Having had every desire not to accept annihilationism/conditionalism, I believe that over the course of the past year or so during which I “converted,” I’ve honestly sought out the best arguments I could find in support of the traditional view of hell (and found them lacking). At this point, I don’t often encounter a challenge I haven’t heard in some form before. Occasionally I’ve heard it claimed that annihilation means there’s another sacrifice for sins besides Christ’s, which hasn’t particularly surprised me.
Recently, however, I encountered an argument I hadn’t seen before, but which is somewhat related to the idea of Christ’s sacrifice. I wrote about it here, clearly refuting the argument that the Levitical animal sacrifices, repeated ad infinitum until Christ’s sacrifice ended them, means the death of an annihilated sinner can’t satisfy the punitive demands of the Law. The author of that argument and I discussed it in the comments thread of that post, and while at one point it seemed to me that he believes annihilation would, in fact, mean there’s another sacrifice for sin, having gone over that conversation multiple times I’m no longer certain.
Just in case, and because I’m not sure I’ve clearly addressed the occasional traditionalist claim that annihilation is another sacrifice for sins besides that of Christ, I think it’s worth my time to explain why it most definitely is not. Following that, I’ll again explain why the repeated Levitical sacrifices do not prove that a sinner’s annihilation cannot satisfy the punitive demands of the Law. And it all begins with understanding the concept of propitiation.
Let’s begin with a study of the family of words having to do with propitiation as used in the New Testament.
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. (Rom. 3:24-25)
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary… 4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant… 5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Heb. 9:1,4-5)
In Romans 3, Paul says that by Jesus as propitiation we are justified as a gift through faith. Other translations render the word “sacrifice” or “sacrifice of atonement.” The Amplified Bible renders it “a mercy seat and propitiation” and the Common English Bible translates it a “sacrifice where mercy is found.” Note the word’s use by the author of Hebrews to refer to the mercy seat, the covering of the ark upon which the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), so that the sins of Israel would be covered, and so that God’s righteous wrath toward sin would be diverted.
By means of a propitiation, then, God shows mercy toward, and diverts His wrath away from, the one for whom the propitiatory sacrifice is made.
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 Jo. 2:1-2)
9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 Jo. 4:9-10)
According to John, Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of believers, Whom God sent because He loves us, that we would live to God. Again, God shows mercy toward, and diverts His wrath away from, the one for whom the propitiatory sacrifice is made. Thus Thayer translates the word, “an appeasing…or the means of appeasing.” Because God’s wrath is diverted, the propitiation appeases God.
13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified (Luke 18:13-14)
17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
The penitent sinner in Luke 18 uses this related word to pray for God’s mercy, and the author of Hebrews says that the Son of God had to become a man so that He could, like the Levitical high priest, make propitiation for the sins of Israel. That is, just as the high priest would by the blood of a sacrifice divert God’s wrath from the people—however temporarily, however incompletely—so, too, did Jesus become a man to divert God’s wrath from His people—permanently, completely.
Again, God shows mercy toward, and diverts His wrath away from, the one for whom the propitiatory sacrifice is made. Thayer’s definition of the word includes the language of appeasement which he used to define the previous word we looked at, adding “conciliate,” “placated,” “gracious” and “merciful.”
21 From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. 22 Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” (Matt. 16:21-22)
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. 8 For finding fault with them, He says, “BEHOLD, DAYS ARE COMING, SAYS THE LORD, WHEN I WILL EFFECT A NEW COVENANT WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH…12 FOR I WILL BE MERCIFUL TO THEIR INIQUITIES, AND I WILL REMEMBER THEIR SINS NO MORE.” (Heb. 8:7-8,12)
Peter’s use of the word in Matthew is a curious one, particularly in the translations which render it along the lines of “God forbid” of “far be it from You,” the idea of a refusal to do something coming from the word’s use in the Septuagint translation of 2 Sam. 20:20 and 23:17. Its use, however, in Hebrew 8:12 cannot be clearer: Under the New Covenant, one’s sins are forgiven and God shows mercy. And we know, of course, that Jesus is the mediator of this New Covenant (Heb. 8:6) and was sacrificed as the propitiation by which sins are forgiven under the New Covenant (Rom. 3:25).
Again, God shows mercy toward, and diverts His wrath away from, those for whom the propitiatory sacrifice is made, reconciling them to Himself.
Is Annihilation a Propitiation?
So, what is a propitiation? From merely the way the related words are used, we can see that a propitiation is God diverting His wrath from those who deserves punishment, reconciling them to Himself, by means of the sacrifice of another. Theopedia cites Charles Ryrie as writing, “Propitiation means the turning away of wrath by an offering. In relation to soteriology, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.” GotQuestions.org defines it as “a two-part act that involves appeasing the wrath of an offended person and being reconciled to them.” Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines it as “That by which God is rendered propitious, i.e., by which it becomes consistent with his character and government to pardon and bless the sinner. The propitiation does not procure his love or make him loving; it only renders it consistent for him to execise his love towards sinners.”
