Annihilating Angels

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).

(Return to first article)

 

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23 Responses to Annihilating Angels

  1. Tom says:

    Wait. What?

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  2. Jack says:

    I don’t think an angelic fall makes any sense at all if they are “born into” the beatific vision. It would suggest, like Origen, that it is possible to be “bored with bliss”. If angels can turn away from the divine life, what’s to say we can’t or won’t in the eschaton? It does not say much for rational beings ‘ eternal estate in God if this were possible. I do not accept that Angela are entirely static beings, and that they remain unchanged in the eschaton. It would make more sense to posit that they exist in a different dimension of existence than we do, one that is close to God, but still created and imperfect.

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  3. Tom says:

    All that’s needed here, I think, is a careful re-reading of Hart’s paper ‘God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creation ex nihilo’. That would address the moral propriety of creating “from nothing” giving the possibility of the irrevocable loss of what God freely creates and loves.

    And the metaphysics of created being (and choosing) one has to imagine to make self-annihilation possible seems unimaginable given creation ex nihilo. The problem is Griffith’s 3rd axiom:

    “(3) 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.”

    The impossibility of self-annihilation need not be “intrinsic” to created being for it to be incoherent. It is not what creaturely natures are intrinsically (in and of themselves) which renders their self-annihilation impossible. It is what is intrinsic to God in the abiding act of his giving being to beings which renders us incapable of willing ourselves out of existence. Precisely because we have no volitional role to play in our coming into existence from nothing seems to me why it is we can have no role to play in foreclosing upon ourselves with respect to our continuing to exist. We are asymmetrically related to the gift of our being.

    I might be reading Hart wrong, but this is how I understand him. The divine act by which we exist at all is antecedent to any act of our will. That’s what makes ‘being’ a gift and what grounds the impossibility of our severing ourselves from the reach of those possibilities which constitute ground of our being able to choose at all. We are thus asymmetrically related to the possibility of our being and existence, the possibility of moving Godward thus always precedes any movement of created will as its very ground.

    “Evil as privation of being”? By all means. We are never other than brought into being out of nothing. But “out of nothing” isn’t the whole proposition. We are also brought into being “by God” (in love, unconditionally, for himself, etc.). So “evil as privation of being” can never be separable from “being as asymmetrically related to God as source, ground and end,” or, to say it differently: “God is the irrevocable possibility of all being” is as true as “evil is the privation of being.” Griffiths’ builds his case as though only the latter was true.

    Tom

    (This has come up before, no? https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/u-turns-and-transcendentals/)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In fact, Griffiths appeals directly to the creatio ex nihilo to support his position. Things come in and out of existence all the time. A dog is born, lives a few years, and dies. A rock on the shore is worn down bit by bit by the waves of the ocean and eventually ceases to be rock. Galaxies are born and then get sucked up into black holes.

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      • brian says:

        Yes, this is a common response akin to the notion that a lion requires an antelope to eat in order to manifest its nature as a lion. It takes the reality of “metronomic time” as in some sense normative, doesn’t it? I don’t see why one should grant that. In fact, I see plenty of reason to consider eschatological realities as determinative of identities not fully manifest in “fallen time.”

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      • Tom says:

        Fr Aidan,

        Right, he does work from creation ex nihilo, supposing that since finite things come into and pass out of existence, that alone must mean that the same nihil out of which we are called is a real final possibility for human beings. After all, human beings are no exception to the class of beings created out of nothing.

        But this is a mistake I think. It’s true that like all things we are called into being out of nothing. And it’s true that many created things pass out of existence. Obviously the non-existence of such things is consistent with the contingent ends enfolded in God’s intention to create. Their passing out of existence is consistent with their ‘logos’.

        But not all ‘logoi’ are the same. It may be that God does not tolerate the loss of some things. It all depends on the mode of participation given to things per their ‘logoi’, right? All created things are called into being ex nihilo, but it is their ‘logoi’, not the nothingness out of which they are called, which define their possibilities of being. The ‘logoi’ define the scope and possibilities of being. That’s what Griffiths seems to be overlooking.

