Novissima, the last things—there was a time when Western pastors would systematically preach on the last things under four topics: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. During my thirty years of active ministry, I preached on the last things during Advent on a few occasions. I can’t say they were among my most popular sermons, but I hope the brethren found them edifying. Strictly speaking, however, only the latter two topics qualify as novissima. A genuine last thing is truly last; it is not followed by anything else. Neither death nor judgment are last things, at least for human beings: death leads to judgment, and judgment leads to one of two everlasting states—beatitude or perdition, heaven or hell. Nothing else follows. Angels too are destined for heaven and hell, though given their immortality they do not experience death. As far as nonrational animals, plants, and inanimate entities, preachers typically avoid addressing their eschatological future; but if asked, I imagine that most would either plead ignorance or endorse annihilation. All dogs do not go to heaven (or hell), the traditional theologian declares. They disappear into the nihil from which they were created, never to be restored. Yet matters may not be so simple. Annihilation need not be irreversible, suggests Paul Griffiths, and therefore may not be the ordained novissimum of all lesser beings. Christians do, after all, confess the resurrection of the body and the transfiguration of the universe. Do not plants, animals, rocks, and stars glorify the infinitely fecund and omnipotent Creator, each in their own way? Why may we not, therefore, imagine a place for them in the new creation? And if we can so imagine, perhaps God does too. “Whether some creature’s annihilation is also its novissimum,” Griffiths goes on to say, “depends principally on whether reconstitution-resurrection is possible for members of that creaturely kind. If not, if for some creatures it is the case that once they are brought to nothing they necessarily remain annihilated, then their annihilation, when and if it happens, is inevitably their last thing” (Decreation, p. 17). Only novissimal time will tell. Hence we may specify three possible creaturely last things: heaven, hell, annihilation. No other possibilities exist.
Griffiths provocatively proposes, contrary to the long tradition of the Church, that both human beings and angels are capable of self-annihilation. This is a surprising thesis, given that Griffiths is a Roman Catholic theologian who takes the authoritative teaching of the magisterium with utmost seriousness. I will not discuss here his hermeneutics of dogma. Let’s just say that he takes a minimalist approach: if the Church has not advanced a formal definition that explicitly and intentionally condemns a specific position, then the theologian is free to speculate and to offer that speculation for ecclesial consideration. After surveying the relevant magisterial texts, Griffiths concludes that sufficient leeway exists for the theologian to explore annihilation as a form of damnation (also see “Self-Annihilation or Damnation?”).
But first, a bit more on heaven and hell, as traditionally understood in the Western tradition:
Heaven: the timespace in which creatures, according to their kinds, are maximally and indefectibly intimate with the LORD and with one another. Creatures are in and at heaven: both prepositions are needed to indicate, in English, that heaven is timespace—not just a place and not just a time, but a place creatures are in and a time they are at. It is a locus-tempus in which defect, lack, damage, and distance are all absent to the extent compatible with (particular varieties of) creaturehood. It is a timespace in which creatures capable of heaven, in their various kinds, find the damage that separated them in the devastation from the LORD and from other creatures finally and irreversibly healed. (p. 5)
Hell: the timespace during which creatures, according to their kinds, are maximally and irreversibly separated from the LORD and from one another. (p. 5)
In the case of human creatures, who are intended, Christians think, for eternal loving communion with the LORD, some may find their novissimum in a changeless and irreversible state of separation from the LORD. The same is true of angelic creatures. This is a state beyond which there is no novelty, a condition, that is, that remains indefectibly what it is. But in no case is it a creature’s glory. It is an instance of damage and loss of a profound and painful kind; it is an inglorious novissimum. (p. 10)
Griffiths contends that the traditional construal of eternal damnation is evangelically implausible, if not philosophically incoherent. If damnation is self-willed separation from the source of being, the sinful quest to find independent existence in nothing, then it follows that annihilation would be its logical and final end (if permitted by God). To seek nothing is to become nothing.
Annihilation is perhaps the clearest example of a novissimum. If a creature realizes this end, it is truly gone; it has ceased to be. It has disappeared from the plane of existence. What was is no more. It has been decreated. “A comprehensive list of the contents of the world, postannihilation,” Griffiths explains, “no longer yields the annihilated creature, while that same list, preannihilation, did yield it” (p. 15). Traces remain, perhaps most vividly in the corpse of a once living creature. Even an incorporeal spirit, we may suppose, would leave a trace, given the inter-relationship of beings. Something is now missing from the universe, and all other creatures are affected, however imperceptibly. “Where’s Mephistopheles?” asks the Archangel Michael. “Now that you mention it,” answers Uriel, “I haven’t seen him since the great snap.”
Dr Griffiths poses the question: “May an angel find its novissimum in annihilation, the first last thing? May, that is, an angel go altogether and irreversibly out of existence, leaving in the world nothing but its traces?” (p. 137).