Tag: Annihilationism

Parry—Free Will & Annihilationism

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

"Savaoph, God the Father" by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Savaoph, God the Father” by Viktor Vasnetsov

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/


Above is the ninth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Creation: all things are from him and for him

All Christians are universalists about creation—God created all things, through his Word. And creation is not simply about origins (everything comes from God), but about purpose and destiny. Created things have an end, a destiny, and that end, as the beginning, is God. The end of creation is there in its beginning: creation is from God, for God, and oriented towards God, reaching towards its potential and completion in God. So the question of universalism and hell can be framed in terms of whether or not God will bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it. Yes . . . or no?

Let’s get more specific. Take humans—the subject of this debate. Christians agree that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:24–26). But while God did create humans as “good,” he did not create humans as finished and completed creatures—he created them with a destiny to grow towards. This telos of human creatures is, in community, to be filled with God and to image God in the world.

Furthermore, humans find their sense of fulfillment and happiness in God. We all long for happiness; as Jerry Walls puts it, “We have a built-in hard drive to desire happiness . . . .”1 That is how God made us. And this desire cannot be fulfilled without being rightly related to God. Augustine famously put it this way: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Confessions I). So our story of creation already includes a notion of the goal for which God destines humans—and that goal is not everlasting alienation from God.

The gospel revelation of Jesus Christ deepens and sharpens our understanding of the human telos. The risen and ascended humanity of Christ is the climax of our human nature. One day we shall be like him (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:12–57; 1 John 3:2). For us, being human is a yet-to-be completed journey. Jesus is the only person ever of whom it can be said that he is fully human. Humanity has reached its goal in him. And in the gospel, it becomes clearer to us that the creation of humanity was always a two-phase project: the first Adam was earthly; the second Adam was heavenly (1 Cor. 15:42–49). Humanity was made with a destiny, and that destiny was to be conformed to the image of the true human, the origin of the new, phase-two humanity—Jesus. This theology is foundational for universalism. Humans have been created to grow towards God, their destination. They are not created for hell, but for theosis.

Creation

Fall

Genesis suggests that the move from phase-one to phase-two humanity was interrupted by sin. Sin is the creature’s attempt to interrupt the reditus, the return to God, which is the goal of creation. As such, sin represents a rupture in creation. It corrodes human be-ing at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination. Instead we spiral away from God, the source of life, into corruption, decay, and death.

All Christians are universalists about sin—all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Without divine redemptive grace human beings (and creation as a whole) are doomed to futility.

Might hell be able to build on the foundation of this plot-twist? Do we deserve divine punishment? Yes. Do we deserve divine rescue? No. But, remember, even broken humans are still in God’s image (Gen. 9:6), still valuable, still beloved:

[A]ll creatures participate in God’s goodness, especially rational creatures who were made in God’s image. . . . The rational creature is, essentially, a being bearing the divine image and ordered toward union with God. . . . God can no more cease to value rational creatures—even if they fall into sin—than He can cease to value Himself, because rational creatures are a reflection of His own essence. Therefore, He is always faithful to them, even when they are unfaithful to Him, and must seek to destroy their sin.2

John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory

To hate creatures made in his image, even fallen ones, would be a form of indirect self-hatred, and this God cannot do. Thus, Jürgen Moltmann: “God is angered by human sin not although he loves human beings but because he loves them. He says No to sin because he says Yes to the sinner.”3

Anthony Bloom, former Metropolitan Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, once stated:

Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. . . . We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty. . . . Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there.4

Blogger Alvin Rapier, commenting on this quote and annihilationism, writes:

If humans are like damaged icons and annihilationists hold that God completely annihilates human beings through the fires of hell, then the doctrine of annihilationism makes God the Great Iconoclast, the destroyer of human icons. God would be destroying the very Creation meant for communion, repeating the actions of the iconoclasts that were condemned in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Instead of treating these icons “with tenderness, with broken-heartedness” and calling out the beauty that is there, as Bloom stated, annihilationism holds that God inflicts “capital punishment” upon these images, that the fires of hell will consume them, similar to how the iconoclast extremists “tore down icons from their places in churches and broke them up and burnt them” (Stephen W. Need, Truly Divine and Truly Human, 132). The God of annihilationism is the God of the iconoclasts, the ultimate destroyer of God’s images.5

So building a doctrine of eternal hell on the doctrine of the fall may prove harder than we may at first think. Hell’s defenders should try to do so, but they will have to wrestle with the wider biblical metanarrative in which the fall is located. Will God allow sin to thwart his creational purposes to beautify the cosmos? The answer comes, as we’ll see, in the gospel story. Sin may be as deep and dark and deadly as it can, but Christ annihilates it! The first Adam may have wrought havoc, but the Second Adam more than undoes that destruction (Rom. 5:14–21). Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). One problem with hell is that it makes the victory of Christ over sin sound something of a damp squib. Sin wreaks havoc in creation, but praise be! Grace undoes a bit of what sin does! Where sin abounds, grace abounds quite a lot. Is that divine victory over sin? It looks at first blush like a doctrine of hell is a doctrine in which Satan achieves a big chunk of what he set out to do. And if the Augustinian tradition is correct and most people are forever damned then eschatological victory is in danger of sounding like celebrating the divine triumph after hearing the following soccer score:

Satan, 5; God, 1.

“Hooray! God has won!” For Augustine, this score counts as a win because God wanted Satan to score 5 and only wanted one goal himself, and because he plans on beating up Satan after the match. Yet that still sounds like another way of saying that God wanted to lose.


1. Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), ?.
2. John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 38. Some readers will be uncomfortable associating the divine image with rationality. If that is you, simply substitute “human” for “rational” in the passage.
3. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1996), 243.
4. As quoted in http://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/articles/quotes
5. Alvin Rapier, “God the Great Iconoclast? A Theological Critique of Annihilationism.” Blog post (16 Dec 2014) on www.thepoorinspirit.com.


Above is the third section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.