In Part 7, Chapter X of The Lord we come to the final judgment, the Great White Throne before which all the dead rise to be judged “according to their works” and either welcomed into eternal life or cast into the lake of fire. Guardini does have a very interesting discussion in this chapter about truth and power, about how power dominates in the here and now but in the final days the Truth spoken by the Word will overcome and hold dominion over all things (that’s why the sword comes out of the Word’s mouth). But it’s specifically the lake of fire and the second death that drew my attention here, and I found myself going through the same process I always seem to when I think about Hell.
Across the various Christian traditions and denominations, there are many different interpretations of what “damnation” looks like and what awaits those who are not welcomed to eternal life. I won’t expound on them here, but there’s one idea which continues to perplex me: Annihilationism. Put simply, Annihilationism is the idea that the damned will not spend eternity in Hell. Rather, the lake of fire they are cast into “consumes” them, such that they are completely annihilated—they no longer exist at all. I won’t get into any of the common arguments for this end, but if you’re curious, I’ll point you to this old post from Pastor Greg Boyd.
To be sure, Hell is a difficult topic no matter what you think this “second death” looks like. And I absolutely understand the appeal of Annihilationism. The idea of God allowing people to suffer for eternity for a life lived in time is not easy to accept. Some of the Biblical arguments for Annihilationism also make a bit of sense to me, so I sympathize. But my main struggle here is not on the arguments for it or even the raw appeal of it, but something else: God’s nature.
God is love. Right? Right. Love flows from God abundantly, from His very being. The creative aspect of the divine is fundamentally based in love. God creates because He loves. Things only come into existence because God wills it to be so. To will that they exist is love. God shares with everything that is His very being, so that everything can “be” as participators in His life. This means that the creative act of love is not merely a thing that happened at some point in the past, but rather a continuous ongoing act of love. In His love, God continuously wills that everything which “is” exists. And as created things, not only is there no way to exist apart from God, but also there is no way to cease existing apart from God. Existence and non-existence are wholly up to the will of God.
And that’s the thing: In order for Annihilationism to make sense, we must say that God either wills that these people no longer exist or that God ceases willing that they exist. The result is the same, but the difference between those two is important. The first is completely untenable. For God to will that any person no longer exist is fundamentally unloving, and thus contrary to the divine nature. The latter, however, is more interesting.
When presented with any “thing,” the will (meaning the faculty which makes a decision regarding a thing) can either “will” it or “nill” it. That is, if you come across an apple, you can either “will” that the apple be picked up, or you can will against (“nill”) picking the apple up. There is also this idea, however, that the will can be suspended. If you come across an apple, you could will that it be picked up, or you could nill that it be picked up, or you could suspend your will and make no decision regarding the apple at all. You neither “will” nor “nill” it.
So, having ruled out God actually willing that a person ceases to exist (“nilling” their existence), we’re left with the possibility that He either stops willing that they exist or that He suspends His will with regard to the person (this suspension inevitably resulting in their annihilation, as they can only exist so long as He wills it to be so). However, a suspension of the will could probably be called “indecisiveness” or “uncertainty,” which feels to me like a deficiency either in the will or in the intellect and passions which inform it. There can be no such deficiency in God, and so that seems not an option. The only option, then, is that God simply stops willing that the person exists.
This is my ultimate problem with Annihilationism. God is love, and therefore everything He is and does flows from that love. God’s love creates, brings other things into existence. For things to cease existing, not just “die” but to literally be “annihilated,” God must cease His creative love. No matter how I shake it, this feels contrary to divine nature, and I just can’t reconcile it.
I am, of course, happy to be corrected by anyone who believes otherwise, or can point me to some stronger arguments in favor of Annihilationism. I am certainly no expert. With all that talk about willing and nilling and suspension of the will, I'm punching well above my weight class, so I definitely welcome input from those who know better know the likes of Descartes, John Duns Scotus, Boethius, or countless others who have written extensively on the will.
I suppose the reason I am drawn to think about Annihilationism every time I come across the topic of Hell is because, as I said before, it has a strong emotional appeal. I don’t like the idea of a Hell in which souls of the damned suffer for eternity. But I can’t make sense of it any other way, either Scripturally or philosophically.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.