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.
- Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism
- Hell and broken thinking
- Hanegraaf on Annihilationism
- Strategic mistakes that work in my favour
- Loftus on eternal torture
40 thoughts on “So long, John Piper”
Since I disagree with John Piper on just about everything I have no problem with disagreeing with him on this. Annihilationism is not better than eternal conscious anguish, I’d say it’s much worse.
I don’t know why you are so perplexed. Piper’s views are logical and orthodox. It is the very fact that annihilation is a comfort that makes so many people desire it to be true. This is something that has been said by Christians for millenia, and especially by several first millenium Fathers of the Church.
Just one example: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230408.htm
John the Theologian tells us that “…this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” If you love darkness rather than light, then annihilation is fantastic news. You get to sin and be evil, greedy, proud and lustful, all the days of your life, then simply disappear at the end of it. The hated Light, the All Consuming Fire of God, which tortures the wicked, will be avoided. It means that death wins, and that evil men can finally be in a place where God cannot touch them.
I’m not at all saying this is a good argument for or against annihilation in itself. But it is a significant problem for annihilationists that they need to account for by some theological means.
You are promoting the view that non-christians aren’t afraid of death (agreeing with Piper that they actually want to die!).
You say that instead of dying forever, they will dwell with the “All Consuming Fire of God” forever (which will be torture).
I hope I have understood your claims. But what then do you make of the two contrary statements in Scripture, which describe the fear of the unsaved?
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his DEATH he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives WERE held in slavery by their FEAR OF DEATH.”—Hebrews 2:14,15
“The sinners in Zion are TERRIFIED; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who among us can LIVE with the consuming fire? Who among us can LIVE with everlasting flames?’”—Isaiah 33:14 (implied answer: none of us can)
Blair, it is not orthodox to say that annihilation would be a reward – especially in light of the Epistle of Barnabas, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and others, who make it clear that ongoing life – continuance – is a reward, and the alternative is to be deprived of life and continuance forever. You linked to Chrysostom, but he never said that annihilation is a reward.
Besides which – and note, this is the point – if annihilationism is true, then there is no way annihilation could be a reward.
I think all you’re really trying to say is that Blair thinks that annihilation is not as nasty as eternal torment, which is beside the point.
I can’t read Piper’s mind but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have two options in mind. He had three. Eternal life, eternal torment and non-existence. If you deserved eternal torment and got non-existence you would feel like you won the lottery… if youcould feel. So I think you spent quite a few words beating down a straw man.
I have spoken to unbelievers who are perfectly content with non-existence. Some have died seemingly happy in that belief. Simple annihilation holds no fear for many these days. All atheists expect it. Many are content with it.
Jason, you say “Annihilationism is not better than eternal conscious anguish, I’d say it’s much worse.” I don’t understand this sentiment. I know that’s not the point Glenn is trying to make but I see this view expressed all the time by annihilationists and I genuinely don’t understand it. Glenn says that people who think annihilation is not as bad haven’t really thought it through. Well, I have and eternal torment sounds much worse.
Richard, that’s why I wouldn’t try to form any decisive argument based on what people would prefer or not prefer. I think your assessment seems clearly wrong, but there’s obviously a subjective element in what a person finds more fearful.
I know, I’m just trying to get my head round it. I’m interested in the topic and can see the biblical case for it but it almost sounds like annihilationists are trying too hard to make it sound like it’s not a cop-out. Again, you say my assessment is “clearly wrong”. Not confused or misguided or slightly muddled but “clearly wrong”. Just sounds like an overreaction.
When I saw that facebook comment by Piper (forwarded from twitter), I was a little disappointed. However, as I read through the comments people had made, I noticed that a lot of them were annihilationists who were frustrated with his sloppy thinking on this issue, and they made some good responses, with many great discussions emerging in the comments thread. Be encouraged, Glenn. A lot of Piper’s followers see the contradiction between Piper’s love of scripture and his adamant hatred of annihilationism.
It should not be a question of which view is better or worse for the unrepentant, but rather on which is true.
