Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.
Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.
If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1
Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”
In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.
The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:
It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2
It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.
1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . . Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk
2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/