The Interminable Conversation Versus Annihilationism


An annihilationist eschatology holds that the damned are not raised to eternal fleshly torments but pass completely into the nothingness from which they were created. For most of Christian history, annihilationism was not found within the mainstream of eschatological reflection. In recent years, however, it has become a live option for speculative theologians writing about eschatology.[1] This is largely, if not chiefly, due to the work of Paul Griffiths, who has offered the most recent and most sophisticated presentation of this view.[2] For him, if hell names a state of complete separation from God, then hell can only designate a state of complete non-being. Griffiths argues this point with his characteristic elegance. His arguments on behalf of annihilationism are interwoven with other commitments about the nature of the human person and divine agency in creation.

To interrogate Griffiths’s account and ascertain how well it captures the truth of the matter, we would do well to compare his reflections with theology done in a similar key. The best candidate for this are the eschatological meditations of Joseph Ratzinger. [3] Putting Ratzinger in conversation with Griffiths is particularly appropriate. Both theologians are thoroughgoing disciples of St. Augustine, even though the style of theologizing that marks both of their writings does not explicitly cite Augustine at every turn. Rather, each one theologizes in a thoroughly Augustinian grammar. Moreover, both Ratzinger and Griffiths frequently address what might be termed ontological questions without recourse to the classical metaphysical discourse normally considered standard in Catholic theology. These tendencies make Ratzinger a theologian who can respond to Griffiths’s speculative account on its own terms. There is no need to translate Ratzinger’s conceptual points from one theological idiom into that of Griffiths. Furthermore, both Ratzinger and Griffiths are very self-consciously Roman Catholic theologians. Both pay close attention to magisterial and conciliar documents to determine the boundary lines of permissible theological positions and speculative possibilities. Thus, although the former pope and the former scholar of classical Buddhism might seem to occupy widely separated points on the theological landscape, their modes of theologizing are actually remarkably similar. Investigating Ratzinger’s views on the nature of the soul and its immortality will reveal flaws both in Griffiths’s alternative eschatology and his broader view of human nature.

Ratzinger on the Immortality of the Soul and Annihilationism

Before treating Ratzinger’s remarks that relate directly to annihilationism, I must outline his account of the Christian doctrine of the soul, which he finds in the Old Testament. For Ancient Israel, sickness and death “push man into a realm of non-communication . . . destroying the relationships that make life what it is.”[4] The sphere of death is “dereliction, isolation, loneliness, and thus abandonment to nothingness.”[5] Hence, the sphere of life must be in contrast communion and relationship, both with humans and with YHWH. Furthermore, if YHWH truly had universal sovereignty, then death and Sheol could not be considered limits to his reach. Communion with YHWH thus was possible even after death. Ratzinger cites Psalm 73 as powerful confirmation of the presence of this belief in ancient Israelite religion.[6] He stresses that this focus on interpersonal communication is not simply a psychological point, but first an ontological one:

Communication is life, and its absence death. From this thoroughly empirical point the Psalmist now draws out, thanks to his own experience, an inference of decisive importance: communication with God is reality. It is true reality, the really real, more real, even, than death itself.[7]

The New Testament writings further develop this nascent understanding of the soul’s immortality by giving it a distinctly Christological shape. Whereas immortality had been only a peripheral part of ancient Judaism, the centrality of the resurrection for Christian preaching and teaching required it to become part of any Christian doctrine of the soul. The social dimension of the doctrine of the soul’s immortality remained, however, since “Theo-Christology also possesses an ecclesiological aspect.”[8] Participating in the Body of Christ that is the Church fleshes out “how the belonging to God that Jesus spoke of actually takes place.”[9] Ratzinger emphasizes that the social dimension of faith guarantees its personal character, concluding that “the theologizing of resurrection faith is also its personalization.”[10]

Interweaving immortality and dialogic personalism into an account of the soul created a dilemma when Christian theology began to rely on Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical grammars. Plato offered Christian theologians an account of immortality that mitigated earlier dualistic impulses and a set of enchanting mythopoeic images, but failed to provide a systematic account, bequeathing a “philosophical landscape pitted with problems.”[11] For these reasons, Ratzinger finds great value in Aristotle’s more systematic account. In particular he commends Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, which understands the soul as “substance in the sense of the form of a natural body, which has life through its own potentiality.”[12] On Aristotle’s account, however, the rational aspect of the soul, which unifies the human person, participates in the transcendent, yet impersonal nous, thereby undermining classical Christian positions. Neither thinker could then be adopted wholesale.[13]

