Wind Out of the Sails: A Response to Greg Koukl

I highly recommend Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason ministry and radio program. Greg and I don’t agree on a number of theological issues, but I greatly respect and appreciate his passion for teaching Christians the importance of careful thinking. As he’s been known to say, “Emotions are what make life delicious, careful thinking is what makes life safe.” Unfortunately, however, as is certainly the case with every generally careful thinker, Greg thinks less carefully about some issues than he does others.

In a recent episode, Greg explained that he sees spiritual warfare not primarily as battle during a direct and immediate assault by the devil against the individual believer but as the tearing down of lofty ideas that hinder the message of Christ. “Many of those who identify themselves as genuine followers of Christ,” said Greg, “have been undermined in their ability to communicate the gospel because of other beliefs, theological beliefs, that take the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission, to put it simply.”1 Among other examples of such beliefs, Greg included annihilationism:2

So the point here is, I see in, say the teaching of annihilationism…the hallmarks of spiritual warfare. That is, I see an idea now, that if taken seriously, takes the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission. It makes the gospel seem less important, or less urgent. Now who would have an interest in making the gospel less important or less urgent? Not Jesus. The devil. When I notice a doctrine coming in from the side that doesn’t seem to be consistent with classical Christian teaching and which doctrine seems to have the impact of taking some of the force out of the Great Commission, I immediately know that this is an example of spiritual warfare, and I need to resist it.

Annihilationism is false, then, according to Koukl, because it makes the gospel less important, less urgent, thus taking the “wind out of the sails” of the Great Commission. Let us examine this claim, and see if it is a compelling reason to reject conditional immortality.

Carefulless Thinking

Greg began his discussion of annihilationism saying,3

What about annihilationism? Those that don’t ultimately spend eternity with God they just get destroyed and there’s no—that’s it, that’s their punishment. Capital punishment, kind of—spiritually speaking. They’re just gone. That’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, and an increasing number of Christians.

On one hand, it’s a little refreshing to hear Greg somewhat correctly characterize annihilation as a sort of capital punishment, acknowledging (at first, anyway) that the result of being killed is a form of punishment. On the other hand, he exhibits careless thinking right out of the starting gate.

First, Greg creates a false dichotomy between the forfeiture of an eternity spent with God and what he thinks is the punishment proposed by conditionalists. Yet more than a millennium and a half ago Saint Augustine wisely pointed out that the punishment of execution is measured fundamentally in that “the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living.”4 Indeed, when one considers that the eternal life forfeited would have otherwise been spent in bliss in the presence of God, one is hard-pressed to identify a worse imaginable punishment.

Second, Greg says that conditionalists propose that the wicked are “just” destroyed, are “just” gone. I seriously doubt that anybody would say of criminals executed by violent, painful means—such as the electric chair or, say, crucifixion—that they are “just” destroyed, that they are “just” gone. In fact, I doubt they’d speak that way of even relatively painless means of execution, such as lethal injection. I therefore find myself frequently befuddled by critics of our view who often use words like “just,” “simply” or “merely” to describe the capital punishment that is annihilation.

Third, Greg immediately brings up the similarity between the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of final punishment with that of evangelical conditionalists, and though I don’t fault him for doing so to the same extent that I fault him for the previous examples of thoughtlessness, nevertheless I doubt that he does this consistently. When he defends monotheism, inerrancy or an eternity spent on the New Earth in physical, resurrected bodies (Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this is the eternal fate of most followers of Jesus), surely he doesn’t say, “That’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.” Associating a belief held by evangelicals with that of the cults is something he likely only does when he’s criticizing it, and I’m skeptical that his motivation for doing so is legitimate, at least in this case.

Greg goes on,5

If annihilationism is true, that the unbelieving just disappear, they get destroyed in that sense, then there is no threat of punishment. There’s only a threat of non-existence. And what is the danger of that?

There’s that word again. They “just” disappear, suggesting that our view is that God snaps His fingers and in a puff of smoke the wicked vanish into the proverbial ether. That erroneous mischaracterization aside, recall that earlier Greg said of the destruction awaiting the wicked that “that’s their punishment. Capital punishment.” A matter of minutes later, however, he contradicts himself, saying that in our view, “there is no threat of punishment.” Any fan of Dr. James White should immediately hear his voice saying, “Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.”

Nothing to Fear

But this is really where Greg gets to the crux of his wind and sails argument, an argument to which I hope in this post to offer a cogent response. He says,6

I want to tell you something. I’m going on record right now: I am not afraid of non-existence. In fact, when I think of that as a possibility I breathe a little sigh of relief, because my biggest fear is that I’m right about God’s justice but I’m wrong about His mercy. And if all His justice amounts to is that I disappear? Phew! That’s a weight off of my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about an eternity of punishment. Annihilationism does not frighten me. There is nothing to be afraid of.

On one hand, there’s an extent to which I don’t doubt the sincerity of Greg’s statement. Hebrews 2:15 indicates that believers are delivered from their innate fear of death, and so it does not surprise me that as a believer Greg no longer fears death. On the other hand, there’s an extent to which his statement is disingenuous, for the context of his critique requires that he base it upon an unbeliever’s emotional response to the prospect of death, not that of a believer. And I suspect that even Greg, before he believed, contemplated death occasionally and the thought terrified him. After all, if as a believer he has been delivered from his fear of death, he must once have feared death.

