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Annihilationism and the Infinity of Hell: Bawulski and the Experience Argument

October 25th, 2017 by Matt

This is part of a talk I gave at the ReThinking Hell Conference in Auckland earlier this year.

The traditional conception of hell understands the punishment of the finally impenitent to be conscious eternal torment. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense of it being of an unending duration, and it involves conscious torment.

Evangelical Annihilationist’s such as John Stott, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, and various others challenge the traditional view. They argue the traditional view is contrary to scripture. They contend that, in scripture, the punishment of hell is eternal destruction, which involves the total and irreversible destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and never to be resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.

Much of the debate over this in evangelical circles is exegetical. It focuses on the meanings of biblical phrases such as “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness [that] has been reserved forever,” “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and so on. Traditionalists take these passages to refer to eternal conscious torment.  Annihilationists argue that, in their contexts, they signify the permanent destruction of the wicked.

Sometimes, however, more philosophical considerations are raised. One example is Shawn Bawulski’s articleJCJ_8086  “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”  which argues that Annihilationism cannot answer particular moral and philosophical questions as well as the traditional view.

There is a lot in this article and space presents a detailed consideration of all the issues. Here I want to focus on one question. Central to Bawulski’s argument is the contention that if Annihilationism is true. Hell is not infinite in duration and hence finite. This implication Bawulski believes to be philosophically and theologically problematic.

I noted above that Annihilationists typically reject the claim that Hell involves finite punishment. They contend Hell involves the punishment of eternal destruction or eternal death. The ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and is never resurrected or reincarnated to live another life. Bawulski offers two arguments against this conclusion. This post will look at one of these arguments. This is what I will call the argument from conscious experience.


Punishment and Experience

A key argument Bawulski offers is that punishment must be experienced. For something to count as a punishment the person punished must experience it or be conscious of it. Bawulski illustrates this with the example Irreversible Coma:

 It is hard to see how we might punish an offender who is in a coma, especially if that coma were irreversible. We might be able to extract compensation from her estate, but we would normally consider this means of punishment to be a contingency-plan sentence in lieu of punishment that involved the offender’s knowledge and recognition of her wrongdoing.[1]

I tend to agree that it would be difficult to punish someone in already in an irreversible coma. However, I don’t think this fact shows that punishment must be experienced. To see this, imagine a different case.  John engages in a rape and murder spree and is shot by the police; he lies in the hospital in a temporary coma from which he will wake in three months.  While he is unconscious the court, on the basis of compelling evidence, sentences John to die and so before he wakes he is given a lethal injection. Has John been punished?

This is because John has in fact been deprived of something quite valuable:  the life he would have had he been left to wake in six months.  John has been executed, and his future life snuffed out.  Paradigmatically when someone is killed, they are harmed due to the fact they lose their life. But its obviously not their past life that is lost, nor is it the instantons present that is taken from them, what they lose is their future life. The life they would have lived and enjoyed had they not been killed.

It’s precisely the difficulty of envisaging any valuable or (even any conscious) future, from life in an irreversible coma that makes people reluctant to suggest it can be plausibly punished.  The situation envisaged by the Annihilationist, however,  is in stark contrasts.  Under an annihilationist conception of hell. The alternative to annihilation is eternal life. The alternatives are being destroyed or continued living forever in eternal bliss. Being killed therefore deprives one of a great good you otherwise would have had. A life of eternal bliss.

Hell must be experienced
Later  Bawulski suggests a more limited thesis: it’s not that punishment must be experienced, but rather,  that punishment, as it occurs in hell, needs to be experienced. “This, coupled with several biblical texts that describe the reprobate as aware of and experiencing their punishment, point to the conclusion that a criterion of the punishment of hell is that it be experienced.[2]

It’s difficult to understand however why the punishment envisaged by annihilationists wouldn’t be experienced. Annihilationists believe that the “wages of sin is death”, that God will destroy, i.e. kill, the body and soul in hell. Normally when we punish a person with death or kill him, they experience it. Suppose Tom is sentenced to die by electric chair, or by hanging or by firing squad. Is it plausible to suggest he doesn’t experience anything?
Its true once he is dead, he will experience nothing. But killing or executing someone usually involves a process, and that process can be experienced, it can be, and often is when carried out, been terrifying, and painful. So it beggars reality to suggest that sentencing someone to death means they don’t experience the punishment.

In fact, the existence of capital punishment, as a paradigmatic example of punishment seems to undermine both Bawulski’s arguments here. A person typically does experience the process of death involved in the execution, and the fact they die and lose consciousness when they are hanged or electrocuted doesn’t seem to lead us to conclude they not punished.

