And The Wicked Shall Be No More
A Philosophical Defense of Annihilation
I will be presenting the philosophical case for Annihilationism. There is a theological case that deals in scripture and tradition, but this is not it. Annihilationism is the position that, possibly, at least one person will become so corrupt that she ceases to exist. Her being is annihilated. The Annihilationist is not committed to there being such a person. It might be that every person will become sanctified. However, unlike the Universalist, the Annihilationist holds that there are two possible eternal destinations: heaven and annihilation. While God desires that everyone become sanctified, He does not require it. He makes allowances for those who stubbornly choose the opposite.
I’ll sketch my view of the afterlife. Heaven is the eternal destination for the sanctified. Those who die before sanctification continue the process in a place traditionally referred to as purgatory. The analogy of climbing a mountain is often used to describe this process. But reaching the top of the mountain is not assured. Those who choose not to climb may go the opposite direction, which ends in total corruption. The totally corrupt are annihilated.
Critical to this issue is the idea of libertarian free will, which means we can only say someone made a choice “freely” if it were possible for him to have chosen otherwise.
Here is the argument for annihilationism laid out by premise:
(1) All people have libertarian free will
(2) Libertarian free will entails the possibility of eternal heaven and the possibility of eternal not-heaven
(3) Not-heaven entails annihilation
(4) Therefore, possibly, at least one person will be annihilated
The above argument is valid. If the premises are true, then the argument is sound. Those who deny its conclusion must deny the truth of one of the premises. The Universalist will deny (2). The defender of eternal torment – I shall call her the Hellist, after the defining feature of her doctrine – will deny (3). Premise (1) is agreed upon by all three. If it turns out that we do not have libertarian free will, but have instead only compatibilist free will, or no free will at all, then universalism is true. However, any free will or soul-making theodicy relies on libertarian free will. As a soul-making theodicist, I am committed thusly.
The Universalist and I are very little different. I am willing to grant the Universalist that, possibly, everyone will be saved. I am not committed to someone being annihilated. But the Universalist is committed to the stronger premise that, necessarily, everyone will be saved. It is this stronger conclusion that runs afoul of (2). If the Universalist is willing to grant me that possibly someone will be annihilated, we have no disagreement.
Why Universalism is Wrong
My argument for (2), then, is directed mainly at the Universalist.
(2a) Eternal destiny is the result of a series of actions
(2b) There is a series of actions that terminates in the eternal destiny of not-heaven
(2c) In order to preempt the possibility that a person choose to perform a series of actions, God must determine that a person not perform one of those actions
(2d) But if a person is determined with regard to some action, she lacks libertarian free will
(2e) Therefore libertarian free will entails the possibility that someone perform a series of actions ending in the eternal destiny of not-heaven
(2) Therefore, Libertarian free will entails the possibility of eternal heaven and the possibility of eternal not-heaven
This argument is also valid, and if the premises are true it is sound. The Universalist will deny either (2b) or (2d), so I shall now argue for those two.
(2b) states that there is a series of actions that results in the eternal destiny of not-heaven. This seems to follow from the Augustinian definition of evil: evil is the privation of good. Any good thing becomes more evil by losing its goodness. The most basic good is existence, without which no other good is possible; therefore the final step in the loss of goodness is the loss of existence. The Universalist may deny the Augustinian concept of evil, but she then owes an explanation of why God created positive evil, or where positive evil came from if God didn’t create it.
(2d) seems a more plausible candidate for denial. Indeed, it is the one denied by Nevin Climenhaga in his excellent defense of universalism. After all, if (2d) is false, it is only one action that is blocked by divine fiat. The person is free most of the time. Why can’t there be one little exception? Especially when so much good will come of it.
The problem here is that one little exception has major consequences. It determines the person’s eternal destiny. The person is not free to do otherwise when it comes to eternal destination: she is determined to go to heaven, on account of any of her not-heaven-entailing actions being blocked by divine fiat. If she is corrupt enough to decide to perform a not-heaven-entailing action, after she is blocked, she may try again and again. God may block her many times over. In what sense, then, would her eventual chain of actions leading to heaven be chosen? God’s continual interference made her unable to do otherwise. She will, in effect, have been told, ‘you must freely perform a series of actions with this end result.’ She is unable to make her soul the way she wants it: her soul’s final outcome is determined. She is only free to write the story of how it became thus. It is unclear to me what advantage is gained by allowing her to do this.
The Universalist may still concede that it is possible that some possible person perform a series of actions ending in not-heaven, but that no actual person would. God would have known before creating people which ones would perform such a series of actions, and would not have created them.
The problem here is that the Universalist is relying on middle knowledge. God knows what people will do because of His foreknowledge, but that foreknowledge is logically antecedent to the creation of the universe. God does not have middle knowledge because there are no ‘middle facts’ on which to ground it. It is part of the definition of libertarian free will that the same person placed in the identical situation of one of her actions again may not choose to do the same thing. Thus, the Universalist cannot say that God decided who to create based on what they would have done, because prior to creating anyone God had no knowledge of what those people would do.
Note: My use of ‘prior’ speaks of logical, not temporal, priority. An Atemporal God still does not get middle knowledge.
It seems then that (2) is true, and the Universalist cannot escape the contradiction between a determined eternal destiny and libertarian free will.
Why the Traditional View Is Also Wrong
It remains for me to defend (3) against the Hellist. The Hellist agrees with me that there is some not-heaven eternal destination. She has a name for it: it’s called hell. It’s a place where the crowd locked out of heaven suffers. In order to make my argument is broadly applicable as possible, I will not commit my Hellist to any particular version of Hell. It may be a lake of fire, or a dark place of psychological torment, or some other place. But it is not heaven, and it is where those who reject God are punished.
