The Annihilationism Debate

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(Note: this is wink writing this, not Jeremy. I know I haven't written a post in forever, so I'm warning you up front who I am.)

I'm currently writing (or more accurately, procrastinating from writing) a five page paper. The assignment is to take an issue about which Evangelicals might disagree, lay out both positions, and show why you take the position you do.

My plan is to discuss Hell: Annihilationism vs Eternal Conscious Suffering, and then conclude with an edited version of this post.

As is my habit, I've done far too much research for a short paper, and therefore have too much to say. Since I can't cram it all into the paper, some of it is going to come out here. Sorry.

The first thing I noticed about the debate was how shoddy it is, especially from the traditionalist side. Now, I think both sides have strong arguments and a few of the principals involved are terrific. But the average (mode) argument is pathetic.

Probably the most frustrating argument was when traditionalist would "refute" annihilationism by listing off a long string of verses that discuss hell. They would conclude that:
1) hell exists
2) annihilationism is therefore wrong
3) therefore, hell = eternal conscious suffering.
Now, while they do a pretty good job of proving (1), they don't do a thing to prove (2). It is as if (2) is a logical consequence of (1). Which it isn't.

Annihilationists don't dispute the existence of hell--they dispute the nature of hell. The argument above might work against most versions of Universalism, but it doesn't prove a thing against annihilationism.

The other majorly annoying thing about the average (mode) traditionalist argument was the assumption that annihilationists all gave up on inerrency. While that is certainly true of some, their assumption that you can't make a biblical argument for annihilationism was pretty maddening.

Really, the only traditionalist arguments that I found to be solid were the ones that were directly refuting John Stott. The rest were largely not worth reading. So if you want to read up on the subject, make sure that "John Stott" is one of your keywords or you may just end up pulling your hair out in frustration.

25 Comments

Hi
I am an annihilationist. Yes its true. I havent given up on inerrancy or any such thing, in fact, my search for the truth has only strengthened my faith and belief in the word.
While at seminary I was studying Gen 1-3. We started discussing the image, and then life, then eternal life, and then the eviction and blocking of access to the tree of [eternal] life. It then occurred to me that human beings since the fall are not eternal. Eternity only exists for those within eden (symbolically).
That led me to review several things that I had thought about the nature of hell and punishment.
I then realised that Jesus suffered my punishment for sin on the cross. Paul says (and so did God in gen 2) that the wages of sin is death. Jesus died, then rose again. He didnt suffer an eternal torment on the cross.

I then went on to discover that pretty much all the evidence for an eternal punishing in hell could be explained adequately in other ways, which left me thinking the traditional view then did not have strong evidence.

Anyway, a friend of mine at seminary provided a great sounding board. Check out some of what he has written on the subject:
http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/

If someone wants someone to argue about the nature of Hell with (especially if they are a traditionalist) Glenn Peoples is the man to take up the challenge.

Anyway, I appreciate the discussion, feel free to email me if you want to chat about it more.

Wink, have you read Carson's chapter on this in The Gagging of God? My annihilationist pastor says it's the best thing on the subject that he's read, and he doesn't even agree with the conclusion. He thinks Carson doesn't account well enough for the idea of eternal death, but he otherwise says it's very good. Carson does directly discuss Stott, although he also deals with Pinnock and others.

I haven't read Carson's chapter yet. I'll try and get it before I write the paper, though I probably have everything I need already to write it.

My own position is that Annihilationism makes more overall sense and has solid biblical backing. Traditionalism also has strong backing and neither position's refutations seem quite strong enough to disprove the other. So I came up with my "compromise" that allows for both (since, it seemed to me, that Scripture teaches both). But from a systematic/paradigmatic view, Annhilationism fits for me better.

However, I disagree with traditionalists that annihilationism is the more lenient or merciful view. It seems entirely possible to me that God could inflict infinite suffering in finite time. And then in addition, God even removes the positive good of existence. That goes beyond even the traditional view of hell in terms of severity.