Bawulski’s response:
Bawulski seems loosely aware of this response and offers two responses to it. In a footnote, he states “the death sentence as retributive punishment is not a counterexample because the Christian doctrine of a final universal resurrection means that state implemented capital punishment is not personal annihilation, merely a penal ending of this life.”[3]

This, however, seems inadequate. True, the death penalty only involves the penal ending of this life. But it’s hard to see how this features of capital punishment make a difference in this context. Whether or not a person rises again at a resurrection after death makes no difference to whether a person who is executed experiences the punishment. Nor does it make a difference to whether or not we consider capital punishment to involve punishment.

The following example will illustrate this.  Suppose after being executed that God decided not to raise ted Bundy from the dead. Would it follow that Ted Bundy didn’t experience anything when he was executed, or that Gods refusal to resurrect meant Bundy hadn’t been punished? Obviously not. The facts remain, Bundy, was deprived of a future life; a life he would have lived, had he not been killed. And the act of killing Bundy involved a process which he experienced.

In the main body of the text, Bawulski offers a different response:

It must be noted that most annihilationist’s claim annihilation does not occur at physical death or even immediately after the final judgment, but posit a finite period of conscious punishment leading up to final annihilation. The problem then becomes this: the only penal aspect related to annihilation is the dreadful anticipation of the upcoming annihilation.  Yet if the antecedent period of punishment is finite and the anticipatory period of dread is finite, even if the annihilation is permanent and in that sense infinite in consequence, the punishment itself is finite. punishment.[4]

I find this line of argument, frankly, strange. Bawulski suggests that if in the process of being killed, the victim consciously experiences his punishment, then it follows that this is the only penal aspect involved.

But surely this is implausible, precisely for the reasons just mentioned,  Suppose someone is executed by lethal injection in their early 20’s, would we really suggest that, would anyone seriously suggest that only punishment this person received was a prick in the arm for a few seconds.  Or suppose a person is sentenced to death in the electric chair when this happens do we really think the only punishment administered is a few seconds of electric shocks.

Obviously, these are unpleasant aspects of the punishment, but the punishment is death. These aspects don’t stand alone from the punishment but are part of the process that death is brought about. If serial killers were just pricked in the arm and then got up and walked away, we wouldn’t consider the punishment of death to have been carried out. We would contend they had escaped their punishment.

This point was made by Augustine of Hippo. Augustine himself no friend of Annihilationism, stated:

Then as to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living? And just as the punishment of the first death cuts men off from this present mortal city, so does the punishment of the second death cut men off from that future immortal city. For as the laws of this present city do not provide for the executed criminal’s return to it, so neither is he who is condemned to the second death recalled again to life everlasting[5]

The death penalty is a paradigmatic example of a case where someone is punished. When a death penalty is inflicted the criminal usually experiences it, he experiences the shame, anticipation and even the pain involved in the process of killing. However, this while part of the punishment is not the whole of it, the punishment involves much more it involves cutting him off from the life we would have had and enjoyed. And this is a significant part of,  if not the most significant part of his punishment.  The fact the criminal doesn’t consciously experience these years doesn’t mean his being deprived of them isn’t a punishment.

Annihilationists understand the punishment of hell to literally involve a death sentence, one that is permanent and irreversible. If one wouldn’t contend that a person executed today isn’t punished, or that his punishment consisted only in unpleasant experiences he had prior to death and didn’t involve the loss of life itself; then one shouldn’t contend that annihilation of the finally impenitent involves these things.

[1] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010): 66

 [2]  Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” 66

[3] Ibid 66

[4] Ibid

[5] Augustine City of God Bk 22 chapter 11

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Here’s an atheist perspective in the reality of evangelical inerrantist Christian scholars disagreeing with each other about the bible teaching on hell.

    This in-house debate among Christians provides atheists with rational warrant to view hell as nothing but a fairy tale.

    If even spiritually alive people cannot agree on what the bible teaches about the nature of hell, does it make sense to say spiritually dead people are the least bit morally or intellectually obligated to make an effort to figure out who it is within this in-house Christian debate got it right? Of course I don’t believe I’m spiritually dead, I’m simply showing how it is irrational for those who believe atheists are spiritually dead, to say those who have no hope of correctly discerning theological matters Christians themselves disagree on, still are obligated to enter the fray regardless.

    Because the bible presents God as actually shielding a sinner from the punishment otherwise deserved, by nothing more than a wave of his magic wand (2nd Samuel 12:13), atheists who choose to enter this fray can, at the very least, demonstrate a contradiction between the bible and the beliefs of inerrantist traditionalists who preach eternal conscious torment for those who die in unbelief.

    God “needs” eternal hell to vindicate his justice about as much as an overweight person “needs” pizza to avoid starving.

  • “Here’s an atheist perspective in the reality of evangelical inerrantist Christian scholars disagreeing with each other about the bible teaching on hell.
    This in-house debate among Christians provides atheists with rational warrant to view hell as nothing but a fairy tale.”

