Dr. Paul Griffiths of Duke University has argued that hell must be empty. Not that it might be empty. But that it must be empty. The article first came out in Pro ecclesia 16 (2007) and was subsequently published as chap. 4 in Liberal Faith.
He contends his thesis does not necessarily contradict the faith, that it is possibly compatible with the faith. Interesting. Let us see the argument and examine it….
One of Griffiths’s arguments runs thus. That is annihilated which loses any feature it needs to have in order to exist. This point is well taken and suggests he takes each thing to be an irreducible whole, not just a locus of parts. He goes on, however, to add slyly that “being able to repent” is such a feature of being a man. Ergo, whoever can no longer repent cannot be a man. At this point, he can simply conclude to the non-existence of hell. Why? Hell is the ‘where’ (either qua state or qua locus or both) of the damned. But the supposedly-eternally-damned are not able to repent. That is a property of being damned. Ergo, Griffiths concludes, neither are they men. Poof! They have gone. Transmorphed. If they are damned, they are not men! What happened? They “poofed” themselves out of existence!
Wow! How awesome! So, I can eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I shall poof myself out of existence. No damnation. No everlasting fire. Oh wait: Maybe there is an everlasting fire, … but alas for it, I have escaped its wrath.
If we attend to this argument carefully, we shall see that the Church’s teaching — that there is a hell of the angels and that hell for men is possible — is contradicted. Why? Hell is in its chief essence a state of a rational being. Namely, that state of permanent alienation from God, without capacity for repentance. But Griffiths has just asserted that to lose the capacity to repent is to cease to be the rational substance you once were. So, the Church teaches that a rational being can exist in a state in which repentance is impossible, but Griffiths submits that no rational being can exist in such a state. On Griffiths’s thesis, hell is not a possibility. How is this not a contradiction?
Confusions abound in Dr. Paul Griffiths’s article. As he rightly notes, sin diminishes the human person. He wrongly concludes that one can therefore sin unto annihilation. (If I can diminish myself a little, why not a little more, why not all the way?) This is to confuse being-a-substance with reaching-one’s-end. It is to confuse substantial being and operation. I am a man, that’s what I am substantially. Perhaps I grow or develop; that is I reach my potential, chiefly, union with God. Or on the contrary, perhaps I shrink and shrivel; that is, I fail to reach my end, namely, I suffer temporary or even eternal loss of God. We have here distinction of substance and operation, essence and action. But Griffiths collapses the two and imagines that the permanent failure to reach one’s end must be the permanent failure to be. Or he imagines that if I can fail in various degrees with regard to operation, and diminish myself in operation, I can therefore diminish my substantial being.
Most interesting is this. He seems to recognize that the Church teaches that there is an everlasting punishment. He tries to incorporate this into his proposal. He suggests that one can be “eternally punished” when annihilated. How? He runs to the definition of punishment as a “loss of a good.” He then notes that the non-existent surely lack a good, namely, union with God. Ergo, they are punished. And since they shall never have this good, they are punished forever. Well, now! A most interesting move! Let’s see if a dead man could be sickened by this definition of punishment. Let’s work it out with “sickness,” for as punishment involves evil so sickness involves evil. And Griffiths uses “loss” or “lack” to pinpoint the general character of evil. Ok: Let “To be sick” be “to lack health.” Now, the dead lack health; therefore, the dead are sick. Wow! Why, then, aren’t doctors doctoring the dead?
What we have here is sophistry and sophistical definitions. Let’s return to a definition of punishment. A good definition would lead with something like “privation” rather than loss. Privation implies absence of a good in a subject apt for that good; hence, it implies the subject and the aptness for the good. Ergo, the non-existent cannot be punished, are not being punished.
Note that the air is not blind. “But it lacks sight” someone objects. Indeed, but it is not apt to see. We call something “blind” only if it is apt to see, and the reason is that “blindness” is a privation, not a simple absence.
Interestingly, the metaphysically obtuse usually reject the notion that evil is a “privation” precisely because they fear the sophistry of those who make evil poof out of existence. If evil were a “privation” in the sense of “mere absence” then indeed evil would not exist in the sense the metaphysically obtuse worry about. That is why some of the ‘Dramatists’ say “Evil is a reality; it is not nothing.” Griffiths won’t fall for that, thankfully. But, he errs the other way, falling short of marking the real genus of evil. Evil is a privation of a due good in a subject apt / born for that good; that is why evil is indeed most odious and dreadful. Scrooge is a man, not just a lack of generosity. But Oh how ugly the man who wants generosity. Now, then, if punishment is a privation, and a privation implies a subject, then everlasting punishment implies an everlasting subject.
The impossibility of hell is wishful thinking. The faith teaches us that it is nonsense.