Regarding Piper’s comment that “annihilation is what the unrepentant want,” I had a conversation with someone who has the same view as Piper and he said the following to me in his defense of eternal conscious torment (though he framed it using the sanitized language of ‘separation’ that Glenn mentioned):
“People end up away from God precisely because that’s where they’ve chosen to be. God has no reason to force people to be with him if they are determined not to be. He gave us free will at the beginning, and he doesn’t violate that. He’s all about choice. He gave us a distinct, sure way out of eternal separation from him – or, more to the point, INTO eternal togetherness with him – but we have to choose it.”
This kind of thinking amazes me. It is obviously true that many people choose to be separated from God and want nothing to do with Him, but I think it’s fair to say that nobody ‘chooses’ eternal torment. No one ever chooses to be burned alive for billions and trillions of years (which would not even register as a blip on the screen of eternity). Calling that a “choice” is the rationalization that proponents of the eternal conscious torment doctrine use to make them feel more comfortable with the idea of God actively sustaining someone in existence forever for the sole purpose of Divine retribution. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment is so offensive to the human mind that we have to construct a justification that says, “they chose it.”
Richard, I think the reason some might say that annihilation is worse than the traditional view, is that they have in mind a very watered-down version of the traditional view. It’s not actually the traditional view, but it’s become a very popular variation. The view basically strips Hell of torment, preferring instead to think of a depressive state: life sans goodness. Anytime someone says they take C.S. Lewis’ view, that’s probably what they mean: people would rather live there, than live where God is.
J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas have called it “a low quality of life,” arguing that annihilationism would indeed be worse.
I was wondering if you’re familiar with J. P. Holding’s view of hell as a state of conscious shame and what you think of it.
If the question were simply would I rather 1) be tormented in flames for eternity (as I had always understood the traditional view to entail) or 2) be consumed by God’s holy fire and die forever (as I now understand hell) it’s a no-brainer. This is exactly why most people would, I think, put a suffering animal (or, for some, even a human being) out of it’s misery and kill it.
But all that is beside the point. If you’re going to say that annihilation (or permanent death) is what the unrepentant want–you have to be assuming the view to make the argument so comparing the two views is no longer on the table. It is at this point one can clearly see that Piper’s statement is just asinine. And in what world is killing someone (when the alternative is life) a reward?!!
Thanks for the article Glenn.
You seriously misunderstood what Piper meant. You compared annihilationism with eternal life with Christ; the comparison is for unbelievers: eternal hell or annihilationism. Sure, you don’t believe that’s what the Scriptures saying, and lots of unbelievers don’t either, but that’s his point. A large part of what makes people arrive at that conclusion is because they would prefer that conclusion. He was saying that from the perspective of an unbeliever, annihilationism is like a get out of jail free pass compared to an eternity in hell. You say that some haven’t thought hard enough about what it would be like to cease to exist; have you thought hard about what an eternity of conscious torment might be like? Compose a list of Bible verses used to describe it, often in metaphorical but incredibly severe language, and tell me if an eternity of that with no escape is preferable to an end of the suffering. It’s not absurd to think someone would prefer that to a continuation of suffering with no end in sight; people commit suicide for similar reasons every day.
Also, just to clarify, C.S. Lewis’ view that people are in Hell because they want to be is unbiblical and nonsensical. No one chooses to go to hell; they are thrown there (Luke 12:5, Rev. 20:15). Piper is not talking about (ala Lewis) a sort of unhappy lot with lots of other people who are unhappy and unfulfilled, and the unfullfilledness of it is what makes it hell. He’s talking about an active punishment for sin comparable to what Christ endured on the cross (as he stood as a substitute for redeemed sinners and endured their Hell). One might argue they’d like the C.S. Lewis version because “all their friends would be there.” No one would want the torment version.
Finally, how else would you take “it would have been better for that man if he had never been born” (Matt. 26:24)? This verse completely affirms what Piper is saying: eternal hell is far worse than non-existence and I would venture to say that all (not just Judas) who are brought into it will continually wish to have never been born. I say that…soberly. Probably not as soberly as it deserves…it is terrible to think long of. Our sin is far worse than we comprehend and God is far holier than we can imagine. But no one will be treated unfairly by God, for the Judge of all the earth will do right, and it that I rest.
