The annihilation of possibility?

nj7442-539a-i1.0Last October we argued that Greg Boyd’s stance on annihilationism was impossible given arguments he put forward in Trinity & Process (TP). We also pointed out an inconsistency present in his claim that annihilationism is the “organic” (built-in/natural) consequence of irrevocable solidification into evil.

We’ve had zero luck in persuading Greg to re-engage TP’s arguments in a serious way. One of our main interests has been arguments made in TP regarding the irreducibly aesthetic nature of God’s necessary triune experience, not an incidental thesis of TP by any means. Greg did respond by saying he had revised his earlier view. No longer is experience of a personal nature an a priori feature of divine being. The divine persons only contingently experience each other. Another of our interests has been Greg’s arguments in TP for God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” and, of course, the necessary triune nature of this experience. This too is not a position Greg presently holds.

Look, it’s perfectly fine for a scholar to adjust and even change previously held views. Happens all the time. We get that. But it’s a scholar’s academic responsibility to account for the change by actually rebutting previous arguments and showing where those arguments were flawed and what arguments lie behind the change (especially, I should think, when the work in question is a matter of public debate). Unpack things. Make the case for abandoning your previous metaphysics and spell out a new position. This isn’t necessary for minor points of little or no consequence. But in this case we’re talking core, fundamental theses of Greg’s doctoral work.

A third interest we’ve had in Greg’s present views and his previous work in TP has to do with his present inclination toward annihilationism, specifically whether his version of annihilationism is compatible with arguments he made in TP about the essentially aesthetic nature of the dispositional essence of human beings. Greg tweeted that if he in fact argued in TP that the dispositional essence of human beings was “indestructible,” he was wrong. But the point is not that our dispositional essence is indestructible because it has a life of its own independent of God. That’s a two-storied mistake to begin with. The point, rather, is that our dispositional essence as grounded in God is (a priori, Greg argued) essentially an “aesthetic appetite,” and as the essential ground of our existence, this dispositional-aesthetic appetite defines our possibilities, not vice versa. As Greg says, an “ontologically grounded dispositional understanding of aesthetic subjective aims sets the parameters of intelligibility for a future act.” (emphasis mine) And this “intelligibility” is aesthetic in nature, so our possibilities are by definition irreducibly aesthetic in nature. What we “may become” (ultimately) is given to us by God in terms of an aesthetic appetite (disposition) for God which has God as the ground and determiner of its possibilities. Thus all our choices (all conceivable exercise of our dispositional essence) by definition are already an “aiming at” or an “appetite for” some aesthetic experience. There’s simply no metaphysical room to suppose (as Greg now does) that this same dispositional essence can, via its very orientation, vacate itself of all aesthetic appetite. Any ‘choice’ to do that would, per TP, be an aesthetic choice, never possibly less. One could only ‘dispose oneself’ (into non-existence in this case) as an expression of some aesthetic appetite. But per Greg’s organic annihilationism, one is annihilated on account of having dispositionally foreclosed upon all aesthetic appetite. It’s not possible, given the aesthetic nature of our dispositional essence.

We may be totally misconstruing Greg. We’ve invited him to shed light on the relevant texts/arguments in TP. Or if we’re reading him rightly, then, Greg claims, he was wrong. That’s fine too. But he doesn’t get to end it there. Saying you were wrong is just an announcement, not an explanation.

In a word (or maybe several), Greg had insight enough to outline the ontologically grounded and irreducibly aesthetic dispositional essence of human beings. But he failed sufficiently to think through the implications of this metaphysics, viz., to see that his insight renders choice as such an ecstatic desire or appetite for the transcendental good of our ground. As a priori, no intelligence, not even a demonic one, can conceivably fail to manifest its nature as aesthetic appetite. Our essence is invariably, if only implicitly, a desire for that good which is both antecedent ground and telos and determiner of our possibilities. So the very structure of our dispositional essence makes self-annihilation impossible, since to self-annihilate (as Greg supposes) would require far more than the mere ability to falsely world-construct and contradict our telos in doing so, something we’re doubtlessly capable of. It would require our having an appetite which is no appetite for a telos which is no telos and bringing into actuality that which doesn’t lie within the scope of our possibilities.


