I imagine it’s far from the first time John Piper gave his view of annihilationism, but within the last 24 hours he wrote this:
Annihilation is what the unrepentant want, not what they dread. It would be a reward, not a punishment. Non-consciousness knows no loss.
I’m not going to debate the merits of his logic, but it did cause me to dust off a position paper I wrote while working on my religion degree. So, without further ado…
Theo 250 S03 Fall 06
Position Paper #1: The Destiny of the Unevangelized and the Nature of Hell
The Destiny of the Unevangelized
The unevangelized can be saved. Throughout recorded (inspired) history, the only requirement for salvation has been faith. Additionally, Scripture makes it clear that some outside God's ecclesiastical fold keep His law in their hearts, that He searches everyone's minds, that He is never dependent on anyone (or anything) else to accomplish His will, and that His desire is that all have salvation.
Although it is only through Jesus' blood that anyone is saved (see John 14:6; Rom. 3:24-25; Eph. 2:13; Heb. 10:19;1 Pet.1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5), salvation has always been by faith (see Eph. 2:8; Rom. 3:23-25; 30-31; 4:16; Heb. 11). If specific knowledge of the Gospel (as it has been known since Christ) is required in order to enter the kingdom, then most/all of the Old Testament saints are lost—and Scripture makes it clear that this is not so (see Heb. 11). Faith appropriates Jesus' work on the cross, not knowledge of that work.
What about those who do not appear to have any knowledge of God, pre-or-post Calvary? Can they have a salvation-appropriating faith? Romans 2:12-16 appears to argue yes. In verse 14 Paul notes there are Gentiles who do not "have the law" but, "by nature do what the law requires" (ESV). Verse 13 ties this to being "justified" and verses 14 and 15 note that "their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when…God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (ESV—emphasis mine). These Gentiles who do not have the law are justified and fair well on the Day of Judgment. They are saved.
In addition to being able to see the Law written in certain individual's hearts, we know that God searches and tests hearts and minds (see 1 Chr. 28:9; Ps. 7:9; Prov. 17:3; Jer. 11:20; 17:10; Rom. 8:27; 1 Thes. 2:4, Rev. 2:23). (1 Chronicles 28:9 and Jeremiah 17:10 make it clear that this is done with everyone). A test would be useless if the answer was always "No" for the unevangelized.
Finally, God has never been dependent on anyone (or anything) to accomplish His will. He says His "word . . . shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose . . ." (Isa. 55:11); that He will fulfill what He has spoken (Num. 23:19); that what He speaks He will "perform" (Eze. 12:25); and that He will accomplish all that He "purposed" (Is. 46:10). There is never any question whether God will do what He intends, and we know that He desires all people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and that it has always been His intent to provide salvation via the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8, KJV). It is true that our Lord calls on man to help Him accomplish His purposes, but any claim that our help is required would negate the omnipotence of God. Additionally, we have evidence that God does work through non-human methods, whether it is searching and testing hearts (please see above) or general revelation (nature and conscience).
In summary, Romans 9 is frequently used to argue that God can damn whoever He pleases, yet, read to its very end, it may be a stronger argument that He can save whoever He wants. Although the evidence may not be convincing to many, there is plenty of indication that God does have paths to save people outside of evangelism, and who are we to insist He cannot?
The Nature of Hell
Hell is a symbol for destruction, not a place of eternal torment. This conclusion is based on three high level arguments: God alone is immortal, death is really death, and the word "eternal," when it comes to death/punishment/etcetera, means "in effect."
1 Timothy 6:16 says that God alone is immortal. This is especially important since just four verses earlier Paul was exhorting Timothy to "fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (1 Tim. 6:12, ESV). The reason Timothy should "fight the good fight of faith" and "take hold of…eternal life" is because he needs it—Paul points out soon after that Jesus "alone possesses immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16). This fits well with Paul's note in Romans 2:7 that "those who by patience in well-doing seek for…immortality, [God] will give eternal life." Eternal life equals immortality. If we do not have eternal life, we do not have immortality. If we do not have immortality, we do not live forever anywhere—including hell.
Additionally, when God told Adam and Eve they would die, it is not logical that instead He meant "you will die on this plain of existence, but will continue onto another plain without your body." As Genesis 2:7 notes, "Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." It does not say the "Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and added an immortal spirit, and the man became a living creature." Instead, man is composed of matter and "the breath of life"—so it would follow if God removed that life for eternity, man would return to the dust he came from (as is confirmed by Gen. 3:19).
Most evangelicals would argue that eternal death is a mirror image of eternal life. Eternal life is forever in bliss, thus eternal death is forever in torment. However, we know everything does not have an equal opposite, especially in spiritual realms. For instance, "evil" is not a polar equivalent of "good"—the latter is far more powerful, just as God is far more powerful than the Devil. It is a false symmetrical assumption to believe life and death are exact opposites hinged on eternal location.
Looking at the word most commonly translated "eternal" in the New Testament, the Greek word aiōnios, it is most frequently used in the phrase "eternal life." However, it also is an adjective for fire, punishment, dwellings, God, weight of glory, destruction, comfort, dominion, glory, salvation, redemption, Spirit, inheritance, covenant, glory, kingdom, and gospel (based on the NASBu). Many of these do not make sense if they must be perpetually happening—instead they are better understood by the concept of eternal effect (for instance, Jesus' singular work on the cross gives us "eternal redemption"—it is not some act that is being repeated eternally). The question is in which contexts "effect" is the appropriate interpretation. Good people can disagree—but neither side can use a rigid approach. (For instance, "destruction" is absolute; you cannot eternally destroy something. As such those who believe in an eternal conscious hell have to contextualize eternal to mean "effect"—or make "destruction" itself symbolic).
Finally, "eternal" is not the only word used to communicate "for ever and ever." Actually, "for ever and ever" is used in two references that are favorites of "perpetual conscious hell" believers—Rev 14:11 and 20:10. Looking especially at the last as clearly speaking of hell, it is hard to see as it being anything but figurative. Yes, the beast, false prophet, devil, and anyone who is not in the book of life are thrown in the lake of fire, but so are Death and Hades (see Rev. 20:10, 14, 15). If "eternal death" is hell, and "Hades" (at least for the wicked) is also hell, then would not that be saying that hell was thrown into hell? Regardless, it is a place where concepts or places can be thrown, which would not be a literal location.
Those who do believe in an eternal conscious place for the wicked have a reasonable scriptural basis. My argument is that as one weighs all the references that have to do with eternal fate, especially that of the wicked, one has to contextualize them—otherwise the Bible would contradict itself. Annihilationistists just contextualize them differently than most Christians, but in doing so are the only ones to avoid spiritualizing both life and death themselves.