Intro Programme Abstracts
Social Aspects of Hell: A cross-cultural approach


Paul J. Griffiths (University of Illinois):
Can the damned cease to exist? A disputable question in Christian eschatology

By the fourth century, Christian thinkers had come to broad agreement on two claims: first, that human beings are capable, by means of sin, of diminishing themselves, which is to say of progressively removing themselves from participation in God's being toward the nihil, the nothing, from which they had, according to Christian doctrine, been brought into being. Second, that human beings are not capable of bringing themselves to nothing, of taking themselves out of existence altogether. This second claim was among those that supported the idea that there must be a hell of eternal punishment for the damned. But the two claims stand in tension. If we can diminish ourselves, why can we not diminish ourselves so far that we cease altogether to be? Why can we not remove ourselves so far from the only source of being, God, that we annihilate ourselves? This paper will explore the reasons given by Christian thinkers in late antiquity (with special reference to Augustine, but with glances forward to the medieval period) for the impossibility of self-annihilation, will argue that those reasons ought not have been taken as probative even in terms of the tradition's own commitments, and will explore the effects that such a conclusion might have upon the Christian doctrine of hell.

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2005: University of Thessaly - Dpt. of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology