Saturday, August 29, 2015

Dumitru Stăniloae against annihilationism

Supposing that some persons will never be saved, why shouldn't God simply annihilate the damned, rather than keeping them in existence for eternity? Wouldn't it better of God if he were no longer to conserve the reprobate in existence, so that their sufferings are not unending? Dumitru Stăniloae considers this question in Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă III, and he comes up with the following answers.

To begin, he notes the question has been posed by John of Damascus: why would God not annihilate the damned, rather than keeping them in existence forever? The answer he gives is: To exist, in any case, is better than not to exist all... God manifests His love forever offering existence to those in hell. By this He also shows the indelible value of the human person. If He were only to conserve the existence of those in heaven, He would fail to show that He also respects a man even when he opposes Him; because thus He respects his freedom (p. 279).

The continued existence of the damned is the way that God demonstrates that he respects human freedom: he gives the damned continued life, even if this person should hate God for all of eternity. He goes on to say: Those in hell are, in their own way, also a testimony to the value which God accords them. God keeps them in a certain connection with Him through their existence. He will keep even those who deny Him in existence. Through this He demonstrates a kenosis. On the one hand, God cannot pull them out of their hardened state, out of a freedom which denies Him. To do this He would have to deprive them of liberty. On the other hand, neither does he want to annihilate them; this would be to despise their existence and their freedom. Between these two alternatives, which would demonstrate a diminished goodness of God and a greater disrespect of the human freedom of the damned, God chooses to conserve them in their attitude of refusal of Him (p. 280).

Someone might argue that this would introduce a sadness and a sense of defeat into the life of God: therefore all must be saved in the end. But Stăniloae does not accept this as compatible with human freedom: This [universal salvation] could not be accomplished without disregarding human freedom (ibid.). It is not obvious why Stăniloae infers from the fact of human freedom that certainly some will be damned, rather than merely possibly. Still, he thinks eternal damnation in freedom is preferable to salvation through coercion:

The solution of conserving them in their eternally unfulfilled state would not be worse than a salvation without fellowship in freedom. But it has its own advantage, namely that, in accepting this, God not only accepts the sadness of not seeing all people in the beatitude of fellowship with Him, but He also manifests a magnificent generosity in gifting them with an eternal existence in opposition to Him and a respect for their freedom which makes the human person into the most remarkable creature (p. 280). 

As previously noted, it is this remarkable, mysterious freedom which grounds the absolutely unique dignity of human persons. The human person is a profound and deep mystery, a mystery which totally annulled as soon as her freedom is denied and her fellowship with God is compelled; on the other hand, her mystery is not appropriately respected and upheld if she is annihilated for refusing fellowship with God. As Stăniloae says: If God were to destroy the sinful person, He would forget about him forever in a despising gesture, and the human person would be lose the profundity of his mystery (p. 282).

The possibility of eternal hell is grounded in the profound and deep freedom of the human person: 

Even through the eternity of hell, the value and eternal freedom of the human person is affirmed. If a man were to know that, using his freedom in opposition to the will of God, he would once and for all be destroyed, he would be limited in his freedom. Only if he knows that he can oppose God forever is he truly free. He is free and has full dignity only when he knows that he is forever unconditioned, that is, forever free (p. 282).

We can say that, for Stăniloae, Christianity makes human life out to be a very serious business. The human person has a freedom to make himself into something wonderful and profound, or else into something miserable and despicable. But this freedom has no limits, and out of respect for this freedom, God maintains even the worst of sinners in existence ad infinitum. Every choice matters; every decision is a profound preparation for life in eternity.