Hank Hanegraaf is, among other things (such as a dead ringer for David Letterman, in the right lighting), one of the writers over at the Christian Research Institute. In his very brief article “Why Should I believe in Hell” there appears a section called “Is annihilationism biblical?” Hank presents three reasons to reject annihilationism. Unfortunately, his comments turn out to be a tour de force of fallacious reasoning.
For those readers not already familiar with the terminology, “annihilationism” is the name for the view that God will not eternally torment those who are not “saved,” but will instead end their life permanently. They will be gone. OK, on to Hanegraaf’s comments:
First, common sense tells us that a God of love and justice does not arbitrarily annihilate a portion of the crowning jewels of His creation. He graciously provides everyone the freedom to choose between redemption and rebellion. It would be a horrific evil to think that God would create people with freedom of choice and then annihilate them because of their choices.
The first concern is over the attempted appeal to common sense. This is, in effect, Hank’s appeal to his intuition. There’s nothing necessarily wrong in appealing to one’s own intuition of course, but whether or not it’s appropriate depends on context. The section that this argument appears in is called “Is Annihilationism Biblical?” One would think that our intuitions are not a good source of information on what is taught in the Bible. In fact immediately before the argument that I have quoted above, Hanegraaf says: “The question, of course, is whether annihilationism is biblical.”
So the first thing to note about Hank’s appeal to his intuitions about what is sensible and what is not is that it is not strictly relevant to the question. Secondly, Hank engages in the fallacy of attacking a straw man, or misrepresenting those with whom he disagrees. He suggests that belief in annihilationism means believing that God’s decision to end a person’s life forever is an “arbitrary” one. But is an annihilationist really committed to this? I do not see how, and unfortunately Hanegraaf doesn’t explain why he says this. An arbitrary decision is one that is made for no reason. As annihilationists are Christians, they certainly don’t believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost for no reason at all. Annihilationists believe – as Hanegraaf does as well I suspect – that people will be lost because of their sin and rebellion against God. It is unfair for him to describe their position this way.
Hank adds that God “graciously provides everyone the freedom to choose between redemption and rebellion.” Granted, the annihilationist might say, but what does this have to do with anything? Hank is now portraying the issue as a dispute over whether or not human beings have free will. But this is quite a separate issue from the eternal consequences of how we use our will. Again, portraying the issue this way is to engage in misrepresentation, implying that by virtue of being an annihilationist, one is denying the existence of free will.
Lastly on this first argument, Hank leaves just enough rope to hang himself (figuratively speaking of course!) He says that it would be “horrific” to imagine that God would end the life of a person (or perhaps stated differently, no longer sustain that person’s life) because they do not choose to follow God. I am amazed that Hank doesn’t see the way this comment backfires for a person who actually believes that God will eternally torment someone who doesn’t follow him. In this very article Hanegraaf explicitly states that hell is “eternal torment.” Hanegraaf is asking us to believe that it is horrific to believe that God will no longer sustain the life of those who reject him, but somehow it is not horrific at all for God to let people rebel against him and then eternally torment them for it. Norman Geisler didn’t see how he was undermining his argument in saying this. Hank Hanegraaf doesn’t see it either. I can only shake my head in disbelief at that.
Then comes Hanegraaf’s second line of reasoning:
Furthermore, common sense also leads us to the conclusion that nonexistence is not better than existence since nonexistence is nothing at all.
For a section that’s supposedly all about whether or not annihilationism is biblical, the reader might at this stage be wondering whether or not we will ever see an answer tot he question, “Is annihilationism biblical?” It seems that Scripture has been replaced with Hank’s gut reaction. But setting that aside, here too Hanegraaf, unfortunately, is attacking a straw man. He is supposing that annihilationism is committed to the claim that it is better to be annihilated than to suffer eternal torment. But why must an annihilationist affirm this? All that annihilationism is committed to is the claim that God, instead of eternally tormenting the lost, will end their life permanently. If Hank Hanegraaf thinks that this is a fate worse than eternal torment, then he is entitled to his opinion, but how does this change anything? What’s more, Hanegraaf, at the end of this article, recommends Robert Peterson’s book Hell on Trial. I wonder if he has read it, because in that very book (and elsewhere), Peterson argues that annihilationism is pragmatically bad because it undermines the urgency of evangelism, since being annihilated just isn’t as bad as being tormented forever. It is the believers in eternal torment, in my experience, who argue that annihilationism just isn’t as awful as eternal torment, and we need to teach eternal torment so that people will see how serious the issue of eternity really is.
Then comes Hanegraaf’s last argument:
Finally, humans are fashioned in the very image of God (Gen. 1:27); therefore, to eliminate them would do violence to His nature. The alternative to annihilation is quarantine. That is precisely what hell is.
At the end, we have a biblical argument. However, it is far from being a strong biblical argument. Humanity being made in the image of God does not mean that the death of a human being does violence to God’s nature. This is like suggesting that because I am made in the image of God, God is no longer a virgin, because I have had sex and therefore God’s nature is no longer that of a virgin. This confuses the direction of causation. We are made in God’s image. God (downwardly) transmitted this image to humanity. This does not mean that we likewise transmit things up to God – our nature (or lack thereof, if we die). As Athanasius masterfully spells out in his work On the Incarnation of the Word, God saw that his handiwork, made in God’s image, was disappearing into death, and so sent Christ the Word into the world to redeem it.
If Hank is right, and any image bearers who are lost ultimately cause violence to be done to God’s very nature, then his own view is a disaster. Imagine an eternity where the very image of God is eternally tormented. Is that any less liable to the charge of doing violence to God’s nature than annihilationism?
At the end of these three rather unpersuasive lines of reasoning, Hank recommends Robert Peterson’s book Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. I have my own thoughts on Robert Peterson’s case, which you can read here.