Annihilationism and Eternal Conscious Suffering

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Having ranted about how people use "Both/And" too often and inappropriately, I am now going to play the "Both/And" card myself. ;)

In regards to the question, "What happens to people in Hell?" the traditional answer is that they are in eternal conscious suffering and the non-traditional answer (or at least the one that I care about for this discussion) is that they are annihilated (possibly after suffering some finite period of suffering).

I would like to raise the possibility that the answer is "Both/And". I should here note that I do not (yet) believe that that is the actual answer. Rather, I want to show that "Both/And" is a viable option as (contrary to all appearances) the two positions are not mutually exclusive.

Consider black holes. (Note: I am not here saying that Hell is a black hole. That black holes are hot, dark and unescapable is merely coincidental. I'm just trying to give an example where a person could be in eternal suffering and also be annihilated after a finite time.) Black holes warp space/time in their vicinity to the point where, at the event horizon, they've essentially torn it. This leads to some rather strange results.

(Warning, the following discussion assumes some knowledge of the Relativity. I'll try to keep it simple, but my apologies in advance if I fail to keep it at a low enough level.)

From the frame of reference of a person falling into a black hole, the experience would be painful but finite in duration. That person (we'll call him "Bob") would be either crushed by tidal forces or fried by radiation. Let us say for the purposed of this example that Bob dies at the moment he reaches the event horizon, but that he consciously suffers until he dies. No one really knows what happens after you cross the event horizon of a black hole, but annihilation is a good a guess as any. (It is, in fact, a better guess than most.) From Bob's frame of reference, he suffers for a finite period of time, then dies, and then is annihilated.

Now let us look at a different frame of reference...

Alice is watching Bob fall into the back hole from her spaceship a safe distance away. From her frame of reference, Bob never actually reaches the event horizon. Due to time dilation (i.e. the warping of space/time around the black hole), Bob, from Alice's frame of reference, falls more and more slowly towards the event horizon. He gets ever closer, moving ever slower, but he will never actually fall into the black hole. From Alice's frame of reference, Bob endures eternal conscious suffering.

Keep in mind that neither of these is "what actually happens" while the other one is "just an illusion". They are both "what actually happens" according to relativity theory. From Alice's frame of reference, Bob really does endure eternal conscious suffering, and from Bob's frame of reference, he really does endure a finite period of suffering followed by annihilation. Neither one is "more right" than the other; each version of the events is correct in regards to the appropriate frame of reference.

Thus it is possible for both the traditional view and the annihilationist view to be correct. That the Bible would more often use the language of eternal conscious suffering makes sense as the authors are presumably not writing from the frame of reference of descending into Hell. But such language does not necessarily exclude Annihilationism from the frame of reference of the person actually descending into Hell.

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I have been reflecting on that in relationship to the church, How many issues facing the church today are a result of people feeling when they should be thinking? Read More

27 Comments

This is very clearly expalined. Reminds me of reading Swinburne's explanation of determinism and free-will/randomness using quantum mechanics, quarks and leptons. I can't remember in detail what he wrote, but it has something to do with the fact that in the physical world where physical laws seem to be at work, yet in the sub-molecular level, everything seems to be random and unpredictable.

Jeremy:

Very interesting and heuristic post! I had never stopped to think about such a possibility and, although I'm not convinced at this point (even as you), it is something to consider.

I'm not the philosopher or scientist that you are, but are these two options - annihilationism and eternal punishment - considered antinomies (as opposed to antitheses or whatever the noun form is of antithetical)? Is it a paradox?

There seem to be numerous examples of such antinomies (?) in Scripture, as you point out, but I had never stopped to consider this.

One last thing, what verses or passages do you believe argue for or can be adduced to support annihilationism?

Thanks again for making me think.