        Hart’s moral argument is that if God really creates ex nihilo, then some modes of participation must (morally speaking) be intolerant to final loss. Given the incarnation, we can know at least that sentient beings who participate hypostatically in God are among those modes of participation that have the possibility of Godward becoming as the irrevocable orientation of their being.

        Tom

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        • brian says:

          Well, I don’t think there are any logoi meant to pass into non-existence. I also think the standard way of understanding non-sentient being is reductionist, not allowing for grace, the connection with angelic intelligence, but most importantly, the agapeic nature of the gift. I can’t see agapeic love being content with the annihilation of any being called into existence by love.

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          • Tom says:

            Right. Logoi are uncreated to begin with. But their created instantiations – this tree, that worm, this rose, etc. – those pass out of being – no?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, I’m not sure if the appeal to the logoi is particularly helpful here–or perhaps it is helpful (though it’s unclear to me yet how) but not decisive. Perhaps you and Brian can elaborate further.

          As noted by Robert below, Griffith’s free-will annihilationism is simply a version of free-will damnation, minus the everlasting punitive suffering. Hence all the objections advanced by Tom Talbott and Eric Reitan (and of course you, me, Brian, and Robert) should apply to Griffith’s position. For me, it all comes back to the agapaic love of God revealed in Christ.

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          • Tom says:

            As I understand what is meant by the logoi, they are the presence of agapeic love in created things, i.e., God present in things as their source, sustainer and end – all three of those being a single divine act of benevolent will. If the gift of existence is antecedent to any act of creaturely will (which is has to be, given creation ex nihilo), the so is our openness to God as end. For ‘source’ and ‘end’ are one and the same. Hart’s point earlier: protology and eschatology are a single revelation. So it is the love of God that renders our self-annihilation impossible. The logoi (about which I might be wrong of course) are what provide an account of how love structure’s the gift of being and willing which make final annihilation impossible. That structure locates annihilation outside the scope of our power to choose. How could it be otherwise? Given ex nihilo, structurally speaking, our powers of choice cannot have our own existence as the object of our choosing.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Tom, et al,

            God as first and final cause is precisely why I think it is such a big mistake to take the metronomic as determining – it is reading metronomic into God’s timeless act of creation. Metronomic time taken as Griffiths appears to do (going off Fr Kimel’s reviews, I have not read his works) then is the final cause, and as you say Tom that is problematic for ‘our powers of choice cannot have our own existence as the object of our choosing.’ But if we read desire, purpose, choice, freedom, liberty, etc. as uncoupled from God as its final cause, then indeed the metronomic is self determining.
            God’s Kingdom is not built on the foundation of the metronomic.

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          • Tom says:

            My typos are driving me insane…

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I woke up this morning to discover that a couple of my sentences in this article just were not up to snuff. I have therefore reworked them. For those would like to explore this topic without buying Decreation I have also added a link to an earlier essay by Griffiths.

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  5. brian says:

    Tom,

    Take a look towards the end of the last essay I wrote here, particularly Bulgakov’s notion of essential unity as both universal and concrete individual; also, the whole discussion of existence as the source of differentiation. If the unique is a gift of Existence and not merely a product of quantifiable matter, I think one should consider that uniqueness (what is responsible for “this” and “that” perdures “beyond death” because the uniqueness is not constrained by or comprehended by a mortal nature, but is “always already” a beloved. Further, I think “metronomic time” is metaphysically penultimate, i.e., it is maya or illusory when considered in light of eternal realities, of which an unfallen time participates. This is why I emphasized the importance of “the hidden.”

