In Plato’s “Phaedo” one
finds Socrates contemplating the end of life. Cebes says to Socrates,
“[People] fear that when [the soul] parts from the body it is nowhere any
more; but on the day when a man dies, as it parts from the body, and goes
out like a breath or a whiff of smoke, it is dispersed and flies away and is
gone and is nowhere any more.”
The fear of annihilation
is simply the fear that a person shall not survive post-mortem. Here I
shall consider the possibility that persons may survive post-mortem, and I
shall not deal with the problem of temporal gaps in a person’s natural or
In this essay I explore the perceived danger of annihilation that gives
rise to this fear. I suspect that the danger of post-mortem annihilation
is greatly misunderstood by the public.
To better understand the
fear of annihilation I shall consider these questions: Who may be
annihilated? Why would those persons be annihilated? How can they be
annihilated? Answers to those questions should better enable us to
determine whether the fear of annihilation is justified or if not.
The Logic of Post-Mortem Annihilation – Who will be Annihilated
Natural and man-made
objects cease to exist as such when they undergo disintegration. When a tin
can falls apart as a result of oxidization, it undergoes a form of
disintegration. Its disintegration is unintentional. When it is used for
target practice, its disintegration is intentional. In both cases the can
ceases to be a can when it undergoes disintegration.
When destructive forces
cause a person to cease to be a person, we identify that type of
disintegration as the annihilation of the person. Just as the
disintegration of a man-made object may occur intentionally or
unintentionally, a person may come to be annihilated unintentionally or
intentionally. Who is in danger of annihilation?
Using Aristotelian logic
we may arrive at the following four logical possibilities for post-mortem
1. All persons shall survive post-mortem. (A)
2. No persons shall survive post-mortem. (E)
3. Some persons shall survive post-mortem.
4. Some persons shall not survive post-mortem.(O)
A person who undergoes
annihilation is a person who fails to survive post-mortem. The first
proposition represents universal survival: All persons shall survive
post-mortem (US). The third proposition represents particular survival:
some person shall survive post-mortem (PS). The second proposition
represents universal annihilation: no persons shall survive post-mortem
(UA). The fourth proposition represents particular annihilation: some
person shall not survive post-mortem (PA).
categorical or universal annihilation is not the contradiction of universal
survival. Rather it is the contrary. Why? Both are categorical
propositions, and both assert that there are no exceptions to survival or
non-survival. So, it is not the case that universal annihilation is the
contradiction of universal survival. Instead the contradiction of universal
survival is particular annihilation.
To discuss the logic of
annihilation of persons we need a more fine-grained description of
annihilation. Some descriptions of the annihilation of persons refer to
non-intentional states of affairs, and others refer to intentional states of
affairs. That gives us four possible forms of annihilation: simple or
unintentional universal annihilation (SUA), intentional universal
annihilation (IUA), simple or unintentional particular annihilation (SPA),
and intentional particular annihilation (IPA).
Recall the first logical
possibility: All persons shall survive post-mortem. This possibility
asserts positively that all survive, but it does not stipulate how all shall
survive. In other words, it makes no reference to the quality of survival.
All could survive in bliss or in agony or in a combination of both. Here I
take survival in bliss to be survival in Heaven, and I shall take survival
in agony to be survival in Hell. Of course, universalism is the view that
all shall enjoy a blissful quality of life post-mortem. Annihilation is
simply non-survival. It is the negation of survival and it does not
discriminate between blissful survival and agonized survival.
The Religious Role of Post-Mortem Annihilation
I suppose Cebes’s fear is
the fear of universal annihilation. If so, then his fear is that he shall
suffer annihilation naturally and unintentionally. That form of
annihilation has its own religious implications, and I shall not explore
those here. Instead I shall focus upon one form of post-mortem
annihilation: intentional particular annihilation (IPA). This form of
annihilation has played a central role in some Western religious accounts of
post-mortem survival like Christian descriptions of post-mortem survival.