I think Keith DeRose suggested something similar about eternal punishment and universal salvation, but I can't seem to find where he said it. The idea was that each person would be saved eventually, but from the perspective of looking on from outside, there might always still be someone suffering in hell. I'm not sure how his way of doing it was supposed to work out if there are a finite number of people, though. Your explanation of the same sort of thing could do it, because each person is always still suffering from the outsider's point-of-view. The only question I have is whether this really could happen with something like a black hole, even if it went on forever. Would it have to reach the result at some point?

Incidentally, there was a great Stargate episode that relied on this phenomenon. They opened a Stargate to a world near a black hole, and the people on the other side were nearly frozen with respect to the people on earth. The time dilation eventually began to affect the other side after they couldn't close the gate, and someone made a trip to D.C. and back (they're somewhere out west) within something like a half hour on base time. Later that season, they put a force field around another gate, opened it to the same planet (it was moving so slowly that it hadn't been pulled in yet), and then sent the gate into a sun, which promptly exploded.

The only passages I know of that seem to favor annihilationism over universalism or eternal punishment are the statements about eternal death. How is it eternal death if it never ends? Death is the end of something, normally. Of course, there's then the problem of how it's eternal. All the other arguments I can think of for annihilationism are not derived from scripture but from a controversial philosophical assumption, e.g. about what love, mercy, justice, or a certain view of the human soul requires.

I haven't looked at it in awhile, but I'm pretty sure that death in the Bible does not mean extinction but separation. Physical death is the unnatural separation of the human spirit from the body; spiritual death is separation from God. When the former catches up with the latter, then spiritual death is permanent.

If this is true, then eternal separation is possible; eternal death, as you point out, seems to be an oxymoron.

Hello Jeremy,

Facinating stuff. Never been on a "blog" before, so I'm not quite sure who may be welcome and who may not. For the sake of brevity I'll assume I am unless told otherwise.

I would like to make some observations about your "Both/And" proposition. But first I need to get my facts straight so that I can make a intelligent argument. If the following is incorrect, let me know. It seems to me that the theory of relativity "requires" at least two observers from two different frames of reference, respectively. If this is true, then an interesting problem arises that I think needs our attention.

The question is, "who is really suffering here?" From Bob's frame, his suffering lasts for a while, then, thankfully, ends. But from Alice's perspective, she has to endure the sight of a fellow human being suffering for all time. I should think that any suffering, no matter how light, that endures "forever" would of necessity be infinite in nature. So in order for the "Both/And" argument to stand, we really have to have a kind of juxtaposition of the just and the unjust (I presume represented by the characters in this senario), and it seems the just (Alice) are the ones actually suffering "eternal torments". I'm assuming, of course, that our God-given affections, perfected, if you will, by regeneration, remain in tact. If, however, God wishes to prevent Alice from suffering this kind of emotional torment, He simply removes Alice from her frame of reference. Since there is no "second" frame of reference, relativity does not come in to play and Bob is simply annihilated.

Perhaps I'm interjecting in to this discussion something you never intended to be interjected. But I wonder of what profit a discussion like this might be divorced from our affections and the realities of the world around us. Suppose that Bob and Alice were in love. The "Both/And" argument becomes a tangled mess of unresolvable difficulties and our speculations about the fate of the disobedient from our relative position of safety (i.e., "saved") becomes a futile attempt at relieving the uneasiness we have with a God who would allow these things to occur in the first place. But suppose that Alice hates Bob, which I find to be untenable since the NT writers equate hatred in one's heart with murder, and should not be a quality of the redeemed, that still does not relieve the difficulty. Alice's observation would, it seems, lead to an "eternal hatred" of Bob, something that I hope, at least, God would not allow. In either case, Alice would at some point be removed from her frame, and the "Both/And" argument from the position of relativity crumbles.

Sorry, the above should have been directed toward Wink, not Jeremy.

I've pulled my head out, cleaned my glasses and should be fine. The ambulance is on the way. I'll let you know.

