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

January 5th, 2018 by Matt

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

Evangelical Annihilationist’s such as John Stott, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, and various others challenge the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. They  contend that biblical language 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”  are better interpreted as signifying the permanent 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.JCJ_8086

Shawn Baluski contests this. In “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”  Baluski contends that, if Annihilationism is true, then punishment in Hell is finite in duration. He offers two arguments for this conclusion. In a previous post, I discussed one of these arguments. This post will look at his second argument, which I will call the disproportionality argument.

The Disproportionality Argument
In his dialogue with liberal theologian David Edwards John Stott, a well-known evangelical annihilationist, gave several exegetical arguments for annihilationism. [1] However, in addition to these exegetical arguments, Stott offered a moral objection to traditionalism:

Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? I do not minimise the gravity of sin as rebellion against God our Creator, and shall return to it shortly, but I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice.[2]

Stott’s argument here is that annihilationism isn’t subject to a moral challenge which the traditionalism is.  Traditional conceptions of hell make the punishment disproportionate to the offence. Annihilationism doesn’t have this implication.

This argument by Stott serves as the backdrop to Bawulski’s response.  Bawulski argues that unless hell is finite, Annihilationism cannot answer the disproportionality problem. He offers two claims in support of this conclusion.

First, Bawulski argues;  if annihilation is an infinite or eternal punishment, then the only morally relevant difference between traditionalism annihilationism is that in the former the involves conscious existence and the latter does not.

If annihilation is an infinite punishment, then to resolve the disproportionality problem the annihilationist must argue that a certain type of infinite punishment (that which ends in annihilation) is a just sentence for a sin of finite seriousness despite the punishment being, in fact, infinite. Presumably, this will be done by attempting to link the disproportion to something other than the infinite nature of the punishment, and the most likely candidate is everlasting conscious existence.[3]

Second, Bawulski contends that the mere existence or absence of conscious existence makes no difference to the severity of the punishment.

If annihilation is an infinite punishment: it is not obvious that extinction is genuinely a lesser and more proportionate punishment than that of the traditional view. Assuming there is some validity to the analogy, there is no consensus as to which is more severe: life imprisonment or capital punishment. If annihilation is a lesser punishment the annihilationist needs to argue this point persuasively, and I have not encountered any argument to that effect.[4]

I will respond to each of these points below.

Is Conscious existence the only relevant difference?
Let’s look at the first claim,  Bawulski thinks that if that if both traditionalism and annihilationism involve infinite punishment, then, the only difference between them is that in the former the involves conscious existence and the latter does not. This seems to ignore an obvious issue.  The traditional view of hell involves not just conscious existence, but also the notion of eternal conscious torment.  And the presence or absence of torment is obviously relevant to assessing the severity of punishment.

And it is precisely this feature of traditionalism that Stott objects to. Consider Bawulski’s discussion of John Stott, only a few pages earlier:

Not surprisingly, annihilationists often cite their view’s supposed ability to dodge the traditionalist’s disproportionality problem as a great virtue. For example, in his defense of annihilationism, John Stott says, “Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? . . . no finite set of deeds that individual sinners have done could justify such an infinite sentence.”[5]

It’s clear that what Stott considers disproportionate is not just the infinite duration of the sentence or even the fact that the people are conscious. What is disproportionate are “sins consciously committed in time” and “torment consciously experienced throughout eternity”. (emphasis added)

Is Annihilation a less severe punishment?

This brings me to Bawulski’s second claim; that the mere existence of conscious existence isn’t morally relevant. Bawulski asks us to compare which is more severe: life imprisonment or capital punishment. But, the answer to that question depends crucially on the kind of prison being envisaged. If I were under house arrest at a beautiful Manson at Mount Maunganui, a life sentence would be less severe than capital punishment. But, that is not what’s being envisaged when hell is construed as eternal conscious torment. Here we are being asked to compare capital punishment with a life of torture. The analogy is someone imprisoned for life in the tower of London perpetually hooked up to a rack, or, being continually alive while they slowly experience searing and burning on hot coals.  I submit that, under these conditions, the claim that life imprisonment is less severe than capital punishment is implausible.