IPA is seen as a logical alternative to post-mortem survival in Heaven or
In Contemporary Debates
in Philosophy of Religion one finds a chapter entitled, “Is Eternal
Damnation compatible with the Christian Concept of God?”
That chapter includes Jerry Walls’s essay entitled, “Eternal Hell and the
Concept of God.” Likewise it includes Thomas Talbott’s essay entitled, “No
Hell.” The exchange and rebuttals represent a longstanding debate in the
Christian community. Walls defends the notion that some who will survive
post-mortem will be condemned to Hell. Talbott defends the notion that all
shall survive post-mortem to enjoy the bliss of Heaven. Both Walls and
Talbot maintain that persons survive post-mortem, but they envision two
qualitatively distinct forms of survival. Here I shall not discuss their
arguments for and against universalism, but I shall be interested in their
view of annihilation. In spite of their differences they are both affirming
the notion of categorical survival. So, it comes as no surprise that
Talbott and Walls both reject the possibility of post-mortem annihilation.
The Heaven-only option and
the Heaven-and-Hell option are both options for survival. Talbott’s
universalism requires that all survive in Heaven and that all enjoy the same
quality of post-mortem survival. Walls’s view requires that all survive,
but not all shall enjoy the benefits of Heaven. Some shall survive in
untoward circumstances. Logically speaking particular annihilation
contradicts the views of both Talbott and Walls. Walls says,
Now some will . . . insist
that if God is truly merciful, he would either annihilate the damned or
allow the damned to annihilate themselves. If God is gracious he would not
make people face the consequences of their wrong choices, at least not
detractors are defending a form of annihilation. IPA is by definition an
intentional form of annihilation. Call the person who intends to annihilate
someone an annihilator. Call the person to be annihilated the victim. If a
person could intentionally annihilate himself or herself, then that person
would be both the annihilator and the victim.
Who could become an
annihilator? For the moment I shall assume that a person who is
all-powerful, God, has the power to annihilate a person. It remains to be
determined whether persons who are not all-powerful could annihilate
themselves or another.
If some person can annihilate another, why would that person annihilate
Why Would God or Anyone Else Annihilate a Person?
No less that six reasons
have been offered to explain why an annihilator would intentionally
annihilate another person: (1) desert, (2) fairness, i. e., to alleviate
undue suffering; (3) quarantine; (4) inadequate punishment; (5) malice, and
Consider each reason.
First, the annihilator may
intend to annihilate some person, since annihilation is seen as the victim’s
desert. The annihilator chooses to annihilate the person rather than
allowing the person to survive. This person may not enjoy blissful
survival, but this person shall also not suffer endless agony. When the
reason to annihilate another is desert, annihilation is seen as the most
fitting end possible for the person. In this instance the victim of
annihilation is thought to deserve annihilation. If punishment of the
victim is the objective of annihilation, then the victim’s offences were
considered so egregious that nothing less than annihilation would be seen as
a fitting punishment. The victim has earned this end, and the annihilator
simply intends to give the victim his or her desert. If it were possible
that a person could commit self-annihilation post-mortem, then the
annihilator would deem himself or herself worthy of annihilation.
Second, annihilation may
be intended as an alternative to unnecessary post-mortem suffering. If
continuance in an endless post-mortem state of pain and suffering would be
unnecessarily cruel, then annihilation is thought to be a more humane
alternative. The caring thing to do is to end the suffering. Walls’ critic
insisted that a good God would choose this alternative rather than allow the
condemned to suffer endlessly for their finite deeds.
In this view the annihilator either determines that annihilation is a better
alternative than endless suffering, or the annihilator answers the prayers
of the suffering by bringing their suffering to an end. This act is
intended to end unnecessary suffering, and it is intended to preserve the
goodness of the annihilator who would otherwise be held responsible for the
eliminates the risk that those who survive in agony shall jeopardize or
compromise the existence of those who enjoy bliss. Some authors like C. S.
Lewis imagine Hell as a place of voluntary confinement. So, its occupants
could possibly escape if they met the criteria for escape. Other authors
like Eleanor Stump insist that Hell must be understood as a place of no
Call Stump’s view the quarantine view of the after-life. Speaking of Dante’s
Inferno Stump says,
[God] confines [the
condemned] within a place where they can do no more harm to the innocent.