Hi Wink,

I kinda think that ultimately the end result is the same regardless of what we think the nature of hell is. Its sad that people get so cranky about it.

The problem I have is that traditionalism presupposes an anthropology that isnt biblical (the eternity of the soul for all), this is apart from and more serious than any understanding of the symbolism of destruction/punishment. This misunderstanding then leads to other errors in theology.

The problem I have is that traditionalism presupposes an anthropology that isnt biblical (the eternity of the soul for all)

Huge beef with that myself. The careful traditionalists made sure to point out that the soul was not inherently eternal; rather eternality was gifted to each person (usually upon resurrection). That was often followed with an insistence that they believe in the eternality of souls because of their findings on hell, not the other way around. (I may be reading too much into it, but that insistence always sounds like "I think they doth protest too much" to me.)

At any rate, I get quite a few weird looks at Seminary whenever I say something like "I don't believe that souls are inherently immortal." Frustrating.

What about God's statement that if they eat of the fruit they'll die? Doesn't that suggest that if they hadn't eaten of it they wouldn't have died?

Adam and Eve's immortality is usually explained as gifted immortality, not inherent immortality. Otherwise you run into problems with 1 Timothy 6:16 which indicates that God alone is immortal. The immortality of heaven is similarly gifted to us. The question that most annihilationists raise is why bother gifting those going to hell with immortality?

Jeremy - the Gagging of God was already checked out when I went to get it this evening. So I won't be reading it before this paper is due (Mon). Bummer.

I for one can't understand anyone being impressed by Carson's comments on hell in The Gagging of God. In fact I think he falls headlong into using techniques that he himself attacks in his earlier book, Exegetical Fallacies. I actually did a three part podcast on this topic recently, but all I'd say in summary is that the opponents of annihilationism are pretty much fighting an exegetical battle without weapons.

Glenn, can you provide any examples? I've read that chapter, and I didn't think it was terrible. I wanted a couple stronger arguments in a few places, but it didn't seem to me to be remotely in the area of the terrible arguments he discusses in the other book.

One of the problems I've long had with the arguments he's trying to respond to is that they're the sort of totalizing claims that if they're true there's no way anyone could respond, and maybe that's what's driving your complaint. You can redefine a term and then reinvent a whole way of conceiving statements with that term, adjusting their meaning in context in every known occurrence so that the new meaning is what it always meant. Then every complaint against doing so is going to look exegetically fallacious. That's what he thinks was done with terms like "aionian".

Now maybe he's wrong, and if he is then his arguments do seem fallacious, but if he's not then the problem is in redefining the term, as he says. Given that the term has almost always been taken in the way he takes it throughout a very long church history, and there's a plausible exegetical fallacy that would lead people to take it the other way, it's not surprising that there's strong resistance to taking it the way annihilationists insist, and it's not surprising that annihilationists think the arguments are fallacious. Is that the kind of thing you meant, or am I not dealing with the kinds of arguments you're talking about?

Jeremy, I think Carson uses a couple of different types of bad argument in that chapter, actually. One that is just wildly fallacious is where he engages in the fallacy of the "illegitimate totality transfer," as he calls it. This is committed where he tries to drag the entire range of possible meanings of the words in the "apoleia word group," for example, into specific contexts so that he can argue that the meaning is not "destroy" in some literal sense. Now of course, all annihilationists agree that words like these do have a range of possible meanings, but we are not free to just help ourselves to that range of meanings when it suits us. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Carson has done.

Quite coincidentally, I mentioned this, along with another poor argument from Carson, in a recent three-part series on the doctrine of hell in my podcast. The content of those three episodes is in a paper put together for the episodes, here.

Blessings
Glenn

Oh, whoops, I just realised that I had already mentioned the podcast episodes in a previous post. I had forgotten that I'd done that.

