Friday, March 25, 2011


One of the consequences of becoming an annihilationist, or a believer in conditional immortality, is that my sense of the certainty of eternal life has been diminished. By that I mean to say that as I gave up the idea of hell and the idea that our true selves are inherently immortal apart from our physical bodies, I eventually lost the certainty of Heaven. Heaven became replaced in my mind with a future physical resurrection of some sort, at which point I would be fully "alive" or conscious.

Now even that has faded somewhat and what I am left with is uncertainty. What does it mean for a person to die? What really happens to them?

Amidst all of the hell controversy spurred on by Rob Bell, who as a typical, high-profile, emergent refuses to be clear about where he stands, or to lay out with any certainty the path that he is on, I have revisited the idea of annihilation and universalism.

The chief flaw in universalism is the problem it has with evil within a "Christian/biblical" framework. Christian Scripture is clear that that there are people who choose evil and refuse to turn from evil to good. What happens to these people after death in universalism? Most Christian universalists consign them to a temporary hell in which they eventually see the error of their ways and repent and join the Kingdom of God.

Lately everyone is referring to C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which portrays a hell whose gates are "locked from the inside" and populated by willing people. Evangelicals have latched onto Lewis' idea and it is frequently postulated as an alternative to the fiery versions of hell put forth by others. It's an improvement on the traditional doctrine of hell...but still not very satisfying.

In The Great Divorce those who are in hell remain mostly unconvinced by the inhabitants of Heaven despite the great lengths that the inhabitants take to persuade them. Though Lewis portrays the possibility that they can all choose Heaven, almost none of them do. This isn't very "universalist" in scope. The hell-dwellers don't seem to have any more access to the reality of God than they did in their earthly lives, which eliminates the idea that after death an encounter with the divine would be more tangible and easily understood than it is in ordinary, physical life.

Lewis writes a new story that is only slightly different than the old one....that those who are in hell want to be there and have chosen to be there on some level.

What are the options before us? Eternal torment, extinction, no extinction but the possibility of choosing to remain ignorant of God and live in hell...which is ultimately unsatisfying but also not fiery.

In my more evangelical days, I remember longing for Heaven/Resurrection as an event that would make me perfect and holy. I imagined how wonderful it would be to not be tempted to make bad choices, to always be loving and kind, to always know the truth in any given situation. It was a soothing idea.

However, even when I thought about this future me, I wondered how much of "me" would be left. In my mind, so much of what constitutes "me" and my personality are inseparable from the likes and dislikes and all-too-human tendencies, many of which would seem to melt away in this other-worldy perfection I was imagining. How "me-like" would I be?

Lewis plays with this theme a little in The Great Divorce when a painter is aghast at the idea that he won't be known by his painting, because there are many great painters in Heaven and all of them are there only to serve and not to worry about their own contributions or uniqueness. The painter doesn't like this at all and rushes back to hell.

Lewis' point is that concern for individual recognition is selfish and ungodly.

Yet...isn't that what the hope for an after-life is all about...that we will continue on in some way as individual beings recognized and reunited with those who are particular to our own lives and stories? We would be happy to see anyone in Heaven, but we most want to see our departed family members and friends. We want individual redemption and recognition, not universal, general salvation.

Lately, when I ponder what will happen to me when I die, I am left with much uncertainty. Unraveling how Scripture truly portrays the afterlife, and losing the sense of inerrancy of Scripture, has made me unsure of just about everything.

How can I know what happens when Scripture argues with itself? How can I speak of things for which I have no experience or evidence?

Honestly, I don't know anymore. All I have is a vague hope that God will remember me. That when my breath returns to God that there will be something worthy enough of me to be retained in His mind.

This is not a very "Christian" concept but one that makes sense to me.

At this point I hope that the good in me will be remembered while the evil in me is forgotten. Maybe those who cultivate evil in their hearts will be wholly forgotten. Maybe feeding our dark side ultimately erases the part of us that is worthy of remembrance.

Death, annihilation, being forgotten....isn't this what we want to have happen to evil?