Jonathan Kvanvig objects that the kind of argument I offer here attacks a straw man.  He says that “our ordinary conceptions of punishment … view capital punishment as a far more severe kind than life imprisonment.” He grants that “ If the traditional view is embellished with vivid images of the sort that appear in Jesus’ parable of the Lazarus and Dives, or in Dante’s descriptions of hell, Annihilationism can be seen as preferable” But, “ the fundamental tenets of the traditional view do not involve these embellishments.”[6]

To foreclose this kind of response, I will simply point the reader to what Bawulski himself states a few pages later. In a footnote on p 69 he argues:

[A]nnihilationism has not accounted for the interconnectedness of texts like Matt.25:31-46, Rev. 14:9-11, and Rev. 20:9-15, all of which share the same referent-the place/state of eternal punishment. In this eternal fire the smoke of the torment of the condemned goes up forever and ever; the condemned will have no rest, day or night; Satan, the beast and the false prophet are “tormented day and night forever and ever.” In Rev. 20, the finally impenitent are cast into this place, and there is nothing to indicate that their experience there will be any different from that of the other beings who reside there (Satan and the demons): tormented day and night forever and ever. In fact, reading Rev. 20:9-15 in light of Rev. 14:9-11, Matt. 25:31-46[7]

Here Bawluski describes the difference between annihilationism and traditionalism not merely in terms of eternal conscious existence. But, conscious torment.[8] His interpretation of phrases such as “eternal fire” scripture doesn’t commit him merely to the view that the state of eternal punishment involves consciousness. It involves, people  “tormented day and night forever and ever” and he faults Annihilationism for not taking this feature of the imagery seriously. In light of this its hard to understand why he seems to think the only significant difference between annihilationism and traditionalism is conscious existence.

The line Kvanvig takes seems to me to undercut the exegetical case traditionalist make to support their doctrine. Consider the image of a lake of fire. I can understand how a person can interpret an image of fire as signifying destruction. Fire, after all, consumes and destroys, anything thrown into the fire would normally be consumed and destroyed. Similarly, I can understand how people can interpret this image as torment, being thrown in fire clearly would be painful. However, the suggestion that this metaphor signifies some nefarious conscious existence, analogous to simple incarceration in a high-quality western prison, stretches credibility.

I have looked at two arguments Bawulski gives for the conclusion that annihilationism entails the finitude of hell. The first contended that punishment must be experienced to count as punishment. I offered the example of capital punishment as a counter-example. His second argument, in my opinion, fares no better, only by ignoring the emphasis on eternal conscious torment does his argument have any merit.  However, seeing the exegetical case for traditionalism relies on interpreting specific images as signifying torment and conscious suffering. This is an unjustified omission.

[1] David L. Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: a liberal-evangelical dialogue (Hodder & Stoughton Religious: 1988) 312-329 available at https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/judgement-hell.php#.Wk4HL1WWbIU

[2] Ibid

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

[4] Ibid

[5] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010) 65

[6] Jonathan Kvanvig, “Heaven and Hell”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/heaven-hell/

[7] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010) 69.

[8] For an annihilationist response to Bawulski’s exegesis here see Ralph G. Bowles  “Does Revelation 14: 11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell” available at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/2001-1_021.pdf

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10 responses so far ↓

  • Matt,

    Do you believe that the biblical wording is “sufficient” for Christian faith and practice?

  • Barry, sorry, but I don’t know what you mean when you say that “biblical wording” is sufficient for Christian faith and practise?

  • By “biblical wording”, I meant the words of the bible.

  • By “biblical wording”, I meant the words of the bible.

    Sounds to me like your equivocating, when a person talks about the words of the Bible, they often mean by that what the bible teaches. But it could also be a reference to the phraseology, used by biblical authors.

    I am still unsure what you mean.

  • Do you believe that merely quoting Luke 16:19-31 verbatim to an Evangelical Annihilationist, without adding any commentary or argument, is ‘sufficient’ to discharge your Christian obligation to refute error?

  • Please get someone to copy edit this article. There are sentences that make no grammatical sense and this is unfortunately obscuring the content.

  • Barry, No, Luke 18 is a parable and it comes in a section where Jesus is discussing money and greed. So simply quoting it wouldn’t suffice, you’d have to make the case that in addition to making a point about money and greed, Jesus intended in this parable to give an accurate description of what hell is like. I think that’s dubious.

    Generally just quoting a passage without taking into account the context or Genre is a terrible method. Its known as proof-texting and is widely disparaged.

