Wind Out of the Sails: A Response to Greg Koukl

I highly recommend Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason ministry and radio program. Greg and I don’t agree on a number of theological issues, but I greatly respect and appreciate his passion for teaching Christians the importance of careful thinking. As he’s been known to say, “Emotions are what make life delicious, careful thinking is what makes life safe.” Unfortunately, however, as is certainly the case with every generally careful thinker, Greg thinks less carefully about some issues than he does others.
In a recent episode, Greg explained that he sees spiritual warfare not primarily as battle during a direct and immediate assault by the devil against the individual believer but as the tearing down of lofty ideas that hinder the message of Christ. “Many of those who identify themselves as genuine followers of Christ,” said Greg, “have been undermined in their ability to communicate the gospel because of other beliefs, theological beliefs, that take the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission, to put it simply.”1 Among other examples of such beliefs, Greg included annihilationism:2

So the point here is, I see in, say the teaching of annihilationism…the hallmarks of spiritual warfare. That is, I see an idea now, that if taken seriously, takes the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission. It makes the gospel seem less important, or less urgent. Now who would have an interest in making the gospel less important or less urgent? Not Jesus. The devil. When I notice a doctrine coming in from the side that doesn’t seem to be consistent with classical Christian teaching and which doctrine seems to have the impact of taking some of the force out of the Great Commission, I immediately know that this is an example of spiritual warfare, and I need to resist it.

Annihilationism is false, then, according to Koukl, because it makes the gospel less important, less urgent, thus taking the “wind out of the sails” of the Great Commission. Let us examine this claim, and see if it is a compelling reason to reject conditional immortality.

Carefulless Thinking

Greg began his discussion of annihilationism saying,3

What about annihilationism? Those that don’t ultimately spend eternity with God they just get destroyed and there’s no—that’s it, that’s their punishment. Capital punishment, kind of—spiritually speaking. They’re just gone. That’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, and an increasing number of Christians.

On one hand, it’s a little refreshing to hear Greg somewhat correctly characterize annihilation as a sort of capital punishment, acknowledging (at first, anyway) that the result of being killed is a form of punishment. On the other hand, he exhibits careless thinking right out of the starting gate.
First, Greg creates a false dichotomy between the forfeiture of an eternity spent with God and what he thinks is the punishment proposed by conditionalists. Yet more than a millennium and a half ago Saint Augustine wisely pointed out that the punishment of execution is measured fundamentally in that “the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living.”4 Indeed, when one considers that the eternal life forfeited would have otherwise been spent in bliss in the presence of God, one is hard-pressed to identify a worse imaginable punishment.
Second, Greg says that conditionalists propose that the wicked are “just” destroyed, are “just” gone. I seriously doubt that anybody would say of criminals executed by violent, painful means—such as the electric chair or, say, crucifixion—that they are “just” destroyed, that they are “just” gone. In fact, I doubt they’d speak that way of even relatively painless means of execution, such as lethal injection. I therefore find myself frequently befuddled by critics of our view who often use words like “just,” “simply” or “merely” to describe the capital punishment that is annihilation.
Third, Greg immediately brings up the similarity between the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of final punishment with that of evangelical conditionalists, and though I don’t fault him for doing so to the same extent that I fault him for the previous examples of thoughtlessness, nevertheless I doubt that he does this consistently. When he defends monotheism, inerrancy or an eternity spent on the New Earth in physical, resurrected bodies (Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this is the eternal fate of most followers of Jesus), surely he doesn’t say, “That’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.” Associating a belief held by evangelicals with that of the cults is something he likely only does when he’s criticizing it, and I’m skeptical that his motivation for doing so is legitimate, at least in this case.
Greg goes on,5

If annihilationism is true, that the unbelieving just disappear, they get destroyed in that sense, then there is no threat of punishment. There’s only a threat of non-existence. And what is the danger of that?

There’s that word again. They “just” disappear, suggesting that our view is that God snaps His fingers and in a puff of smoke the wicked vanish into the proverbial ether. That erroneous mischaracterization aside, recall that earlier Greg said of the destruction awaiting the wicked that “that’s their punishment. Capital punishment.” A matter of minutes later, however, he contradicts himself, saying that in our view, “there is no threat of punishment.” Any fan of Dr. James White should immediately hear his voice saying, “Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.”

Nothing to Fear

But this is really where Greg gets to the crux of his wind and sails argument, an argument to which I hope in this post to offer a cogent response. He says,6

I want to tell you something. I’m going on record right now: I am not afraid of non-existence. In fact, when I think of that as a possibility I breathe a little sigh of relief, because my biggest fear is that I’m right about God’s justice but I’m wrong about His mercy. And if all His justice amounts to is that I disappear? Phew! That’s a weight off of my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about an eternity of punishment. Annihilationism does not frighten me. There is nothing to be afraid of.

