What would you think if I offered to reward you by killing you? Would you think I was mad? Suppose that I was a well-known preacher who had steadily grown in popularity, so that I now pastored a large church, wrote and sold many books, was keynote speaker at conservative conferences and so on. And then one day I told, not just you but the whole world, that for people who don’t know Jesus to be annihilated forever would actually be a reward, throwing in a claim that really, it’s what they want anyway? Of course it would be just as mad as the person who thought that killing you would be a reward, but you might look at my rise in popularity and influence and wonder at just what point I crossed the line where I would think that this was a healthy thing, not just to believe, but to tell the world.
Not long ago, John Piper tweeted thus:
Piper is talking about the doctrine of hell and criticising the annihilationist view. If the lost “simply ceased to exist,” as some traditionalists like to put it, then that wouldn’t be any sort of punishment. Instead, it would be a reward, says Piper. It is what the lost want.
It is still a statement that he composed ahead of time, and which he thought represented his view well enough that he was prepared to show it to the world.
I commented on something similar to this recently where I observed a well-known apologist saying that annihilation wouldn’t be a punishment because you lose nothing, but Piper’s claim is on another level, saying that annihilation is not just nothing, but that it is actually a “reward.” “Just a tweet, don’t take it too seriously,” you might think, but that only explains why his comment was short (as tweets are limited to 140 characters). It is still a statement that he composed ahead of time, and which he thought represented his view well enough that he (or whoever operates his Twitter account) was prepared to show it to the world.
You have to spend a considerable amount of time talking yourself (or thinking yourself) into believing this (or at any rate, into believing that you believe this). Just by using ordinary, healthy ways of thinking, you could never end up in this dark place.
Piper is talking in the hypothetical here about what annihilationism would amount to if it were true.
You might believe the doctrine of the eternal torments of hell, or you might take the more modern approach of saying that hell is eternal and conscious torment of a sort, but it’s not really like any of the biblical images of fire, instead consisting of an eternal emotional state, or “separation” from God in the sense that one does not have a loving relationship with him (in my view, a version of hell that takes the same biblical basis as the traditional view – a slender basis to begin with – but is sanitised to be less offensive, to the point where that tenuous connection to Scripture is lost altogether). I don’t think you’re right or that you have any good reason to think as you do, but OK, let’s agree to disagree about that (I’ve made the case elsewhere that annihilationism is what the biblical writers taught). Piper shares your view – hell is eternal torment. But he’s talking in the hypothetical here about what annihilationism would amount to if it were true. So I want us all to assume for argument’s sake that annihilationism is true: One day, those who are not saved will die forever. They will come to an end and not have any further life of any kind, in any state. That is what we mean when we say that the lost will be “annihilated.” It’s not an ideal term and I prefer to use the biblical language of life, death and destruction, but that’s what we’re talking about.
Piper’s first claim is an empirical one: Annihilation is what the lost want. I don’t know what research he has done to conclude this, but my guess is none. I doubt he’s right, because my guess (which is surely as good as his guess) is that people would rather have eternal life than be annihilated. In fact this is what Scripture seems to teach, saying that through the gospel and the provision of eternal life, Jesus has delivered us from the fear, not of hell, but of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). But I’ll set aside the dubious claim about what people actually want.
What are the possibilities for a person? There are two: They can have eternal life in Christ, immortal, glorious and … or else they will miss out and die forever, perish, be destroyed or be “annihilated.”