    Interesting conclusion, are you consistent with it, so for example when we note that contemporary physicists can’t agree on their interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it follows QM is a fairly tale. Or should we infer from the widespread disagreement amoungst secular philosophers over things like:the nature of morality, whether scientific realism is correct, whether we have free will, whats the nature of consciousness, whether mathematical objects exist, wither Marxism or Libertarianism or Rawlsian liberalism is correct, that secular philosophy is all fairy tales?

    Note btw I never looked at the issue about, what the bible teaches, I was addressing some philosophical arguments made in the debate, but once again you have changed the subject to simply you pulling out proof texts from some passage in the bible which has nothing to do with the topic. Try and stay focused on the discussion.

  • Matt,

    Apparently, under your logic, if you start a post about how apples are fruit, then I’m “changing the subject” if I point out that apples can be green or red.

    (Matt) Interesting conclusion, are you consistent with it, so for example when we note that contemporary physicists can’t agree on their interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it follows QM is a fairly tale.
    ——-False analogy: Evangelical scholars claim the creator of the universe guides them in their understanding of biblical theology. Quantum physicists do not claim any such thing for their scientific/theoretical research. So the latter being in a state of disagreement is only expected, while the former being in a state of disagreement is NOT expected if the evangelical view “the all-powerful creator of the universe is guiding me into truth” be true, unless you invoke some quasi-Calvinist ad hoc explanation such as God wanting, for mysterious reasons, for evangelical scholars to disagree with each other’s interpretation of biblical and philosophical data.

    It makes no sense for two evangelical scholars to believe God is respectively “guiding” them despite the fact that they disagree with each other on some biblical matter.

    (Matt) Or should we infer from the widespread disagreement amoungst secular philosophers over things like:the nature of morality, whether scientific realism is correct, whether we have free will, whats the nature of consciousness, whether mathematical objects exist, wither Marxism or Libertarianism or Rawlsian liberalism is correct, that secular philosophy is all fairy tales?

    ———-Same answer: I also note that the secular subjects you mention are equally as worthless to the average person living from paycheck to paycheck, as is the bible teaching on hell. The worthlessness of the bible teaching on hell is good to teach to fundamentalists who have been psychologically snared by that foolishness.

    (matt) Note btw I never looked at the issue about, what the bible teaches,
    ——Correct, it was the spiritually dead atheist among the evangelical scholars debating, who was trying to focus you back to what your own religion says is more important than that online word-wrangling you call “philosophy”. Are you quite sure that all of your online interactions are in conformity to Paul’s commands that you avoid wrangling of words? you know, stuff like 1st Timothy 6:4, 2nd Timothy 2:14.

    or did I forget all you’ve taught me so far about biblical hyperbole?

    or maybe you think the pastorals are late forgeries? Yes, I know you are an evangelical, but that label hardly delimits you to any specific sub-set of beliefs.

    (Matt) I was addressing some philosophical arguments made in the debate, but once again you have changed the subject to simply you pulling out proof texts from some passage in the bible which has nothing to do with the topic. Try and stay focused on the discussion.
    ———–Sorry, but I don’t believe I’m “changing the subject” when my argument stems directly from something you say in a post. And please watch your language: you don’t need to insinuate that I have trouble staying focused, just because of your subjective belief that I posted something that wasn’t quite as strongly related to your comments as you thought it should have been.

  • Barry,

    I’m not impressed with your argument here. Physicists do their work on the assumption that their faculties are reliable. Theologians do their work on the assumption that their faculties are reliable because God had good reason to make it that way.

    There are good, plausible reasons why God would allow for people to have such disagreements. There are good, plausible reasons why physicists can rely on their senses.

  • Matt said:
    Interesting conclusion, are you consistent with it, so for example when we note that contemporary physicists can’t agree on their interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it follows QM is a fairly tale.

    I replied:
    False analogy: Evangelical scholars claim the creator of the universe guides them in their understanding of biblical theology. Quantum physicists do not claim any such thing for their scientific/theoretical research. So the latter being in a state of disagreement is only expected, while the former being in a state of disagreement is NOT expected if the evangelical view “the all-powerful creator of the universe is guiding me into truth” be true, unless you invoke some quasi-Calvinist ad hoc explanation such as God wanting, for mysterious reasons, for evangelical scholars to disagree with each other’s interpretation of biblical and philosophical data.

    Jon remarked, and I reply:
    Jon
    Oct 28, 2017 at 5:25 am

    Barry,
    I’m not impressed with your argument here. Physicists do their work on the assumption that their faculties are reliable.
    ———-But Evangelical inerrantists do their work believing an inerrant loving god is surely honoring his promise to protect sincere authentically born again converts from harboring misunderstandings of NT theology. If then we find their work full of holes or contradictory to each other, it is far more likely the whole business of Christian theology is bunk, than it is a case of God for mysterious reasons only granting true insight to SOME of his authentically born again sincere prayerful converts.