On one hand, there’s an extent to which I don’t doubt the sincerity of Greg’s statement. indicates that believers are delivered from their innate fear of death, and so it does not surprise me that as a believer Greg no longer fears death. On the other hand, there’s an extent to which his statement is disingenuous, for the context of his critique requires that he base it upon an unbeliever’s emotional response to the prospect of death, not that of a believer. And I suspect that even Greg, before he believed, contemplated death occasionally and the thought terrified him. After all, if as a believer he has been delivered from his fear of death, he must once have feared death.
When I was an atheist, I did not fear suffering of any sort following death; I thought that I would cease to be conscious and would never again be aware of anything at all, let alone pain and agony. And yet death itself as the silent, unfeeling, utter blackness—the closest thing I could imagine that fate to be—that was indeed terrifying. Even though I knew I would never again suffer, I also knew I would never again enjoy life.
But the real reason Greg’s words betray a lack of careful thinking is because even if he were honestly able to say that death did not frighten him even prior to believing, he assumes that this is universally true of everybody whom one might evangelize in attempting to fulfill the Great Commission. His assumption is, quite simply, false. Take a few minutes to listen to the haunting voice of 20th century agnostic poet Philip Larkin, as he recites his famous poem “Aubade,” in which he wrote about his dread of extinction:

… yet the dread of dying, and being dead, flashes afresh to hold and horrify. The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse—the good not done, the love not given, time torn off unused—nor wretchedly because an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; but at the total emptiness for ever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon …

Nothing to be afraid of? Annihilation may not frighten Koukl, but it sure frightened Larkin. For him, there was “nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” “This is what we fear,” Larkin continues, “no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with, the anasthetic from which none come round.” Apparently I wasn’t alone in my fear of non-existence when I was still an atheist.

Worse than Eternal Torment

Neither would Larkin and I have been alone in the first century Greek-speaking world. In fact, we would have been in good company had we feared non-existence more than an eternity of torment. William Barclay writes that according to first century Greek historian and biographer Plutarch, “the idea of annihilation was intolerable to the Greek mind … [Faced] with the alternatives of annihilation and a life of torment in Hades, the Greek would have chosen the torment rather than the annihilation.”7 As Plutarch had said,8

insensibility, dissolution, and the conceit that what hath no sense is nothing to us, do not at all abate the fear of death, but rather help to confirm it; for this very thing is it that nature most dreads,—But may you all return to mould and wet, to wit, the dissolution of the soul into what is without knowledge or sense.

For Greg Koukl, having been freed from his fear of death, the threat of non-existence is no threat at all. But to the Greek mind, non-existence is the thing nature most dreads. Plutarch goes on,9

all men and women would be well contented to be worried by Cerberus, and to carry water into the tub full of holes, so they might but continue in being and not be exterminated … to be deprived of living disturbs all both young and old. For it seems that we Impatient love the light that shines on earth…it is neither the dog Cerberus nor the river Cocytus that has made our fear of death boundless; but the threatened danger of not being, representing it as impossible for such as are once extinct to shift back again into being.

Certainly many today do not share what was apparently Greek thought in the time of Christ, that to die and never live again is worse than to live forever in torment. But what this demonstrates is that Greg’s professed opinion, that in annihilation there is nothing to fear, is neither objectively true nor shared by everyone. Consider, then, the advice with which he concludes his monologue:10

If you’re confronting an idea, considering an idea, and you ask yourself the question, Does this make the gospel more urgent or less urgent? And the answer you get is that it makes the gospel less urgent, that is a good reason to mistrust what you are considering.

In light of the fact that annihilationism’s impact on the urgency of the gospel is entirely subjective, and will differ from one person at one time to the next, certainly this advice is not sound. In fact, it would require duplicity on Greg’s part, were he to heed his own counsel, for when evangelizing someone who thinks like Plutarch and his first century Greek contemporaries, Greg would have to profess annihilationism in order to keep the wind in the gospel’s proverbial sails, but when evangelizing someone like himself, he would have to profess the traditional view of final punishment. I’m sorry, but as much as I respect Greg, this is horrible advice and is inconsistent with his laudable rejection of subjectivism in other areas.

A Just and Holy God

And the subjectivism of Greg’s advice is not limited only to which fate is feared more by the one being evangelized. Greg says,11

I’m keeping my eyes open for these things, and whenever anything pops up on the radar that seems like new and cool and we’ve got the new clever take on it, doesn’t this make God look more attractive? Well it may make God look more attractive, but if it doesn’t make the gospel look more attractive, then it’s a phony.

We’ve already established that whether annihilationism or traditionalism makes the gospel more attractive is entirely in the eyes of the beholder, but here Greg dismisses the impact that annihilationism might have on how the unbeliever perceives the nature of the God whose gospel is being offered to him, as if it simply proposes to “make God look more attractive.” Yet, this is a terrible oversimplification of the challenge often faced by evangelistic efforts that propose eternal torment as the fate of unbelievers.
Those who know me and have listened to my debates know that I see no injustice in the traditional view of final punishment, and in that respect I part ways with many of my fellow conditionalists. But it is a fact, nonetheless, that there are many who think it would be unjust and cruel of God to eternally torment unbelievers—including many unbelievers themselves, for whom this view of hell serves as a stumbling block that cannot be hurdled. Who can forget the words of the infamous atheist Bertrand Russell in his essay, “Why I am Not a Christian?” in which he writes,