When I was an atheist, I did not fear suffering of any sort following death; I thought that I would cease to be conscious and would never again be aware of anything at all, let alone pain and agony. And yet death itself as the silent, unfeeling, utter blackness—the closest thing I could imagine that fate to be—that was indeed terrifying. Even though I knew I would never again suffer, I also knew I would never again enjoy life.

But the real reason Greg’s words betray a lack of careful thinking is because even if he were honestly able to say that death did not frighten him even prior to believing, he assumes that this is universally true of everybody whom one might evangelize in attempting to fulfill the Great Commission. His assumption is, quite simply, false. Take a few minutes to listen to the haunting voice of 20th century agnostic poet Philip Larkin, as he recites his famous poem “Aubade,” in which he wrote about his dread of extinction:

… yet the dread of dying, and being dead, flashes afresh to hold and horrify. The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse—the good not done, the love not given, time torn off unused—nor wretchedly because an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; but at the total emptiness for ever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon …

Nothing to be afraid of? Annihilation may not frighten Koukl, but it sure frightened Larkin. For him, there was “nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” “This is what we fear,” Larkin continues, “no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with, the anasthetic from which none come round.” Apparently I wasn’t alone in my fear of non-existence when I was still an atheist.

Worse than Eternal Torment

Neither would Larkin and I have been alone in the first century Greek-speaking world. In fact, we would have been in good company had we feared non-existence more than an eternity of torment. William Barclay writes that according to first century Greek historian and biographer Plutarch, “the idea of annihilation was intolerable to the Greek mind … [Faced] with the alternatives of annihilation and a life of torment in Hades, the Greek would have chosen the torment rather than the annihilation.”7 As Plutarch had said,8

insensibility, dissolution, and the conceit that what hath no sense is nothing to us, do not at all abate the fear of death, but rather help to confirm it; for this very thing is it that nature most dreads,—But may you all return to mould and wet, to wit, the dissolution of the soul into what is without knowledge or sense.

For Greg Koukl, having been freed from his fear of death, the threat of non-existence is no threat at all. But to the Greek mind, non-existence is the thing nature most dreads. Plutarch goes on,9

all men and women would be well contented to be worried by Cerberus, and to carry water into the tub full of holes, so they might but continue in being and not be exterminated … to be deprived of living disturbs all both young and old. For it seems that we Impatient love the light that shines on earth…it is neither the dog Cerberus nor the river Cocytus that has made our fear of death boundless; but the threatened danger of not being, representing it as impossible for such as are once extinct to shift back again into being.

Certainly many today do not share what was apparently Greek thought in the time of Christ, that to die and never live again is worse than to live forever in torment. But what this demonstrates is that Greg’s professed opinion, that in annihilation there is nothing to fear, is neither objectively true nor shared by everyone. Consider, then, the advice with which he concludes his monologue:10

If you’re confronting an idea, considering an idea, and you ask yourself the question, Does this make the gospel more urgent or less urgent? And the answer you get is that it makes the gospel less urgent, that is a good reason to mistrust what you are considering.

In light of the fact that annihilationism’s impact on the urgency of the gospel is entirely subjective, and will differ from one person at one time to the next, certainly this advice is not sound. In fact, it would require duplicity on Greg’s part, were he to heed his own counsel, for when evangelizing someone who thinks like Plutarch and his first century Greek contemporaries, Greg would have to profess annihilationism in order to keep the wind in the gospel’s proverbial sails, but when evangelizing someone like himself, he would have to profess the traditional view of final punishment. I’m sorry, but as much as I respect Greg, this is horrible advice and is inconsistent with his laudable rejection of subjectivism in other areas.

A Just and Holy God

And the subjectivism of Greg’s advice is not limited only to which fate is feared more by the one being evangelized. Greg says,11

I’m keeping my eyes open for these things, and whenever anything pops up on the radar that seems like new and cool and we’ve got the new clever take on it, doesn’t this make God look more attractive? Well it may make God look more attractive, but if it doesn’t make the gospel look more attractive, then it’s a phony.

We’ve already established that whether annihilationism or traditionalism makes the gospel more attractive is entirely in the eyes of the beholder, but here Greg dismisses the impact that annihilationism might have on how the unbeliever perceives the nature of the God whose gospel is being offered to him, as if it simply proposes to “make God look more attractive.” Yet, this is a terrible oversimplification of the challenge often faced by evangelistic efforts that propose eternal torment as the fate of unbelievers.

Those who know me and have listened to my debates know that I see no injustice in the traditional view of final punishment, and in that respect I part ways with many of my fellow conditionalists. But it is a fact, nonetheless, that there are many who think it would be unjust and cruel of God to eternally torment unbelievers—including many unbelievers themselves, for whom this view of hell serves as a stumbling block that cannot be hurdled. Who can forget the words of the infamous atheist Bertrand Russell in his essay, “Why I am Not a Christian?” in which he writes,

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment … I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world, and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as his chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

You see, for Russell the doctrine of eternal torment in hell did not merely make Christ appear less attractive; it made Him appear cruel and immoral, and no unbeliever is going to place his faith in a God he perceives to be cruel and immoral. Recall that Greg at one point insists that it is the devil, not Jesus, whose interest would be in making the gospel less important, less urgent. Could it be that it is the devil, not Jesus, whose interest is in making the God of the gospel appear less just, less moral?

