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Greg Boyd: Annihilation or Eternal Suffering? 2

Having previously discussed Greg Boyd’s attempt to harmonize the traditional view of hell with the doctrine of annihilationism, I’ll now turn to outline some of the implications of his theory. Having surveyed the case for the annihilation of the wicked (such that they are spared an afterlife of eternal, conscious torment as the traditional doctrine of hell entails), Boyd finds the possibility “quite compelling” (336), but he is ultimately unconvinced. Based on his convictions about human freedom and dignity, he argues that God respects the free choices humans make‚ even when such choices lead humans down a path of ultimate self-destruction. And given that humans are granted the choice of loving God eternally, logic compels him to assert that they must comparably have a real choice of rejecting God eternally as well.

He thus reaches the conclusion that God continues to love those who utterly reject him, and that God loves them so much that he refuses to trample upon their human dignity and freedom by snuffing out their existence. But what does this continued existence mean when God’s sovereignty is fully realized? They are left, Boyd claims, with an existence devoid of actual content.

Loss of Shared Medium

Boyd sums up by suggesting that at least part of what people lose in hell is a “shared relational medium” with which to relate to God and God’s reality:

Agents need a neutral objective medium through which they can relate. Unless a middle ground exists between free agents, an objective reality that they can affect but not exhaustively define, these agents cannot relate to one another. One is real to another only because both share a third reality. (347)

(As an aside, I would observe that this view has deep implications for much New Age and Eastern mysticism that claims that “God is all.”)

In the eschaton, there can be no shared reality between those who say “yes” to God and those who say “no.” The illusory context the rebels inhabit cannot be shared; it is an enclosed reality unto itself, “a wholly separate and wholly isolated reality” (347). Boyd compares this existence to the theoretical existence within a black hole, completely shut out from any communication with the outside world. “Hell,” Boyd writes, “is real only from the inside” (348).

What are the implications of the loss of a shared medium? Boyd notes three in particular:

(1) No shared time. Boyd appeals to the “twin paradox” from physics, in which one twin travels at the speed of light while the other stays behind. The space traveler, exploring the universe at relativistic speeds, returns to earth imagining that he has only been away for a few years, but his twin brother who remained behind is now an old man. The two were born on the same day, but experienced the passage of time in radically different ways. But Boyd asks us to imagine that the twins were never reunited. If that were the case, “all that could be said about the relationship is that they used to be the same age and used to share the same reality” (351). He continues,

This means that for all who say yes to reality as defined by God in the eschaton, the self-enclosed existence of the damned would remain in the past, for the only common ground they have with these beings is what they used to share. (352)

(2) Annihilation and eternal suffering can be harmonized. If this analogy holds true, Boyd believes

we can understand the scriptural teaching suggesting the annihilation of the wicked. From the vantage point of reality, the wicked used to be alive. But now in the eschaton they are corpses with no place in the land of the living (Is 66:24). They are thrown out of the city of the living into the outer darkness and into the consuming fires of gehenna (Mt 5:22; 8:12; 10:28; 18:9; 22:13). As Scripture says, they are extinct, reduced to ashes, forever forgotten, and one could not find them if one looked for them (Ps 1:4, 6; 9:6; 34:16, 21; 37:9-10; Dan 2:35; Nahum 1:10). But we may also accept the scriptural teaching regarding the eternity of the torment of the reprobate. For in this view, all that remains is the sheer fact that free beings chose this destruction for themselves. From inside of the rebel experience, the nothingness that they have willed is experienced as a something. To all others, it is nothing. Even the choice for this illusion is not contemporary to the inhabitants of heaven. It is forever past. (352-353)

(3) The remains are cast out. Boyd concludes, “One final implication of the loss of a shared medium between heaven and hell is that it seems we cannot conceive of the inhabitants of hell as truly human” (353). To be truly human, one must have a shared medium of relationship with other humans.


Finally, Boyd states,

Tying these various speculations together, we may once again assert the paradoxical conclusion that hell is the eternal suffering of agents who have been annihilated. It is the unending experience of beings who are really in the past, the unending dignity and damnation of beings who should have been kingdom participants, the infinitesimally narrow parameter of the kingdom boundary between what is real and what is illusion, what once was from what shall eternally be….

We may in this light consider God’s judgment on Satan as allowing him to exist as he chooses, but also of annihilating him. Both thoughts, when brought together, produce the insight that God’s ultimate victory over Satan is expressed in Satan’s absolute, unending and pathetic trivialization. He is indeed allowed to be the lord he originally sought to be and for which he has for ages viciously fought to win. But when God’s love transforms the kingdom of this world (Rev 11:15), Satan’s rule will become an infinitely trivial lordship and he an infinitely pathetic lord. (356)

That, then, is Boyd’s attempt at establishing a case for both annihilation and eternal suffering as the fate of the wicked.


technorati tags: annihilation, eschatology, greg boyd, hell 


1 Comment

  1. Craig says:

    This has been an incredibly helpful series. As I’ve said before, I’ve not really been sure where to land on this issue, preferring instead to stay within the bounds of biblical language. In years past, my expression in this area has been to say that Christians can be assured of their salvation so long as they are in union with Christ.

    I like your extension of Boyd’s and Lewis’s concepts – we choose what we become through our habits until we cannot help but be what we have become. Boyd’s concepts of hell and the afterlife are intriguing for me to consider as well. Visions of Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” continually came to mind as well.


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