I can't really do podcasts, so I'm glad you've posted the paper. If I'm working, I can't be distracted by content that I have to think about, since my work involves thinking carefully about content. If I'm not working, there are usually people around and lots of noise going on, and I'm not going to compete with that or contribute to it by playing podcasts on my computer. So I rarely listen to anything on my computer. It's much easier to have a document to look at where I can scan quickly to find the part I need anyway. Podcasts have always seemed backward to me given how much easier it is to find things with printed text.

I'll have to look at it again when I get back to my books, but I'm not sure you've correctly described what Carson has done in either case. In the one you present here, he's arguing against an argument, if I remember correctly. His point, as I remember it (and your discussion of it in the paper fits with this), is that the word need not mean "destroy absolutely". The objection against the traditional view is that it doesn't allow for a literal interpretation of this word, and his response is that it does, because absolute destruction isn't all the word means. That's not an illegitimate totality transfer. Maybe I remember it wrongly, though, so I'll have to look. But from what you quote in your paper, I have no reason to believe he commits this fallacy.

As for the Edom/Sodom/Gomorrah argument in your paper, I think you've misrepresented his argument for it to come out circular. He's not arguing that Rev 14 shows the traditional view to be true, which would indeed be circular. All he's doing is suggesting a way that it can fit with the traditional view. That's not circular, since he's not arguing that it must be taken that way. There's a big difference between arguing for a view while taking the same view for granted (what you accuse him of) and defending a view against an objection, which does assume the view is true by its own terms (what he seems to do given what you quote of him).

I've had a chance to look at Carson, and my impression of what he was up to on the first issue seems to be uncontrovertibly true. He even says it explicitly:

None of this response so far demonstrates that the words in the New Testament for destruction, found in the context of perdition, necessarily refer to something eternally ongoing. The only point so far is that they do not militate against such a view, and therefore the issue itself must be decided on other grounds.

Stott gave an argument that the word for destruction must be taken to mean that the person destroyed ceases to exist. Carson responded that the word can mean more than that, and it depends on the context. That's the only conclusion he thinks he's established at this point, so there's no illegitimate totality transfer.

On this point, one statement you make in your paper related to this is totally unfair. You say that Carson admits that fair exegesis leads to the view that this is total destruction. He does no such thing. What he does is list a bunch of arguments annihilationists give, and one of the arguments annihilationists give makes such a statement. He nowhere endorses that claim. He himself resists it. The only time he uses those words is when he's putting them in the mouth of the annihilationist.

Now that I've had a chance to look again at his Rev 14 discussion in light of your criticism, I'm convinced that it's the same form of argument, although he doesn't put it quite as clearly as he did with the other one. Some have argued that Rev 14 is using imagery from Isa 34, and if that's so then it follows that annihilationism is true. He doesn't deny that it's Isa 34 language or that there's an appropriate comparison, but he denies that you can conclude straightforwardly that it supports annihilationism. He doesn't rule out that interpretation anywhere (and thus your claim to circularity is patently unfair). He does insist that there's another way to read that passage, which means it doesn't establish annihilationism.

Since I've now read his discussion again, I've got a better sense of what his argument is, and I don't think you understand it based on what I see in the paper. He's saying that there are two elements in the Edom passage in Isaiah 34. One is that Edom is destroyed physically. There is no Edom left at the end of the passage. Of course that doesn't imply that Edom doesn't exist anymore, not unless you circularly assume at the outset that annihilationism is true. Your argument actually doesn't work unless you commit the mistake you're accusing him of (but which I don't think he commits). The reason destruction of Edom here doesn't imply its ceasing to exist (unless annihilationism is true) is that their souls continue to exist after they've physically been destroyed.

You might think, then, that he would say it could go either way (based on his earlier discussion). However, he mentions a particular turn of phrase that doesn't fit well with annihilationism. It's funny to speak of "the smoke of their torment" if their torment ends. I searched your paper for this expression, and you do include it in the block quote you give of the Revelation 14 quote. However, you don't mention it anywhere else, including anywhere in your discussion of Carson. Yet it seems to me that that's the keystone of his positive argument for taking this passage according to the traditional interpretation. Carson's argument is that the Revelation 14 passage has language that suggests continuing torment, and if it's continuing torment then the destruction of their physical bodies in the Isaiah passage probably refers not to their ceasing to exist.