Had Russell been evangelized by conditionalists, rather than traditionalists, would he have written about the immorality and injustice of annihilation? I don’t know, although many atheists do not object to the justice of capital punishment. When it comes to such unbelievers, perhaps evangelists who proposes annihilation as the fate of the wicked will have more wind behind their sails, rather than less, because of the seeming injustice of eternal torment proposed by their traditional counterparts.

Of course, I don’t recommend accepting conditionalism based on the fact that many unbelievers who reject God do so because of the seeming injustice of eternal torment. But that’s my whole point: unlike Greg, who apparently thinks that what you believe about the eternal fate of the wicked should be determined based on unbelievers’ subjective opinions about which fate is worse, I don’t think that our belief should be based on any of their subjective opinions, including that it would be unjust for God to eternally torment them. I side, instead, with the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith which says, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and by which must be examined all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men and private spirits can be no other than the Holy Scripture.”12

Fear Him

As a side note, many Christians, even many conditionalists, would further object to Koukl’s advice on the grounds that evangelism should not hinge on fear of punishment. I happen to disagree with them, agreeing instead with Greg who, after incorrectly saying there is nothing to fear in annihilation, correctly points out that13

Jesus said, Don’t fear him who can kill the body but not the soul. But fear rather Him who can throw both body and soul in hell. That’s something to be afraid of.

I think Greg is right, and that Jesus does often appear to encourage His listeners to avoid final punishment. The book of Acts doesn’t record the Apostles appealing to the nature of final punishment in their evangelistic efforts, but Peter did say “there is salvation in no one else,”14 and Paul said “all people everywhere should repent, because [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world.”15 However, I do think it is interesting that Greg chose to appeal to Luke’s rendition16 of Jesus’ words, rather than that of Matthew, who records Him as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”17

You see, whereas Luke depicts Jesus as saying God will throw both body and soul into Gehenna18, it doesn’t tell us what will happen to them there. Matthew’s account, on the other hand, is specific. In it, having just said men can kill the body but not the soul, Jesus goes on to say God will destroy both, using a Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi) which, used in the synoptic gospels to describe what one person does to another, consistently means something like “slay” or “kill.” What men can do only to bodies—kill them, rendering them completely lifeless and unfeeling—God will do to bodies and souls. He will kill both. Perhaps that’s why Greg read from Luke’s account, rather than Matthew’s.

My Advice

In any case, you’ve heard (or at least read) Greg’s advice, that you should reject annihilationism because it makes the gospel less urgent, taking the wind out of the sails of the Great Commission. Yet, as we’ve seen,

  1. Many people do fear the fate proposed by us conditionalists
  2. Many people have even found annihilation moreterrifying than eternal torment
  3. The seeming injustice of eternal torment prevents many from believing

It is for these reasons, and because of the absolute authority the Word of God has over our subjective opinions and speculations, that I encourage you to reject Greg’s advice. Instead, I suggest you heed the counsel of John Gill who said,19

If the question is about any point of Doctrine; if there is any hesitation concerning any truth of the gospel, look up to the way-posts, look into the scriptures, search them, see and read what they say; for they are profitable for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16); for finding it out, explaining, confirming, and defending it: there will tell you whether the thing in debate is so or no, and will direct you which side of the question to take; if you seek for knowledge and understanding in gospel-truths diligently and constantly, as you would for silver, and search after them as for hid treasures, then will you understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God (Prov. 2:4, 5)…

  1. Koukl, Greg. Stand to Reason, June 25th, 2012, 12:50 []
  2. Ibid., 19:09 []
  3. Ibid., 13:25 []
  4. St. Augustine (2011-10-04). The City of God – Enhanced (Kindle Locations 16804-16805). Kindle Edition. []
  5. Koukl. 18:10 []
  6. Ibid., 18:24 []
  7. Barclay, W. The Apostles’ Creed (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 298. []
  8. Plutarch, edited by Goodwin, W. Plutarch’s Morals. “That it is not possible to live pleasurably according to the doctrine of Epicurus.” []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Koukl. 21:02. []
  11. Ibid., 20:23. []
  12. 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 1, paragraph 10. []
  13. Koukl. 18:57. []
  14. Acts 4:12 []
  15. Acts 17:30-31 []
  16. Luke 12:5 []
  17. Matthew 10:28 []
  18. I prefer to transliterate the original Greek word, γέεννα, rather than translate it as “hell,” because of the traditional baggage that so often accompanies the English word. []
  19. Gill, J. “The Scriptures: The Only Guide In Matters Of Faith.” Preached At The Baptism Of Several Persons In Barbican, November 2, 1750. []
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52 Responses to Wind Out of the Sails: A Response to Greg Koukl

  1. David Smart says:

    “The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist [who] announces a Savior from hell rather than a Savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of Fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.” (A. W. Pink)

  2. Dee Dee Warren says:

    I was going to (and probably still will) comment on Koukl’s comment on my podcast. I agree with your assessment that his comment that he is not afraid of nonexistence to be disingenuous. I don’t believe it is purposeful, but we are all susceptible to self-deception. But more importantly, I believe his statement contradicts what the Bible tells us about man’s innate view on death. It is like the atheist getting offended because the Bible says that he knows there is a god, but he isn’t that he doesn’t. He isn’t lying per se, he is self-deceived.

