Many people find the Biblical idea of souls being eternally punished in the fires of Hell off putting. If they don't fall into the trap of Universalism (or it's close cousins "the reasonable hope that all will be saved" and "maybe Hitler and Stalin are in Hell"), they might lean toward another strain of universalism, namely annihilationism.
What is Annihilationism?
Simply put, the doctrine that those souls that are not saved are utterly destroyed so that no consciousness remains, indeed no trace of the damned soul remains. The attraction of this view is that no one suffers. It's a step child of universalism because annihilationism holds that all (of the souls that remain in existence) are saved. The problem with this view is that it runs counter to the clear teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible, it would make Hell temporary (like purgatory) instead of eternal (as Scripture clearly says it is), and it makes no sense of the immortality of the soul.
What did Jesus Say about Hell?
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells of the coming Judgement on the Nations when "the Son of man... will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." After the Son of man has finished this separation he will turn to those he's placed on his left and say, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire..." But it is not just the fire that is eternal, so is the punishment, as we see in verse 46, "and they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Christ is telling us that not only are the fires of Hell eternal, but so is the length of the punishment of the wicked. For a Christian, that is the end of it. A Christian who doesn't believe Christ is a contradiction in terms, so His word is enough for us. For non-Christians we can look at what reason alone can tell us.
Can Reason Alone Tell Us the Soul in Immortal?
The Catechism of the Catholic, in paragraph 366 says that "every spiritual soul is...immortal; it does not perish when it separates from the body at death." Can we know this by reason? Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, in their great book Handbook of Christian Apologetics list twenty-five separate arguments for life after death. Let's looks briefly at three of them, two "secular" and one specifically Christian.
1. How could a mere mortal come up with the idea of immortality?
If the soul isn't immortal, how did anyone ever get the idea that it was? For that matter, how did everyone ever get the idea that it was? It would seem, granting the mortality of the soul, to be the most natural conclusion to think that, when someone died, they were simply gone. How odd it is that every culture, everywhere, at all times firmly believes that the soul survives the death of the body. Unless, it's true.
Some common answers to this question are: fear / wishful thinking and social / religious indoctrination. The latter of these answers, social or religious indoctrination, doesn't answer the question at all. It merely "passes the buck" backwards temporally. If most people believe in the immortality of the soul because someone else indoctrinated them, how did the indoctrinator come to believe in the immortality of the soul? If someone indoctrinated him, who indoctrinated the indoctrinator of the indoctrinator? This quickly gets us into an infinite regress.
The other common answer, fear / wishful thinking, looks more promising on the surface. If fear or wishful thinking is the cause, that is, if annihilation is just too terrifying to contemplate, then we must wonder why so many people believe in something so much more frightful, Hell. In fact, whole cultures have had a basically pessimistic notion of the Afterlife. Homer, reflecting the early ancient Greek view of life after death, has a telling scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus meets Achilles. Odysseus seeing the great warrior's shade in Hades says, "no one was ever yet so fortunate as
you have been, nor ever will be, for you were adored by all us Argives
as long as you were alive, and now that you are here you are a great prince
among the dead. Do not, therefore, take it so much to heart even if you
are dead." To which Achilles replies, "Say not a word in death's favor; I would rather
be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of
kings among the dead." We must ask, why would fear of annihilation or wishful thinking drive these cultures to believe in an afterlife worse than death?
Which puts us back to our original question, why does nearly everyone, everywhere (including the "sages" - the most brilliant thinkers of human history) believe that the soul survives death? The only rational answer seems to be, because it does.
2. The Argument from the Soul's Simplicity
There are only two ways for something to be destroyed - decomposition or annihilation as a whole. Nothing just pops out of existence as a whole. So, if the soul is destroyed if must be decomposed. But the soul, unlike the body, is not made up of parts. We know this because it, by definition, does not take up space (if it did, it would be a body not a spirit). But what is not made up of parts cannot be broken into parts, it cannot decompose. If it cannot decompose, it cannot be destroyed by decomposition. If the soul cannot be destroyed as a whole or by being broken into parts and everything is either destroyed in these two ways, then the soul cannot be destroyed. It is immortal.
3. The Argument from God's Love
This one is very simple. Love does not destroy, it creates. God is the ultimate creator and the ultimate lover, in fact, God is love. Therefore, God wouldn't destroy our us, He would create us with an immortal soul.
Thus, we see, that annihilationism ultimately is rooted in the misguided, but well meaning desire to see no one suffer that most dreadful fate - Hell, but it stands up to neither reason nor revelation.
Over the next couple posts, we'll look at:
Can God Destroy Our Immortal Souls
CS Lewis on Annihilationism