My reply to her is the argument for premise (3), that not-heaven entails annihilation.
(3a) Not-heaven entails total separation from God
(3b) Separation from God entails annihilation
(3) Not-heaven entails annihilation
The argument is valid. The Hellist will accept (3b), because since God sustains all things, total separation from God just is annihilation; we can’t exist without him. However, the Hellist may deny (3a).
If God continues to sustain their existence, He must have some reason for doing it. The possibility of salvation is out, so it must be for punishment.
Since Hell is an eternal destination, the people in Hell are unable to choose God. This true either because God will not allow it, or because they will not choose it.
Now, if God will not allow it, then the Hellist is committed to the following absurdity: perhaps someone, we’ll name him Bob, at some point makes the final wrong decision and ends up in Hell. Finally, Bob decides he made the wrong choice. He asks God for another chance. Suppose Bob is sincere in his desire to be with God, and God knows this. But God replies, ‘No, Bob. I used to desire that you come to me, but not anymore. The time limit has expired.’
First note that God has changed, which He is not supposed to be able to do. God is perfect. He used to desire that Bob join him for eternity, but then He does not. If He changes, He has either become more perfect than He was, or less perfect than He was. Either way, if God can change, then God is not always perfect.
Second, note that the God who refuses heaven to someone who sincerely desires it (and is willing to do the work necessary to get there) is not benevolent.
Finally, note that God is now thwarting Bob’s ability to form his soul. Since I ascribe to a soul-making theodicy, I cannot accept this.
So suppose God is perfectly willing to allow the people stuck in Hell to come out, but they choose not to. In that case, they are continually choosing evil over good. Their souls become continually more corrupt. Yet, God still sustains their existence. Why? It’s not because they are going to come to Him eventually. It seems that He would allow their choice for corruption to reach its inevitable conclusion: non-being.
The Hellist may respond that their existence is sustained as punishment for rejecting God. By offending an infinite majesty, they deserve infinite punishment. God is only giving them what they had coming. Here, a new problem arises: it seems that annihilation is a more severe (although less cruel) punishment than the torment of Hell. After all, those in Hell still possess some good: existence, at a minimum. Possibly intelligence and creativity as well. Possibly also memories of any pleasant past experience. Moreover, they still have a minimal connection to God: God sustains their existence. If they were annihilated, they would lose those goods. They would have no good and no connection with God. This would be exactly what they chose for their eternal destiny: complete separation. And since the punishment has an eternal consequence, it certainly still counts as an eternal punishment. It is a self-inflicted eternal punishment.
Conclusion and Two Possible Objections
So it seems that an eternal destination of not-heaven does imply annihilation. Total separation from God is annihilation, so if God is going to sustain the existence of people whose eternal destination is not heaven, He must have some reason for doing so. His reason is not because there is still some chance that they will repent and choose Him. It may be as punishment, but annihilation is a more fitting and less cruel punishment for rejecting God than eternal torment is.
Finally, if people in hell exist, and still have libertarian free will, there is a non-zero probability that they will choose God, so if Hell is an eternal destination God must be suppressing that choice. This line of argument has already been shown to lead to an absurdity: that Hell is not the result of a person rejecting God, but of God rejecting that person.
There remain two objections: first, if souls can annihilated, then they are not immortal. The immortality of the soul is a well-established article of Christian doctrine. It would be better for me as an annihilationist if I can still affirm this. Fortunately, it seems that I can.
Annihilation is an aberration, not a norm. Presumably, souls do not exist necessarily, and if their existence is contingent on God’s sustenance, then a loss of that sustenance entails a loss of existence. A soul is immortal unless very specific conditions obtain. This does not run afoul of immortality unless immortality entails necessary existence. If it does entail necessary existence, so much the worse for it then.
Second, does not my view run afoul of my own argument against universalism? If someone chooses heaven or annihilation, have they not lost their libertarian free will? The sanctified person in heaven is incorruptible. She cannot choose to be corrupt. When presented with a corrupting opportunity, she must turn it down, being unable to do otherwise. The annihilated can make no more choices, because they are annihilated.
The case of the annihilated is not much of a problem. Since that person no longer exists, it is a trivial consequence that she no longer has libertarian free will, or will of any sort.
The case of the sanctified is harder, but the following consideration weighs in my favor: the past has accidental necessity. It cannot be changed. So if I choose to eat an orange, I can never choose to be a person who has not eaten an orange. If I am presented with such a choice, I cannot do otherwise. Likewise, the sanctified person has free chosen to become incorruptible. If she is presented with a the choice to become a person who is not incorruptible, she cannot do otherwise because doing otherwise would change the past.
I believe this rounds out the philosophical objections to my view. I have presented a valid argument for Annihilationism. I have endeavored to show that it is sound. If I am correct, then heaven is not assured for all, but it is possible for all. I invite the reader to join me in climbing the mountain to paradise.
To minimize confusion, I will define a few key terms.
(A) Free will: X is free in regard to A iff X can do otherwise
(B) Determinism: X is determined in regard to A iff X doing A is entailed by the conjunction of the laws of nature and the history of the world up to that moment
(C) Compatibilism: Free will and determinism might both be true
‘Libertarian’ free will affirms (A) and denies both (B) and (C)
‘Compatibilist’ free will affirms (A), (B), and (C)
Determinists deny (A) and (C) while affirming (B)