  • If “proof-texting” is is a “terrible method” and is “widely disparaged”, then do you accuse Jesus and some NT authors of using a terrible method?

    Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14, without commentary…as if he expected his readers to just “get it”, despite the obvious fact that no surviving pre-Christian Jewish commentary describes it as messianic (i.e., there was great likelihood Matthew knew the unbelieving Jews he wrote to did not accept Isaiah 7:14 as messianic, yet he quotes it verbatim, plus nothing, as if he expected that the quotation, alone, would be sufficient.

    And since patristic testimony on Matthew indicates he wrote also for non-Christian Jews and not just Christian Jews, this appears to be a case of a NT author expecting an unbeliever to “get it” through nothing more than “proof-texting”.

    Hebrews 1:6 quotes Psalm 97:7 as if the latter was speaking about God’s “Son”, but again, without commentary. If Clement and Eusebius can be trusted, then Eusebius at H.E. 6:14 reports that Clement explained “the name “Paul an Apostle” was very properly not pre-fixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name.”

    That is, Paul was addressing unbelieving Jews (i.e., who were prejudiced against him) and apparently expecting them to just “get it” without his further commentary despite how obvious it must have been that such unbelieving Jews did not understand Psalm 97 to contain any references to Jesus. So Paul’s lack of commentary when quoting the bible to unbelievers seems to constitute the exact proof-texting that you call “widely disparaged”. Paul wasn’t doing much different here than KJV Onlyists do when street-preaching.

    Paul in Hebrews 10:5-10 does even worse: Although the Hebrew of Psalm 40:6 says “my ears you have opened”, Paul here quotes the Lxx form which says “but a body you have prepared for me”.

    Here’s the problem: Paul is speaking to unbelieving Jews (Clement, supra), and here, quotes to them not just the Lxx form they are unlikely to prefer anyway (their problem with the Lxx obscuring or corrupting the text goes back at least to Ben Sira’s grandson’s extended prologue to Sirach, saying the Greek translation doesn’t have the same force as the Hebrew original, and that such differences are “not small”) but a specific form of a verse that aligns much more closely with Paul’s thought that God prepared a body for Jesus, a thought utterly at odds with what the unbelieving Jews Paul was addressing would accept…and yet Paul does exactly nothing to justify to them his convenient preference for a controversial Greek translation that just so happens to make the incarnation of Jesus much easier to prove.

    Worse, Paul characterizes this as what God does when he brings Jesus “into the world”, when in fact nothing close to kenosis can be found in Psalm 40. So not only is Paul refusing to justify to an unbelieving audience his preference for a controversial translation of the Hebrew, he is also refusing to justify why he thinks this Psalm has anything to say about God bringing Jesus into the world.

    If Paul didn’t feel the need to academically justify his arguments to those who clearly didn’t agree with those arguments, why do you?

    If Paul can be comfortable quoting to unbelieving Jews a version of Psalm 40 that they do not agree with, and feel no need to provide the academic justification for it, why can’t you be comfortable quoting Luke 16 to liberals who do not agree with you on what it means, and feel no need to provide them any academic justification for your particular understanding?

    In Luke 4:4, Jesus answers the devil by proof-texting from Deut. 8:4, again, no commentary, as if he thought the mere verbatim quotation of the scripture, alone, was sufficient to discharge the need to rebuke or correct those who are in theological error.

    We would hardly find the NT justifying such “proof-texting” if the NT authors agreed with modern conservative Christian scholars that one’s obligation in preaching/teaching requires them to follow up their verbatim bible quotes with their own commentary.

    It would appear then, that the NT authors find it far less needful to provide academic justification, than do modern day conservative Christians.

    How could you go wrong making the change and imitating the NT authors’ more simplistic methodology? You quote Luke 16 verbatim to the liberals who say hell is mere metaphor, that’s it, and you allocate the job of overcoming their academic objections, to the Holy Spirit.

    Yeah, you’d lose your standing as a Christian “scholar”, but it’s more important to you to align as close as possible to the apostolic method of teaching unbelievers/heretics, than it is for you to impress your modern peers with your ability to trifle about scholarly minutiae, amen?

  • Barry, I see you want to change the subject from the post again to ask me to exegete a swath of different passages you disagree with.

