Is Annihilation Iconoclasm?
A Twitter user who is a universalist made an argument that "Annihilation is the heresy of iconoclasm". This was new to me so I thought I'd record my response.
“1. There is no "forcing" at all. 2. Annihilationism is the heresy of iconoclasm, and also requires the Divine Nature to undergo change, namely from loving the creature to hating it which is repugnant.” Tweet by Thaddeus1
For context, the tweet by Thaddeus above was a response to a response - I initially tweeted a response to another universalist regarding an argument against universalism. Hence his point 1 above. I’ll focus on point 2 making use of some of the back and forth between us before the conversation ended with an accusation against me that I’ve misinterpreted scripture - my misinterpretation was literally quoting Matthew 10:28 - but you can see all that on Twitter. Let us focus on the heresy of iconoclasm accusation.
I imagine the 2nd definition is what Thaddeus had in mind though the word is repeatedly pointed out online that the word literally means “image-breaking”.
It is a unique argument, at least to me, and I wondered if it has been argued in more depth elsewhere. After a bit of a google search I found Robin Parry (author of The Evangelical Universalist, a book I’m currently reading and hope to engage with further as time allows) quotes an Alvin Rapier on his blog making this argument. Sadly the blog link no longer works but I’ll copy the quote from Robin Parry’s blog2.
If humans are like damaged icons and annihilationists hold that God completely annihilates human beings through the fires of hell, then the doctrine of annihilationism makes God the Great Iconoclast, the destroyer of human icons. God would be destroying the very Creation meant for communion, repeating the actions of the iconoclasts that were condemned in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Instead of treating these icons “with tenderness, with broken-heartedness” and calling out the beauty that is there, as Bloom stated, annihilationism holds that God inflicts “capital punishment” upon these images, that the fires of hell will consume them, similar to how the iconoclast extremists “tore down icons from their places in churches and broke them up and burnt them” (Stephen W. Need, Truly Divine and Truly Human, 132). The God of annihilationism is the God of the iconoclasts, the ultimate destroyer of God’s images.
Let me take a step back first though and highlight my response to Thaddeus. Conditionalism (aka Annihilationism) has never been deemed a heresy, by any council through church history. So from that perspective, Thaddeus’ claim that it is a heresy of any kind is flawed from the start.
Thaddeus also claimed that the divine nature changes in this act of destruction from love to hate and yet ignored my response that scripture affirms that God is love (1 John 4) but also that he is a consuming fire (Hebrews 10:27, 12:29) and even in 1 John 5, a chapter on from affirming God being love, John acknowledges a sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16). There is no change in God’s nature to be a God who loves all, and yet will destroy those who remain in rebellion against him. At least not in scripture.
Thaddeus responded with the statement that the fire of God is refining and references Malachi 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 3:15. This totally ignores that Malachi himself writes that the wicked will be like burnt up stubble and ash under the feet of the righteous (Malachi 4:3). Yes scripture uses fire in terms of refining, and in terms of keeping in existence, but neither are used in terms of the end of those who remain in rebellion against God.
Returning to the argument of iconoclasm, there is a lot of weight placed on an interpretation of the imago dei (humans being made in God’s image, see Genesis 1:26). I believe Thaddeus starting point is one of Eastern Orthodoxy and so our starting points are different in that he argues that being an “icon” in God’s image means that one can be venerated. Now I have heard catholics defend the idea of veneration by differentiating it from worship. One does not worship a saint as one does God. However Thaddeus seemed disinclined to make this distinction.
Sed Contra: humans are to be worshipped (venerated), as warranted by Scriptures and demanded by God. "And let peoples serve [δουλευσάτωσάν] thee, and tribes worship [προσκυνήσουσίν] thee [...]" - Genesis 27:29
I think the argument fails at this point. It plainly contradicts the first commandment to only worship God and not worship humans. The act of bowing or paying respect to another human can never be the equivalent act of worship. It is why Daniel and his friends refuse to bow to the statue of the King which could be argued was simply another icon of someone made in the image of God. Not all people are worthy of our homage (some may be - it is not heretical to bow to one’s king) but no one is worthy of our worship except God alone.
Webb Mealy, a bible scholar and author, when I shared this argument in a Facebook group we are both in wrote some clarifying thoughts on the image of God which further undermines Thaddeus, and I believe the quote from Robin Parry’s blog.
[The] argument [that destroying a human being created in the image of God] fails because it misunderstands "the image of God" as a thing. It is not a thing, but a relationship: the relationship of parent to offspring. This we can quickly understand by comparing two things the author of Genesis says:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness...So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them... When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-3)
What does being brought into being as someone's "image and likeness" mean? It means being brought into being as that person's offspring.
Thus the image of God is not something hypo-statically real that is "in" a human being. We are created in it; it is not created in us. Getting this relationship backwards has been a never-ending habit of people for millennia, yet the author of Genesis makes it very simple. We are not the image of God in any literal sense, and the image of God is not a created thing that has been implanted in us. Murdering someone offends the fact that we are created in God's image and likeness not because murdering someone hurts the icon of God and therefore does sacrilege, but because God looks upon human beings as members of his family and does not want his children to be harmed or robbed of life.3
Despite the clear disagreement between us on the imago dei and veneration/worship, I think the rest of the argument fails when looked at through scripture as well.