    All men in their heart of hearts fear non-existence. Just because I have people who look for reasons to hop on me and twist words, my posting here is not an endorsement of annhililationism. I am not one. But I believe Chris’ point that I speak of is something that struck me and bothered me when I listened to Greg. Unfortunately I don’t find Greg to be a clear thinker in most issues eschatological. It appears to be a blind spot for him, but we all have them.

    • Chris Date says:

      Very true, we do. Myself included. Thanks for your assessment, Dee Dee. Just because Greg is wrong about this particular anti-annihilationism argument does not mean that therefore annihilationism is true, and I totally respect that you’re not endorsing our view. I hope you’ll participate here with us, Dee Dee, your presence is very welcome!

  3. Thomas Larsen says:

    At any rate, annihilationism claims only that those who are found outside Christ will eventually cease to have conscious existence. It’s perfectly compatible with the notion that the unsaved will experience torment of one kind or another for some time before annihilation.

    • Chris Date says:

      Indeed it is, although I think it’s important to recognize that the fundamental, ultimate punishment for sin is not the suffering experienced as part of the annihilation process, but the resulting lifelessness, which is everlasting.

  4. Donavan Dear says:

    Chris I think nearly all of your examples of people fearing death was because of assuming consciousness afterwords. Consciousness after death for the atheist is silly and who cares if you don’t get something you never had, how can you miss it. Atheists are afraid of death because God has built it into them, maybe they know the evil they do and they will pay the price Rom. 1. The rapist or murderer who gets capital punishment by lethal injection is an affront to justice. I don’t believe in easy capital punishment, I would rather see those people suffer, death is to easy. Greg is assuming people simply beep out of existence and ya if I had that understanding of annihilation I would agree it would be an affront to God’s justice. Teaching annihilationism as simply death at the judgement is not only unbiblical but also attributes an unwarranted gap in the idea of propitiation (Jesus taking God’s wrath on himself because of sin). If Greg understood that God will/must judge the wicked dead with an exact amount of divine justice he would not have this position on annihilationism I’m guessing.

    • Chris Date says:

      With respect, I disagree. NONE of my examples of people fearing death assume consciousness afterwards. I didn’t when I was an atheist, Philip Larkin explicitly says it is non-consciousness he fears most, an Plutarch explicitly said the Greeks feared eternal non-consciousness more than even eternal torment. I’m almost left wondering if you read the article :)
      As for “easy capital punishment,” we’ll have to disagree to a certain extent. I agree with Dr. Peoples that there are other ways to account for degrees of guilt than by degrees of suffering during annihilation, but even if there are degrees of suffering–something I’m very open to–it doesn’t change the fact that ultimately the punishment for sin is not that suffering but the lifelessness that ensues from being killed. Jesus paid for sin, not primarily by hours of suffering, but by His death. It is conceivable that the final, eternal capital punishment will be more violent for some than for others, but Scripture definitely doesn’t make that clear, whereas what it DOES make clear is that their punishment will be death.

  5. Pingback: Explicit Mistakes: A Response to Matt Chandler | Rethinking Hell

  6. RB says:

    It is irrational to fear non-existence. If one does not exist, there is nothing to look forward to or to fear. This is not to deny that those who either look forward to or shrink back in fear from the idea of annihilation may indeed have strong feelings in either direction. Nevertheless, their strong feelings notwithstanding, they are being irrational.

    If one who fears or looks forward to annihilation is not assuming their ability to compare the “state” of not existing to that of their present existence, then how on earth are they either afraid of or comforted by the idea of being annihilated? Logically speaking, there is nothing to be feared or joyfully anticipated if one believes that he will be annihilated; however, there is something to fear is one will not be annihilated.


    • Chris Date says:

      This is false. As Philip Larkin explains, “This is what we fear, no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with.” It is precisely the lack of any experience at all which strikes dread in the hearts of many. It is perfectly rational to fear never again seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting or smelling beautiful things. It is perfectly rational to fear never again experiencing the wonder that is thought, or love. It is perfection rational to fear never again experiencing anything at all.

      • RB says:

        The fear is irrational. I’m not denying that many people experience it. The experience of it does not prove that it is a rational fear. If there is no “you” to exist and live, then why would not being able to see or hear etc be a cause for celebration or perturbation of heart? Can a non-existent being experience not-existing?

        It is absurd to fear a “state” of not-existing which one will not experience. Plutarch and Larkin and many others may indeed fear not being able to see, hear, taste, touch, etc – but if one does not exist, then does one experience these things? No, he doesn’t. If he doesn’t experience not being able to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, experience joy or anger or sorrow, etc, then what on earth is he afraid of?