    But for the record there is a difference between proof texting of the sort you were mentioning and enthyeme.

    How could you go wrong making the change and imitating the NT authors’ more simplistic methodology? You quote Luke 16 verbatim to the liberals who say hell is mere metaphor, that’s it, and you allocate the job of overcoming their academic objections, to the Holy Spirit.

    This is mistaken on several counts, First, the phrase “hell” is a metaphor, Jesus isnt literally referring to the valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem but using a well known apocalyptic symbol almost no one conservative or liberal denies this.Theologians such as Jean Calvin and Charles Hodge acknowledge this, are they liberals? Second, as I pointed out the passage in Luke you mentioned is a parable, so your just misreading the Genre. It would be like the someone quoting Nathans story about a sheep as a teaching on shepherding.

    Yeah, you’d lose your standing as a Christian “scholar”, but it’s more important to you to align as close as possible to the apostolic method of teaching unbelievers/heretics, than it is for you to impress your modern peers with your ability to trifle about scholarly minutiae, amen?

    This is just ironic, skeptics emphasis reason and science and complain that religion is thoughtless based on faith and not reasoned, then they complain that Christian scholars use reason and complicated arguments.

    You come in and demand I respond to your arguments and then complain I engage in argument. I suggest you waste someone elses time.

  • Matt,

    I’m not changing the subject. You impugned “proof-texting” as “terrible error”, so it was a legitimate move on my part to confront your evangelical self with passages from your own bible where biblical authors are committing the same alleged “error”. And since you didn’t do much to oppose, apparently, that strategy was correct.

    You refuse to say which instances I quoted are a case of the bible author employing enthyeme, so I guess that means you wanted me to guess which ones were doing that. I shall not play guessing games with you.

    When I said the liberals view hell as metaphor, I wasn’t mistaken, your problem is that you think there’s a “mistake” merely because, like a jailhouse lawyer, you can capitalize on your opponents failure to speak in detailed qualified manner. I obviously meant that the liberals view hell as ONLY metaphor, that is, they deny there’s any literal aspect to it. But because I didn’t use the word “only”, you cry “mistake!”, as if I didn’t’ know the conservative position that agrees biblical hell is metaphorical in certain aspects. Stop being so quick to leap from somebody’s failure to qualify, over to “mistake!”.

    You say you “pointed out” that the passage is a parable, but “pointed out” is not “argument”, and as such, you did not justify disagreement with other Christian scholars who say this story is real history and not parable, such as Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Intervarsity, 2006), p. 534?

    “skeptics emphasis reason and science and complain that religion is thoughtless based on faith and not reasoned, then they complain that Christian scholars use reason and complicated arguments.”
    ——-But that’s your problem: Your own bible condemns any effort you make to justify your treatment of scripture to unbelievers or heretics with academic argument. Therefore, when you make such argument, you can be condemned with your own bible as not living up to the more simplistic method advocated by NT authors. When you DON’T make academic argument, you might be living up to the more simple standard of NT authors, but the consequence is that nobody is obligated to seriously consider a position that has nothing more behind it except “proof-texting”. It is not my fault if you wish to uphold two contradictory standards of proof, the academic argument approved by modern scholars, and the proof-texting employed by NT authors.

    “You come in and demand I respond to your arguments and then complain I engage in argument.”
    ——-You wish to look good to modern people, thus calling for scholarly level argument, but you refuse to condemn the NT authors for their more simplistic argument via proof-texting. it is not my fault if attempt to serve two different masters makes it easy to condemn pretty much any scriptural argument you attempt.

    “I suggest you waste someone elses time.”
    ——Perhaps I was also wasting my time asking you to describe and source whatever moral yardstick you were using to justify saying torturing babies solely for entertainment is objectively immoral, given that you essentially disappeared after I pressed that matter.

    That you are wrong about me wasting your time (and wrong in your implication that this was my primary motive in dialoguing with you, all anybody has to do is check out my list of challenges to you in the last post over at http://www.mandm.org.nz/2017/10/richard-carrier-on-the-moral-scepticism-objection-to-divine-command-theory.html

    When you are prepared to defend the matters those challenges attack, you know where I blog.

    https://turchisrong.blogspot.com/2017/11/my-challenge-to-matthew-flannagan.html

    Conversing with you was fun and educational. Fare ye well.