Norman Geisler on Annihilationism

Does Norman Geisler’s view on hell make God into an abusive father?

Geisler wrote The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics. It’s basically an encyclopedia of Norman Geisler’s beliefs, in the sense that it offers Geisler’s perspective on the A-Z of Christian theology and philosophy (if you think that’s not a fair summary, have a look at the encyclopedia’s rather hostile and unfair treatment of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology. That is not a fair summary).

In the encyclopedia there’s an entry for “Annihilationism.” It’s a very short entry, just long enough for the author to tell us in several different ways that he doesn’t think annihilationism is true or biblical, but the exegetical issues aren’t unpacked in any detail. This, however, caught my eye under what Geisler calls the “philosophical arguments” against annihilationism (remember, Norman Geisler believes the traditional doctrine of the everlasting torment of the damned in hell):

Annihilation would demean both the love of God and the nature of human beings as free moral creatures. It would be as if God said to them, “I will allow you to be free only if you do what I say. If you don’t, then I will snuff out your very freedom and existence!” This would be like a father telling his son he wanted him to be a doctor, but when the son chose instead to be a park ranger the father shot him.

There are two issues here, and I’ll focus on the second. The first issue is that there’s much to be said for the thought that annihilationism is less like murder and more like suicide. If God is the source of all life and a person has freely and resolutely chosen to be without God, then neither that person nor Geisler is in a position to raise a moral complaint about anyone’s freedom being violated or not respected if that person loses their life as a result. In other words, the very thing that people freely choose when they reject God is ultimately the loss of their very being. God will give them what they have asked for, which is, to borrow C. S. Lewis’s phrase, “to leave them alone.”

But secondly, and forgive me if this sounds a little blunt but the situation is just so odd, I can’t believe that Geisler walked into such an obvious trap!

If Dr Geisler believes the doctrine of eternal torment, and is happy to use the above analogy of the way a father treats his son to provoke objections to the way annihilationists allegedly see God (as I’ve explained above, they need not see him that way, but let’s set that aside for now), how exactly should the analogy be re-cast to describe the way Geisler thinks God will treat people who reject him? Would this be akin to a father telling his son that he wants him to be a doctor, but when his son decides to be a park ranger the father drags him downstairs to the basement, straps him to a table and begins horribly mutilating and torturing him for the rest of his life, giving him medication to ensure that he never sleeps or passes out so that he must experience the maximum amount of excruciating suffering imaginable?

How could Geisler not have seen that coming?

(You can see Geisler’s piece on annihilationism reproduced here.)

Glenn Peoples

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16 thoughts on “Norman Geisler on Annihilationism

  1. Haecceitas, I did think of that, but I felt free to use this response to his analogy because when portraying annihilationism with this analogy he was very clearly portraying the punishment as actively imposed by God. Surely he would never ever be unfair to annihilationists 😉 , so, I reasoned, he must be happy to see hell, whatever it consists of (in the case of what he believes, everlasting “suffering,” which is what he calls it in that article), being actively imposed by God.

  2. Holy cow! I had to look it up after you said it, and his entry on proper basicality is shockingly bad. That entry looks like something written by a college freshman who didn’t do his homework rather than something that should appear in a scholarly “Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics”. God help us (I mean that sincerely, not flippantly) if that’s what currently passes for scholarship in Evangelical circles.

  3. Kenny, sadly you’re not wrong – and what’s even sadder is that this *really is* passing as serious scholarship among evangelicals.

  4. Glenn,
    It is so confusing to understand how such a leanred man (and respected) could write himself into a corner. Sometimes I wonder how many of them out there are truly Ann. or Univ. hiding in closets. Similar to that of Lewis B. Smedes who in my God and I fessed up to being a U. So far my expereince with Ann. has been just slightly MORE favorable to the evangelical. But still yet, they consider Ann a crazy notion. It’s hard to think Geisler is not a U if he takes such a position. On the other hand he’s probably even harsher on U than on A.

    It really saddens me to see this kind of reasoning he promotes.

  5. So Glenn, do you believe in annihilationism or eternal torment? It is unclear from your post. The Bible is very clear on eternal torment (e.g. Rev 14:11), but it is not a nice-sounding doctrine so people have tried to come up with other ideas for centuries.

  6. Mr Dennis, I think the Bible explicitly, very clearly and repeatedly teaches annihilationism, much more clearly than it teaches nearly anything else.

  7. That’s very strange to hear I must say, as it contradicts everything I have ever seen in my reading of the Bible. I haven’t studied it enough myself to get into a debate about it here, but have you posted on this previously? I’ll have a look at that if you have.

  8. Yes Mr Dennis, I did a three part podcast series on final punishment, episodes 5-6. Check it out here.

    I also had a piece published in response to some common attempts to rebut annihilationism. You can see that here.

  9. Thanks Glenn, I’ll have a look at those as soon as I get a chance. Its good to have your beliefs challenged, it motivates me to do some serious bible study!