        To say that annihilation is something that one can “rationally” fear is to assume that the annihilated are conscious of their state of non-existence, which is utterly absurd. One can irrationally fear just about anything, so again I’m not doubting the reality of those feelings. One cannot rationally justify fear of annihilation, just as one cannot rationally justify joyful expectation of annihilation. Both emotional responses to the prospect of being annihilated irrationally assume that the one who is annihilated will be able to know what it is like to not be able to experience anything.

        I know you don’t agree, but could you please explain how it is “rational” to fear or joyfully anticipate being annihilated?

        It isn’t enough to simply assert that such is not the case.


        • Chris Date says:

          It isn’t enough to simply assert the negation, either.
          It is neither irrational nor absurd to fear never again seeing a sunset, hearing a concerto, embracing a loved one, tasting a delicacy or smelling a rose. It is neither irrational nor absurd to fear never again getting lost in deep thought, or getting lost in the love of one’s spouse. This is not the fear of knowing what it is like not to be able to experience anything; it is the fear of not experiencing anything ever again.
          It’s not entirely unlike fearing Alzheimer’s. I deeply love my wife and three children, and the thought of severe Alzheimer’s taking my knowledge of them away from me terrifies me. Yet, in its throws I would not know I had known them, would not be aware that I once loved them. You may baldly assert that such fear is absurd and irrational, but I’ll let our readers decide.

          • RB says:

            I didn’t baldly assert a negation, Mr. Date. I explained why it is irrational: If one does not exist one cannot experience not-existing. There is literally nothing to fear. Likewise, there is literally nothing to look forward to.

            If there is no being exhibiting consciousness to be conscious of not being able to think a thought, smell a rose, etc, then, again, there is nothing to fear.

            I would say that the fear of having Alzheimer’s is also irrational. Why? Because you will not remember anything anyway. The fear is irrational in that it supposes continuity with one’s present experience when in reality there will be a radical distinction between the two.

            One does not experience annihilatedness, and one does not experience knowing that he does not remember who his loved ones are.


          • Chris Date says:

            You did baldly assert the negation, because you’ve baldly asserted that it is irrational to fear literal nothingness. You’ve even astonishingly asserted that there’s nothing to fear in being afflicted by Alzheimer’s to the point of not knowing those you once loved.
            Folks, this is the rationale behind traditionalism.

          • RB says:

            I explained why it is irrational to fear not-existing, that’s why I said I didn’t “baldly” assert the negation. I know you don’t agree with me, but I didn’t make a bald assertion.

            As I told Peter, the fear of losing one’s existence and the fear of non-existence are two very different things. As for Alzheimer’s, I explained myself there as well: If you will not remember anything about your loved ones, then fearing being in that state of having Alzheimer’s is absurd. Why? Because it assumes that one retains one’s capacity to know that he no longer remembers those who love him – i.e. it assumes that one’s memory remains intact.

            Again, with not-existing: If there is nothing to experience, no person to experience, no senses to experience things with, then there is nothing to fear in non-existence. Why? Because a non-existence person is non-existent. There is nothing to sense, no person to do the sensing, there is nothing to think, and nothing to think with.

            The person who wants to commit suicide, for instance, in order to be at peace, and yet who believes death is annihilation is thinking irrationally. If he will no longer exist upon death, then he will not experience anything – neither suffering nor peace. It is irrational for him to suppose that killing himself will bring him respite, since he will no longer be able to experience anything.

            On a sidenote, I didn’t state what the rationale of traditionalists is, so I’m not sure what you are trying to communicate by saying “This is rationale behind traditionalism.” If you meant to say “This is how traditionalists reason,” then I think you owe the traditionalists an apology for pigeonholing them in such a way.

          • John Johnson says:

            It seems to me that you are ignoring the fact, as Peter Grice pointed out, that while we exist, we have the ability to imagine going into a state of non-existence, which, some will “rationally” fear in their present state. Could you please respond to that point? No one is disputing the fact that non-existent entities don’t experience anything.

          • Donavan Dear says:

            @RB It is irrational to fear a type of annihilationism that simply turns the switch and you are gone. It is irrational because there is no consciousness, blackness, emptiness, after this happens. It is irrational to fear “nothing” simple.

          • John Johnson says:

            All I can say is that it is not irrational, imo, to fear the unknown. Were I an athiest, I think the prospect of death would be a naturally fearful prospect to face. Why should that be thought of as irrational. Why shouldn’t the prospect of losing my whole self and all that I am, experiencially, be a frightful thing? To me, it ‘s irrational to expect that a different, future state (such as non-existence in the annihilationism sense) should be informing our thoughts or emotions during the time we are conciously existing. Why should it?

          • Phil Stilwell says:

            I’m fairly atheistic in that I’m quite certain that I will no longer have a mind to exist to worship some god after my death as substantiated by cognitive science, but that does not worry me in the least. I’ve lived a wonderful life, and while I’m not looking forward to the end, when it comes, I bet I’ll have a smile on my face. I find myself (irrationally?) smiling whenever I think about my death. It has been a great ride! ;)

          • Donavan Dear says:

            At the point of judgement earthly values, like love, children, the value of smelling a rose don’t matter, they are not in picture no matter what view you take. Earthly Love, children, roses don’t figure into the formula of meaning at the time of God’s judgement in any belief system.