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  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    The key problematic is the understanding of freedom – according to Griffiths annihilation is possible because of creaturely freedom: “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.” This is another variant of the ‘hell’s-doors-locked-from-the-inside” notion eternal punishment, with the exception that annihilation is the eschaton. No Buena Noticia no es bueno.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Exactly, Robert. The same arguments I might advance against construals of free-will damnation apply equally to Griffith’s annihilationism. I suspect that he believes that he is constrained by magisterial Catholic teaching here: namely, while one might hope for the salvation of all, one may not assert unequivocally that all will be saved. It would be easy enough for a Catholic with a strong Augustinian understanding of efficacious grace to assert that God in his love will bring all to repentance; but Catholics do not appeal to efficacious grace at this point. I suspect they do not believe that option is dogmatically available to them.

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  7. I think Griffiths is being a little too free with Catholic dogma. Annihilationism is condemned by the Church, as is the idea that hell is not eternal. If he wants to continue these ideas, he may have to find a new religion.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ben, Griffiths would challenged, and does challenge, the claim that the kind of annihilationism of which he speaks is explicitly and plainly condemned by the Magisterium. His essay “Self-Annihilation or Damnation?” discusses this question in one section. Take a look and see what you think. As a non-RC Catholic, I do not have a dog in that fight.

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  8. John H says:

    So far I have read only the first 30 pages or so of Decreation, the free Kindle sample provided by Amazon. For Griffiths a novissimum is truly a “last thing” in that absolutely no change or novelty is possible after a person or angelic spirit reaches their novissimum. There are three types of novissima: annihilation, a pure static existence like that experienced by Dante’s Satan, frozen solid in the ninth circle of hell perpetually, and cyclic stasis, which is precisely the experience of the heavenly souls and angels who perpetually sing the Sanctus over and over again in adoration of the Holy Trinity. In short, we therefore have Hell as annihilation, Traditional Hell as perpetual stasis and heaven as the cyclic stasis of identical, never-ending repetitions of the Sanctus.

    Griffiths’ eschatology appears to be Augustinian to the core. He contrasts his notion of static novissima with Gregory of Nyssa’s idea of epiktasis, where every sentient being grows in their love and comprehension of God, a never ending joyful process because of the unfathomable richness of the Divine Nature. Gregory’s image of the perpetual pilgrimage of the blessed souls from the outer precincts of the Temple to the Holy of Holies where the Trinity dwells is truly so much richer than Augustine’s image of two eternal and static Cities, one in perpetual joy and the other, much more populated City, in eternal sorrow.

    As you may have already guessed, I am no fan of Griffiths’ (or Augustine”s) eschatology. But perhaps I am judging too harshly based upon a short reading of a free Kindle sample. Father Aidan, is it worth the time and expense to purchase a complete copy of Decreation, or am I just likely to find more grim and depressing notions of the “Last Things” expressed?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I too would have liked to have seen from Griffiths a deeper engagement with St Gregory’s epektasis or perhaps with Maximus’s version of the doctrine. His engagement with the Eastern tradition is quite limited, unfortunately; but nonetheless I have found the book to be quite challenging in many respects. Should you consider springing for it. I would suggest that you read his essay “Self-Annihilation or Damnation?” If that essay doesn’t engender interest, then you should probably save your $50. For myself, I’m still trying to figure out why metronomic time is fallen time. 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      For anyone interested in the Eastern understanding of epektasis, see this helpful essay by Paul Blowers: “Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Concept of Perpetual Progress.”

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  9. John H says:

    Father, I think that Griffiths sees metronomic time as more or less equivalent to what physicists refer to as the entropic arrow of time. The relentless tick tock leads inexorably not only to the deaths of individuals, species and ecosystems but also to the heat death of the cosmos as a whole when entropy reaches its maximum state in several billion years.

    But such a grim vision is surely not Christian, correct? If indeed Christ has trampled down death by death and the entire cosmos will be renewed in the eschaton, than such restoration must apply to metronomic time as well. Perhaps we need to speak about epekstaic time, which one could picture as being in the shape of a never ending spiral leading deeper and deeper into the Divine Mysteries.

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