Tag Archives: Paul Griffiths

No Squirming out of Hell into Non-Existence (Part 2)

Dr. Paul Griffiths contends that his thesis does not contradict the Church’s teaching.

In my opinion, good believers will know that the thesis that hell is impossible contradicts what their devout Mommas told them. And that should count for something. The sensus fidei should find the thesis of the impossibility of hell abhorrent.

But, given the confusion of our age, it may be fitting to cite some Magisterial Authorities, which simply echo the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ that “their worm dies not.” Now, what was the implication of our Lord’s discourse?

Surely, he was not talking about a physical worm but about the worm of conscience. Now, the worm of conscience cannot exist except ‘within’ an existing rational agent. Therefore, if the worm dies not, the rational agent must still exist. If the worm never dies, so must the rational agent. But the speech here is quite figurative (worm, teeth, etc.). So, let us turn to Magisterial declarations.

Here D and SCD are teachings from Sources of Catholic Dogma. DSF is from Denzinger (Ignatius Press edition, 2010). What we see in Magisterial texts through the ages is the affirmation of “burning / being tormented / being tortured, etc.” without end. The subject that burns forever is the rational agent who did evil. But one cannot burn unless one exists. So, one cannot burn forever unless one exists forever. Ergo, the Church teaches that those who die in mortal sin shall exist forever, in the state of burning. Even if the “burning” be taken figuratively, for some kind of punishment (pain of loss or of sense or both), the inference stands.

          • Pope Pelagius I: “The wicked, however, remaining by choice of their own with vessels of wrath fit for destruction, who either did not know the way of the Lord, or knowing it left it when seized by various transgressions, He will give over by a very just judgment to the punishment of eternal and inextinguishable fire, that they may burn without end.” D 228a (DS 443).
          • Innocent III at D 410: “The punishment of original sin is the loss of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is to be tortured everlastingly in hell,” (my trans.). “Poena originalis peccati est carentia visionis Dei, actualis vero poena peccati est gehennae perpetuae cruciatus”
          • Lateran IV: “[he will return] to render to each according to his works, to the reprobate as well as to the elect…. [They shall arise] to receive according to their works, whether these have been good or evil, the ones perpetual punishment (poenam perpetuam) with the devil and the others everlasting glory (gloriam sempiternam) with Christ” (DSF 801, D429).
          • Lyons 1: “If anyone without repentance dies in mortal sin, without a doubt he is tortured forever by the flames of eternal hell” (D 457).
          • Again, The Second Council of Lyons declares, “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only … immediately descend to hell, yet to be punished with different punishments” (SCD 464). disparibus
          • Pope John XXII teaches, “the souls … of those who die in mortal sin, or with only original sin descend immediately into hell; however, to be punished with different penalties and in different places” (D, 493a, published A.D. 1321).
          • Finally, Benedict XII teaches more directly a torture by temporal punishments A.D. 1336, writing, “we declare that according to the common arrangement of God, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin immediately after their death descend to hell where they are tortured by infernal punishments, and that nevertheless on the day of judgment all men with their bodies will make themselves ready to render an account of their own deeds before the tribunal of Christ…” (SCD, 531).
          • Florence, D 693: mox in infernum descendere, poenis tamen disparibus puniendas (punished w/ diverse pains). This is an identical citation of Lyons II at D 464.
          • Catechism of Trent: “The divine justice deservedly pursues them with every species of malediction, once they have been banished. The next words, into everlasting fire, express another sort of punishment [besides poena damni], which is called by theologians the pain of sense, because, like lashes, stripes or other more severe chastisements, among which fire, no doubt, produces the most intense pain, it is felt through the organs of sense” (85f).

I’d like to repeat one of these teachings, after a few more reports about Griffiths’s article. His article starts with the cautious “Perhaps some people can annihilate themselves.” But already the seeds are sewn for the conclusion, “On this argument, none can be damned,” and that conclusion is explicitly drawn by the end. So, the rhetoric is polished.

One of Griffiths’s ways of dealing with the Magisterial teachings is this: Benedict XII, he submits, speaks of 2 categories, the damned and the blessed. Benedict XII does not, Griffiths contends, necessarily exclude the possibility that some are annihilated. Benedict envisions only two possibilities, but Griffiths adds a third. So, there is no contradiction, according to Griffiths.

Sed Contra. Let us look at the following statement from an earlier era, but also authoritative:

  • Lyons 1: “If anyone without repentance dies in mortal sin, without a doubt he is tortured forever by the flames of eternal hell” (D 457).

This is a simply a teaching, “If you die in unrepented mortal sin, you go to hell forever.” This statement does not allow for the annihilation of anyone in the category of the wicked. But those in the category of the good would not want to annihilate themselves. Ergo, theological reasoning concludes with a sententia certa: None are annihilated.

Further, I would contend that these Magisterial teachings on the end really do put forward only 2 categories, the good and the wicked. The good are blessed and the wicked are punished. There is no room for a person who acted freely to be ‘neither wicked nor good’. Theology has considered there to be room for one who never acted freely to be neither wicked nor good. Such a place would be limbo. That would be a place for those who never acted with freedom and who never received the grace of Baptism. The old limbus puerorum. That is a discussion for a different day, but suffice it to say, it is not a non-place of non-existent things that have left only their traces, but a real place peopled by real people, if it exists.

Squirming Out of Hell into Non-Existence?

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.