Interesting post, Jeremy. I think Harvey's on to a bit of an interesting objection--the possibility of there being no second frame of reference. But, I'm wondering about a little different question, namely, how does God's knowledge figure into this? I usually like to think of Him as having a "perspective-free" frame of reference, no frame of reference at all (A God's eye point of view for God!). Your argument only works if there is no such thing as the frame-of-referenceless view that I usually ascribe to God. And if at all possible I'd like not to give that up.

Though, I may just be hopelessly naive about the consequences of relativity for my noetic structure.

I don't know what Wink will think of the perspective-free view of God (it was his post, by the way, not mine), but I don't like it that conception at all. I think the best way to think of God when it comes to physical frames of reference is that God knows all the truths within each frame of reference and therefore can perceive from within all frames of reference. Since the frames of reference exist, and God knows everything, then God must know from within all the frames. I don't think it's possible to think of anything physical without thinking in terms of a frame of reference. So I'm not sure that's a problem for Wink's proposal.

Dr.MR - are these two options - annihilationism and eternal punishment - considered antinomies...Is it a paradox?"

Generally, a biblical antimony is when the Bible clearly asserts two positions that are, as far as we can tell, mutually exclusive. Under normal circumstances, one or both of those positions must be false due to non-contradiction. However, since we hold that the Bible is inerrant, then both positions must be true. So...paradox.

The annihilationism/eternal-suffering debate is generally not considered an antimony as the Bible doesn't really assert both. (I think that the Bible might say things that imply annihilationism, but nothing that explicity demands it.) And almost noone on either side of the debate thinks that the Bible asserts both. Thus is isn't so much an antimony as much as a regular run-of-the-mill argument.

I wrote this post to show that maybe the two positions are not mutually exclusive.

Jeremy - Would it have to reach the result at some point?

To the best of my understanding of relativity, no, it never has to reach the black hole from Alice's frame of reference.

How is it eternal death if it never ends? Death is the end of something, normally. Of course, there's then the problem of how it's eternal.

Presumably, it is eternal because there would be no resurrection from it. The death/annihilation is never undone. If you allow for 4D gappy objects, then the qualifier "eternal" is important. With gappy objects, it is not inaccurate to sayt that something is annihilated, and then it pops back into existence. With annihilationism, it needs to be made clear that the person who has been annihilated in hell will never come back into existence. Thus "eternal death".

All the other arguments I can think of for annihilationism are not derived from scripture but from a controversial philosophical assumption

Maybe I'll write a post on why I'm inclined towards some sort of annhilationism even though I don't wnat to let go of the traditional view...

Dr.MR - I haven't looked at it in awhile, but I'm pretty sure that death in the Bible does not mean extinction but separation.

I hear that a lot (not just in this context), but I'm not so convinced. I have a hard time imagining that the original readers were thinking "separation" every time they read "death" in the Scriptures. Death is such an everyday common occurrence that it seems that they would think of their everyday experience rather than the more abstract "separation".

Harvey and Dave - Relativity does not require two different observers in two different frames of reference. Relativity states (or at least the portion relevant to this discussion) that the events that occur in a frame of reference are entirely accurate and true. Those same events, when seen from another frame of reference must be talked about somewhat differently. Thus, two events that are simultaneous in one frame may be separated by some amount of time in another. Or something that is eternal in one frame may last for a finite duration in another.

However, no frame requires any other frame for existence. With no other frames of reference, Relativity (or the relevant portion thereof) simply becomes boring (it reduces to standard Newtonian Physics). But it changes nothing about events.

I don't know if this explanation changes anything you want to say.

As for God having a "perspective-free" frame of reference, I'm gonna have to disagree. It seems more likely that God sees reality from all frames of reference. God is omniscient, so it makes sense that He would know all things from all frames. God knowing all frames of reference would validate all of them.

(And of course, Jeremy has just said the same thing, so sorry for duplicating his statements.)

