A friend and I were discussing annihilationism recently. I'm going to post my email statements:
In large part, the exegetical case for annihilationism is predicated on a fallacy.
The Bible often depicts eschatological punishment in terms of physical destruction or even total destruction. Why is that?
That's because it's using physical metaphors. Metaphors of physical objects undergoing a physical process. Like burning a city to the ground, or burning corpses on the battlefield.
Burning is a reductive process. That, however, doesn't mean damnation is a reductive process. Rather, that's an incidental feature of a picturesque metaphor. The choice of metaphor dictates what's consistent with the metaphor.
But that's an artifact of the chosen metaphor. And you can go very wrong if you overextend a theological metaphor.
Some depictions of eschatological punishment aren't reductive because that's the inherent nature of the damned or the inherent nature of damnation, but because that's the nature of the metaphor.
It doesn't mean human nature is analogous to a burning building. It doesn't mean human nature is analogous to a physical composite like firewood. That confuses the figurative imagery with what it was meant to illustrate.
Annihilationists naively draw metaphysical inferences from picture language.
i) Obviously, a lot of what's driving annihilationism is reaction to the torture chamber model of hell. There's the intuition that never-ending torture is a fate worse than oblivion. And that intuition certainly has some appeal.
Mind you, it's striking how many people will endure years of torture, when they're in a position to kill themselves or provoke their summary execution, in the sometimes vain hope of liberation. The will to live is very strong.
And even those who are liberated after years of torture live with nightmares and chronic pain. Yet they still choose that over death.
ii) I myself doubt that hell is any one thing. I doubt it's a torture chamber. Some of the damned may well suffer torture. And some of them richly deserve to be on the receiving end of what they inflicted on others.
One ethical/philosophical problem I have is that I don't share annihilationist intuitions. I mean, I can see why annihilation might seem to be more humane than everlasting torture–if that's the comparison.
Yet considered on its own terms, why does everlasting punishment reflect badly on God's character, but God zapping his enemies out of existence does not reflect badly on God's character?
What about Damien (a la the Omen) zapping people out of existence, with a snap of his fingers.
Another thing: it's just a historical accident that most folks don't commit atrocities. Consider German guards at concentration camps or Japanese guards at POW camps who take sadistic delight in torturing defenseless inmates. If the same guards were born a generation earlier or a generation later, they might never hurt a fly. They just happen to find themselves in a situation which smokes out their true character.
A lot of people are closet sociopaths. It's just fear of reprisal that restrains them. So even though they never did anything horrendous in this life, that's quite deceptive. It doesn't tell you anything about their capacity for evil, which can emerge with terrifying ease if the conditions are right.
I'd like to make a few comments on the finite crime/infinite punishment objection:
i) As I've said before, that's equivocal. It compares a qualitative property (culpability, demerit) with a qualitative property (duration).
ii) Moreover, it backfires. If everlasting misery is an infinite penalty for finite sin, then everlasting oblivion is an infinite penalty for finite sin.
iii) Furthermore, what makes the transgressions finite? Let's revert to my illustration. Why did German/Japanese guards stop torturing inmates. Not because they got tired of torturing inmates. Not because they repented of their evil ways.
Rather, in some cases they stopped because they killed the inmate. If they could resuscitate him, they continue to torture him. Twice the fun for half the supply.
More generally, they had to stop because they lost the war. They no longer had that power over other human beings.
Ultimately, they stopped because they died. So they commit finite atrocities because they have finite opportunities, not because they have a finite inclination to do so. They may have an insatiable inclination. They simply run out of time.
Suppose you had an immortal serial killer. Suppose he's never caught. Or he pays off the authorities.
He never stops torturing victims to death. It's one after another after another. A potential infinite.
iv) Finally, there's another exegetical challenge for annihilationism:
a) In crude annihilationism, oblivion itself is the punishment. Death is the ultimate punishment. God punishes them by never restoring them to life.
A stock objection to that sanction is that the penalty doesn't fit the crime. Attila the Hun and the small-time crook suffer the identical fate. And that's an ironic objection for a position that levels the same objection to everlasting punishment.
b) Hence, sophisticated annihilationism says God resurrects some (all?) of the wicked to make they suffer their finite just deserts before annihilating them.
However, that scenario requires a double oblivion:
Oblivion when you die.
A return to oblivion when God zaps them out of existence after they suffered enough retribution.
But where does Scripture teach post-postmortem oblivion?
Postmortem oblivion followed by temporary resurrection followed by a second, permanent oblivion?
I don't think it even teaches postmortem oblivion, much less post-postmortem oblivion?