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment … I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world, and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as his chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

You see, for Russell the doctrine of eternal torment in hell did not merely make Christ appear less attractive; it made Him appear cruel and immoral, and no unbeliever is going to place his faith in a God he perceives to be cruel and immoral. Recall that Greg at one point insists that it is the devil, not Jesus, whose interest would be in making the gospel less important, less urgent. Could it be that it is the devil, not Jesus, whose interest is in making the God of the gospel appear less just, less moral?
Had Russell been evangelized by conditionalists, rather than traditionalists, would he have written about the immorality and injustice of annihilation? I don’t know, although many atheists do not object to the justice of capital punishment. When it comes to such unbelievers, perhaps evangelists who proposes annihilation as the fate of the wicked will have more wind behind their sails, rather than less, because of the seeming injustice of eternal torment proposed by their traditional counterparts.
Of course, I don’t recommend accepting conditionalism based on the fact that many unbelievers who reject God do so because of the seeming injustice of eternal torment. But that’s my whole point: unlike Greg, who apparently thinks that what you believe about the eternal fate of the wicked should be determined based on unbelievers’ subjective opinions about which fate is worse, I don’t think that our belief should be based on any of their subjective opinions, including that it would be unjust for God to eternally torment them. I side, instead, with the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith which says, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and by which must be examined all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men and private spirits can be no other than the Holy Scripture.”12

Fear Him

As a side note, many Christians, even many conditionalists, would further object to Koukl’s advice on the grounds that evangelism should not hinge on fear of punishment. I happen to disagree with them, agreeing instead with Greg who, after incorrectly saying there is nothing to fear in annihilation, correctly points out that13

Jesus said, Don’t fear him who can kill the body but not the soul. But fear rather Him who can throw both body and soul in hell. That’s something to be afraid of.

I think Greg is right, and that Jesus does often appear to encourage His listeners to avoid final punishment. The book of Acts doesn’t record the Apostles appealing to the nature of final punishment in their evangelistic efforts, but Peter did say “there is salvation in no one else,”14 and Paul said “all people everywhere should repent, because [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world.”15 However, I do think it is interesting that Greg chose to appeal to Luke’s rendition16 of Jesus’ words, rather than that of Matthew, who records Him as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”17
You see, whereas Luke depicts Jesus as saying God will throw both body and soul into Gehenna18, it doesn’t tell us what will happen to them there. Matthew’s account, on the other hand, is specific. In it, having just said men can kill the body but not the soul, Jesus goes on to say God will destroy both, using a Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi) which, used in the synoptic gospels to describe what one person does to another, consistently means something like “slay” or “kill.” What men can do only to bodies—kill them, rendering them completely lifeless and unfeeling—God will do to bodies and souls. He will kill both. Perhaps that’s why Greg read from Luke’s account, rather than Matthew’s.

My Advice

In any case, you’ve heard (or at least read) Greg’s advice, that you should reject annihilationism because it makes the gospel less urgent, taking the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission. Yet, as we’ve seen,

  1. Many people do fear the fate proposed by us conditionalists
  2. Many people have even found annihilation moreterrifying than eternal torment
  3. The seeming injustice of eternal torment prevents many from believing

It is for these reasons, and because of the absolute authority the Word of God has over our subjective opinions and speculations, that I encourage you to reject Greg’s advice. Instead, I suggest you heed the counsel of John Gill who said,19

If the question is about any point of Doctrine; if there is any hesitation concerning any truth of the gospel, look up to the way-posts, look into the scriptures, search them, see and read what they say; for they are profitable for doctrine (); for finding it out, explaining, confirming, and defending it: there will tell you whether the thing in debate is so or no, and will direct you which side of the question to take; if you seek for knowledge and understanding in gospel-truths diligently and constantly, as you would for silver, and search after them as for hid treasures, then will you understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God ()…

  1. Koukl, Greg. Stand to Reason, June 25th, 2012, 12:50 []
  2. Ibid., 19:09 []
  3. Ibid., 13:25 []
  4. St. Augustine (2011-10-04). The City of God – Enhanced (Kindle Locations 16804-16805). Kindle Edition. []
  5. Koukl. 18:10 []
  6. Ibid., 18:24 []
  7. Barclay, W. The Apostles’ Creed (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 298. []
  8. Plutarch, edited by Goodwin, W. Plutarch’s Morals. “That it is not possible to live pleasurably according to the doctrine of Epicurus.” []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Koukl. 21:02. []
  11. Ibid., 20:23. []
  12. 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, , paragraph 10. []
  13. Koukl. 18:57. []
  14. []
  15. []
  16. []
  17. []
  18. I prefer to transliterate the original Greek word, γέεννα, rather than translate it as “hell,” because of the traditional baggage that so often accompanies the English word. []
  19. Gill, J. “The Scriptures: The Only Guide In Matters Of Faith.” Preached At The Baptism Of Several Persons In Barbican, November 2, 1750. []

15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,

Proverbs 2:5

then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.