“You seriously misunderstood what Piper meant. You compared annihilationism with eternal life with Christ; the comparison is for unbelievers: eternal hell or annihilationism.”
Jonathan, this is already covered. Actually, John Johnson targeted it directly in his comment above yours, plus I addressed it in the article. I suggest you read that. You may also want to review the article again where I say “You might think that annihilation is “not as bad” as eternal existence outside of a relationship with God….”
Glenn, let’s just agree to disagree that Barnabus, Irenaeus and Ignatius were all annihilationists (especially since Polycarp, who was so linked to the latter two, is pretty explicit about ECT). But on reflection, I can see your point about the word “reward” – maybe this was a poor choice on Piper’s part, since clearly annihilation is no reward for anything. But by comparison to suffering eternally for one’s sins, it is indeed a comfort, and I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that he has a sensible point on that count, if that’s what he meant. That’s why I linked to Chrysostom – his point was the same – that to say there is no eternal torment of hell is to fear no great consequence, and therefore “…this is a Satanic reasoning, indulging you with a favor that will not profit, and causing you to be slothful.” Favor… reward… there’s lots of precedent for Piper’s view in this tweet.
Blair, I have no doubt that people other than Piper have shown evidence of their brokenness in this way.
Well I think annihilationism is broken theology. It’s completely innovative nonsense. It’s people trying to resolve their false juridical view of God with a theological placebo, which, when swallowed, “cures” an illness that was never there in the first place. It’s people who have boxed God in as a nasty tyrant trying to claim that the tyrant is more benevolent than previously thought.
Personally I believe in a God of Love, pure and all-consuming, who sent His Son to trample down death by death, and save everyone, who undoes the work of the devil and the curse of Adam to raise all of us up FROM annihilation to life (1 Corinthians 15:22). And for the wicked, through the degradation they inflict on their own souls, that will be torment. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/
It never ceases to baffle me when Traditionalists ignore all of the biblical evidence for Annihilationism and claim that we are simply giving into our emotions, or don’t quite understand God’s justice. No – Annihilationists have good arguments that the bible teaches our view, but rather than engage with them Piper makes a statement that accuses us of choosing a theology that we (and the unrepentant) prefer as opposed to what is true.
Paul, and that’s if we translated his comment into something more respectable than face value!
Maybe I should worry less though. A big part of my concern is the type of status a person can build up so that horrendous, off-the-wall comments like this are OK and influential. But the more I look around, the more comforted I am that actually this is becoming less and less tolerated.
“Piper is not talking about (ala Lewis) a sort of unhappy lot with lots of other people who are unhappy and unfulfilled, and the unfullfilledness of it is what makes it hell. He’s talking about an active punishment for sin comparable to what Christ endured on the cross (as he stood as a substitute for redeemed sinners and endured their Hell).”
Unfortunately for Piper that’s not what the bible talks about. It doesn’t say that Christ endured hell for us, and it certainly doesn’t say that he endured eternal conscious torment for us, either. In fact, the bible says that God didn’t even let Christ’s body see decay, and if my math is correct three days isn’t eternal torment nor is it eternal separation from God. So what is the nature of the substitute that Piper is talking about?
Paul paints a pretty simple picture in his letter to the Romans: “For the wages of sin is death,” and also in his letter to the Colossians: “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death.” So Jesus paid the wages of death so that we don’t have to pay it ourselves, ala the Passover, which is why our hope is in the resurrection. On the other hand, those who are outside of Christ must pay those wages themselves. That is annihilation: death with no hope of resurrection, or “eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9).
If you want to move from assuming one view or another, to a comparison of the views, then you are forced to the text to decide which has more evidence in its favor. It is at this point that the traditional view is found wanting, it seems to me.
I’m not sure how the question of what a person wants or dreads is relevant when it comes to thinking about the biblical data on the subject of the fate of the lost. Who said the desires and fears of human beings were correctly ordered, without exception, in the first place?
