Monday, May 13, 2019

Athenagoras of Athens, a Hostile Witness for Annihilationism

Athenagoras was a Christian philosopher from Athens who lived from about 130 – 190 AD. We have copies of only two of his works, Apology and On the Resurrection of the Dead. He may be the first Christian author to explicitly and consistently write in favor of the now traditional view that the unrighteous will live forever and will forever consciously suffer punishment from God. Athenagoras believed in un-conditional immortality. In other words, he believed that everyone would live forever, regardless of whether they were saved by faith in Christ or not. He anchors his arguments for this in philosophy rather than in biblical exegesis. Ironically, he also provides some strong evidence in favor of a view he did not hold, namely annihilationism.

The type of evidence that Athenagoras unintentionally provides for annihilationism (aka conditional immortality) is linguistic in nature, rather than philosophical. Athenagoras helps us to answer the question, “What words might an ancient Greek Christian living near the time of Christ have used to describe the view that we call annihilationism in English?” In order to answer this question, we will look at two quotes from Athenagoras. We will then compare the language in each of these quotes with what the inspired biblical authors wrote.

Quote #1, from Apology by Athenagoras, Chapter 31

“. . . for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish (apollumi) and be annihilated (aphanizo).”

In the context of his writing, it is quite clear that Athenagoras here is arguing against a form of annihilationism where the complete person ceases to exist. Athenagoras uses three ways to express the concept of annihilation. In each case, Athenagoras is saying that no person will experience annihilation. As you will see, inspired biblical authors directly contradict Athenagoras. The biblical authors use the same three ways to express the fate of the unrighteous.

1. Athenagoras says people do not perish the same way that beasts do. The inspired authors of Psalm 49 say that the unrighteous will perish like beasts:

Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49:12, ESV)

Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49:20, ESV)

2. One of the Greek words Athenagoras uses to mean what we mean by annihilation is apollumi. Athenagoras says that people will not apollumi. Our Lord (as recorded in the gospels) along with Paul,  James, and Peter all use apollumi to refer to the final fate of the unrighteous. There is no reason to think that they used apollumi with a different meaning from Athenagoras. In fact, the context in verses like John 3:16, where the alternative to apollumi is to have eternal life, strongly supports the reasonable conclusion that when the New Testament authors used this word they were teaching annihilationism.

3. The other Greek word Athenagoras uses to refer to annihilation is aphanizō. It is actually translated “be annihilated” in the English translation above. When Paul proclaimed the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ, people reacted in different ways. Some believed and joyfully accepted the message. Others scoffed and opposed it. On one occasion, Paul warned the scoffers what their eventual fate would be:

Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: "'Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish (aphanizō); for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.'" (Acts 13:40-41 ESV)

Athenagoras and Paul were not the only ones who used the Greek word aphanizō to refer to annihilation. The Sadducees believed in a type of annihilation. Like Paul, Josephus was a Jew who wrote in Greek during the first century. Josephus described the annihilationist view of the Sadducees this way:

“But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with (sun + aphanizo)  the bodies . . .” (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 18 Section 16)

It is reasonable to conclude that Paul was warning of annihilationism as the fate of those who reject Christ.
The next quote from Athenagoras provides even more evidence that the biblical language used for the fate of the unrighteous refers to annihilation.

Quote #2, from Apology by Athenagoras, Chapter 36

On the contrary, it is reasonable to suppose, that those who think they shall have no account to give of the present life, ill or well spent, and that there is no resurrection, but calculate on the soul perishing with (sunapollumi) the body, and being as it were quenched in it, will refrain from no deed of daring; but as for those who are persuaded that nothing will escape the scrutiny of God, but that even the body which has ministered to the irrational impulses of the soul, and to its desires, will be punished along with it, it is not likely that they will commit even the smallest sin.

Before looking at how this quote from Athenagoras compares to biblical language, it will help to quickly review a difference between Greek and English.