Right, I can see how eternal death comes out to mean that on the traditional view. It just seems on the face of it like an eternal process rather than an event that is over and then merely has eternal consequences. Your account with the black hole analogy actually seems to capture both the eternal element and the death element.

Wink:

You are correct in saying that death was a common, everyday occurence for the Hebrews and all ancient people groups. But for the Hebrew mind, in the OT and the NT (with the exception of the Sadducees), death was not a cessation of existence but continuation in a different form. Certainly some of the Greeks by the time of the NT had doubts about continuing existence beyond the grave, but not the Jews. I think the OT and the NT is full of examples of people expressing their belief in a continuance, not a cessation, of life. The oral and written traditions affirmed the belief.

Perhaps separation is not the best word, but annihilationism is more of a Western concept than a biblical or Eastern one.

Dr.MR - Ah, I get what you mean now. I don't think that that is a fatal objection to my "Both/And" proposal. As far as I can tell, neither the Hebrew nor Greek mindset required that the "continuance of life" after death be an everlasting continuance. Why not a "continuance of life" that lasts for some finite time (from Bob's frame of reference)? And of course, from Alice's frame of reference, there is no contradiction at all with what you are saying.

"Eternal death" was indeed both an Hebraic and Eastern/Greek concept, as was the continuance of life after death. But this "continuance" was spoken of, not merely in terms of continuation of conscienceness, but in terms of "transmigration". i.e., reincarnation. It is arguable that the ancient Hebrew sages incorporated the concept from the Greeks through their many contacts with them in the captivities. Eternal death was only for the finally impenitent.

I find this to be, however, a facinating phenomenon. It is almost universally agreed upon by scholars of the OT Hebrew that the concepts of eternal torments and transmigration of souls are not taught in the original languages. Question is, where did they come from?

Josephus tells us that the Pharisee's and the Essene's both taught the concept of "eternal death". These they termed "adios thanaton" (eternal death), or, "athanaton thanaton" (deathless death), or "athanaton timorio" (deathless torments). None of these phrases appear in the LLX, and, interestingly enough, neither do they appear in NT. This is, to me, absolutely fascinating, because, Paul, a Pharisee, and the man who wrote most of the NT, never uses any of these phrases although he was very familiar with them, as was most of the greek-speaking world. In fact, it could be argued that he never really even teaches the concept at all.

The question that naturally comes to mind is, "If the whole greek-speaking world new these concepts and phrases, why didn't Jesus or His apostles simply use the words and phrases that were already familiar to them in describing what happens to the disobedient after death?" It almost seems to be a denial from silence of the common notions about the afterlife among both the Greeks and Jews.

Besides, if death is to be abolished as the last enemy, how can it possibly be eternal, or how can anyone be held in it into infinity?

Eternal death is in the New Testament, or at least both terms are associated with what seems to me to be the same one phenomenon. Matthew 25 and many other places, e.g. Rev 14, talk about eternal suffering or eternal destruction, and Revelation 20 and other places refer to the same thing as death. I'd be very suprised if there isn't a passage that uses both terms, but it doesn't matter if one passage does. The two elements are associated with the same thing in different passages by the same author in Revelation, and I believe you'll find other corpora that do the same thing.

Harvey I guess it probably bears researching what "death" is, Biblically speaking. Then perhaps seeing what it means to be eternally in whatever state that is and what is being ended when speaking of it. I mean in one place we're told it has a sting...odd creature that.

1Co 15:55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (ISV)

Indeed, where can it be found, except in the popular theology?

How different did the Greek Fathers view death. While it is indeed our enemy, it is an enemy that God uses as a blessing. They actually viewed it as a tender mercy from God. And it's not too difficult to see why.

Gen 3:22 And Jehovah God said, Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever,
Gen 3:23 therefore Jehovah God sent him out from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken.
Gen 3:24 And He drove out the man. And He placed cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

What a mercy it is that God should prevent us from living in our corrupted, sinful state forever. Death is, in fact, the only way to move from one kind of existence to another. When Adam sinned, he died to the life of Paradise, to the Life of God. The only way back to the Garden was through the flaming sword of the Cherubim, signifying that the only way back to that life was through death.

