Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Warfield and Annihilationism

I don't know much about C.S. Lewis view of external suffering and hell other than the generic sort of account where you don't burn up in hell but you slowly lose your humanness. N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" pp. 181-183 argues for something like this when it comes to hell. I am not convinced that this is the Biblical portrait although it does lead to some right helpful theological questions: are those suffering in hell still bearing the image of God? 

Scripture is clear that those who are throne into the Lake of Fire are so condemned in resurrection bodies. I think we have to distinguish them from the resurrected bodies of the believers that "shine like stars" however it is clearly resurrected bodies. Body and soul is condemned to hell not just souls.

That said, I was reading B.B. Warfield's discussion of annihilationism and this is how it ends:

There is a particular form of conditionalism requiring special mention which seeks to avoid the difficulties of annihilationism, by teaching, not the total extinction of the souls of the wicked, but rather, as it is commonly phrased, their "transformation" into impersonal beings incapable of moral action, or indeed of any feeling. This is the form of conditionalism which is suggested by James Martineau and by Horace Bushnell. It is also hinted at by Henry Drummond when he supposes the lost soul to lose not salvation merely but the capacity for it and for God; so that what is left is no longer fit to be called a soul, but is a shrunken, useless organ ready to fall away like a rotten twig. The Alsatian theologian A. Schäffer similarly speaks of the wicked soul losing the light from heaven, the divine spark which gave it its value, and the human personality thereby being obliterated. "The forces out of which it arises break up and become at last again impersonal. They do not pass away, but are transformed." One sees the conception here put forward at its highest level in such a view as that presented by Professor O.A. Curtis, which thinks of the lost not, to be sure, as "crushed into mere thinghood" but as sunk into a condition "below the possibility of any moral action, or moral concern...like persons in this life when personality is entirely overwhelmed by the base sense of what we call physical fear." There is no annihilation in Professor Curtis' view; not even relief for the lost from suffering; but it may perhaps be looked at as marking the point where the theories of annihilationism reach up and melt at last into the doctrine of eternal punishment. (Warfield, Works, Vol. 9, pp. 456-57; References cited in original were omitted here)
Warfield does not advocate this view, he is merely presenting it. It is interesting though as a point of historical inquiry that this idea is not sui generis to Lewis or Wright.

The problems that I would have with the ideas Warfield reviews are:
  1. At least in the quotes Warfield cites there is no discussion of body and soul condemned to hell just what happens to the soul. (Although Warfield does not cite these works in whole--my concern is that we think in terms of body and soul in the lake of fire).
  2. The Biblical discussion of worm and fire that is not quenched seems to indicate that the worm and fire does not consume though it is clearly torturous. In this form of conditionalism while the suffering is eternal, it seems that this conception the fire does consume away at the soul in some fashion, albeit not a strictly annihilationist conception.
  3. While creation in general currently bears the curse of sin, God's Wrath is not abstract by directed at personal beings. If God's wrath 'burns' away their personhood, at what point is it no longer his wrath directed at them but just an abstract concept.
  4. Finally, at the state that the person is non-personal can they really be considered to be being punished and suffering eternally?


I must say, I will have to look into O.A. Curtis a little more. His idea might have merit in a limited extent.  Consider how the effects of sin often lead to the loss of rationality in this life. Indeed rational thought is grounded in being made in God's image. The Biblical portrait is resurrected bodies and souls suffering eternally and these things are not consumed away or 'burned down' as it were, but the Scriptures gives us very little insight into what happens to the psychological state of those suffering. Strictly speaking what happens to the personality of those burned? Does their resurrected state cause them to constantly recognize the rightness of God's wrath and judgment or as so often in this world does being unregenrate keep them blind to this? Scripture is clear that all will be bow before Jesus so they have to recognize the majesty of God and his rightness in judgment at some point. Scripture is clear that they will hear a clear verdict which they are forced to submit to regardless of whether or not they "like it." We should be careful to not go beyond what is written, yet we may have hints from Romans 1 as to the effects on psychology and conscience [note: not consciousness] that come to bear when one is under God's wrath and from these hints we may be able to say something small about the effects of this eternal bearing of God's wrath that is suffered in Gehenna. 

It seems to me that Warfield is right (not to mention clever) to say: "it may perhaps be looked at as marking the point where the theories of annihilationism reach up and melt at last into the doctrine of eternal punishment." While I'm not convinced from what I know about these views that they are Biblical,  and while there is a limited value is some of what Wright says on the issue, it is important to note that the view is not traditional annihilationism or even proper annihationist. In other words they may give up something, but they do not give up as much ground as the annihilationist-- in the same way the annihilationist does not give up as much Biblical doctrine as the "Christian universalist". While truth is truth, it is helpful to recognize that wrong views are not all equally wrong to the same extent.

In the end, we must stick to Scripture and it's clearness on the doctrine of endless/eternal punishment. This punishment will be just and fair and vindicate the holiness of God. God will show Himself to be God for His own glory.

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