          • Peter Grice says:

            Why would they not?! What is an “earthly value” anyway, as distinct from an inherent good that our Creator confers? Why should there be one formula for meaning now, which doesn’t apply then? Won’t love, in particular, and its relationships, be a feature of the future Kingdom just as it is now? A radical discontinuity with life and present goodness, renders annihilation arbitrary as a curse/punishment, in my opinion. It seems to me the notion of forfeit is critical, and bound up in the meaning of being barred from Eden. I also take it to be related to the significance of “weeping and gnashing teeth” and theological themes such as Sabbath rest, Shalom, cosmic Redemption, and Esau weeping over the loss of his inheritance.

          • John Johnson says:

            I have no idea what these statements are based upon. Is there a relevant biblical passage that would lead us to agree with these sentiments?

          • RB says:

            I’m not ignoring it. I’ve already addressed it. There is a difference between fearing losing what one has and fearing not-existing. If what is meant by those atheists and others is that they are afraid of experiencing the process prior to not-existing, then I think they should be a little clearer.

          • Peter Grice says:

            You’ve still ignored it, speaking instead of the two alternative things you just outlined. The fear of not existing is a present fear about losing one’s continuing existence, not a literal fear of what it would later be like to not exist. You’re engaged in semantics rather than interacting with the original post, my comments, and what rational people everywhere do fear.

          • RB says:

            Again, you’ve read into my motives or misread me. Either way, it happens. No hard feelings.

            “The fear of not existing is a present fear about losing one’s continuing existence”

            I understand what you are saying, Mr. Grice. However, “not existing” and “losing one’s continuing existence” are two different things. One is, for lack of a better term, a state (i.e. not-existing), and the other is a process (i.e. losing one’s continuing existence).

            With that, if you think this exchange is trivial and just an exercise in semantics, then let’s annihilate it ;)
            I, for one, see nothing trivial in sharpening our respective differences by means of clear communication.

          • Peter Grice says:

            Yes of course, no hard feelings. I feel that I acknowledged your semantic point, but still believe (perhaps mistakenly) that you had a less trivial conceptual point you wanted to make.

            Since you’ve now quoted the main point I keep making, I’m satisfied at least that it’s acknowledged. Still not sure, from your response, that you’ve understood what I mean, and interacted with it. If that’s my fault for not being clear, I only have myself to blame.

            I wasn’t referring to the process. That seems to be how you misunderstand what I’m saying. The process of dying can be quite pain-free and even enjoyable. In the language of state vs. process, I was talking about the fear of ever losing the state of being alive. Indeed, one might maintain such a rational fear and never have it actualized, due to inheriting the gift of immortality. I hope that helps to illustrate why it is not a fear of actually experiencing non-existence. It is not a fear of experiencing anything. Rather, (with some reservations), I’d call it a fear of losing an experience (state).

          • Peter Grice says:

            And in case it could be even clearer to state it thus:

            The rational “fear of non-existence” does not refer to a fear of experiencing non-being. Instead it refers to the state of affairs where one no longer exists (hence, “fear of non-existence”). One fears this state (again note that this doesn’t mean experiencing this state) solely because it negates the desirable state of continuing to exist.

          • Peter Grice says:

            The fear of non-existence isn’t irrational, because it is not the same as the fear of experiencing non-existence. That is plainly absurd.

            Rather, the fear of non-existence is contingent upon what is valued in the state of existence. It is rational right now to fear losing what I have right now, precisely because I have it right now.

          • Chris Date says:

            Well said, Peter. It is perfectly legitimate, for example, to fear losing one’s memories, even though one would never know they had. If we value something, is is rational to fear losing it, whether we’ll know we’d lost it or not.

          • RB says:

            I think you are confusing the fear of losing what one has now with the fear of non-existence. These are two very different things. The prospect of losing what one has now is rationally justifiable, but it is not equivalent to the fear of not existing.

          • Peter Grice says:

            Actually, you still have it wrong.

            The concern that I might one day not exist, has nothing to do with whether I will care about it then.

            It has everything to do with whether I desire now to go on existing. My [present] fear of [future] non-existence is precisely the fear of sometime losing what I have now.

            You’re not describing the fear of not existing. You’re describing the fear of later fearing not existing, which is structurally more complex, and conflates tense when reduced.

            No atheist, for example, in saying that they fear death, would actually mean that they fear having a fearful post-mortem experience of it. The point is what people mean by this concept, which is not as convoluted as what you suggest they mean.

            The fear is grounded in present desires.

          • RB says:

            I understand your misunderstanding. My contention is simple: If not-existing means nothing, then one cannot presently fear not-existing. One may very well presently fear losing one’s ability to see, hear, etc, that is to say one may very well fear going through the process leading up to being annihilated (whatever that process may be), but one cannot presently fear “not existing.”

            The atheist who says that they fear death is using the word death to signify a process (be it a short process leading up to death or the entire course of their lives which ends in the grinders coming to a halt, et al). The proposition “I fear not existing” doesn’t convey the same idea of a process. Instead, not-existing signifies, well, not-existing.

