The Continuing Dilemma
We have considered the pros and cons of four alternative views of the destiny of the unsaved. The first (annihilation) seems unsatisfactory because although it recognizes the justice of punishment, it leaves unexplained why creaturely existence should be given to an enormous number of individuals who are simply to be eliminated as though they had never existed. Total annihilation by an act of God seems a more ruthless form of punishment than even endless torment that is self-imposed.
The second alternative (Universalism) essentially ignores the problem of justice entirely, and from a Christian point of view is quite unacceptable.
The third alternative, limited punishment, in the dual role of vindication of the law and correction of the lawbreaker, makes much more sense, yet still presents problems until we can be sure that the meaning of the words translated eternal, eternity, and so forth, have been unequivocally established one way or the other.
In summary, then, it may be said that almost all the arguments against either annihilation or any kind of restoration tend to be vitiated by poor understanding of what is being rejected. First of all, with the exception of the Universalist view, none of those who argue for these other alternatives would question the certainty of punishment for sin. Judgment leads to condemnation, and the penalty imposed is commensurate with the offense. Annihilationists like Basil Atkinson simply argue that men suffer for their sins to the point of extinction. By this means hell is made in some ways an even more awful reality than is suggested by everlasting punishment, which is at least a form of personal survival.
Those who see the penalty as a sentence to be served out until the last farthing has been paid do not hold, as some critics imply, that the absence of saving faith still makes the position of the condemned quite hopeless. The advocates of limited penalty would not deny that the man condemned to hell dies in unbelief and therefore cannot be saved on the ground of faith. They would argue rather that whereas faith saves from the penalty of sins, these are not saved from the penalty of sins but suffer that penalty themselves. Their ultimate release is not an escape from the penalty but the payment of full satisfaction. Nor is saving faith applicable to them when they are released; such faith would be too late.
One argument against annihilation which is often raised is that the "soul" is inherently immortal, though Scripture says otherwise (1 Cor. 15:53, 54). The soul is only contingently immortal, as sustained by God. The Lord alone had the power of life within Himself. Even unfallen Adam's immortality was contingent upon God. Immortality of the soul is a Greek invention, not a biblical revelation, Luther considered the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as the last of the five cardinal errors of the papal church. (1)
The issue, in short, is not, Will the unbelieving be punished? but Will they be punished for ever and ever? If so, the universe will never be free of the presence of evil and the Lord's victory will never be truly complete. As Augustus H. Strong sums up the situation:
In any treatment of the subject of eternal punishment we must remember that false doctrine is often a reaction from the unscriptural and repulsive over-statements of Christian apologists. We freely concede (1) that future punishment does not necessarily consist of physical torments, it may be wholly internal and spiritual; (2) that the pain and suffering of the future are not necessarily due to positive applications by God, they may result entirely from the soul's sense of loss and from the accusations of conscience; and (3) that eternal punishment does not necessarily involve endless successions of suffering, for since God's eternity is not mere endlessness we may not forever be subject to the law of time. (2)To this I can say, Amen! And add only that probably one of the most awful features of hell, and one least often acknowledged in the literature, is the fact of isolation. * The individual will not merely be separated from God but from all other men. There will be no company to commiserate with. As C. S. Lewis put it, "There are no personal relationships in hell."
* It is significant that far more mention is being paid by psychiatrists today to the factor of isolation as a cause of human sickness. Deprivation of company has turned out to be one of the most distressing punishments a prisoner can be subjected to, and there are moves to have it internationally outlawed as an inhumane form of torture. Harry Stack Sullivan (a renowned psychotherapeutic clinical psychiatrist regarded by some to be second only to Freud) observed that "absolute isolation would be equal to death." The most awful of all isolations is to be cut off from God, which probably entails being also cut off from all other human beings. In this case it has to be viewed as a self-imposed torture.Perhaps there we have to let the matter rest, having seemingly exhausted the means of elucidation at our disposal. The reader will undoubtedly sense my own leaning towards the third alternative, but I must confess that I am by no means confident that such a hopeful alternative is justified in the light of our Lord's own awful warnings.
1. Basil F. C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality,
2. Systematic Theology, p. 1035.