In this way he recognizes their evil nature and shows that he has a care for
it, because by keeping the damned from doing further evil, he prevents their
further disintegration, their further loss of goodness and being.
Assuming that mere
existence has value for God as St. Thomas assumed, Stump reasoned that God
would not annihilate the condemned, since that would “eradicate their being”.
Suppose we set aside the Thomistic assumption of the value of mere
existence. If the safety of the blissful survivors were deemed of greater
value than the preservation of the inhabitants of Hell, then the
annihilation of the condemned could more effectively eliminate the danger to
the occupants of heaven. As long as some must undergo everlasting torment
and others remain aware of it, they also threaten to diminish the overall
positive value that could otherwise be enjoyed in heaven. So, annihilation
would insure that the annihilated could not threaten the occupants of
Fourth, annihilation may
be intended as the most effective form of punishment all things considered.
The annihilator may value annihilation as more effective than several other
forms of punishment.- Perhaps the annihilator has the capacity to send the
victim to a Sartrean “No Exit”, a Dante’s Inferno, or a Grecian Hades
outfitted for Sisyphus or Tantalus. If the annihilator is responsible for
choosing annihilation as the preferred means of punishment, it suggests the
annihilator can devise no more effective means of punishment than
annihilating the victim. It also suggests that the annihilator is willing
to forego the possibility of rehabilitating the victim. In other words,
choosing this as the most efficient punishment is an admission of
hopelessness. Either the annihilator is unable to devise a better system
for the rehabilitation of the victim or the victim is beyond reclamation.
Fifth, an annihilator may
intend to act maliciously by annihilating his or her victim. Those who
reject universalism must answer a basic question: Why does God not simply
allow all to enjoy the pleasures of heaven? Why does God condemn some?
Defenders of the punishment of Hell like Walls cite God’s justice and
holiness as reasons to think that all shall not enjoy the pleasures of
If annihilation is a malicious act, then either a good and loving God would
not annihilate persons or God is not good and loving. Let us assume that God
is not a malicious God. If persons other than God can annihilate
themselves or others, they may do so with malice. Only if no person can
annihilate another person would the possibility be eliminated that some
person can maliciously annihilate another.
Sixth, irrationality may
motivate an annihilator to annihilate his or her victim. Suppose one says
it is irrational to destroy your own creation. In that case it would be
irrational for God to annihilate some person; and assuming that God is a
rational God, God would not annihilate persons whom God created. Individual
persons may not be so well disposed. They may be inclined to destroy their
own person, and that would be an instance of self-annihilation. In principle
self-annihilation would be an irrational act.
Of course, the analog to self-annihilation is self-determination, that is,
suicide. While it is practically possible for mortal beings to commit
suicide, it remains unclear whether it is practically possible for
post-mortem persons to commit self-annihilation or if not.
Reasons two through six –
relieving suffering, safeguarding the blessed, choosing the most efficient
punishment, malice, and irrationality – share a common feature. They all
reflect the character of the annihilator. The moral judgment that the
annihilator is good or bad follows from the reason the annihilator gives for
annihilating another person. For instance, if the annihilator chooses
annihilation to alleviate unnecessary suffering, it implies that the
annihilator values the alleviation of unnecessary suffering. What if the
reason was desert? If the annihilator’s reason to annihilate another is
desert, then the annihilator must allow the person to receive his or her
desert. This willingness to permit the victim to receive his or her desert
likewise reflects upon the character of the annihilator. So, in all six
instances of intentional annihilation the annihilator acts in such a way
that the goodness of his or her behavior may be morally appraised; and the
annihilator who intentionally annihilates another person runs the risk of
being hung from his or her own petard.
phenomenology of annihilation – How is annihilation possible?
