Annihilationism and the Resurrection of the Lost 1
Some have argued that if the lost will be destroyed, that is, if they are not subjected to eternal misery, then it would be pointless for God to resurrect them. Given the context of physicalism or possibly soul-sleep—which of course not all annihilationists hold to—Arthur W. Pink writes the following: “The absurdity and unscripturalness of Annihilationism are easily exposed. If at death, the sinner passes out of existence, why resurrect him in order to annihilate him again?” 2 Consider also what Sinclair B. Ferguson said while preaching at the Desiring God conference for Pastors in 1990. Assuming dualism and conscious punishment in the intermediate state, he argues that the resurrection of the unsaved prior to annihilation “must be viewed as some kind of cynical joke in the heart of this All-Righteous God, that he punishes men and women and then raises them from the dead simply to annihilate them out of all existence.” 3
While conditionalism is true, we nevertheless know that there will be a resurrection of both saved and unsaved (Daniel 12.2; John 5.28-29), so then what is the response from conditionalists?
Annihilation of the resurrected lost does make sense.
First and foremost, if the Bible says that there is a resurrection of the unsaved and that they will be destroyed afterwards, then it really doesn’t matter what Pink or Ferguson or anyone else thinks. If the Bible says it, then that is all that matters. The Bible is the word of God so what it says, and not what sounds good to men, is what we ought to be compelled by. As it is written: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55.8-9, NASB).
That said, there are good reasons which even humans can imagine. In the following three-part argument I will explain why it makes sense for God to resurrect the unsaved even if he is going to destroy them. The first part is that for justice to be done the dead cannot just die and disappear. Rather, they must go before God to be declared guilty and condemned. If physicalism or soul-sleep are true, then this alone would explain the need for a resurrection because only at a resurrection could the unsaved stand to face God.
The second part is that it’s imperative that all of the saints be present at the judgment of the wicked. For one thing, the saints must be present to praise God for his righteous judgment against the wicked. For another thing, for all the wrongdoing done against the saints—and surely we have all been the victim of some wrongdoing, although some far more than others—we must be there to see God avenge us, as the Bible promises. It would be impossible for this to occur if the lost were simply judged in the intermediate state upon death. However, upon the resurrection of all people, when everyone is alive and together, this can be accomplished.
The third part is that the lost must be raised bodily and not just left as immaterial souls in order for the whole person to stand before God, as it was the whole person who sinned. Furthermore, a bodily resurrection of the lost followed by their annihilation will show once and for all that God is the ultimate Lord of the universe, the absolute Sovereign over both life and death.
Evidence and defense: Part 1.
Regarding the first part of the argument, one might ask why a grand judgment is important at all. Why can’t they just die and have come what may? The reason it is so important is because there is more to vindication than simply punishment. There needs to be that moment where the judge declares the wicked guilty and the righteous innocent. It’s wired into us, I would even say. Let’s say a murderer, ineligible for the death penalty, drops dead during his trial. Now, isn’t that the best justice of all? What fate is reserved for the most heinous crimes? Death. He was only going to face jail time, but instead he died young, in his prime, and didn’t get years of breathing and ham sandwiches and Friday night movie privileges that he was otherwise going to have. Isn’t that great? Isn’t justice fulfilled?
I’m not sure we’d say it is. The jury never declared him guilty. The judge never banged his gavel, declaring him a murderer and issuing the just sentence. The family of the victim never got to address the killer. Despite ending up with what is actually a worse fate, he never had to face what he did—at least not in his lifetime. If the unsaved never had to even knowingly face God, then one can imagine the gross injustice. Imagine the murderers and child rapists and world dictators who die in their sins, happy and without fear. Some may even die with hope, like the Muslim suicide bomber who murders innocent people as well as himself in order to please Allah and enter paradise. Even though they face the punishment of non-existence, how dreadful if they were to never know it was coming! How horribly unjust if they died in happiness and hope, never having to acknowledge God or their evil, never having to answer for what they did!
This accusation is often leveled at conditionalists, but the biblical teaching is that though the wicked are destroyed, killed in the ultimate sense, no wicked person fades away in peace. Rather, they face the raging fire of God in the ultimate terror. It’s not enough to know that they simply die and are gone forever. In order for there to be that finality, that fulfillment of justice, they need to be there standing before the judge, even if the outcome is ultimately the same.
Evidence and defense: Part 2.
Why is it necessary for all the saved to be around together when God judges the wicked? The reason for this is two-fold. First, God’s people need to witness the judgment so that God is vindicated in front of them and he can receive from them the praise for his justice that he rightfully deserves.
Second, many of the unsaved have committed no end of evil against God’s children. Not only will God be vindicated but so will the righteous. The evil against them will be avenged. A first-century believer in Rome who was burned alive by Nero has every right to be there when Nero and his henchmen stand before God, in fear and terror, as he declares them accursed and throws them into the fire. Because the wicked have sinned against God’s people as well as against God (although such sins are ultimately all against God), it surely matters to God that his people can be vindicated when he judges those who have harmed them.
