Sunday, 17 November 2013

The second death

Watching the news, reading the papers, even the most sheltered of us may come to believe in the existence of real evil – of people who consciously and consistently reject God. The comic-book super-villain (such as Thanos, the arch-enemy of the Avengers, shown in this picture) is a symbol of such types. In real life, when the unrepentant sinner comes to die, what justice will he find? Eternal torment? And if so, will the punishment be made to fit the crime, as in the myths of old and Dante's Inferno? No one can deny that such an outcome seems appropriate. But why must this torment go on for ever, as it does in Christian doctrine, following a literal interpretation of Scripture (Matthew 25:46; Rev. 14:11). Why will a merciful God not not simply annihilate those who reject him?

The answer seems to be that he cannot. Even the Omnipotent cannot do what is by definition impossible. What makes this difficult to see is the meaning of time and its relation to eternity. To live even for a day is to exist eternally. That is to
say, that day exists forever. It will never not have been. For it to cease to exist altogether would be for it never to have existed at all.

We speak of "ending the existence" of someone, but to annihilate his existence at time t + 3 is to annihilate it at time t, t + 1, t +2, and so on. A person's existence is the root from which their successive moments of life flow into reality. To destroy this "root" is to destroy everything they ever were, or did, or thought, or experienced, along with all the effects they ever had, both good and evil. It is to unpick the tapestry of which they are a part.

So why not, rather than annihilate their existence, simply bring their consciousness to an end? Oblivion would be a punishment, right enough, but one that does no harm to the world as a whole, since the dead have ceased to play a role in its history. Here we are back in the domain of divine justice and mercy. If I were God, we tend to think, I would be merciful enough to end their torture.

Perhaps, but there is still the problem that this would seem to contradict the stern words of Scripture. Even the mysterious prophecy about the death of Death (Rev. 20:12-15), would seem only to confirm the doctrine of an eternal burning in the "lake of fire".
"To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:5-8).
There are other ways in which God's mercy could be manifested. Some believe that the "time" in which the sinner experiences his punishment contracts to an infinitesimal moment. Just as the moment of death expands infinitely for those who live with God, it contracts infinitely for those who reject him. These and other views are discussed in more detail in The Radiance of Being.

But perhaps we do not need to worry too much about the details. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Our God is more merciful than us, and any possibility of kindness will have occurred to him long before it did to any of his creatures.

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