In English if we want to say that somebody does something with someone else, we add the word “with.” In Greek they often add the prefix sun- to the verb. A few examples will clear this up:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, (Rom. 15:30 ESV)

In English, “strive together with” is three words, but in Greek they added sun- to the verb meaning “to strive” and came up with one compound word that means "strive together with", namely sunagōnizomai. Here’s a wonderful passage where sun- is added to two different verbs:

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God's children, and if children, also heirs-- heirs of God and coheirs with Christ-- if indeed we suffer with  (suffer with = sun + paschō) him so that we may also be glorified with (glorified with =sun + doxazō)  him. (Rom. 8:16-17 CSB17)

So when Athenagoras uses sunapollumi this is just a Greek way of saying “perish with.” It does not change the meaning of the root apollumi.

Athenagoras was arguing against those who count on “the soul perishing with (sunapollumi) the body.” In the context of his writings and his philosophy, this was one of the ways he referred to what we now call the doctrine of annihilationism. Now compare his words to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy (apollumi) both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28 ESV)

Jesus taught annihilationism. What Athenagoras argued would not happen is precisely what our Lord teaches God will do to the unrighteous in hell.

But what about the argument that Athenagoras was making? Athenagoras was arguing that if people are annihilated then there is no motivation to live a good, moral life and avoid evil deals. But Athenagoras was making some wrong assumptions.

1.  In his argument, Athenagoras was assuming that if annihilationism is true then everyone would be equally annihilated. But this is not what happens. There is instead the possibility of living forever in a perfect world full of joy and fellowship with God and other redeemed people. Only the unrighteous who never accept Christ are annihilated.

2. Athenagoras assumes that annihilation would occur immediately and permanently upon death. But the Bible teaches that the unrighteous will be raised to face a terrifying judgment first. They will have to give an account of their deeds.

3. Related to the assumption above, Athenagoras assumes that there will be no additional suffering for the unrighteous prior to final annihilation. The Bible teaches that God will pay back sinners for their sin. Biblical annihilation allows for whatever finite amount of conscious suffering is appropriate prior to or as part of the process of final annihilation.

Conclusion, Further Study, and Resources

Because Greek authors like Plato, Plutarch, Josephus, and Athenagoras wrote clearly and explicitly about  annihilationism, we do not have to guess what words and language in Greek are good choices to describe annihilationism. When we look at the Bible, we find that the words and language the biblical authors consistently and repeatedly use to describe the final fate of the unrighteous are precisely the Greek words and language that are the best choices to refer to annihilationism.

It is therefore time to discard the error of eternal torment. It appears likely that this error was first introduced into Christian theology by men like Athenagoras who were influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Plato taught that all human souls are intrinsically immortal. If you believe this and also believe that some people never accept Christ and thus can never be with Him, it quickly leads to belief in eternal conscious torment. Later, Christians found a handful of verses which, taken out of the context of the rest of Scripture, can appear to teach eternal torment. But a careful study of these supposedly eternal torment texts show that they either are not referring to the final fate of the wicked at all or else that they actually are teaching conditional immortality.

Here are some resources for further study on this topic:

1. In a previous blog post I explored the words that Plato and Plutrach used to refer to annihilationism. You may read that here:  Words of Annihilation, Plato and Plutarch, Peter and Paul

2. The best free places I could find to read Athenagoras’s Apology are:

For English:

For Greek (ignore the Russian translation on the right, unless you speak Russian!):

3. To read the quote from Josephus above in both English and Greek, this site is helpful (the Perseus site is a rich resource for ancient Greek texts and it is fairly easy to use and well organized):

4. To find more blog posts, some videos, and links for further study about conditional immortality, look here:  Mark’s Resources on Hell

5. For an in depth book on this topic (which I used in preparing this blog post), I highly recommend Edward Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes.

May the Lord open our minds to understand His Word (Luke 24:45).

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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