5 comments on “The annihilation of possibility?

  1. Alan Rhoda says:

    I wasn’t aware that Greg had become an annihilationist. Your critique seems correct, as far as I can tell, though I’m not used to the aesthetic terminology of T&P.

    It also seems that Greg’s kenoticism may have undermined his trinitarianism. If so, then it also undermines the whole metaphysical project of T&P. If “the divine persons only contingently experience each other”, then how can God be essentially triune? What about perichoresis? If there are three divine persons and they are only contingently related, then we have tri-theism not trinitarianism, no? And if they are only contingently related, then why can’t the Father exist without the Son or without the Spirit? What’s to the prevent the Trinity from collapsing into Modalism or Unitarianism?

    In response, I imagine Greg would want to draw a sharp distinction between the Persons’ *experience* of each other and their being *really related* to each other, with the former being contingent and the latter necessary. But what could a non-experienced yet real relation amount to for Divine Persons?


    • tgbelt says:

      I’ve asked Greg those same questions myself. The closest thing to an answer I got (and I don’t want to be unfair, but this was the answer) — You’re still a ‘person’, or the husband of your wife, when you sleep, so why can’t a divine person similarly not be consciously experiencing relationship with the other divine persons and still be a ‘person-in-relation’? The problems are pretty obvious.

      Greg obviously doesn’t want to say any of the divine persons ceases to exist as a person, nor does he want to deny that God is essentially triune. When asked, ‘If God’s concrete, necessary triune actuality isn’t essentially their essential (and thus unbroken) ‘experience’ of one another, or if, say, the Son’s personal existence is reduced immediately post-incarnation to the limited constraints of a zygote, then in what DOES the essential triune oneness obtain?’ No answer.



      • Alan Rhoda says:

        Yeah, that answer Greg gave you is pretty inadequate.

        Seems like Greg doesn’t want to be bothered with thinking about it too hard.

        For my part, I say that kenoticism, whatever its biblical merits, simply isn’t worth the price of undermining the integrity of the Trinity.

        Warm regards,



  2. tgbelt says:

    I went through Trinity & Process this morning and picked out some key ideas regarding our dispositional essences:

    1) They’re created (not uncreated logoi ala Maximus), p. 113, n. 62. For Greg, our “dispositional essence” is not “divine,” though God is inseparably united to them.

    2) They’re defined perspectivally, p. 121, n. 82.

    3) They define the scope of possibilities, p. 121: “This ontologically grounded dispositional understanding of aesthetic subjective aims sets the parameters of intelligibility for a future act or event without necessitating the totality of this act or event. It preserves the openness of the future while articulating the aesthetic dimension of reality….”

    4) p. 127: “With this we agree, except, as has already been mentioned, we a) deny Ross’ contention there can be no perspective which encompasses all other perspectives, and b) we make explicit what I think is implicit in Ross’ own thought, namely, that every order has its sufficient reason in an antecedent disposition to become that order (or something like it, something which accomplishes the same aesthetic purpose, allowing for the creative generation of spontaneous details).”

    5) p. 140: “And we shall argue…that the dispositional view of the self allows us to see, with Neville, God as being present in the very creative “essence” of the self….”

    6) p. 166: “It is, rather, the dispositional essence of the human subject, the ontologically real and abiding aesthetic subjective aim which most essentially defines their existence.”

    7) p. 175: “We may state the matter in a different way, this time in the light of our previously articulated dispositional ontology. Our ideal artist is essentially constituted by the disposition to produce and enjoy with an unsurpassable intensity artistic works. …dispositions, we have argued with Hare and Madden, are not exhausted by their exercise. They are abiding orders of creativity, particularized laws of actualization, structured proclivities of being in its movement from possibility to actuality.”