Ratzinger identified Aquinas’s account of the soul as solving the problem definitively. Aquinas broadly concurs with Aristotle in seeing the soul as forma corporis, yet transforms Aristotle’s account by making the spirit in which the soul participates personal in nature. The soul may be “in” the body as its form, but the form of the body is still transcendent and personal. Ratzinger employs this personalist account to refute the objection that Aquinas’s understanding of the soul and those like it reduce immortality to a “substantialistic” property of the soul. He offers a Christologically-determined account of eternal life. Philosophers who try to speak about immortality resemble Peter trying but failing to walk towards Jesus on the Gennesareth.[14] Instead, it requires the Incarnational call of revelation to ensure immortality. Ratzinger then modifies Aquinas’s definition of the soul, though not negating it, saying that:

Owing to a Christological transformation, the Platonist notion of life which flows from the truth is rendered more profound, and made the vehicle of a “dialogical” concept of humanity: man is defined by his intercourse with God. Man is conceived as being “capable of the knowledge and love of God and called thereto.” In this way, the dialogical conception of humankind which emerged from the Christological perspective is linked up with a resolution of the problem of matter, in terms of the dynamic unity of the entire created world.[15]

Ratzinger distinguishes his theological position from various other glosses on Thomas’s thought precisely because he insists on how Christological reflection transforms classical philosophical thought on the matter. Metaphysical speculation, Christian or pagan, does not drive itself to this conclusion. Instead, reflection on the life and work of Christ, as understood by the community gathered together in his name and interpreting the scriptures through the lenses of his life and of the liturgy, produces this doctrine.

I can now turn to the relevant passages where Ratzinger discusses the possibility of annihilationism. Ratzinger recognizes and responds to objections that his avoidance of substance language exposes him to charges of fideism. Relatedness, he argues, “entails indestructibility.”[16] Since relatedness, and more specifically the capacity for relatedness to God, distinguishes human beings, openness to and participation in relationship quite literally makes human beings more human. It must be stressed that this openness is “not a product of human achievement . . . it is given to man; man depends for it on another.”[17]

Ratzinger then asks how it is that a human creature can live closed off from its own essence. He notes that humans often futilely try to fashion their own immortality through great works or descendants. These attempts lead precisely to the Sheol-like existence described in the Old Testament, a “being in nothingness.”[18] Although he does not mention the term explicitly, Ratzinger clearly precludes annihilationism, stating:

[Such a Sheol-like existence] does not mean, however, that man can cancel out God’s creative act or put it into reverse. The result of his sin is not pure nothingness. Like every other creature, man can only move within the ambit of creation. Just as he cannot bring forth being of himself, so neither can he hurl himself back into pure nothingness.[19]

Building upon this ontological discussion Ratzinger returns to Christology to complete his argument against annihilationism. Christ, he contends, overcame the self-contradiction that is sin from within by entering this Sheol-like state on Holy Saturday, thereby enabling relationship with God in the midst of supreme human rejection of God. Immortality then requires a “praxis of receiving,” of which humans are capable through Christ.[20]

It is necessary to unpack this argument further. Ratzinger argues that annihilationism is impossible precisely because it would require either human agency or divine agency to accomplish it. On the one hand, humans cannot, under their own power, bring themselves to nothing because it would require them to exercise a divine kind of power, capable of transcending the gulf between being and nothingness, between creation and the void. On the other hand, Ratzinger believes that, given the inability of humans to bring themselves to nothing, only God could effect the annihilation of persons, yet the possibility of God doing this is unthinkable. Before human beings ever responded to the LORD’s call, before they turned their gaze to him, the LORD called them into being and into relatedness to him. Since the LORD is the one in whom faithfulness and fidelity find their definitions, he will never cease to call to them. This call, it must be remembered, is ontologically constitutive of human beings on Ratzinger’s account. If the LORD in his love never ceases to call to human beings, then they can never cease to be. They can never bring themselves to nothing, not even through total rejection of God; Christ’s descent into hell ensured that. They might be reduced to a shadowy existence like that imagined by C. S. Lewis for Napoleon in The Great Divorce, but total nothingness is beyond their capability.[21]

