In my last post, I looked at a way to reconcile belief in “eternal security” with belief in the possibility of apostasy that is suggested in Greg Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil. I say “suggested” because what I distilled from the book is not something Boyd overtly emphasized (although I think I’m probably close to what he would say on the topic). In this post—and despite the title I really do not intend this to be a commentary on Dr. Boyd’s eternal destiny!—I’d like to take a couple of posts to tackle something Boyd does address directly: Is it possible to reconcile belief in hell as a place of eternal suffering with belief in hell as a place of utter annihilation? I’ll confess, I was highly skeptical when I reached the end of chapter 11, “A Clash of Doctrines,” and read Boyd thought such a harmonization was indeed possible. After a thorough summary of biblical passages used to argue for both the traditional and the annihilationist theories, Boyd admits that the latter is compelling, but not without its problems. He concludes:
Where does this leave us? For my part, it leaves me in a conundrum. I do not believe that either the traditional position nor the annihilationists’ position adequately accounts for all the biblical evidence cited in support of the opposing side’s position. Yet I do not believe that Scripture can contradict itself (Jn 10:35). This raises the question: Is there a logically consistent way of affirming both views as essentially correct?
Boyd believes there is. Let me lay out his case, and you can make of it what you will.
In chapter 12, Boyd begins (339-347) with Karl Barth’s notion of das Nichtige, literally “nothingness.” God’s “yes” requires a “no” which God does not create, an alternative realm of unreality. Simply put, people have the freedom to reject what God proposes. In Barth, das Nichtige is nothing more than negated possibilities. For Boyd, however, it has the potential to be actualized: wills have the capacity to overturn the divine negation. They are able to say “yes” to what God says “no” to. There is therefore the possibility of something opposing God.
Out of love, God gives us this freedom, which must be morally responsible and involve genuine risk proportionate to the degree of love that can be chosen. This freedom must also be irrevocable (within limits). That is, choosing to reject God must have consequences or free will is meaningless, and the greater the possibility of love, the greater the potential danger of rejecting love. A cow can’t be very good, or very bad either. A human, however, can be both!
To choose what God negated is to sinfully fight for the right to define reality, to replace the Creator’s purposes with one’s own.
If the above describes the actual state of reality, we have a basis to ask about the ultimate fate of those who choose what God negates. What becomes of those who say “no” to God’s “yes” when, in the end, God’s “yes” reigns supreme? When God no longer allows beings to choose what he negates, what becomes of those who rebelled against him?
Boyd’s answer is, “The reality chosen by rebels must be exposed as ‘the nothingness’ it is” (342):
Thus far the model I am developing is consistent with annihilationism. But in this model there remains a distinction between the beings who choose das Nichtige and das Nichtige itself. If my argument in the previous chapter, that the potential to choose eternal fellowship with God entails a parallel potential to choose eternal separation from God is correct, and if some aspects of the traditional interpretation of Scripture’s teaching on hell are correct, then we must conclude that while the entire content of what is willed against God is exposed as nothingness, the will itself that chooses this negation is not. In this view it can continue to exist, but this existence can only be the existence of utter negation.
We may consider this ongoing negative existence as the last remnant of the original dignity of self-determination that God gave the creature. God leaves rebels alone to follow their heart, to choose negated possibilities that can no longer be actualized in the eschaton. In giving creatures the irrevocable potential to accept his love eternally, God gives creatures the irrevocable potential to reject his love eternally. Even when reality will be exhaustively defined by God’s triumphant triune love, God grants creatures the right to continue to reject it. However, now, in contrast to the probational period [that is, the hear and now—DJP], there is no real alternative to his love. When it is no longer possible to actualize das Nichtige, the existence of those who nevertheless choose it is impossible. Hence the total content of what rebels choose is unreality. (342)
Why Not Simple Annihilation?
Boyd believes there are two reasons God doesn’t simply out-and-out annihilate the wicked:
- Logic: The potential for eternally saying “yes” requires the potential eternally to say “no.”
- Love: The core identity of beings is their original potential to choose for or against God. God loves this “probational potential” because it is what makes love possible. “But while he detests what they choose,” Boyd writes, “he nevertheless continues to love the dignity inherent in these creatures that allows them to choose it” (343).
Therefore, God gives these creatures what they want. He allows them to reap the consequences of their own choices (cf. Jas 1:13-16, Jn 3:17-19, etc.). The rebels continue to exist eternally, but this existence is without content:
When reality becomes exhaustively defined by triune love, the fact that certain wills choose to curve in on themselves will remain, but the content of what they choose will be nothing to all outside themselves. Only the fact of their choice has reality, for only this is consistent with God’s love. They endure, to be sure, but only as infinitely small points that do not interact with those who are real. Indeed, since the only real thing about these wills who say no to God’s yes is their negatively defined choice, they could be real to people in the eschatological kingdom only in a way similar to the way antimatter is real to people today. They theoretically exist but are never experienced. They are beings whose entire existence is swallowed up by a hypothetical reality that used to be possible but is no longer so. In fact, as I will soon argue, from the perspective of reality in the eschaton all that can be said about those who reject reality must be said in the past tense. They used to exist. (346-347)
Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of how Boyd fleshes out the nature of this attenuated form of existence.