s not like us is an enemy’ kind of thinking once you realize that many non-believers are great people, perhaps even more fun than the Christians you know, more relaxed too.

    I wonder why? It definitely helps not having hell and a stalker-God hanging over you, doesn’t it?

  2. Avatar
    Angiep

    “Once annihilationism is abandoned, universalism awaits. All paths now lead to eternal bliss, so there is no need to evangelize or argue doctrine. Imagine a world without theocratic demands of fealty, arguments over theology, or threats of God’s judgment. Why, such a world would be heaven on earth — a heaven where even atheists are welcome.” Beautiful! Even the Buddha would approve.

  3. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    I guess I was an unconscious universalist when I was still a Christian. I never thought that non-Christians would be thrown in a lake of fire after death. In fact, I never thought about this wholesale damnation of non-Christians at all! My focus was on my own morality and behavior, trying to follow Christ. Everybody else had to follow their own path as they saw fit. As long as people were trying to be ethical that was okay with me.

  4. Avatar
    BJW

    Seventh-day Adventists are annihilationists which I was for around 15 years. It is more comforting to think loved ones aren’t tortured forever. BUT…why would they deserve eternal death for a short life? An eternal god who loved his creation could certainly fix everyone so all are saved. Instead, fundamentalist religions of any faith tend to be heavy on punishment and foster judgmental believers. Which makes it even harder to believe in a god of love, when we see and hear and experience their ugly behaviors.

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Call me a cynic, but reading this post reinforces my perception that Christianity can never be “inclusive.” Nearly every sect believes that non-belief results in death, whether it’s torture, annihilation or in some other form. And, of course, nearly every sect believes that people who don’t follow their interpretation of their scripture are infidels who are deserving of, or bound for, eternal damnation.

  6. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I feel like I need to research Christian sects to see if there’s one that doesn’t believe in original sin and hell, and that supports universalism. Something that is like “we like Jesus and his teachings about love and caring for others” and leaves out all the punishment, death, bigotry, misogyny, etc. I feel like that could exist and be inclusive.

  7. Avatar
    Infidel753

    The problem with nice, tolerant, gay-friendly, non-Hellfire-and-damnation Christianity is the same as the problem with “moderate Islam” — there are too many passages in the Bible (or Koran) that flat-out disallow it. No matter how beliefs evolve, Leviticus and the various passages about unbelievers, Hell, etc will still be there, and as long as Christianity exists at all, there will always be the danger that believers will revert to what their sacred text actually says. Moderate religion is certainly better than fanaticism, but the threat will not be truly gone until religion is extinct.

  8. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    Brilliant end to this piece. I’m pretty sure I might have mentioned this in a post I put up on here before, but I’ve always really loved author Phillip Pullman’s line about working towards a more perfect here & now with no god ruling over things – living a loving life in order to create “the Republic of Heaven on Earth”.

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Bruce Gerencser