Ratzinger does not make the point explicitly, but his argument relies on a firm distinction between primary and secondary causality. Since Ratzinger relies on Aquinas for his account of the soul, I will employ Aquinas’s discussion of the matter. Aquinas, commenting on the Liber de Causis, asserts that every primary cause infuses its effect more powerfully than does a universal second cause. This position entails three further points. First, a first cause infuses the effect more powerfully than does the second cause. Second, the impression of the first cause recedes later from the effect. Third, the impression of the first cause reaches the effect first. It should almost go without saying that God is the universal first cause of creaturely beings, of beings in the genus of being. To understand Ratzinger’s rejection of annihilationism, one must recognize that God’s activity as the universal first cause takes place precisely in and through and as the dialogical call to human beings (and the rest of creation in a different way). Reality is fundamentally personal on this account. Therefore, the interpersonal call of creation into communion with him that God initiates on this account not only fulfills the function of Primary Causality but in fact is a more complete, more accurate description of it. This dialogical call is more fundamental, and ontologically constitutive, than any secondary cause, including both secondary physical causes on humans and secondary intentional causes that humans enact on themselves. It is in this sense that the effect of the impression of the first cause “arrives” at the effect first. Most importantly, the effect of the universal first cause recedes later than that of any secondary cause can be applied to the Christian doctrine of the soul as formulated by Ratzinger. No matter what a human being does to close him or herself off from this call, the effects of his or her actions, which can only lie within the realm of secondary causality, cannot reduce him or her to nothingness. The divine call to relationship will remain even after every human attempt to flee from it. Thus, annihilation is not a possible novissimum for a human life. Importantly for the interpretation of Ratzinger, this insight can also be, and is in fact by Ratzinger, expressed Christologically through a discussion of the descent into hell. In fact, Ratzinger would probably argue that this Christological account is superior to the more abstract causal account because it captures in greater detail what actually takes place in the divine creative and redemptive act than the sparser, more abstract account of primary and secondary causality.

Griffiths on Fleshly Immortality and Annihilationism

Let us now turn to Griffiths’s account of Annihilationism. His account of the soul closely resembles Ratzinger’s account. For him, what the soul does is—quite literally—inform an otherwise inanimate body.[22] Griffiths insists in noticeably stronger language than Ratzinger that a disincarnate human soul is not a person. To be a complete person requires enfleshed existence. Nonetheless, his account of the soul, both enfleshed and disincarnate, is social in nature. Emphasizing the enfleshed nature of human existence to such an extent leads Griffiths to highlight the importance of “locatedness” for human existence.[23] For flesh, locatedness includes but is not exhausted by its location in time-space. It includes “an erotic relation, one of desire and delight.”[24] Flesh’s erotic character “is not . . . a drive or appetite internal to itself by means of which it relates itself to a world external to itself.”[25] Instead, flesh’s eros is received entirely as gift, given both by the LORD and by other persons:

The flesh’s eros is received as gift, not possessed as aspiration: it is only by being caressed, for example, that fleshly creatures are capable of caressing; it is not that we are brought into being as caressers, awaiting occasion for the exercise of that potency. No, in order to be lovers, those capable of caressing (rather than merely touching) the flesh of another, we need first to receive the other’s caress. That is, the lover becomes such only by receiving the gift of himself as beloved. The flesh’s eros . . . is received as gift, and necessarily so.[26] 

