The Rapidian Home

Ethics and Religion Talk: Do Evil Souls Suffer Eternally or Do They Simply Cease to Exist?

All my life I've heard of the standard Heaven/Hell paradigm as far as afterlife doctrines go. But as of late I keep hearing of theologies that indicate a soul, if not going to heaven, will simply cease to exist. Please comment if your religion has such an understanding.

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

I know of no theology that indicates a soul ceases to exist when death occurs other than the teachings of atheism. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one form of atheism “falsely considers man to be an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 515.)

The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that the human soul ceases to exist when death occurs. The Church believes a human being consists of two parts which are matter and form. The matter is the physical body, and the form is the soul. The latter is eternal and created in the image and likeness of God. After death, the soul returns to God to live in the Kingdom of Heaven for all eternity.

Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

Many people come to churches looking for answers to life’s big questions, such as “Why [are] we here?” and “What happens to us after we die?” I often tell my congregants that I do not have the answers, but that we are here to explore the questions together.

No one – be they spiritual teacher, philosopher, or scientist – knows exactly what happens to us when we die, but the Christian faith speaks of eternal life. By his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that death is not the end of the story.

C. S. Lewis (author of The Case for Christianity) is often quoted as having said, “You don't have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body,” and Christian theologian and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, famously wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Hebrews 11:1 says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” Therefore, though I may not know for sure what happens to us after we die, my faith gives me hope that life will go on.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

The doctrine to which you refer is known as “annihilationism.” It has been advocated in the Christian church both in ancient times and today, but only by a handful of Christian teachers and writers.  In regard to the fate of those who die unreconciled to God by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, the annihilationists believe that at death, or at the last day, these souls will be annihilated or blotted out of existence. The position is held by those who object to the idea that the wicked and disobedient “shall be cast into eternal torments and be punished with everlasting destruction,” that is, a process of destruction that never ends, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches (Ch. XXXIII, Sec. II).

Annihilationism denies the immortality of the soul, and diminishes the sinfulness of human sin, by suggesting that sins against the infinite Majesty of God do not deserve infinite punishment. It also detracts from the urgency of the call of the gospel to repent and be reconciled to God before it is forever too late. If the price of going on in the way of sin, living without God in the world, is mere annihilation, many would say that is an acceptable or even a desirable punishment. You may postpone indefinitely any thought of returning to God on His terms, because it will not matter very much when you come to the end of the road. 

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

We were created to be eternal beings, therefore, the place where we will spend eternity should be a matter of great concern to each of us. As much as I would like to say that people who will not go to heaven will simply cease to exist, I can't because this statement is not true. God has made it very clear that heaven is real and so is hell. We can close our eyes and pretend it's not true, but that doesn't change the fact that both exist. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in the heart of every person. So, deep inside, we all know that there is something more than this world.  "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." (Hebrews 9;27). Therefore, no one should assume that they have the luxury to wait and see what happens. The time to think about where we will spend eternity is now! 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

This doctrine is completely foreign to Hinduism. One of the most significant differences between the Abrahamic and Dharmic theologies on the nature of the soul is that while they tend to agree on the eternal existence of it, most Jews, Muslims & Christians acknowledge a starting point. Whether that point be at the moment of conception or later in the gestational process, a new soul is created and installed within the fetus.  In Hinduism, souls share the divine nature of God, and never did not exist. And since they are a part of Divinity, they will always be, either in these lower planes, or merged in the ocean of Satchitananda (Ever-existing, Ever-conscious, Ever-new bliss).

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

There is a wide range of what Unitarian Universalists believe happens when someone dies. Some may believe in heaven and hell and souls going to heaven. And there are many UUs that believe when you die that is it, that all life leaves the body and nothing more than that.

My response:

Judaism believes in a world to come and heaven and even hell. However, my reading of our tradition is that even people who lived somewhat questionable lives still go to the world to come. Their period of judgement just takes more time than the judgement of truly righteous people. To my mind, it is plausible that there is a class of Hitler-like people, unrepentant evil-doers, who either go to hell or whose soul simply ceases to exist. As long as they don’t share a portion of the world to come with the good souls who have passed on, either possibility is fine with me.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.