Does annihilationism mean that people cease to exist?
The fact is, there are often two different meanings of existence and the ceasing thereof at play when this question arises. For that reason, it is important that we define our terms and not equivocate.
The First Definition
The first idea involves a sort of brute, cosmic obliteration that destroys even the atoms a person was made of. Annihilationism does not necessarily deny this sort of ceasing to exist per se, but at the very least, this sense of complete annihilation is not necessary for evangelical conditionalism or annihilationism to be true.
The reason for this is that people are conscious entities, and they are more than the sum of their parts. What matters is consciousness. You can neither be tormented forever nor experience the presence of God and all of the joy of that if you are not conscious. If someone is deprived of consciousness eternally, then “existence” is irrelevant. Without consciousness, there is no eternal torment or universalism possible – even if by this definition the person has not “ceased to exist.”
This does not, however, stop some of the less well-thought-out arguments against annihilationism that appeal to this sense of annihilation. For example, there is the argument that the law of conservation of matter says that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so therefore humans (who are made of matter) cannot be destroyed. It is rare but it pops up now and then.
Of course, following this logic, humans aren’t created either…
The fact is, the atoms and subatomic particles that make up a person (or at least a person’s body) existed before there was any living person. You are more than just the blocks that you are built out of. And even if we followed this version of existence to its logical conclusion and said you actually have always existed because at some level the matter that you are made of always existed, it is not relevant because you were not conscious until recently. 1 There is also the glaring fact that this argument from the law of conservation of matter requires that God didn’t create matter and it always existed. If you say that the physical law does not bound God and mean the he didn’t create matter, then you lose the argument that the law is absolute since God could destroy the wicked if he chose to. Also, it’s long been considered heresy to say that people have existed for ever. This really is that bad of an argument against annihilationism.
Eternal torment requires eternal consciousness. Even if you could establish that annihilationism is not “ceasing to exist” in this absolute sense, then you have not established the possibility of eternal torment or universalism.
The Second Definition
When not equivocating, the way that I think many traditionalists mean “ceasing to exist” is this second definition. And this second definition is along the lines of what annihilationism is.
This form of “ceasing to exist” means to forever cease to be a conscious entity. And in that sense, sure, annihilationism is ceasing to exist.
The best way to think of this is to think of a dead body. Regardless of what one one believes about immaterial souls and their status after the body dies, we know what a dead body is like. It is just inert matter that eventually rots away if not consumed by fire or beasts. There is no consciousness there. There is no, dare I say it, life there. If not resurrected by God, there will never be anything there that can experience joy or pain or anything.
True, a dead body may exist in a sense, but a person is more than just matter. So if a person were to fully become like a dead body, in both body and soul, then in a sense, the person ceased to exist. All that is there is the matter (and possibly soulish material) that the person was made of.
Many would say that such a person has ceased to exist. 2 For more on what we do and do not mean when we talk about annihilation and annihilationism, see my previous article, “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean By ‘Annihilation’?“
What To Take Away From All Of This
Who then is right? Well, it really isn’t a matter of who is right as much as it is just a matter of defining our terms. A person may say that annihilationism means ceasing to exist (definition #2) or that annihilationism is not ceasing to exist (in the sense of definition #1). What matters is ultimately that there is no conscious being to be tormented either way.
When you hear someone say that “the Bible never says people cease to exist” or that this or that word or idea is not consistent with ceasing to exist, dig deeper and see what they are really trying to say. Often times, the first definition is imposed on the second, so that if the Bible does not teach cosmic obliteration, therefore it does not teach a permanent end to consciousness – a connection they do not then successfully prove.
Above all, humans are not inanimate objects. Philosophical questions about when an object passes from being a ruined version of the object to literal non-existence don’t apply to humans in the first place. If you shatter a window, does the window still exist, or has the window ceased to exist even if there is still scattered glass leftover? Does a building still exist if it collapses? What if it burns down? Is a wineskin that cannot hold wine still a wineskin or just a bunch of leather? These questions are interesting, but humans are living creatures, and therefore we are fundamentally different from inanimate objects. Both universalism and eternal torment require eternal consciousness, regardless of how you define existence.
So don’t get wrapped up in terms like “cease to exist.” What matters is what the Bible teaches about the fate of the ungodly, and whether or not they will face eternal conscious anything.
|￪1||There is also the glaring fact that this argument from the law of conservation of matter requires that God didn’t create matter and it always existed. If you say that the physical law does not bound God and mean the he didn’t create matter, then you lose the argument that the law is absolute since God could destroy the wicked if he chose to. Also, it’s long been considered heresy to say that people have existed for ever. This really is that bad of an argument against annihilationism.|
|￪2||For more on what we do and do not mean when we talk about annihilation and annihilationism, see my previous article, “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean By ‘Annihilation’?“|