Is annihilationism possible?

void_of_non_existence_by_PeterioWe’re not a theological paparazzi endlessly pursuing commentary on Greg Boyd. But of all open theist thinkers/writers, Greg’s growing published works, blog entries and public speaking mean his views and positions are presented to thousands of readers and listeners around the world. There is hardly a more popular, more regularly followed, more influential open theist thinker on the planet. Plus we just have more fun engaging his ideas!

In this post we’d like to bring Greg’s present position on hell into conversation with arguments made in — you guessed it — his own (earlier) Trinity & Process (T&P). We’re not here to argue for or against specific views of hell or for or against the specific claims Greg makes in T&P which we’ll argue make his annihilationism impossible. We just thought it would be interesting to set the two side by side. If we’re very lucky, Greg might (somewhere, sometime) unpack his present position on annihilation in terms of arguments he makes in T&P which, as we will show, make his annihilationism (metaphysically speaking) an impossibility. But apart from any specific engagement from him, hey, it’s still educational to consider the similarities and differences.

Greg’s position(s) on hell have appeared variously in Satan and the Problem of Evil, in several podcast sermons, in the film/documentary Hellbound? and more recently on radio. He is “inclined” to annihilationism. Generally speaking this is the view that the condemned wicked who finally reject Christ cease to exist. There are a couple of qualifications to Greg’s version of this view which are worth noting. First, the annihilation of the lost is not a positive act on God’s part. God doesn’t exterminate people. That would be the ultimate violence. All the violence of the Old Testament combined wouldn’t compare to the violence of pushing the metaphysical button on somebody and positively exterminating them. Greg is absolute in his rejection of the belief that God ever does violence. Even in the case of annihilation as judgment, the consequence in question (passing into non-existence) has to be “organic” to creaturely choice. Existence being what it is (dependent upon God as “ground” of being), it simply follows naturally/organically that if we irrevocably sever ourselves from that ground, we have no being. We pass into non-existence.

This leads to the second important feature of Greg’s annihilationism. While some annihilationists believe the extermination of the wicked is judgment for a lifetime of sin (regardless of the actual dispositional state of the wicked — and we’ll get to ‘dispositions’ in just a sec), Greg insists that annihilation follows only on the condition that a person become irrevocably solidified against God. That is, one’s very being (will, character, disposition) must have become irrevocably fixed against God, rendering all future prospects of Godward movement impossible, for annihilation even to be possible. Greg is clear that so long as there is any possibility of Godward movement, God (being unconditional love) would not withdrawal himself and so foreclose upon that possibility. Annihilation only follows when the person in question irrevocably solidifies in their rejection of God. God then removes himself absolutely (from any role in sustaining a person’s existence). Final irrevocability is simply coterminous with a person’s passing into non-existence.

Of all versions of annihilation on the market, Greg’s has definite advantages. It avoids the problem of supposing that an unconditional divine love would ever cease pursuing the well-being and good of anyone, even those in hell, so long as there was hope. It also emphasizes the organic nature of (in Greg’s view, all) divine judgment. God doesn’t positively pull the plug on creaturely existence. He merely withdrawals himself from creaturely existence and let’s the consequence of his withdrawal follow naturally (never mind for the moment whether or not this really absolves God from the doing of violence). And it also denies that finite sins committed in this life can in themselves be just grounds for annihilation. One has to be irrevocably fixed in one’s disposition against God. At that point, divine withdrawal resulting in a persons’s non-existence is an act of mercy and love.

However, we’d like to suggest that the irrevocable solidification (by whatever terms it’s defined) Greg’s view requires is, given Greg’s own arguments in T&P, impossible. We’re not here renewing our objections to Greg’s passibilism or his view of the dissolution of God’s triune actuality on the Cross. All that aside, this is an entirely different issue about arguments he makes in T&P regarding what invariantly constitutes human existence per se and how that in turn makes irrevocable solidification against God impossible. It is Greg’s dispositional ontology, viewed in aesthetic terms as an irreducible appetite for aesthetic satisfaction, which makes irrevocable solidification against God a metaphysical impossibility.

In Ch. 3 of T&P Greg introduces the concept of ‘dispositions’ as a central feature of his response to Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics. Dispositions are those ‘powers’ or ‘capacities’ that define us essentially. It would take too much space to unpack all that Greg has to say about dispositions, but essentially he argues that all created subjects are irreducibly dispositions toward some aesthetic satisfaction. Greg also understands dispositions in terms of Whitehead’s “divine subjective aims” (which aims are God, present in the created subject, offering that subject her telos, which itself is understood as an experience of value or aesthetic satisfaction).