  10. Yeah. That’s shockingly bad.

    Glenn, I recognize your view of annihilationism and find you very well reasoned about this, so I want to ask you a question that I have not heard you address so far. I admit that it may just be that I have not found where you speak on this, so feel free to point me in that direction.

    Aside from not needing to deal with certain arguments skeptics have, how does the single notion of eternal torment vs. annhilationism change the way a believer functions in society or in the body of the Church?

  11. Jason,

    For one it changes what the message of the Gospel is. For me, annihilationism is part of a larger view of God and his dealings with creation, a view that differs sharply with what I consider to be shallow evangelicalism.

    The Gospel is that God is putting creation right through his Son, who took the consequences of sin upon himself. God will restore creation to the way things should be. It’s not that there’s an alternative creation or part of creation for evil to inhabit. That’s wrong because it’s not the way creation should be. Evil should not be.

    It also changes evangelism. We’re not warning people to flee from eternal misery. We’re calling them to be part of the new world that has been established by Christ and which extends into eternity. The alternative… well, there isn’t one. The alternative is just to miss out.

    I think there’s also a very strong holistic view of reality at stake here. Our concern (because it’s God’s concern) is with the tangible world. Eternity is not spent in heaven or hell. We care about this world because this world is what we were created for, and it is this world that God is passionately concerned about. It’s not about pie in the sky when you die, abandoning this crude reality and looking forward to what really matters, it’s about putting things right.

    There’s also the (non-exegetical) issue of the immense moral damage that is done to Christians when they’re encouraged to think that what looks just like everlasting torture is the just response of the most morally perfect being in existence.

  12. I hope you do not mind my bringing up a 6-month-dead conversation, but I was a bit bemused by your answer to J Kong’s question – mostly because the question you were answering wasn’t the question I thought had been asked.

    For example, you quite rightly pointed out that annihilationism does require a slightly different view of the Gospel, or at least of the implications of it vis a vis whether or not there will be anything bad in the finished product of creation, and that it changes the warning “You will be tormented for all eternity!” to “Your existence will be terminated!” But it appears to me that it makes absolutely no difference as to motivation to evangelize – regardless of the exact words used, an annihilationist should not be expected to have either a greater or a lesser likelihood than an eternal tormentor to share the Gospel with any particular individual. Is that right?

    So, to generalize, the major overall question I have (and thought Mr. Kong was asking) is; Can you think of any decision (outside of arguing in favor of one theory or its corollaries over the other) that an annihilationist would make differently than an eternal tormentor, all other things being equal? Would they necessarily (or even perhaps as a tendency, although I generally am leery of declarations of such “tendencies”) different in some tangible way in how they interact with family, unsaved friends, or others?

    I suspect there needn’t be such a difference, but, well, you’re the Ph. D. 😛

    Which I suppose is a subcase of the question “So this philosophy / systematic theology thing, is it really useful?” To which, of course, the answer is yes, as long as you don’t require something to help you with your chores to be “useful.” (As my friend put it, “IUPAC nomenclature is like systematic theology: It’s comforting to know that it’s there, but it’s not very practical for everyday life.” Yes, she’s a nerd.)

  13. CPE, well actually I think that a believer in annihilationism could (actually we should, but we’re all human after all) have a greater motivation to share the Gospel, and that’s because the doctrine of eternal torment is more embarrassing than the idea that we will simply lose out on eternal life. Eternal torment, in addition to being false, is grotesque and off-putting. It’s not that it scares people more, it actually makes people less inclined to believe it on account of being so fantastical.

    In measurable terms I don’t know how much this possible difference actually plays out in reality. Do annihilationists capitalise on this by evangelising more? I don’t know.

  14. I think, in reality, most people believe that some how they will live eternally, whether its by reincarnation, by rejoining “the cosmic spirit”, by becoming “part of the earth”, or what ever. When you cut to the chase, most people deep down inside dont want to “stop being”, in some form or another.
    So, as an “evangelist” I want to correct the “untruth” the the human being/soul/spirit is eternal, but in fact for the majority its all fairly terminal.

    Anyway, when it comes to “evangelism” telling people they’re going to hell is just a good way to get punched in the face, or arrested for harassment (it has/does happen).
    I prefer to think of it as “re-educating” – help people rethink their worldview, to a point they find there really is no reason not to believe in God.

  15. Geoff, concerning what you said. Maybe this is evidence of God putting “eternity in their hearts.” Many people want to live forever and have that sense of eternity. The afterlife has also been a common belief all throughout history. But the fact of the matter is we lost out on the whole immortality thing because of Adam. Yet it still seems there is that something remaining in much of mankind causing them to want to exist forever. Fortunately we have Jesus who is the “bread from heaven and whoever eats of Him will live forever.” If it is so, then indeed, what Glenn said about “missing out” is a powerful point. Some (it baffles my mind how) would prefer eternal conscious hell rather then non-being. The fact that everyone is heading to non-being if they are not redeemed, does make the atheist happy. But they will also be resurrected and face the judgment, and that won’t be a happy time. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth before they are consumed.

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