How does one person
annihilate another? Recall Cebes’ statement. He fears that the person shall
be annihilated when the body is disintegrated. Call Cebes’ view the view of
natural annihilation. The disintegration of the body is a necessary
condition for natural annihilation. So, does intentional post-mortem
annihilation work by disintegrating a post-mortem body? Bodies are amenable
to annihilation. Some religious descriptions of annihilation make use of a
natural body analog. In other words, those religious accounts of
annihilation assume that a person exists post-mortem as a substantive body
prior to annihilation. Annihilationists who assume that post-mortem
survival is bodily survival find an analogy in Cebes’ description of natural
annihilation. In those accounts the intention of the annihilator is a
sufficient but nonnecessary cause of the annihilation. This explains
objectively how annihilation is possible, only if post-mortem existence is
bodily existence. Nonetheless, it fails to give an adequate account of the
loss of subjectivity when a person is annihilated.
In Plato’s “Apology” Socrates says,
Death is one of two
things: either the dead man is nothing, and has no consciousness of anything
at all, or it is as people say, a change and a migration for the soul from
this place here to another place. If there is no consciousness and it is
like a sleep, when one sleeping sees nothing, not even in dreams, death
would be a wonderful blessing.
Here Socrates considers
subjectively the possibility that one who dies is annihilated. In his view
annihilation simply is the absence of consciousness. Socrates is
contemplating an unintentional and universal annihilation of persons. So,
it is distinguishable from the accounts of intentional post-mortem
annihilation discussed by Jerry Walls, Jonathan Kvanvig, and others.
The same effect follows
from intentional and unintentional accounts of annihilation. The conscious
experience of the one who is annihilated ceases. The annihilated subject
cannot experience his or her annihilation as painful or pleasurable. It is
no experience whatsoever, it is nothing. Can one imagine it? Charles
Hartshorne maintained, “an idea about nothing is not an idea”.
If Hartshorne is correct, then one cannot imagine his or her own
annihilation as a subjective experience, since annihilation is the negation
of experience. As nothing annihilation is not experienced as fearful or
desirable or any thing. In itself annihilation has no positive value. So,
what is a person imagining or fearing when he or she imagines or fears
The fear of annihilation
is a fear that is experienced in anticipation. The self of the moment fears
that the self of some other moment shall be annihilated. Only if
annihilation is seen as a threat to a serialized, that is, a social self
would the fear of annihilation be justified. The self of today (S1)
fears that the self of tomorrow (S2) shall not be. In that
instance annihilation poses a threat to the continuance of the ends and
projects of the serialized self at some future time, and annihilation takes
on social dimensions.
If annihilation in itself
has no value, then its positive or negative value is to be understood
instrumentally. It is possible that one could welcome annihilation, if it
were valuable as the terminus of a series of negative or painful
experiences. The cruelty or the mercy of annihilation is contingent upon
the value a subject places upon possible future experiences.
Can a phenomenological
account of annihilation be offered without reference to a natural or
post-mortem body? To answer that question we must return to the very notion
of annihilation. I assume that by the exertion of their will subjects
distinguish themselves from mere objects. Previously it was stated that the
subject of annihilation can only imaginatively anticipate annihilation as
the future cessation of experience. One cannot introspectively sense what
it is like to be annihilated, since that is no experience. One can only
anticipate that there may be a time-and-place where this subject exerts no
will of its own. In that instance one’s own subjectivity has no intrinsic
From the perspective of
the annihilator there is a radical shift. Before annihilation the
annihilator encounters the person as a subject, and after the annihilation
the annihilator encounters the person as object only. So, the annihilator
effectively subordinates the will of the victim to his or her own will. The
annihilator forgets the person as subject, and the annihilator remembers the
person as an object only. Jean Paul Sartre saw death as natural
annihilation. In his analysis of death Sartre recognized this
phenomenological shift of perspective in the way others regard the dead.
Sartre says, “To be dead is to be a prey for the living.”