That's an argument, and it's not circular. There's no assumption of the traditional view of conscious, eternal hell in his claim that "the smoke of their torment rises forever" sounds funny if annihilationism is true. It does sound like there's no cessation to the torment.

Jeremy, if I may respond to your comments (not necessarily in order).

You say that I portray Carson as admitting that fair exegesis leads to the annihilationist view. You then charge me with misrepresenting Carson. Actually, it is you who is misrepresenting me. I never said this about Carson. I merely quoted his own words: "Fair exegesis of the words involved suggests total destruction, i.e., cessation of existence." That's Carson speaking, not me. I know full well, as I made clear, that he doesn't think the annihilationist view is biblical. Your main charge against me for being "unfair" then was itself entirely unfair.

Secondly, when it comes to the illegitimate totality transfer, I think my comments were perfectly fair. Carson himself knows that it's not good enough to say that a word "need not" mean absolute destruction, when the only thing he is appealing to is semantic range. this is indeed the illegitimate totality transfer, for it is context, and not semantic range alone, that define the limits of plausible meaning.

I also realise that he is not claiming to have proven that "destroy" means eternal torment. He only thinks that at various times it refers to eternal torment. That's not the point. I was faulting him for the way in which he sought refuge from the annihilationist argument that uses the language of destruction, by appealing to the semantic range of the apoleia word group. What he failed to do was to show that in the verses cited by annihilationists, context weighs against literal destruction. And since, as Carson insists, it is context that must have the final say if we are to avoid the illegitimate totality transfer, he falls prey to the very fallacy he warns us away from.

You also mis-diagnose my comments about Carson and Rev 14. I understand fully that he's not arguing that the passage shows eternal torment to be true. I was merely noting that he avoided the annihilationist reading illegitimately by doing little more than assuming that the thing being alluded to was eternal torment. Reading back over his argument, it's clear that he does exactly this.

So with all respect, I think your attempts to defend Carson haven't succeeded. I have indeed understood Carson. Either you have not, or you have not understood me.

On your first point, I think you missed my point. You took Carson's "fair exegesis" statement to be a concession that fair exegesis really does lead to the total destruction view. But that's a complete misreading of what that sentence was doing in his argument. That sentence was not a statement Carson endorsed at all. It was his summary of the view he was responding to. He summarized the annihilationist as saying that. You took it to be a concession that he endorses and then moves away from. That's not at all what it was. So I stand by my claim that you have misrepresented Carson on this issue. He concedes no such thing. Merely pointing out that he constructed the sentence, when he never endorses that sentence, does not establish that it's a concession. It's not.

On the second point, you also seem to have ignored my argument. My argument is that illegitimate totality transfers are of the following form. "A word can sometimes have a certain meaning. Therefore that meaning is part of what it does mean in this particular text." That is not what Carson does. He does not assert on the basis of possible meaning that it does have that meaning. What he does is respond to an argument that it can't have that meaning by pointing out that it can indeed have that meaning. That is not an illegitimate totality transfer. So I stand by my claim that you've completely misrepresented his argument where you claim him to have committed this fallacy.

Your point is correct about the apoleia word group if all you mean to say is that Carson has not given an argument that this context requires the meaning he holds to be true. But I don't think there's any indication in his chapter that he thinks he's done so. He's largely doing negative apologetics in that chapter. He's responding to arguments that annihilationism is the only way to read those passages. He's not giving positive arguments that annihilationism is impossible to read into those chapters. I looked over the sections you discuss very carefully, and I didn't get any sense that he thought he'd established such a positive thesis. So I think it's unfair to treat him as if he thinks he has. But you're right that he hasn't. I just don't think he'd be surprised or feel threatened by such a claim. I think he's well aware that he hasn't done that. I don't think it was his task to do that. I wish he had tried to do that, and he didn't, but for some reason that task wasn't something he was trying to do in that chapter, and I was looking carefully for signs that he did think that, because you seemed to be treating him as if he did.