    8) p. 395: “But this element of our disposition implies that we have the ability to paradoxically turn away from our essential God-given destiny—the very dynamic drive which constitutes our ‘soul’. Our disposition, in other words, is in part a disposition toward ‘self-disposing’. Our essential self is paradoxically open to the possibility of destroying our essential self. We have the creative capacity to radically abuse the ground of our creativity. We have the freedom to live in contradiction to the subjective aim which is, we have seen, the ‘ought’ which serves as the call over our lives. And this means, in a word, that we have the freedom to destroy our true freedom.

    (Tom: Nothing Greg has said about dispositional freedom means we have the freedom to “destroy our true freedom” if by this Greg meant “annihilation.” The thought doesn’t appear anywhere in TP. As other comments of his show, he seems to mean only that we have the freedom to “live in contradiction to” that subjective aim which “serves as the call over our lives.” It doesn’t follow that we have the capacity to silence that call or to annihilate our ground, the very possibility of our own existence.)

    9) p. 396: “This is, as Pascal so brilliantly proclaimed, the paradoxical beauty and terror of humanity. Our essential nature is so “lofty,” yet our ability—and now our fallen inclination—to freely turn away from it can be so severe. It is precisely the greatness of our “soul”—made in the image of God—which allows us to turn against God, and hence destroy our own soul (Prov. 8:32). It is precisely our call to freely share in the exocentric life of love in the triune sociality which grants us our ability to freely turn away from this and live an egocentric life of our own making—which is really no life at all. The height to which we can ascend is proportionate to the depth to which we can freely sink.”

    (Tom: If all Greg means by destroying our soul is “living an egocentric life of our own making,” then yes, we certainly have that freedom. But if he means to “annihilate our very existence,” to destroy the very ground and possibility of our being, well, that contradicts all he’s said about our dispositional essence as divinely grounded, given and sustained antecedent to any exercise of choice.

    Interestingly, Greg introduces [without any support or defense] the idea that “the height to which we can ascend is proportionate to the depth to which we can freely sink.” Why think this expresses an ultimate law of reality? Given the asymmetrical nature of our grounding in God (God grounds us, we don’t ground ourselves or God), and given the unconditionally benevolent nature of this ground, and given the antecedent nature of its function in grounding our possibilities, it seems inconceivable that the measure of freedom this gracious gift of existence affords us for existence with God logically entails it lying within our power to annihilate the very ground and possibility of our existence. Does it follow that if God sustains us in a freedom for great heights of aesthetic satisfaction in a union with him which IS irrevocable, we must correspondingly have it in our power to shut the door on that possibility by annihilating our very existence? I don’t see why it should be so.)

    10) p. 399, n. 92: “Does this view entail universalism? It clearly affirms the universality of God’s intention towards humanity and the universality of Christ’s work to achieve this divine intention. But it would only entail guaranteed universalism if the reconstituted transcendental disposition of humanity by Christ overrode the fact that humanity’s disposition has always been a disposition to dispose ourselves. With Neals Punt, then, we would affirm, on a philosophical and theological basis, that all are intended to be ‘in Christ’ and a part of ‘the New Humanity’—this defines their true essence—though they can yet put themselves out of this and thereby exist in contradiction to their essence. This is, in essence, the biblical concept of ‘hell’.

    (Tom: Again, our dispositional essence grounds our freedom to “exist in contradiction to [our] essence.” Not to “annihilate” it. It’s clear here that all Greg had in mind by our freedom to destroy ourselves is the “biblical concept of ‘hell’” which is “existing in contradiction to our essence,” not annihilation.)


  3. tgbelt says:

    Reza Shah Kazemi notes “Love of beauty imposes itself upon man as an ontological imperative.” I take this as essentially describing the kind of aesthetic disposition/appetite Greg describes as antecedently determining the possibilities of choice and human becoming. All choice is minimally an aiming at or reaching out for some aesthetic satisfaction, some approximation of the transcendentals (Goodness, Beauty, Truth). This is why annihilation within Greg’s TP metaphysics.


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