            Obfuscatory language is not helpful in these matters. I don’t mean to identify you or Mr. Date or any other annihilationists as purposefully using amphibolic figures of speech in order to make your position seem tenable. However, it could come across that way.


          • RB says:

            My last sentence is an amphibolic one! LOL I will clarify it:

            The use of obfuscatory language in these matters is not helpful, as it could come across as a purposeful employment of amphibolic figures of speech designed to make annihilationism tenable.

          • Ronnie says:

            My contention is simple: If not-existing means nothing, then one cannot presently fear not-existing.

            …but one cannot presently fear “not existing.”

            I thought your claim was that such a fear is irrational. Now such a fear is not even possible?

            The atheist who says that they fear death is using the word death to signify a process

            This is demonstrably false—at least in some situations (e.g. Larkin).

          • RB says:

            I thought it was clear from the context of my posts that when I say that one cannot presently fear not-existing, I mean that one cannot do so with rational justification. One may be held fast by innumerable irrational fears.

            Regarding your second point, I think the contexts of the posts, again, makes it clear that I am responding to Mr. Grice when he says:

            “No atheist, for example, in saying that they fear death, would actually mean that they fear having a fearful post-mortem experience of it.”

            My understanding of the atheist’s words is that he is speaking of the process of dying. The difference here between the person who says “I fear not-existing” and the person who says “I fear death” is that “not-existing” is an absolute state, whereas “death” is a process, dying quickly or slowly.

          • Ronnie says:

            My understanding of the atheist’s words is that he is speaking of the process of dying

            Yes, and that’s what you’re wrong about. Many atheists who say that they fear death are not talking about process—or they are talking about both the process and the end result. I don’t see how appealing to context helps you here.

            As for the first point, I would have given you the benefit of the doubt but you repeated the claim twice. Apparently that was just sloppiness on your part, but I can’t be faulted for ignoring context.

          • Peter Grice says:

            In Chris’ post, he warns against “a false dichotomy between the forfeiture of an eternity spent with God and what he thinks is the punishment proposed by conditionalists,” and clarified that we do indeed regard it as forfeiture of life, not “just” being non-existent. He writes that as an atheist, he did not fear suffering, but feared extinction because it meant he would never again enjoy life. He offered Plutarch’s rejection of “the conceit that what hath no sense is nothing to us,” who located his fear in the prospect of being “deprived of living.”

            Ignoring this, your first charge was “It is irrational to fear non-existence,” by which you mean something other than what Chris outlined. It seems clear you intended your observation to be a problem for conditionalism, rather than a passing comment about something else that is a given. This was clearer in your follow-up, to say, “The fear is irrational,” where you assert that our view “is to assume that the annihilated are conscious of their state of non-existence, which is utterly absurd.”

            That is not at all our view, which I’ve made clear. It’s not our view about the fear of extinction, nor is it the view of any serious thinker.

            Once again, we are not talking about a present fear of a future fearful experience.

            We are talking about a present fear of losing our present life, in future.

            There is no assumption whatsoever that we will know or care or fear in future, yet this is how you’re redefining it. When you say, “There is literally nothing to fear. Likewise, there is literally nothing to look forward to.” your hidden premise is that the only rational fear is a fear of something happening that will also be consciously experienced.

            This is just an artificial constraint. The fear of Alzheimer’s is manifestly NOT the fear of the experience of Alzheimer’s, it is the fear of ending up that way, held in and contrasted with one’s present, cherished state.

          • RB says:

            I think you’re reading too much into my motives, Mr. Grice.

            I’m not looking for a fight with you or anyone else here. You are convinced of your position, and there is nothing I can do about that. I just voiced my opinion about the language used. I think it is very sloppy and can be very easily misunderstood. Precision would help annihilationists and traditionalists alike.

            Regarding whether or not my understanding of a “rational” fear is an artificial constraint, I don’t see any way around this. When one fears Alzheimers is he fearing the process leading up to that point in time? Or is he fearing being in that state? I believe it is the former. And as such, it would be completely rational to fear the experience of losing one’s memories.

          • Peter Grice says:

            If you’re only making a semantic point, it’s unclear why you keep hammering the conceptual (eg. your second paragraph above). I certainly acknowledged your semantic point, but referred you as well to how you’re doing more than that. (And regarding semantics, it is just an assertion that “fear of non-existence” must be taken literal-future as you’re construing it. I don’t at all agree that the phrase cannot accommodate the commonplace view I have assigned).

            By this time I don’t think I’m trying to convince you of any position; I’m merely trying to have you acknowledge the option I have repeatedly explained, which is still curiously absent from your dichotomy above.

            For Alzheimers, the fear under discussion is neither the process leading up to it (though someone could also have that fear), nor of actually experiencing being in that state. Instead, it is the fear of losing one’s present condition: of ceasing to be Alzheimers-free. It is the flip-side of the very familiar desire to continue in full health. Now if you wanted to insist that someone so afraid should never say “I fear having Alzheimers” when they more literally mean, “I fear now that I may someday cease to remember, due to Alzheimers” then that’s too pedantic for most people.

            Not wanting to lose what one already has is entirely rational, regardless of whether or not they could maintain such a fear into the actualization of such a future state. The present, is the point.