Perhaps the idea of sanctification is a metaphor for making more and more of ourselves worth remembrance in God's eyes, keeping what is good in us and discarding that which isn't.


james said...

As someone noted long ago, there being no time with God, His memory is always of the present. Since it would also not be as feeble and attenuated as ours, the metaphor of being remembered by God turns into something more like being in His presence.
I’m not happy with the way I am constituted. Part of me wants destruction, part comfort, and part wants what is fitting and good.
Every now and then I look back on something we just did and think “that was perfect.” Some word, some act, some silence was as fitting as the skipping stone hitting the pond just right, or getting the second wind running, or the right key turning the lock.
Now that I think of it, those kind of moments never seem to happen when I’m alone.
Those (all too rare) little moments tell me it is possible for righteousness to be unselfconscious joy. And I feel very far from it, living in leaden months of “me me me.” And I think that to live like that, with every act fitting the picture perfectly, would be heaven. But it would only be the start, if we could hear someone with the power and right to say it say “well done.”

terri said...

"Now that I think of it, those kind of moments never seem to happen when I’m alone."

I would say that is mostly true for me also. I have had moments of solitary transcendence....but those might be in a different category than un-self-conscious joy, which I have also experienced.

Usually those experiences occur spontaneously and without prediction.

cognitivediscopants said...

I find myself in much the same place as you. It's tough to know what to think of a subject about which the Bible presents different views, especially once you've let go of inerrancy.
It's difficult for me to imagine people choosing to remain in hell if hell involves any kind of torment.
But I can wrap my mind around the idea of God "forgetting" people who choose to be left alone. Particularly if the notion of an immortal soul distinct from the body is more Platonic than biblical.
Thanks for some clear thoughts on a very unclear topic.

terri said...

cognitive discopants,

Thanks for the comment. I clicked over to your blog and saw your posts about he whole "Heaven is For Real" brouhaha. You make many points that I myself have made to others.

I may have to link to it!

Reason's Whore said...

As an atheist, my view is that once the brain dies, we are gone forever. If your brain holds all your thoughts, hopes, dreams and memories (and we know that it does), then what part of "you" would be left if you no longer had your brain?

There's an excellent essay on this topic at Daylight Atheism:

As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit." I like being alive and conscious, but aside from the dying part, death is nothing. For me, the important part is to do something meaningful while I am here, to make some positive contribution to the world. Life is a process, there is not a goal.

Chris M said...

Feel free to link away. And you can call me Chris. :) Maybe I should start commenting with a Name/URL rather than using OpenID. I'll give it a whirl.

terri said...

Reason's Whore.... that's actually quite close to what's represented in Old Testament Judaism....a materialist view that without the body there was no "you".
That's why resurrection was so important of a concept to them, because it would be a reconstitution of the person...a new life.

I think that's interesting from a perspective in the 21st century in which we realize so much, if not all of our consciousness, is tied to physical, material processes.

Ancient Israelites had a view that would be more compatible with those conclusions than many other religions would be or are.

Not....that I am trying to convince you of anything....I just think it's interesting.

Conditional Immortality said...

We have many articles that explore Afterlife | Conditional Immortality, Soul Sleep and Annihilationism.
When I came to a condionalist perspective I suddenly realised that it will God who will have to remember me otherwise I will be no more.

Andrew Patrick said...

Quoted from the author above:
How can I know what happens when Scripture argues with itself? How can I speak of things for which I have no experience or evidence?

I am not sure what you mean by the scripture arguing with itself. As a biblical inerrantist I also read an unanimous message that the wicked shall ultimately perish and be no more - that they shall no longer exist in any sense of the word.

We do have experience and evidence of not existing, as the an atheist previously commented on this blog (agreeing with Mark Twain) that we have already "experienced" an infinity of not existing. Technically, this is a lack of experience, but how many times do we need to prove that zero "exists?" Besides this, many of us have experienced unconsciousness even while we were technically alive.

If you think you see the scripture arguing against itself, please drop by my website and leave me a few questions. I am very familiar with this particular topic, so perhaps I could answer them for you.