Now, the claim that the saved should be at the judgment in order for them to rejoice at God’s punishment of the lost may not sound very nice or merciful, and that the saved would desire vengeance against those who have unrepentantly caused them pain may even sound unchristian at first. However, even the most godly and merciful of us know it to be true that in our hearts we desire to see evildoers punished (if they do not turn to God, that is).
Most importantly, the claim that God’s people are to praise God for his condemnation of sinners, especially those who have afflicted his people, is entirely biblical. Both the Old Testament and New Testament contain many passages praising God for his judgment, as well as even comforting the people of God by the fact that those who have harmed them and do not repent will face God’s wrath (Psa 69:24-28; Psa 139:19-22; Psa 143:12; Jeremiah 18:23; Romans 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10; Rev 6:10-11; Rev 18:20; Rev 19:1-3).
This is not to say that we should not show kindness to our enemies, pray for them, and tell them the good news so that they might be saved and spared from judgment. Ideally they will come to know God, be forgiven, and brought into the family of God as we are. However, if they do not and instead hate God and his children until the end, the Bible comforts us with the fact that evil will not win, that no one will get away with their cruelty, and that we will be there to praise God for his justice.
From the Old Testament saints, to the Romans, to the Thessalonians, to every one of God’s children who has ever lived and ever will, they are to be there to see God’s judgment, which means that the wicked cannot just be judged at death or cease to exist upon death to never be resurrected.
Evidence and defense: Part 3.
This third point isn’t so much a discussion of what the Bible says; it is largely philosophical and speculative. Then again, the same could be said about the objection against annihilationism that this whole post is responding to; in other words, the objection by Pink and Ferguson and others isn’t about what the Bible says but rather about how the teaching sounds absurd. So, I’m giving reasons why it isn’t absurd.
One good reason why God might raise the wicked bodily and not just leave them as souls before destroying them at the judgment is that only if they are raised bodily can the wicked people stand before God as whole persons. God would therefore be judging the whole person, not their souls. I would imagine that many traditionalists would make this point when asked why God would resurrect the wicked dead just to torment them as he is said to have already been doing before the judgment. The whole person, body, soul, and spirit, can only stand before God if there is a bodily resurrection. The wicked as whole people sinned against God usually using their bodies, so why should not the whole person be judged?
Not only does this have the sort of ceremonial importance of being the whole person, it also will demonstrate once and for all to the mockers of God that he is the absolute sovereign over life and death. When they lived, they gave him no credit. When they faced death, they gave him no honor. To both give them life again, and to then take it in every sense will show his power in its fullest.
Regarding Sinclair B. Ferguson’s Comments About A “Cynical Joke”
As mentioned earlier, Ferguson said that to resurrect the damned just to destroy them would amount to a “cynical joke” on the part of God. He also adds, “There is something in it that is altogether out of keeping with everything that Scripture says about the utter integrity of God and his dealings with men and women.” 4 Well, that idea may not sit well with Ferguson but that doesn’t mean it isn’t biblical. I wish he would go more in depth and explain how exactly that amounts to a “cynical joke.” The condemned might lament their being resurrected, but so what? Indeed, it will be terrible for the lost, but there is nothing unjust about it. God does not lie to them in doing so. He does not give them anything worse than they deserve in doing so. There is no lack of integrity. Where does that claim even come from? Does God somehow owe it to the wicked to not destroy them if he resurrects them? And whatever the intermediate state is like, how on earth would it be in anyway more upright for God to raise them to torture them for ever and ever as Ferguson suggests?
Furthermore, a similar problem arises if eternal torment is true. Death is the enemy of God and man. The lost are raised from the dead and made immortal. Men throughout time have dreamt of being able to be immortal. The curse is reversed. Yet all this, which appears so good, would be done for their harm so that they could be tortured in hell. Might the damned not then lament, “This is a cruel joke! Why would you raise us from the dead just to torture us?” In fact, if the souls of the lost are being tormented before the resurrection, then it’s even worse. Might they not then lament the above as well as, “Why did you pause our suffering to give us immortal bodies? Why did you make us think, for a moment, that we were like the saved, crowned in joy and glory, only so we could suffer again? We wanted to live forever, but not like this!” If anything, that sounds more like a cynical joke. It doesn’t matter though, because what is biblical is what is biblical, no matter what I or Ferguson say.
Why is there a resurrection of the lost if God will just destroy them? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that it is biblical. Beyond that, it makes sense that God would raise the lost to be judged at one time when all of us are there to see it and glorify him for it. Perhaps there are other reasons that people can come up with that make equally good sense. What makes the most sense is this: what matters is what God reveals in his word, so if it teaches that the lost will be resurrected and destroyed (which it does), then that is that.
- Adapted from The Bible Teaches Annihlationism by Joseph Dear
- Pink, A. W. Eternal Punishment (1940), 13.
- Ferguson, Sinclair B. “Universalism and the reality of eternal punishment: The biblical basis of the doctrine of eternal punishment.” Preached at the Desiring God Conference for Pastors, January 29, 1990.