I was recently listening to a podcast about annihilationism, that is the belief that the wicked do not suffer for eternity in hell but are simply destroyed. I am not planning on discussing the merits of this view at the present time. But it did make me think about another talk I heard about the dangers of believing in annihilationism. Aside from any biblical interpretation issues (and there is some biblical support, otherwise people like John Stott would never hold to it), there were some practical concerns. This person suggested that if annihilationism was true that we would have no more Gospel to preach. After all, if the worst that could happen to us was to be destroyed, why bother becoming a Christian?
Again, I am not interested in discussing here the merits of annihilationism. What I am concerned about is the nature of the Gospel. Is the threat of an eternity of suffering really essential to the Gospel? If annihilationsim was true, would you still want to be a Christian?
From my perspective, annihilation still seems to be pretty severe punishment. I do not hear criminals willing to risk crimes because the potential sentence is only death and not life at hard labour. Besides, the alternative to either hell or annihilation is not just existence but rather an eternity of joy, peace, love and the presence of God. The motivation to become a Christian is not just the avoiding of the bad but the gaining of the good.
How does this affect evangelism? It should not matter what you believe about the fate of the wicked, all Christians should want to share the good news. It is not about whether the punishment is severe or not (and it is), it is about what the reward is that we dare not miss. The Gospel that Jesus preached was that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus left it fairly vague as to what would happen to the wicked, but he was clear that God’s Kingdom was something amazing, that it was something that we should desire in this life and seek to enjoy for all eternity. Perhaps the problem with evangelism today is not that people lack fear of hell but rather we are not explaining the nature of the eternal life that is found in Jesus Christ. If we did, they would see how the pleasures of life without God could never compare.