The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense, explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with Gehenna or the Lake of Fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of Gehenna or the Lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fulness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.

[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism”

  1. This is so very helpful of an article. I think what I appreciate most is its insistence on holding on loosely to our understandings of these things and noting that it is imagery and not explanation.

    I do, sometimes, feel that annihilation (I have a terrible time remembering how to spell the word) gets dismissed on purely “emotional grounds.” For me, it’s been my understanding not because it’s more palatable than the alternatives, but because it makes more sense of my rejection of property dualism–I agree completely with your understanding of the “immortality of the soul.”

    Ultimately, though, lived salvation is the goal.

    Thanks for this piece.

    1. One might object to my distinction between “imagery” and “explanation” but you got it. The point is that these categories are to feed into a hope that does not presume full knowledge. Paul uses the term “mystery” for this purpose as he does not presume to have provided full explanation.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  2. Thank you Paul for these thoughts. I have not been comfortable with the idea of burning in hell forever as a view which shows that God loves us. I have not always held this view though. Yet it seems that the view of “infernalism” . is a view which is directly tied to ones atonement theory rather than a good biblical study. I find myself leaning towards Annihilation (although not a view I have always held either) based on possibly more biblical evidence. In the end I think you have hit it when you say it is “imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation.” Thanks friend this is very helpful.