If this phenomenological shift happens in post-mortem annihilation, then
annihilation does not reduce the victim to nothing. The subject is
forgotten as subject and remembered as object only, just as the dead are at
the mercy of the surviving subject(s)
Earlier I called the fear of
annihilation a displaced fear. If subjectivity manifests itself as one’s
will, then the phenomenon that the victim fears is the complete
subordination of his or her will. This is a particular cessation of
subjective experience as willing and not cessation of all inter-subjective
experience. Thus, annihilation may refer to the phenomenon of the
inter-subjective subordination of the will of one to the will of another.
From a phenomenological perspective annihilation is both a cessation and a
continuation. The person ceases to exist qua subject, but the person
continues to exist qua object for another. The phenomenon of annihilation
refers to both the cessation of a subjective point of view and its objective
How could the phenomenon of annihilation take place? Strictly objective or
subjective accounts of annihilation yielded incomplete descriptions; but an
inter-subjective account of annihilation does tell us how it is possible.
The phenomenological relativity of annihilation is like the relativity
found in Charles Hartshorne’s notion of objective immortality. In
Hartshorne’s view the death of a person constitutes a natural annihilation
of the person. Hartshorne says, “I believe it to be true that death is not
the destruction of an individual’s reality but merely the affixing of the
quantum of that individual’s reality. Death only says to us: ‘More than you
already have been you will not be.’”
So, when annihilation
occurs there is a cessation of subjectivity, but that cessation is
experienced inter-subjectively as the subordination of the will of one to
the will of another. The will of the annihilated is not lost absolutely,
but it is subjected to the will of the annihilator. Hartshorne’s view
captures the notion that annihilation changes not only the victim but also
the annihilator. In his view God, the annihilator, undergoes a “divine
synthesis.” Hartshorne says,
we can interpret ‘heaven’
as the conception which God forms of our actual living, a conception which
we partly determine by our free decisions but which is more than all our
decisions and experiences, since it is the synthesis of God’s participating
responses to these experiences. It is the book which is never read by any
man save in unclear fragmentary glimpses; but is the clearly given content
of the divine appreciation. Hell is, in the same terms, simply whatever of
ugliness is inherent in the content because of my perversity, which even the
divine synthesis cannot remove but can only make the best of, bringing out
of it whatever good is possible.
If Hartshorne’s notion of
objective immortality provides us with a metaphysical analog of the
phenomenon of annihilation, then we can better understand how this fear may
be displaced. In Hartshorne view one discovers the relativity in natural
annihilation. Strictly speaking the dead cannot cease to be as long as some
subject recalls them.
So, phenomenologically the danger of annihilation is not that the subject
shall suddenly evaporate, but the danger is that the will of the subject
shall be subordinated to another. The fear of annihilation is the fear that
one shall continue to exist intersubjectively only as the prey of another.
This essay explores the notion of post-mortem annihilation. Annihilation is
not simply one of three post-mortem alternatives – heaven, hell, or
annihilation. It is presented as an alternative to post-mortem survival.
Reasons thought to justify annihilation as an intentional act were shown to
be reasons that would condemn or condone the character of the annihilator.
So, if the annihilator cares to preserve his or her good character, he or
she may not annihilate another without due cause; and that may be the
annihilator’s fear. Finally, it was suggested that the bodily account of
annihilation may obscure an important phenomenological aspect of
annihilation. Annihilation is an inter-subjective phenomenon where one
person’s will is irretrievably subordinated to that of another. If that
observation is correct, the fear proves to be a displaced fear that the
annihilated would simply vanish.
Great Dialogues of Plato, (New York, New York: New American
Library, 1956), p. 472. Hereafter cited as Plato.
An unnamed referee points out that there may be another form of
annihilation, a virtual annihilation envisioned by Jacob Boehme and
Wilhelm Frederick Shelling, and I agree. That form of virtual
annihilation occurs when an individual so isolates himself or
herself that for practical purposes this is a type of annihilation.
In C. S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce (Nashville,
Tennessee: Broadman and Holman, 1996), some individuals choose to
isolate themselves in the afterlife with the result that the
individual is virtually annihilated. However, in Lewis’ view there
remains the possibility that the individual may be rescued from this
exile. However, there is no return from annihilation unlike virtual
Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell,
Jerry Walls, Hell: the Logic of Damnation, p. 137. Hereafter
cited as Walls.