“It is the insight of Whitehead and Hartshorne that there is an aesthetic dimension to all experience which, I believe, can furnish us with another very fruitful model of dispositions. If beauty is indeed a priori, and if becoming is, therefore, essentially a becoming towards ‘aesthetic satisfaction’, then it is reasonable to construct a model of dispositions which reflects this dimension of reality. I believe that the Process concept of a ‘subjective aim towards aesthetic satisfaction’ furnishes us with just such a model.”

These subjective aims as well are the “eschatological essence” (a phrase Greg appropriates from Pannenberg) of created entities, and they’re defined as aesthetic in nature. That is, the divine subjective aim for subjects is their divinely intended aesthetic enjoyment grounded in a dispositional appetite for such enjoyment. This dispositional appetite (a) is the creature’s “essence,” and (b) defines what a thing ought to be or what its God intended telos is, its possibility for being (and in this sense is equivalent to Maximus the Confessor’s notion of the logoi of created things). There is a great deal of argument Greg goes into to establish the need for positing such dispositions which we can’t mention here. Simply said, in terms of Greg’s arguments, human being (indeed, all subjective experience) already possesses a certain irrevocability, i.e., it is irrevocably a dispositional appetite for some measure of aesthetic enjoyment. This is Greg’s dispositional-ordinal interpretation of autonomy.

“Thus, we may say that what all beings, experiential or non-experiential, have in common is not that they are experiential centers, but that they are essentially dispositions towards an actualization which is defined by a generally determinate aesthetic role to play in relation to other actualizations. This role may, from the perspective of aesthetic experience, be strictly contributive (“matter”), or both contributive and receptive (experiencing subjects).”

Butterflies_Becoming_Fire_2The dispositional essence of humanity just is its openness to becoming with respect to God’s subjective aim. This openness is our essential existence, and this is what makes Greg’s annihilationism impossible. Given our dispositional essence, there simply is no mechanism by which we can dispose ourselves out of our groundedness in God’s subjective aims, out of our logos, out of the dispositional openness to our God-defined possibilities. And the reason is simple: We don’t determine the dispositional ground of our openness to God. It is God’s gracious gift to us, the act of his unconditional love of us and the very expression of his positive regard for us, his “image in us.” As our ‘ground’, our dispositional essence precedes any free exercise of its capacities by us and thus already is the possibility of our becoming. Dispositional subjects that we are, we are aysemmetrically related to our ground. There simply is no way, given Greg’s arguments in T&P, for Greg to suppose we can ever dispositionally foreclose upon such becoming in an irrevocable way. Annihilationism, understood as involving an irrevocable dispositional foreclosure, is a metaphysical impossibility. The creature may remain free (dispositionally) to say no to God on occasion, and even to solidify to a great degree. But she is not capable of uttering an irrevocable ‘no’, that is, to use her God-given and God-sustained capacities to render those same capacities permanently incapable of responding positively to God. We cannot irrevocably foreclose upon the very dispositional capacities that define our essential freedom and choice to begin with. So the irrevocability Greg’s annihilationism requires is not, given his own work, a metaphysical possibility.

In what is the irrevocability of our openness to Godward becoming grounded? Good question. The only answer can be that it is grounded in the unconditional love of God’s subjective aims for us. So long as we are loved unconditionally, we are unconditionally open (to whatever minimal measure) to Godward becoming. For God’s love of us is the possibility of our freedom to move in his direction. “Wherever the Spirit is, there is freedom.” To exist at all is to be invited Godward, and God’s invitations constitute our freedom to respond. In short, existence is invariantly an invitation to Godward becoming independent of any response on our part. To suppose then (as Greg now does) that a person can employ her dispositional God-given essence to irrevocably remove herself from the empowering reach of God’s invitation is utter metaphysical nonsense (given his own T&P that is).

(Pictures here and here.)

3 comments on “Is annihilationism possible?

  1. tgbelt says:

    Other than considering irrevocable solidification into evil a metaphysical impossibility, T&P would also rule out (irrevocable) eternal conscious torment. The first is ruled out by virtue of the already irrevocable openness of human being grounded in an unconditional love that invites us ever Godward. The second is ruled out by the unconditionality of God’s loving subjective aims for us. We cannot irrevocably reject God, and he cannot fail to love and pursue the highest good in him of that which he creates.


  2. tgbelt says:

    I think it might be worth doing my own For Dummies edition of Trinity & Process. Simple lingo and boil it down to under 100 pages. Hmmm.


  3. Jacob Hunt says:

    Good argument.


    “I think it might be worth doing my own For Dummies edition of Trinity & Process. Simple lingo and boil it down to under 100 pages. Hmmm.”

    Indeed! I sure could use it.


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