This passage exhibits both one major similarity and one major difference with Ratzinger’s account of the soul. On the one hand, the emphasis on gift dominates Griffiths’s discussion of the enfleshed soul in much the same way that it pervades Ratzinger’s account. On the other hand, each thinker relies on different overriding imagery (metaphorical and otherwise). For Ratzinger, the givenness of human existence is captured primarily by oral and aural metaphors. The dialogical call anchors his account. For Griffiths, the imagery is tactile: “caress” is the crucial term. The difference lies ultimately in the weight each set of images and metaphors gives to human and divine agency. One can call to another dialogically without that person exercising any intentional response. Hence, God can continually call us into being even if we ourselves never respond. A successful caress, however, must be accepted and ultimately returned. If performed without the willed acceptance of the one being caressed a caress fails, as does one that does not evoke a response, even if simply that of acceptance. Griffiths distills this point himself when he notes that “on this model, unrequited love is something close to an oxymoron.”[27] The aural and oral aspects of the eschaton are not completely neglected. Griffiths maintains that the Beatific Vision will include the ceaseless repetition of the divine name (YHWH and perhaps Jesus Christ). Even here, though, these faculties seem subordinated to the tactile, for the uttering of the name seems to be elided into the divine kiss of which the author of the Song of Songs speaks.

Griffths’s account of annihilationism also relies on a conception of sin as fundamentally antisocial and irrational. The incarnate soul’s social eros is seriously malformed post lapsum. Its sins are mostly attempted expropriation of the flesh of others and of inanimate bodies. Such expropriations are attempts to make some particular creature the sinner’s own as its dominus, i.e. to usurp the place of the LORD with respect to some particular creature. Attempts to appropriate flesh sinfully are performatively incoherent. Since they desire to be the only agent in the exchange of caresses by compelling the other’s response, flesh so expropriated would cease to be flesh and, for the one expropriating, approximate an inanimate body. Thus, sin severs bonds of human relationship, transforming relations in which incarnate souls, i.e. persons, are treated as such into one person’s use of something rather than someone. Sin is inherently solipsistic on Griffiths’s account. This aspect also parallels Ratzinger’s account, in which sin and death are marked by the absence of relation.

Griffiths goes further than Ratzinger in his discussion of sin, arguing that the last and ultimate autonomous success of the sinner brings them to nothing. In prefacing this account he qualifies his argument, stating that the LORD cannot bring his creatures to nothing: “the LORD is creator ex nihilo, not the bringer of his creatures ad nihilum.”[28] Thus, it is particular human creatures who bring themselves to nothing, if any do so. Beyond that, the three key pivots of Griffiths’s argument for annihilationism are:

  1. sin seeks separation from the LORD rather than intimacy with him
  2. sin proliferates by habituation
  3. sin is a reduction in the being of the sinner.

Sin conforms its agents to the intentional objects of its action. The object that sinners seek, when they sin, has no existence. Since sin is a separation from the LORD, and since all things that exist participate in the LORD, to perform an action whose object is separation from that LORD is to perform an action whose object is non-being. It is for this reason that Griffiths offers suicide as the perfect image of sin here in the devastation; suicide seeks nothing “by the gesture of self-annihilation.”[29] Within Christian Grammar “malum and nihil are exchangeable.”[30] Thus, the more evil the act, and the more evil the agent, the closer to nothing both the act and the agent are. In this sense sin is a reduction in being. Griffiths draws this language of reduction both from scripture and from Augustine, particularly Augustine’s language of souls being deserted by God.[31] Those sinners capable of such acts are “virtuoso sinners.”[32] Through the repeated performance of sins, virtuoso sinners are increasingly conformed to the object of their sin “with increasing intimacy.” They are conformed, that is, to pure nothingness, until they simply cease to be. Griffiths offers a number of examples, including invidia and acedia, to illustrate his point. The ultimate expression of the sinner’s habituation to nothingness is actually for Griffiths acedia. At the end of long train of abuses and usurpations, as it were, the sinner can no longer muster the energy to turn towards the LORD or the glories of heaven and its Sabbath rest; their restlessness prevents this. The increasing lack of action itself exemplifies an increasing reduction in being, to the point that a lack of action becomes a lack of existence. The following statement from Griffiths makes the point clearly:

Repeated sin, as it approaches the necrophiliac purity of invidia or acedia, may bring sinners to the point where they lack the energy—the very being—to turn their gaze towards the LORD who is the only possibility of re-creation, of setting sinners on a path of remaking, away from the nihil and towards the LORD.[33]