As I said above, I don't think Carson ignores the annihilationist reading. I think he gives a very specific argument against it. He says "the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever" suggests that their torment is continuing to produce smoke forever and ever.

I looked over the fuller context of your discussion of Carson to see if it helped clarify anything, and then I looked at your discussion of Carson again. I still think you've got his argument wrong. You say he's presenting a circular argument, where the first premise is that hell is eternal torment, and then he goes on to respond to a charge against his view by assuming his view is true. You then call it a circular argument. But that completely misunderstands the kind of argument he's giving. He's not arguing for his eternal torment view here. He's responding to an objection against his view. Carson goes out of his way not to assert that what he's saying is demonstrably true. He says "I suspect", and he says "that is surely less than clear". Both are signposts to his insistence that there is a way to take these passages that does not allow for annihilationism. He's putting a stop to any attempt the annihilationist might make to rule out the eternal suffering view. He's responding to the objection that this verse can't mean what eternal suffering proponents think it means. He's not providing any argument that it must mean eternal suffering. Therefore he doesn't assume eternal suffering to show eternal suffering, and thus he doesn't beg the question the way your paper says he does.

So it's simply not true that he rules out annihilationism by assuming eternal torment. He's defending the possibility of an eternal torment position by thinking through what all these passages can mean if the eternal torment position is true. I see no circularity there unless you assume he's trying to establish the falsity of annihilationism, which you admit he's not doing. So why call it circularity unless you're misrepresenting his argument? It's simply not circular. There's nothing question-begging in his argument the way he presents it.

Now that I've looked at Beale, though, I think you've got his argument wrong too. In his comments on 19:3, he does give an account of how something that refers to final destruction in one passage can refer to ongoing torment in another. His explanation is that even in the final destruction references (including in the original Isaiah passage) there is something ongoing, which is the permanent memorial. You're right to say that the permanent memorial could just be true in both cases if annihilationism is true, and you're right that he doesn't mention this in his comments on 19:3, but that's because he's already given his arguments for eternal torment in his comments on 14:11, where he presents the annihilationist argument before giving two reasons for taking 14:11 to refer to eternal torment, one from the parallel in 20:10 and the other from the word for torment never referring anywhere else to permanent destruction but always referring to conscious torment. So I don't think it's fair to take his 19:3 comments in isolation. He's depending on the arguments he gave earlier, and he even refers back to that verse to steer the reader there, and they can go investigate what he said there for his defense of how he takes that verse. He doesn't need to repeat it at 19:3, which isn't the verse where he's defending such a view.

Well Jeremy, of course you're free too stand by any claim you wish. For what it's worth, I do not think the fair reader will conclude that I have misrepresented Carson. I depicted Carson as describing the annihilationist arguments, using the words I quoted, and then I noted his rejection of those very arguments, calling them "too hasty." Your protest nothwithstanding, you are simply misrepresenting me.

You also *almost* get the illegitimate totality transfer right. In fact the fallacy is more like this: "A word can sometimes have a number of different meanings. Therefore those meanings are available to us in this particular text." And as I demonstrated int he paper, this is exactly the argument Carson uses. He appeals tot he semantic range of the apoleia word group and treats that range as available to us int he texts that annihilationists appeal to, regardless of context. Ergo, he commits the fallacy. Carson is not, as you claim, responding to an argument about what those terms cannot mean. He is responding to a claim about what those words do mean in certain contexts, and his tactic is to appeal to semantic range.

I have no more to add on the "circular argument" charge that I made. I consider that I have substantiated my argument, an argument that you earlier misrepresented.