If it can be shown that neither God nor any other can annihilate
another person, then the set of annihilators would be an empty set;
and the worry that someone intended to annihilate another would be
On the surface the first four may pose no serious threat to the
character of a good and loving God who acts as an annihilator. In
contrast, neither malice nor irrationality would motivate a good and
loving God to intend to annihilate another person. However, these
two reasons might motivate a person to annihilate himself or
herself, if finite beings can annihilate others or themselves.
Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame,
Indiana: University of Notre Dame Pres, 1992), p. 137. Hereafter
cited as Walls.
Johnathan Kvanvig, p. 119.
Elanore Stump, “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theology, and the Love
of God”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16 (2, 1986), 196.
Walls says, “God need not be able to save any fixed percentage of
persons in order to be perfectly good.” p. 104.
Here I assume that under normal circumstances suicide is
irrational. I shall not here explore the contingent possibility
that suicide is rational in some instances.
irrationality is a token of self-deception and if self-annihilation
is the effect of irrationality; then self-annihilation is one
possible effect of self-deception. Talbot maintains that one would
inevitable confront the irrationality of self-annihilation, and the
outcome would be the salvation of the person. Talbott says, “If I
am ignorant of, or deceived about, the true consequences of my
choices, then I am in no position to embrace those consequences
freely; and similarly, if I suffer from an illusion that conceals
from me the true nature of God, or the true import of union with
God, then I am again in no position to reject God freely. I may
reject a caricature of God, or a false conception, but I would be in
no position to reject the true God himself. . . . For insofar as we
can make sense of self-deception at all, it seems to be a protective
device that itself arises only in contexts of ambiguity, ignorance,
and confusion; and besides, a self-inflicted deception is no less an
obstacle to free choice than a self-inflicted addiction to alcohol
or cocaine. When God shatters our illusions and forces us to see the
truth, therefore, he precisely removes an obstacle to the very
freedom Walls claims we have: the freedom to reject not merely a
faulty conception of god, but the true God himself.” See Thomas
Talbot’s review of “Hell: The Logic of Damnation, by Jerry L. Walls”
Faith and Philosophy 12(1, 1995):147.
Charles Hartshorne, Anselm’s Discovery (La Salle, Illinois:
Open Court Publishing 1965), p. 24.
Sartre said, The unique characteristic of a dead life is that it is
a life of which the Other makes himself the guardian. This does not
mean simply that the Other preserves the life of the ‘deceased’ by
effecting an explicit, cognitive reconstruction of it. . . To be
forgotten is to be made the object of an attitude of another, and of
an implicit decision on the part of the Other. To be forgotten is,
in fact, to be resolutely apprehended forever as one element
dissolved into a mass . . . it is in no way to be annihilated,
but it is to lose one’s personal existence in order to be
constituted with others in a collective existence. See Jean Paul
Sartre, Being and Nothingness ( New York: Washington Square
Press, 1956), p. 692-693. Hereafter cited as Sartre.
An unnamed reviewer points out that there is a significant
difference between Sartre’s others and Hartshorne’s God, and I would
agree. In Sartre’s view in death the other becomes objectified as
the prey of the living. That dialectical relationship is not lost
in Hartshorne’s God. Rather it is taken up in the Divine
Synthesis. In Harshorne’s view God must feel that the deceased
becomes the prey of an other; but God must also feel the deceased as
an object. Hence the objectification of the individual is
compounded and preserved perfectly in the Divine Synthesis.
Charles Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life", The
Logic of Perfection (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing
Company, 1962) p. 255. Hereafter cited as Charles Hartshorne.
Charles Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life”, p. 259.
Indigenous religions of both Africa and North America believed that
as long as the dead are remembered they have not ceased to exist.
Their inter-subjective value is reduced to an objective value only,
since their will is subordinated to the other.
I would like to thank an unnamed reviewer for the journal for
comments on an earlier version of the paper.