Incidentally, John Piper retired a little while ago from his role as pastor.
“It’s completely innovative nonsense.”
That’s evidently not a serious argument, Blair. I can show that it was taught in Scripture and by some early Church Fathers.
Your private opinion of the truth of annihilationism is also not quite the point. Whether God will make good on the biblical claims about annihilation or not, it still would not be a reward.
I’ll just leave this here…
Piper is wrong on two counts in his first sentence. The ‘unrepentant’, generally, couldn’t care less about heaven, hell and whether their future is annihilation or eternal torment. So they neither want annihilation nor do they dread eternal torment. He states they prefer annihilation, but this tweet is speaking to the Christian world, so the comment only carries weight due to his many Christian readers’ prior knowledge of the argument.
Secondly, he is wrong to casually claim the unrepentant want annihilation after death (ie at least to remain dead, or enjoy their eating and drinking, for when they die, it’s all over anyway after the judgement. Again, how much do they know or care?) If there is a single narrative running throughout human history it is a consuming desire to avoid permanent death. Satan sowed the first lie on that theme as a central part of his deception of Eve. Humanity has expressed its belief in life after death in so many cultures and religions, and science now promises an imminent solution to man’s most challenging problem – death.
So, what the unrepentant actually want is still eternal life, but on their terms. So his second sentence is in error because death, by most standards is a pretty severe punishment, especially if there’s no coming back from the second one. I don’t think Piper understands the high esteem which God holds for his creation. Man was the pinnacle of God’s created order, one which he saw as very good, and he put the highest commendation on its precious nature by incarnating Jesus, as a man, to bear humanity’s sin on the cross, but be resurrected in full physical form. God sees the destruction of the whole man as the ultimate punishment.
Lastly, Piper has a surprisingly low view of God’s merciful nature. He wants the unrepentant to be considering what they missed out on for eternity – to anguish over what could have been, and that annihilation robs them of that gnawing sense of loss. I see the second death in its full destructiveness and hence give God the glory for mercifully extinguishing the unrepentant and choosing not to torture them without end.
Besides, they would have to be fully aware of what was happening on the eternal life side of the island to truly comprehend their loss, and scripture makes it very clear that the reconstituted universe will be without blemish.
So, Mr Piper, your anxious concern that God may be too gracious with his enemies is fraught with logical and scriptural inconsistencies.
Glenn, could you give me some citations for early church fathers believing annihilationism?
Sure thing John. I provide evidence here: http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2013/theology/history-of-hell/
Peter, thanks for the clarification.
Just for fun, I will channel the spirit of John Piper and assess the traditionalist view by (similarly) looking sideways at it. Here goes:
It is evident that God views ECT as a positive reward for the wicked. We all know that God doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, therefore he keeps them alive forever in torment. Supporting this view, Isaiah declares that God was pleased to crush Jesus for us, so it is fitting that God will be similarly pleased to eternally crush those who are not in Christ.
It seems to me that the role of judgment is missing from this discussion. John Piper can only categorize annihilation as a reward if he assumes death without a resurrection to judgment. When every knee is bowed and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, it will be impossible for the sinner (fully aware of his just condemnation and the extent of his immeasurable loss) to imagine that he is being rewarded by eternal death.
dude, why u be attacking piper so vehemently? his statements are logical. you seem to be takin an over emotional stance in your response. get over it. piper is solid theologically, b/c he is ground biblically. let it go bro. he is right, you are wrong.
REAL NAME (very clever Bob), thank you for sharing your feels (I assume that was your intention, because there wasn’t any interaction). Next time you share your feels, please use a real name. But your feels are precious. Like unicorn tears. Thank you. They balance out this rather more rational blog post nicely.
As an atheist turned Christian some thirteen years ago, I can honestly say I’ve had many more sleepless nights doubting that God exists at all (bearing in mind that if he didn’t, I see no reason to believe anything other than a naturally occurring “annihilation” would await us) than I’ve ever had doubting my salvation and eternal destiny..
This article is absolute nonsense. Another dead
Hilarious comment, Laurence. Thanks for stopping by to share your feelings.
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