Moreover, in regard to Beale, it's futile to say that he has indeed defended his view of Rev 19 by defending his view of chapter 14. What's more, his comments on Revelation that I quoted were - by his own admission, an attempt to solve a problem. My comments highlighted a way to avoid the problem altogether. My arguments concerning 14:11 and 20:10 are independent of this, and in fact in other places I deal with those texts in their own right, removing them as a foothold for Beale.

Carson never says the whole semantic range of the apoleia group is available to us in this text on the ground that it does have that range. What he says is that the annihilationist argument hasn't ruled out one meaning in that range, in particular the one that it seeks to rule out. Since he isn't arguing that eternal torment is the only way to read the text, but only that it's a possible way to read the text, then he need not do the former but only the latter. That's therefore not an illegitimate totality transfer, because he hasn't transferred anything. Give me an exact quote where he says that meaning must be present in this text, and he gives no argument other than the possibility of the word meaning that sometimes. You haven't done so, and I haven't seen any such thing in my own reading of his chapter. The burden of proof is on you to show that he really does this, and you haven't done that.

If you want to claim that I've misrepresented you, you need to present the logic of your argument and then show how that logic is not the same logical structure of what I said you said. You haven't done that. You're in fact repeated the structure I presented your argument as having and then claimed that it's not the structure I presented your argument as having. Repeating what I said you said and then saying it's different is not such an explanation.

I didn't see Beale calling it a problem. He did ask a question about why the same expression could refer to eternal suffering of people in one instance and final destruction of a city in the other, and he gave an explanation of how it could. In effect, he explained why it isn't a problem. You've given a different way to avoid a problem. Yours has the virtue of providing a common meaning to both instances, that the expression never means an ongoing process even though it does mean that on the surface. His has the virtue of taking the surface meaning more seriously and offering an explanation of what is ongoing even in the case of final destruction. In neither case is it a problem.

As for ch.14 and ch.19, it would be one thing to mention that in ch.19 he doesn't give any further arguments beyond ones that he's given in ch.14, which you've already argued against elsewhere in the paper (I didn't check to see that you had; I'm trusting that you're accurately reporting what you've done). But the way you present it is as if he's simply undermined his own view without even mentioning that he does present reasons not to take the passage the way you do, and it only undermines his view if the passage can't be taken the way he takes it. That should all be mentioned if you're to be fair to him, because the way you present it makes it sound as if he's got this inconsistency in his position that he doesn't have. Your complaint should be that his way out of the consistency is unmotivated, not that it's incoherent. It's not incoherent. It's just (on your view, because of the other arguments you say you give elsewhere) unmotivated.

Jeremy, I think you are simply wrong about what Carson said, and of all the traditionalists who have objected, you are the first to make the claim that you've made.

Repeating your allegations is merely tiresome. I have noted that I was not attributing the claim to Carson that you alleged, and I even noted that I specifically stated that Carson rejected the argument in question, calling it "too hasty." If you still maintain that in spite of this, I really am attributing the claim to Carson and also noting that he rejects it, calling it too hasty, then I am at a loss as to how to reply to that. You have simply misrepresented me, for the reason already explained.

As for the rest (and for the above, should you want to revisit them), I'll simply let you have the last say. needless to say, I don't think your responses are cogent, for reasons that I have outlined.

Take care
Glenn

Here's what you say:

Carson has sought to remedy this situation for traditionalism by fending off the apparently strong language of destruction in 2 Peter. He concedes that there is an at least reasonable case to be made for annihilationism by appealing to the biblical texts that speak of the destruction of the finally unsaved. He admits while describing the annihilationist view, listing 2 Peter 3:7 as an example, "Fair exegesis of the words involved suggests total destruction, i.e, cessation of existence." But ultimately Carson rejects such arguments as "too hasty."

1. You say Carson thinks the case for annihilationism is reasonable because of the texts that speak of final destruction. I didn't notice anywhere where he describes the case as reasonable, but I won't fight that claim.