    Think about it: If we trifle that maybe one of those Christian groups out there got the actual truth, that doesn’t benefit you or me. We’d still be spending a lifetime trying to figure out which group go it right, and under your theories, we’d have to pursue that goal with the worry that it might be god’s will that we never figure out which Christian view is the correct one for any biblical subject. What God wants us to learn by allowing us to stumble through error, he can magically implant that learning in our hearts even if we aren’t converts (Ezra 1:1), so now you cannot even argue that God can have morally sufficient reasons for turning away from those seeking his guidance to understand the NT correctly.

    Theologians do their work on the assumption that their faculties are reliable because God had good reason to make it that way.
    ———Which is precisely the problem: All those Christian scholars who disagree with each other on everything, even within that fractured sub-group called “evangelicals”, respectively believe God has enabled them to see biblical truth.

    Doesn’t it make good rational sense for an atheist to say “if even the spiritually alive people cannot agree on what biblical teachings are, spiritually dead people could only fumble even worse”?

    Why should a spiritually dead person bother with trying to untangle a theological mess that spiritually alive people cannot untangle?

    There are good, plausible reasons why God would allow for people to have such disagreements.
    ————Not in sight of biblical texts that forbid doctrinal divisions, such as 1st Cor. 1:10 and Phil. 1:27. Yes, I am aware that Paul also found a bit of greater good in doctrinal divisions in 1st Cor. 11:18-19, but that hardly obligates me to presume some type of theological harmony between such texts. I believe Paul contradicted himself whenever expediency dictated, for example, his equating all of his distinctive Jewish traits in his past as “feces” (Philippians 3:8), but then giving the false appearance in Acts 21:18-26 that he felt such traits still retained spiritual significance.

    There are good, plausible reasons why physicists can rely on their senses.
    ————–Not according to your bible, if you are talking about physicists who reject the Christian gospel:

    7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; (Prov. 1:7 NAU)

    One evangelical commentator thinks von Rad got it right when interpreting this phrase as implying that in Hebrew thought, you couldn’t understanding reality correctly unless you started out with a fear of the Lord:

    “Perhaps von Rad has provided the most perceptive comment on this topic: “To this extent, Israel attributes to the fear of God, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge. She was, in all seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception …”
    Murphy, R. E. (2002). Vol. 22: Word Biblical Commentary : Proverbs. Word Biblical Commentary (Page 5). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

  • I replied:
    False analogy: Evangelical scholars claim the creator of the universe guides them in their understanding of biblical theology. Quantum physicists do not claim any such thing for their scientific/theoretical research. So the latter being in a state of disagreement is only expected, while the former being in a state of disagreement is NOT expected if the evangelical view “the all-powerful creator of the universe is guiding me into truth” be true,

    This seems to me to be mistaken. First, evangelicals don’t hold that God guides every individual believer into an infallibly correct theology. The Roman Catholic Church holds that the magisterium, that is the community of the church leaders throughout history is guided so that it infallible. But evangelical Protestants reject this view, that was part of what was at issue during the reformation. so I really don’t know what you talking about when you refer to the “evangelical scholars” which scholars exactly hold this?

    Second, you seem to equate God guiding a person in their understanding with the conclusion that this person will never be mistaken in anyway. That clearly doesn’t follow, when I teach my students Theology, I clearly guide them, but it doesn’t follow from that that they get a perfect understanding, in fact it doesn’t even follow that they get the same understanding I have or would do as well in internal NCEA assessment as I would. This is because when a teacher guides someone that doesn’t necessarily or analytically entail that that person is lead infallibily to the correct answers, or even the same answer the teacher, has. So your inference here is a non sequtur.

    Third, I think its false to suggest God doesn’t guide scientists in their understanding or the scientists don’t claim this, the whole doctrine of common grace, and providence, leads many scientists who are theists to believe God has guided history and the scientific community to some of the achievements and discovery they have made.

    Of course if you’re an atheist and deny the doctrine of common grace and divine providence, you wouldn’t accept this conclusion. But if your argument depends on atheism then it cant really be a good argument against theism without begging the question.

    So, sorry Barry, but I think you have avoided my response. You cite disagreement amongst Christians about what is meant by “gehenna” as evidence the whole thing is myth. Yet oddly when the same sort of disagreement occurs in any other context, related to any other topic which is important to secular people like yourself, you don’t draw the same conclusion. That’s simply special pleading, which is the name of the fallacy a person commits when they accept a line of argument or reasoning in one context and then reject it in others because its ideologically convenient to do so.