Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths has proposed a controversial thesis: annihilation is a novissimal possibility for angels and human beings; they may find their last thing in a decreative return to the nothingness. One point needs to be clarified, though. If annihilation is a possible novissimum for rational beings, it is not because God wills it to happen:
It is axiomatic for Christians that if any creature comes to nothing, this is never because the LORD brings it to nothing. The LORD is creator ex nihilo, not the bringer of his creatures ad nihilum. Destructive activity is not what the LORD does; and destruction is not what he effects. Any movement toward nothing, whether on the part of humans or other creatures, is a result of sin and nothing else; and sin is an action of free, rational agents, whether human or angelic or other. From which it follows at once that if any creature finds its novissimum in annihilation, it does so as a result of sin, whether its own or that of others. For angels and humans alike, annihilation (if there is such a thing) is always self-annihilation, the ultimate consequence of freely chosen sin. (Decreation, pp. 192-193)
For angels and humans alike, annihilation is always self-annihilation, the ultimate consequence of freely chosen alienation and sin. In his infinite goodness God does not ordain the obliteration of rational creatures; it is an end they bring upon themselves. Griffith’s proposal, therefore, must be distinguished from the retributive annihilationism that has been advanced in certain Protestant quarters, perhaps most influentially in The Fire That Consumes by Edward William Fudge. Fudge argues that Holy Scripture is best read as teaching the bodily resurrection of the human wicked for their final punishment of irreversible extinguishment (including whatever forms of imposed sufferings the just Lord deems necessary and right). We should think of the eschatological judgment as a unified whole: “the sinner’s punishment or punitive consequences of wrong-doing, includes and incorporates banishment, destruction, and whatever sort, degree, and duration of conscious suffering God might see fit to impose in the process” (p. 147; also see “The Final End of the Wicked”). While Fudge is principally concerned with the eternal destiny of human beings, he surmises that given the destruction of the Beast and False Prophet in the lake of fire (Rev 19-20), “it is most probable that the Devil will also finally meet the same fate” (“Devil, Beast, and False Prophet“). Griffiths, on the other hand, relies less on biblical exegesis than on the Church’s overall apprehension of the divine character as revealed in Christ. The God of the gospel does not actively exterminate his creatures—this would contradict his infinite goodness and love—but he does permit them to choose a path that inevitably leads to their ontological disintegration. We might call his position free-will annihilationism.
Griffiths’s argument rests on three axioms:
- Angels, like all creatures, are brought into being from out of nothing; their essence is not identical to their existence. They exist only as they participate in their Maker.
- Angels become demons by seeking a mode of existence independent of God: “the fallen angels fall by their sin, fall as they become sinners; and what their sin amounts to, in this like all sin, is the active attempt to return themselves to the nothing from which they came by attempting to extricate themselves from participation in the LORD” (p. 137).
- Angelic nature, like the natures of all creatures, is intrinsically capable of dissolution into nothingness. Or to put it negatively: “There is nothing about the fallen angels or about the LORD that requires their failure at the annihilation they constantly and effectively attempt” (pp. 137-138).