2. You use his summary of the annihilationist view (the sentence you quote comes from that part of his discussion) to say that he admits something that he doesn't endorse. The sentence in question does not come from his discussion of the view but from his summary of the view. Nothing in that section can be taken to be Carson's own view, since it's his summary of the view he's about to argue against. He regularly writes like this. Look throughout any of his commentaries or his NT introduction. He's list off several views and explain them all from the perspective of someone who holds the view, and then he's respond by contradicting much of what was said. That does not amount to conceding a point and then rejecting it. It's presenting it and then rejecting it. My objection to you is solely because you use the word 'concedes' here. I don't think Carson does that, and the fact that other people focus on more substantive complaints does not mean that you're right on this score.

I'm not sure why you call me a traditionalist on this issue, either. I've been pretty clear in all my discussions of this on this blog that I'm comfortable with either view, and I think the biblical evidence can go either way. There are passages and expressions suggestive of each view. Wink is an annihilationist, so in his posts on annihilationism I do often present things going the other way in response to some of his arguments, but I'm not sure why you'd assume I definitively hold the opposite view. That doesn't follow at all, and nothing I've said in this post requires that I hold to eternal punishment.

This isn't an issue that I think Christians should divide over or get up in arms about. I just think your presentation of the views and arguments of a number of the people who take the opposing view are not fair. I'm much more concerned about fair presentation of fellow believers' views than I am about which view they hold on an issue where I think both views are compatible with evangelical faith. When I look at these authors' work, I don't see your descriptions of what they say matching up with what they say.

I have a question that's bothered me ever since I came across a strange kind of "logic" in a debate between a universalist and an annihilationist.

The universalist said "one thing is for sure, I could be no better off by being annihilated, because there would be no 'me' to be any better off if 'I' didn't exist."

He said that comparing states of existence to none-existence was a category error (i.e. comparing apples to oranges.)

In other words, no matter how happy I am (here or hereafter), I'm really no "better off" than I would be if I didn't exist; and no matter how I suffer (here or hereafter), I'm really no "worse off" than I would be if I didn't exist.

Isn't there something wrong with that logic?

I mean, if it were true, how could we ever rightly be grateful to God for our existence (without making "a category error")?

And how could we rightly conclude (as universalists and annihilationists do) that a God of love wouldn't create souls He knew would be tormented forever (if they'd really be no worse off in unending torment, than they would be if they never existed)?

My question is, where is the flaw in the above logic?

Here's what I think the objector can reasonably say. At the time you no longer exist, it doesn't make sense to say that you are now existing and worse off, because you don't exist any longer. But I think you can still make sense of its being bad for you that you stop existing. For one thing, you can say of someone now that it would be bad for them if their remaining existence is shorter than it could be. If you give them two options, you can compare them and say that one is a better future for them because it's longer. You can say that they're robbed of some good that never arrives for them because their existence is cut short. Once they cease to exist, you can't say that it's then bad for them, but you can speak to someone who still exists and say that something involving their ceasing to exist is bad for them now.

You can also compare two possible lives and consider which life is a better life. You can do that after the fact. I can ask whether George Washington would have lived a better life if he'd had a third term as president, and he doesn't have to exist for me to do that. It's a perfectly meaningful question to ask if someone's life would have been better had they lived longer, and such questions don't depend on whether they continue to exist in the afterlife.

But it wouldn't make any sense to say that life is a gift, or that you're grateful for your existence?

I'm not sure why that follows. Certainly you don't have any well-being if you don't exist, and so if you have positive well-being then you have greater well-being than if you didn't exist. So you can be glad you exist. It would be strange to say that you couldn't be thankful for something you can be glad for.

As I said, I'm all right with the argument that your well-being goes to zero at the time of your death if you're annihilated, but I think you can say of yourself now that such a fate would rob you of a good future, and that's a bad thing. It takes something good away from you. Even if it's neutral in itself, it's bad in that it removes something you might otherwise attain.

If you have no right to it, then it seems to follow that you should be grateful if you do attain it.

THANK YOU.

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