Greg Boyd on the "The Eternal Suffering of Agents Who Have Been Annihilated"

Greg Boyd, in Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), attempts to handle the texts used to argue for the eternal conscious torment of hell and the texts used to argue for annihilationism by "affirming both views as essentially correct" (p. 336). On the one hand, he says, "When all the Biblical evidence is viewed together, it must be admitted that the case for annihilationism is quite compelling" (p. 336). But on the other hand, he sees some texts on the other side that do not fit the simple annihilationist view (he mentions Revelation 14:10; 20:10; Matthew 25:34, 41; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, p. 336). He asks, "Where does this leave us? For my part, it leaves me in a conundrum. I do not believe that either the traditional position or the annihilationists' position adequately accounts for all the Biblical evidence cited in support of the opposing side's position. Yet I do not believe that Scripture can contradict itself (John 10:35). This raises the question: Is there a logically consistent way of affirming both views as essentially correct?" (pp. 336-337).

His answer is yes: "I will attempt to move beyond the impasse of the traditional and annihilationist understandings of eternal punishment and construct a model of hell that allows us to affirm the essence of both perspectives" (p. 339). He attempts to show that "Hell is the eternal suffering of agents who have been annihilated" (p. 356).

He states a crucial premise: "There can be no shared reality between those who say yes to God and those who say no, just as there can be no shared reality between the actuality that God affirms and the possibilities that God negates" (p. 347). Here is the conclusion that follows: "Love is about relationships, and relationships are about sharing reality. Hence, when in the eschaton reality is exhaustively defined by God's love, the 'reality' of any agent who opposes love cannot be shared by anyone else and thus cannot be real to anyone else. It is experienced as real from the inside of the one who sustains it by his or her active willing it. But to all who participate in reality – that is, who are open to God and to each other through the medium of God's love – it is nothing. It is eternally willed nothingness" (p. 350). "Hell is real only from the inside" (p. 348).

Thus "we are able to affirm that in one sense the inhabitants of hell are annihilated, though they suffer eternally. From the perspective of all who share reality in the eschaton, the damned are no more (Obadiah 16). They exist only as utter negation. . . . They continue to experience torment, but it is a torment of their own pathetic choosing in an illusory reality of their own damned imagining" (p. 350). As Scripture says, they are extinct, reduced to ashes, forever forgotten . . . But we may also accept the scriptural teaching regarding the eternity of the torment of the reprobates. . . . From the inside of the rebel experience, the nothingness that they have willed is experienced as a something. To all others, it is nothing" (p. 353).

"Stillborns of the probationary gestation period, these rebels will timelessly endure in the loveless, illusory separate reality that they and their ruler have imagined. As they are forever in the past to participants of the kingdom of God, the joy and peace of the kingdom that they truly desire and were created to share in must forever lie in unattainable future for them. This torment is their eternal dignity and humiliation, their choice and their damnation, and it expresses God's eternal love as well as his eternal wrath" (p. 356).

I am thankful that Boyd feels bound by Scripture to affirm the conscious, eternal misery of the damned. "The world of the will that says no to reality must be eternally vacuous and eternally miserable (p. 350). He accepts "the scriptural teaching regarding the eternity of the torment of the reprobates. . . . From the inside of the rebel experience, the nothingness that they have willed is experienced as a something" (p. 353). "This torment is their eternal dignity" (p. 356). It may be unreal to those in heaven, but it truly experienced by those in hell. Though "hell is 'a state of mind,'" this mind experiences "torment." "It is experienced as real from the inside" (p. 350). "Inside the self-chosen negation . . . 'life' goes on" (p. 350).

But I am not persuaded that Boyd's complex and paradoxical "model" can survive close scrutiny.

1) It doesn't seem to me that Boyd has established the "unreality" of the willing self in arguing that this self wills only unreality. "It can continue to exist, but this existence can only be the existence of utter negation" (p. 342). I do not see how he moves from "utter negation" to "utter non-being." I admit that I do not understand his precise meaning for the concept of "negation." I searched carefully in the forty pages devoted to the question of annihilationism (chapters 11-12) and could not find a clear explanation of this concept. Therefore I am not as persuaded by the unreality of hell vis- à -vis heaven as I am the true ongoing experience of misery in the consciousness of the lost.

2) It is not clear to me that Boyd comes to terms with the Biblical importance of the human body in the eternal suffering of the lost. Since he does not argue for a short-term physical hell followed by extinction, which some annihilationists do (and thus give an account of why the body of the wicked would be raised, Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15), I do not know what account Boyd would give of the resurrection of the body of unbelievers. According to Matthew 10:28 it is "soul and body" that are "destroyed in hell." Boyd does not take this "destruction" to mean the absolute non-being of the soul; so I am not sure why he would take it to mean the non-being of the body.

3) Boyd seems to embrace the (doubtful) annihilationist argument that the redeemed could not be happy in heaven if they knew that the lost were eternally miserable in hell: "The joy of heaven is only conceivable if the damned have been annihilated and are remembered no more" (p. 336). Yet his own view does not seem to answer this objection, since it affirms the "eternal suffering" (p. 356) of the lost, and the "eternity of the torment of the reprobates" (p. 353), and that the damned are "eternally miserable" (p. 350). To be sure, he says that this is "unreal to those in heaven" (p. 350), and that the lost "are forever in the past to the participants of the kingdom of God" (p. 356), nevertheless I must ask: How can we know so much now about the "eternal suffering" of the lost (and thus maintain compassionate missions zeal to reach them with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ), and yet the perfected saints in heaven know so little about this eternal suffering (and thus, supposedly, find relief from the sadness that such knowledge would cause)?

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org