Consider, then, the question, “Is annihilation a propitiation?” Annihilationism proposes that, rather than suffering consciously for eternity, the unsaved sinner will rise from the first death to be judged and sentenced to execution, bearing his own punishment by death of both body and soul, from which he or she will never rise to life again. If a propitiation diverts God’s wrath, is annihilation a propitiation? No. If a propitiation results in reconciliation, is annihilation a propitiation? No. If a propitiation is by means of the sacrifice of another, is annihilation a propitiation? No. It’s patently obvious that annihilation is not a propitiation, because God’s wrath is not diverted to another, does not result in reconciliation, is not by means of the sacrifice of another. The one for whom Christ is not a propitiatory sacrifice has no sacrifice, and so bears the fullness of the punishment he deserves.
Therefore, any claim that annihilation is an alternative atonement or propitiation to that of Christ is utterly devoid of merit.
Can a Sinner’s Death Satisfy the Punitive Demands of the Law?
But what about those Levitical animal sacrifices, repeated ad infinitum until Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 7)? If only Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice could bring an end to the unending death and bloodshed of Levitical propitiatory sacrifices, and if any one of those sacrifices, or the unending series itself, was unable to fully perfect the sinner’s conscience (Heb. 7:19, 9:9), does that prove that any death besides Christ’s—including the second death of an unsaved sinner—is insufficient to satisfy the punitive demands of the Law? And thus, since one’s own second death could not satisfy the punitive demands of the Law, must one remain in a constant, ongoing process of dying, his or her blood being shed for eternity? That’s what it appears is the essence of the argument I refuted here.
The answer to that question is, quite simply, no. To argue that the unending death and bloodshed of repeated Levitical propitiatory sacrifices proves that a sinful human being’s own death can’t satisfy the punitive demands of the Law, one must demonstrate the truthfulness of at least three premises:
- The punitive value of the death of an animal in a Levitical sacrifice is equal to the punitive value of the death of a human being.
- The death of an animal in a Levitical sacrifice does not satisfy the punitive demands of the Law for sins committed prior to the sacrifice being made.
- The punitive value of a human being’s first death is equal to the punitive value of the second death of annihilation.
If the first premise is false, and if the punitive value of a Levitical animal sacrifice is not equal to that of the death of a human being, then the insufficiency of one such sacrifice, and the series of sacrifices taken as a whole, to fully satisfy the punitive demands of the Law, say nothing about the sufficiency of a sinful human being’s own death to satifsy the punitive demands of the Law. After all, perhaps the repeated Levitical propitiatiatory sacrifices, being of lesser punitive value than the death of a sinful human being, could only pay some measure of the punitive demands of the Law, whereas the death of a sinful human could fully satisfy those demands.
If the second premise is false, and if the punitive value of any given Levitical animal sacrifice in the series does satisfy the punitive demands of the Law for sins committed for past sins but not future sins, then the insufficiency of one such sacrifice, and the series of sacrifices taken as a whole, to satisfy the punitive demands of the Law for future sins, say nothing about the sufficiency of a sinful human being’s own death to satisfy the punitive demands of the Law for past sins. Following a sinner’s own death, on the other hand, there would, by definition, be no future sins requiring additional penalty.
Finally, even if the other two premises are true, if the third premise is false, and if the punitive value of a human being’s first death is not equal to the punitive value of the second death of annihilation, then the insufficiency of a Levitical animal sacrifice, and the series of such sacrifices taken as a whole—and, by extension, a sinful human being’s first death—to satisfy the punitive demands of the Law, say nothing about the sufficiency of a sinful human being’s own second death to satisfy the punitive demands of the Law. After all, the second death is permanent (Matt. 25:46) and is one in which both body and soul are destroyed (Matt. 10:28), unlike the first death.
While the second of these premises may be demonstrable, the first and third are certainly not; in fact, the author of the original argument disavowed the first premise. Therefore, it does not follow from repeated Levitical propitiatory sacrifices that a sinner’s annihilation could not satisfy the demands of the Law.
Since the annihilation of an unsaved sinner in the second death would not be another atonement or propitiation for sins besides the sacrifice of Christ, and since the repeated Levitical propitiatory sacrifices in no way suggest that the annihilation of an unsaved sinner in the second death could not satisfy the punitive demands of the Law, we know what really should have been obvious to begin with: tenuous extrapolations from texts which say nothing about what awaits the unsaved should be tested in light of those texts which do say something about what awaits the unsaved. In both debates in which I’ve participated on this topic, I’ve argued strictly from those texts which say something about the fate of the unsaved. My hope is that in future discussions with traditionalists, they will do likewise.