Thinking About Religion
Volume 9 (2011)

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The Fear of Post-Mortem Annihilation

P. Eddy Wilson
Shaw University

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.”[1]

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 post-mortem life.[2]   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.

I.              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 survival:

1. All persons shall survive post-mortem. (A)

2. No persons shall survive post-mortem. (E)

3. Some persons shall survive post-mortem. (I)

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).   

Logically speaking 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).[3]

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.

II.            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 Hell.

In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion one finds a chapter entitled, “Is Eternal Damnation compatible with the Christian Concept of God?”[4]  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 forever.[5]

Walls’ imaginary 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. [6] If some person can annihilate another, why would that person annihilate another person?

III.            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 (6) irrationality.[7]  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.[8] 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 unremitting suffering.

Third, annihilation 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 escape.[9]  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.[10]

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”[11].  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 Heaven.

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 heaven.[12]  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.[13]   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.[14]

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.

IV. The 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.[15]

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”.[16]  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 personal annihilation?

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 value.  

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.[17] Sartre says, “To be dead is to be a prey for the living.”[18] 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 preservation.

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. [19]   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.’”[20] 

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. [21]

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.[22]  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.[23]


[1] Great Dialogues of Plato, (New York, New York: New American Library, 1956), p. 472.  Hereafter cited as Plato.

[2] That constitutes a problem of intermittent annihilation, and I shall not deal with that problem here.  See my work, “Is Seamless Post-mortem Existence Necessary for Survival?” at

[3] 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 annihilation.

[4] Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, (Blackwell, 2004).

[5] Jerry Walls, Hell: the Logic of Damnation, p. 137.  Hereafter cited as Walls.

[6] 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 vacuous. 

[7] 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.

[8] Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Pres, 1992), p. 137.  Hereafter cited as Walls.

[9] Johnathan Kvanvig, p. 119.

[10] Elanore Stump, “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theology, and the Love of God”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16 (2, 1986), 196.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Walls says, “God need not be able to save any fixed percentage of persons in order to be perfectly good.” p. 104.

[13] 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.

[14]If 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.

[15] Apology, p. 445.

[16] Charles Hartshorne, Anselm’s Discovery (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing 1965), p. 24.

[17] 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.

[18] Sartre, p. 695.

[19] 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.

[20] 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.

[21] Charles Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life”, p. 259.

[22] 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.

[23] I would like to thank an unnamed reviewer for the journal for comments on an earlier version of the paper. 

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Posted 03/14/2011

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