            This straightforwardly transfers to the discussion of the fear of permanent death, where it is precisely a fear of losing one’s own life. Not the fear of a future state per se, but the fear of what that entails for the present state of affairs.

          • Peter Grice says:

            By the same token, it is irrational to limit our fears only to things of which we’d be aware. I have some identifiable fears about what could befall my young son, in life. It’s hard to imagine how I should not fear the scenario where I did not know that my fears had been realized. I could be quite blissful in my ignorance then, but that wouldn’t mean that my present fears are simply irrational feelings.

        • Doug says:

          While I agree that annihilation is scary, I think this debate misses the point. My source for truth is the scriptures, not how something makes me feel. The scriptures teach annihilationism, regardless of whether people find it scarier than the lie of eternal conscious torment. In fact, Jesus said not to fear those who can only destroy the body, but to fear God who can _destroy_ body and soul in hell. The focus of our fear should be on God, and what He will justly do in response to what we deserve.

          - Doug

    • David Smart says:

      “It is irrational to fear non-existence. If one does not exist, there is nothing to look forward to or to fear.”

      That is a point so patently obvious that one wonders why you felt compelled to express it at all. Personally I am bewildered. Did you somehow infer from what Chris Date has written that he believes non-existent persons experience feelings such as fear? If you did, then it would be fascinating to see how you did so. It seems to me at least—and I doubt I am alone on this—that when these gentlemen talk about fearing death the intelligibility of their point presupposes an existing person doing the fearing! So far as can be observed, nobody has said or even implied that non-existent persons experience feelings such as fear. The dead do not fear death; they are dead.

      It is the living who fear death, and there is nothing irrational about an existent person fearing non-existence. And being no longer counted among the living, no longer experiencing the joys and pains of life with family and friends, most certainly is something to be feared—assuming of course that one’s life has on balance been enjoyable. Ask a strict metaphysical naturalist who is convinced there is no afterlife of any kind and she will articulate this fear of death and how desperately she therefore values her life (again, on her view).

      Ask a corpse, well, anything and your sanity is likely to be questioned.

    • Gregory says:

      @RB Let’s for argument sake grant that it is irrational to fear non-existence. Fine. And so what follows from that? Annihilationism is false? Are you suggesting that people only act and make decisions based on rationality? That would be very hard to support both from scritpture or common experience. A cursory glance at proverbs shows that foolish thought produces all kinds of actions and consequences. In the same way I think it is entirely plausible that one might have an irrational fear of non-existence and be turned to find a solution to it to palliate their fear. Their search would quite logically and rationally end up in acceptance of the Gispel.

  7. Chris Date says:

    Thanks to a RH forum visitor for this:
    I encountered a quote in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (2008) that I think speaks to the objection that annihilation cannot be a genuine punishment because people aren’t all that afraid of ceasing to exist (or however the objection is fleshed out). From page 71:

    With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this is all the life he will ever know. Therefore, everyone must come face to face with what theologian Paul Tillich has called “the threat of non-being.” For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself” will cease to exist, that I will be no more! I remember vividly the first time my father told me that someday I would die. Somehow, as a child, the thought had just never occurred to me. When he told me, I was filled with fear and unbearable sadness. And though he tried repeatedly to reassure me that this was a long way off, that did not seem to matter. Whether sooner or later, the undeniable fact was that I would die and be no more, and the thought overwhelmed me. Eventually, like all of us, I grew to simply accept the fact. We all learn to live with the inevitable. But the child’s insight remains true. As the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre observed, several hours or several years make no difference once you have lost eternity. Whether it comes sooner or later, the prospect of death and the threat of non-being is a terrible horror.

    This is a good example of a traditionalist who acknowledges that “the threat of non-being” is frightening. Craig is in this excerpt discussing the existential dilemmas of embracing atheism over theism, but I think this is telling nonetheless.

  8. Gregory says:

    I too was taken aback at Greg’s podcast remarks highlighted here and I appreciate this critique as it brings up some points I hadn’t thought about. And I want to go on record as a deeply respect Greg and his ministry and have supported STR since 1993, so I have no axe to grind. Indeed I actually winced when he made closing comment about urgency of the gospel. It made no sense. There are innumerable counter examples of things that don’t make the gospel more urgent but that are clearly sound doctrine or just Good ideas. “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. “Be anxious for nothing…”, “submit to authorities” etc. none of these things make gospel more urgent, so should reject them? Granted they aren’t doctrines per se, but they are powerful ideas and his main point was that spiritual warfare is fighting against lofty ideas.

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  12. Bill Gingras says:

    Good observations all of them. I would say, however, that the most compelling reason to reject the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment is that this teaching is not well attested to in scripture. The scriptures teach, with near unanimity, that the fate of the damned is destruction, death, perishing etc.

    That hell results in the annihilation of the souls of the damned is to believed because it is true.

    Interestingly enough, Greg is a 5-point Calvinist, and it would seem strange that he would think that idea of the punishment of hell as a deterrent would matter even just a little. This is inconceivable to me and an example of what I perceive as cognitive dissonance in the minds of most who would hold to the more extreme views associated with Calvinism.

    I enjoyed the article and found your insight to be incisive and clear-minded.

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