Annihilation, says Piper, would be a reward – if it were actually the fate of the lost (i.e. if annihilationism were true). From within the annihilationist perspective, think about that. What are the possibilities for a person? There are two: They can have eternal life in Christ, immortal, glorious and incorruptible (as described in that great passage on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15), or else they will miss out and die forever, perish, be destroyed or be “annihilated” in Piper’s language. Go back and forth between those two possibilities in your mind as you compare them: Eternal life in Christ, permanent annihilation, eternal life in Christ, permanent annihilation. Take as much time as you need, but when you think you’ve gotten a handle on just what we’re comparing, turn back to Piper’s claim: If the fate of the lost were really annihilation, then that would be a “reward.” Of course it’s true that right now, people might have all sorts of weird and wonderful perspectives on what would be a punishment and what would be a reward. You might meet a person who would rather be obliterated than worship God, and you might meet a person so defiant that they will tell you they’d rather endure suffering in hell than bend the knee to God. That’s their perspective now, but it’s a perspective ignorant of reality. Somebody who says this doesn’t actually believe in the possibility of eternal life in Christ. Were they fully informed right now, they might think differently (I am certain they would). The important question is thus not whether or not, right now, somebody believes that their own annihilation would be a good thing under any circumstances. The question – and the one that Piper must surely be interested in – is whether or not, from God’s perspective, an objective perspective of truth, annihilation would be a reward. Given the two possible outcomes, if annihilationism is true, how could anyone seriously think that annihilation, rather than eternal life in Christ, is the reward? On the day of judgement, when every knee bows, can Piper honestly imagine people saying “Yippee! So we’ll be annihilated rather than received into eternal joy, but still, this reward is better than nothing!” What kind of twisted, darkened thinking is this?
Suppose that eternal torment is worse than annihilation. Does that make annihilation a reward if a person meets that end and still misses out on eternal life in Christ?
You might think that annihilation is “not as bad” as eternal existence outside of a relationship with God. That’s your subjective judgement, and I think you’re mistaken. I have to say that you just haven’t reflected hard enough on the prospect of annihilation if that’s what you think – I can think of nothing worse. But it’s also irrelevant whether or not this is true. Suppose that eternal torment is worse. Does that make annihilation a reward if a person meets that end and still misses out on eternal life in Christ? Hardly! This is like supposing that a man sentenced to 50 lashes should consider himself to be rewarded because hey, it could have been 100 lashes. Nobody thinks that way. But in any event, in an annihilationist view eternal torment isn’t even a possibility. The only options on the table would be eternal life in Christ or permanent annihilation.
If rewards and punishments require ongoing life in order to be real, then there is no way annihilation can be considered a “reward,” because the lost would no longer be around to experience the state of being rewarded!
Lastly, Piper’s strange comment is vulnerable in another way. He supposes that divine capital punishment is not really a punishment because when you die you are no longer around to experience anything, including the realisation that you have been punished with death. I think this is a basically mistaken way of thinking about punishment. It would imply that murder victims are not really wronged and those who are executed are not really punished. But if things were different and Piper were correct, we can turn his claim on its head: If rewards and punishments require ongoing life in order to be real, then there is no way annihilation can be considered a “reward,” because the lost would no longer be around to experience the state of being rewarded! Sometimes when we come up with unnatural, contrived ways of thinking and speaking, the oddities that we create come back to bite us.
If such a bizarre and terrible remark could be seen as an indicator of direction in Piper’s thinking, where does it end up?
When Rob Bell “came out” with his book Love Wins in which his universalist theology came to the forefront, Piper tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” I can understand that, as Bell’s departure in a new theological direction represented, in my view, a serious mistake and a first public step in a direction that would only take him further and further from biblical Christianity (something confirmed by his subsequent coming out in favour of same-sex marriage and antics on TV talk shows). What, then, do we say to a Christian teacher who comes out with such an overt anti-life sentiment as this, saying that the complete annihilation of people forever should be construed as a “reward”? If such a bizarre and terrible remark could be seen as an indicator of direction in Piper’s thinking, where does it end up? Did he suddenly plunge into such a strange space, or did he drift there over many years, enabled by an audience that swallowed whatever he said about anything?
So long, John Piper. (Sorry it doesn’t rhyme.)
In an ideal world, nobody would make the sort of remarks that Piper has made. They represent a deeply misguided way of thinking, a mindset that one must work hard to indoctrinate themselves into, and a mindset that degrades the value of life. Black is called white. But in a slightly less ideal world – but still a world better than this one – evangelicals who hold the traditional view of hell would all react with one voice in telling Piper that this way of thinking is unhealthy and false. These bite-sized releases of theological frustration should not be treated as pearls of wisdom just because they come from somebody with great influence and respect. If you are close to a well-regarded preacher who does this sort of thing (I am not), don’t forget that loving them doesn’t just mean treating their words like gold. It means pushing back when need be so that they don’t continually get a free pass for saying whatever comes into their mind, thus drifting further and further into their own world. I hope there’s a way of bringing John Piper back.