So St. Paul:
Rom 6:6 This we know--that our old self was nailed to the cross with Him, in order that our sinful nature might be deprived of its power, so that we should no longer be the slaves of sin;
Rom 6:7 for he who has paid the penalty of death stands absolved from his sin.
Rom 6:8 But, seeing that we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him; (Weymouth)

Notice particularly verse 7. (Both Dr. Robertson and Dr. Vincent are in agreement that this is a correct translation.) How often Paul gives us this picture. It is only through the death of Christ that salvation comes to the world, and through His resurrection the promise of new life.

So it is that death is a great benefit to us. It absolves us of our sin. It is the penalty we all must pay. For the believer it is a penalty that is paid now, in this life, in our death with Christ, in our death to sin and the world. For the disobedient, there is a second death awaiting them.

So, if death is a portal, a passage through which we all must go to enter life, a penalty that must be paid whether in this life or the next, and by it be absolved of our sin, and is at length to be destroyed, how can it be eternal?

There's an interesting response at Vacuum Energy. Any thoughts, Wink?

Harvey, that seems to me to be a decent argument that the first death can't be eternal. The issue is whether the second death can be.

I posted my comments to Joseph's response over at Vacuum Energy.

Are you guys believers? In Jesus? In the Bible? I just came accross this thinking and wonder if there's any believers who think
This way. I brought it up to a couple of friends and
they got upset. I read somewhere that death and hell
Are here. That's why Jesus said you must be born again. I just know I cannot believe something just because it will make
People happy.I've always felt there was more to what Jesus was saying than traditional Christianity wants to believe. It just seems so controlling to get mad at someone because they question the general beliefs of other believers. I mean, what did Jesus really mean when he said "you must eat my flesh and drink my blood?" I just think Jesus was way deeper than we know. Science has proven that God was right to have them wash under running water. Bacteria grows in standing water. The disciples didn't understand Him and tbr Jews said These things are hard to listen to. They had to trust. So do we, to a certain extent, but now knoledge has increased and we understand so much more. I don't know a lot about black holes but I am feddinstly going to look into this, Maybe I'll even share it with my friends.....maybe not! I will share it with my sons and another friend who I know who doesn't have a problem with considering things. Maybe they have input.

WOW is this hard to do on a blackberry pearl! Please forgive my mistakes. I couldn't do a correction on this pearl. Shucks.

There's a difference between (1) God giving a command and people later finding out a deeper justification for it besides what they already knew at the time and (2) God giving a command that the people who heard it couldn't at the time have any clue how to follow and only 2000 years later people figure it out with science. I think there's enough in the New Testament to make it clear that the second case doesn't fit with what Jesus was all about.

Nevertheless, I don't think the ancient Hebrews were so ignorant that they didn't know not to drink standing water. The Bible is full of metaphors that assume running water as fresh in a way that standing water is not, and those metaphors would make no sense if they didn't have this knowledge. We have a tendency to want to make the ancients look stupid, but they knew a lot more than you might expect. They just didn't know what was going on on a microbial level.

I don't know who "you guys" is supposed to refer to, but I know that a number of people involved in this discussion are Christians. I can't speak for everyone.

Clever! But I think hell must work the opposite way round from the black hole: punishment there lasts for ever from the perspective of those falling into it, but for a finite time as seen by those outside so that it can all be over before the final consummation of all things. This reminds me of Frank Tipler's Omega Point theory, in which eternal life is emulated in computers in a collapsing universe, which because their speed increases to infinity are able to perform an infinite number of operations in the finite time before the collapse.

I am not suggesting that the Omega Point theory is true, although it is certainly interesting. I see Tipler has now published a book The Physics of Christianity, which sounds fascinating!

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