Axiom #1 is uncontroversial and needs no elaboration. Axiom #3 is controversial, but beyond my competence to adjudicate. Griffiths spends several pages on it, addressing specifically St Thomas Aquinas’s argument that intellectual substances are essentially incorruptible, thus entailing the conclusion that angels are incapable of “taking themselves out of existence” (p. 138). Griffiths disagrees. As we saw in the first article of this series, he believes that angels possess discarnate bodies. They are therefore intrinsically vulnerable to personal extinction:
The counterposition, affirmed here, holds that angels, while discarnate, are bodies with mass (if not matter) just because they are locatable in timespace. Such bodies, unlike those without mass of any kind, are subject to the ordinary constraints of creaturehood, among which the most important is that of being, as we have seen Thomas sometimes to admit, vertibile in nihil. This is a property that belongs to all creatures just because they were created out of nothing; they—we all—remain uneasily in being, hovering over the void from which they came. For creatures, capable of sin, the angels and ourselves at least, this situation is intensified. The demons have sinned, and sin is exactly a turning toward the nihil: the grammar of Christian thought does not permit it to be anything else. Such turning diminishes those who perform it, and while it is possible to understand angelic sin as an act without further ramification, an act that damages those who perform it without that damage being capable of increase or proliferation, that is not the only way to understand it, nor the most likely. The position preferred here is that sin is typically proliferative: turning oneself toward nothing is a habit that ordinarily increases in range, intensity, and depth over time. Such damage therefore does not result in a static condition. Once performed it is likely to be performed again and again, with ever-greater intensity, and so the demons damage themselves more and more, moving themselves closer and closer to the nothing of sin. (pp. 142-143)
Underlying Griffith’s reasoning is the Augustinian understanding of evil as privation of being (axiom #2). By our sin we sever ourselves from the transcendent source of being and goodness. It is as if we are sawing off the metaphysical limb upon which we are sitting. Instead of dining at the only restaurant in town, we go off into the desert looking for a better meal. Not only do we not find the feast for which we are craving, we do not find refreshment of any kind. No food, no drink—only mirages, desolation and waste. The quest for life divorced from the Good must by necessity terminate in death:
Sin, like all actions, conforms its agents to the intentional objects of their actions. But sin’s intentional object is unlike that of all other actions. Sinners seek, when they sin, an object that has no existence. The ideal-typical sin is an action directed without intermediaries or simulacra toward the nothing from which the sinner came, and since that nothing is in every respect other than the LORD—it is not the LORD himself, and is nothing he has made—it is and must be pure absence, pure lack. What sin seeks in its pure form is evil unadulterated; and, it has been evident to Christians at least since the fourth century, as an essential and nonnegotiable component of Christian orthodoxy, that evil unadulterated is just and simply nothing at all. In seeking that, sinners seek what is not; and in seeking what is not, they seek their own annihilation. The suicide seeks the nothing by the gesture of self-annihilation … and that gesture is implicit in all particular sins, even those that seem to those who perform them to have nothing at all to do with suicide, and indeed to be profoundly opposed to such an act. (pp. 193-194)
To seek nothing is to become nothing; and this nothing, proposes Griffiths, is hell—not a timeplace of everlasting conscious torment but of maximal separation from God concluding in final decreation (also see “Self-Annihilation or Damnation?“). Given that angelic beatitude consists in the unmediated vision of the Holy Trinity, and given that the demonic sin is a turning from this vision toward its absence, we may conjecture that when the demon has fully embraced the void, when it sees absolute darkness and can only see the darkness—that is to say, when it has achieved the negation of intellectual vision—it “ceases altogether to be” (p. 145). At this point it has irreversibly lost its freedom and the good of intellect and is thus no longer the being that it was. If anything remains, it is only remains.
Until the demon attains its nothingness, Griffiths believes that conversion may still be possible (again contrary to long-standing theologoumena). To be created is to exist in timespace; to be fallen is to exist in metronomic movement. Hence we need not think of demonic existence “as a kind of simple stasis. Rather, it may be seen as a continuum along which individual demonic angels may move, whether by embracing lack or by struggling against it” (p. 145). We should not foreclose the possibility of demonic redemption, Griffiths thinks, however unlikely it may seem. St Paisios of Mount Athos once wrote of a monk (himself) who “felt much pain [of heart] and, while he was kneeling at prayer, he said the following: ‘You are God and, if You want, You can find a way to save these miserable demons who first enjoyed such great glory, but now are full of all the evilness and cunning of the world. Without Your protection, they would have devoured all human beings.’ While he was saying these words, praying with pain [of heart], he saw a dog’s head next to him sticking out his tongue and mocking him. It seems that God allowed for this to happen in order to inform the monk that He is ready to accept the demons provided they repent, but they themselves do not want their salvation.” Even still, nothing is certain until the annihilating moment. We may therefore continue to hope and pray for the salvation of all, as did St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian. In the words of Dr Griffiths: “Nevertheless, it must be hoped for: even Satan may be saved, as may the worst of human sinners” (p. 250).