God withholding existence from a creature is to cease loving the creature, it is the ultimate evil, it requires God repenting of having created the creature...
The account of Noah and the destruction of the wicked in Genesis 6 undermines this assertion that God’s character is tarnished by 'repenting of having created the creature’.
6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.4
The word translated ‘regretted’ can also mean ‘sorry’ or even ‘repent’.5 Did God change? I'd argue no. The burden of proof that he did is on Thaddeus and anyone who makes this claim and Thaddeus gave no further response on that front. I'd be interested if there is any further work on this to engage with - if you are reading this and know of any, let me know!
Again, since man is made in the icon (eikon) of God, destroying the soul which is the icon is iconoclasm, which is heretical, as the holy and God-bearing Fathers at the 7th general council proclaimed.
I’ll finish up with this tweet as it led to an interesting finale for the conversation. Thaddeus makes a leap from humans being made in God’s image to then specifying that “the soul which is the icon”. This is a bit of a sleight of hand and doesn’t do his argument any favours. Firstly, humans are first said to be made in the image of God when they are made body and soul, in that they are placed on the earth and told to multiply. This is not about their soul but about their humanity. The move to specify the soul as the imago dei does allow Thaddeus to ignore the whole of the bible where humans are killed by God so he doesn’t have to defend the iconoclasm charge there. For if God is the ultimate iconoclast, every example we have of God’s judgement is just that - destruction of at least part of the icon… which for all intents and purposes is iconoclasm (destroying half a painting of Christ is just as much iconoclasm as rendering the whole painting to ash).
Finally, regarding Iconoclasm from an Easton Orthodox perspective (and please, those who are EO, do correct us if we are mistaken), Thaddeus seems to have some further work to do. William Tanksley Jr., one of the contributors to Rethinking Hell, wrote,
First, ikons can be destroyed in full piety, because what they represent is not identical to their own substance. When an ikon is damaged, it must be first burned to the point that the image is no longer visible, and then broken up and respectfully disposed of (buried, sent into a river, etc). This shows that annihilationism is plausible if we view sin as damaging man as a bearer of the Image of God.
Second, the penalty for damaging an ikon by malice or negligence can be severe; some of the miracles of ikons involve how accidental damage was allegedly punished, and of course deliberate damage of ikons received penalties up to and including death. But the error in both cases is not so much in the treatment of the ikon, but in the heart of the vandal. As such, any consideration of God as Destroyer must only be performed by asking whether it's compatible with the heart of God, not by comparing it to an action that is not evil in itself but only a crime of the heart.
Both of these are a possible interpretation of Genesis 9:6's use of "the image of God" in its institution of the death penalty. Either it means that murder consists of the wilful damage of the image of God in a human, or that murder defaces the murderer's substance so severely that it must be destroyed out of respect for the One Whom it no longer images but should. Or of course both.6
The final concluding point against Thaddeus claim regarding destruction of the soul is Matthew 10:28 undermines the claim completely as I quoted on Twitter.
"28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
His response was simply to say I, like all protestants, was misinterpreting scripture. But didn’t elaborate. Oh well..
In conclusion then, I do not find the charge that annihilation renders God an iconoclast to have any solid grounding and requires a particular reading of the imago dei that relies on elevating it to divinity which, and I think I’m right in this, is its own kind of heresy.
Tweets copied in case the Tweets ever get deleted and render this article incomprehensible!
Netbible Note on ‘regretted’: Or “was grieved”; “was sorry.” In the Niphal stem the verb נָחָם (nakham) can carry one of four semantic meanings, depending on the context: (1) “to experience emotional pain or weakness,” “to feel regret,” often concerning a past action (see Exod 13:17; Judg 21:6, 15; 1 Sam 15:11, 35; Job 42:6; Jer 31:19). In several of these texts כִּי (ki, “because”) introduces the cause of the emotional sorrow. (2) Another meaning is “to be comforted” or “to comfort oneself” (sometimes by taking vengeance). See Gen 24:67; 38:12; 2 Sam 13:39; Ps 77:3; Isa 1:24; Jer 31:15; Ezek 14:22; 31:16; 32:31. (This second category represents a polarization of category one.) (3) The meaning “to relent from” or “to repudiate” a course of action which is already underway is also possible (see Judg 2:18; 2 Sam 24:16 = 1 Chr 21:15; Pss 90:13; 106:45; Jer 8:6; 20:16; 42:10). (4) Finally, “to retract” (a statement) or “to relent or change one’s mind concerning,” “to deviate from” (a stated course of action) is possible (see Exod 32:12, 14; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Isa 57:6; Jer 4:28; 15:6; 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13, 19; Ezek 24:14; Joel 2:13-14; Am 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2; Zech 8:14). See R. B. Chisholm, “Does God ‘Change His Mind’?” BSac 152 (1995): 388. The first category applies here because the context speaks of God’s grief and emotional pain (see the following statement in v. 6) as a result of a past action (his making humankind). For a thorough study of the word נָחָם, see H. Van Dyke Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” Bib 56 (1975): 512-32.
This can be found in the Rethinking Hell Facebook group and further research that William refrences can be found here: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/how-not-to-be-an-accidental-iconoclast/