What Ratzinger’s Account Has that Griffiths’s Account Lacks

Once again it is worth paying attention to the primary imagery that Griffiths employs to make his point. In contrast to Ratzinger, for whom the principle imagery for God’s relationship with humanity is dialogue, he relies on vision imagery to present his position. It is a matter of human beings not being able “to turn their gaze towards the LORD” because of their own repeated, habituated sin.[34] Therefore, Griffiths has given an account of a particular human novissimum, annihilationism, focused on human agency. Here lies the flaw in his account. Ratzinger avoided annihilationism precisely because he foregrounded divine agency through his account of the dialogical call. Because this call always already precedes human action, which takes place only within the realm of finite beings and cannot pre-empt the action of the infinite being within which alone the person is capable of action, the human being can never pass into nothingness. Furthermore, for Ratzinger Christ’s harrowing of hell, in which he has entered into the furthest possible alienation from God and thereby made God present even there, completes God’s preservation of humanity from non-being. Ratzinger has remained faithful to his own presentation of the primary and secondary causality distinction while retaining his Christological focus. Indeed, he has re-described the metaphysical account of primary and secondary causality in terms of creation’s interpersonal communion with Christ.

Their differing metaphors for discussing the subject here become decisive. Ratzinger’s image of dialogue both ensures real relationship and guarantees that divine action is not neglected, thereby revealing what is lacking in Griffiths’s imagery. One can gaze upon someone without being in an I-Thou relationship with that person. Griffiths’s own discussion of pornographic spectacles actually demonstrates this quite successfully. Moreover, fleshly caress without dialogue also has the potential to not constitute an I-Thou relationship. Thus, Griffiths’s imagery and metaphors reveal the degree to which one agent, a very important agent, God, has been neglected in his account.

Griffiths’s dominant imagery neglects a chief characteristic of rational agency as it is normally understood: speech. He is correct to highlight the ways in which rational, intentionally ordered human existence exhibits itself through a variety of non-verbal means. Relying on this imagery to characterize divine existence, however, overlooks the fact that the primary model for understanding divine agency is speech. God speaks the world into being. Griffiths might here respond with a sacramental, liturgical argument that our primary mode of relating to God is carnal and tactile, since Catholics attain their closest union with Christ in and through the Eucharist. Yet, the scriptural title for the Son that the tradition has deemed pre-eminent is that found in the Johannine Prologue: Logos. This title precedes the Son’s presence in the Eucharist, at least logically. The Son is most fundamentally the Father’s word, that which establishes and constitutes a conversation. Thus, Griffiths’s neglect of oral and aural metaphors severely weakens his account. If our being is most fundamentally a conversation between God and ourselves, then it must be one initiated by the LORD. If the LORD has initiated it, then only the LORD may choose to terminate it. If only the LORD may terminate this conversation, then the sinner cannot under their own power bring him or herself to nothing. Indeed, the peculiarly pathetic quality of the sinner is that he or she cannot even truly succeed in sinning. But we should rejoice in that failure, for it leaves open the possibility of repentance and joyful acceptance of this eternal conversation in which the sinner finds him or herself. More importantly, it reveals the ineradicable goodness of our being.

[1] See: Roberto J. de la Noval, “The (Final) Fork in the Road: Universalist and Annihilationist Eschatologies—and What Ultimately Divides Them,” Pro Ecclesia XXV No. 3 (2016): 315.

[2] Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, (Waco: Baylor, 2014).

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Second Edition, trans. Michael Waldstein, (Washington, D.C.: CUA, 2007).

[4] Ibid., 81.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 88-89.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid.  

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 143.

[12] Aristotle, De Anima, 412a19-20.

[13] See: Ratzinger, op. cit., 145.

[14] Ibid., 152.

[15] Ibid., 152-153.

[16] Ibid., 154.

[17] Ibid., 155.

[18] Ibid., 156.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Op. cit., 156.

[21] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, (New York: Harper Collins, 2013), 10-13.

[22] Griffiths, op. cit., 159ff.

[23] Ibid., 161.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ibid., 162.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 163-164.

[28] Ibid., 192.

[29] Ibid., 193

[30] Ibid., 195.

[31] Ibid., 201.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 202ff, emphasis mine.

[34] Ibid., emphasis mine.

Featured Image: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Death and the Maiden, 1932; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-OLD-80.


Bruce McCuskey

Bruce McCuskey is a Jesuit novice of the Maryland Province. He is a graduate of the Duke University MTS program.

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