The Same Before and After: A Response to Matt Slick

I like Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. I’ve called into his radio show several times and have even interviewed him on the topic of complementarianism. (For an egalitarian response to Matt, you can listen to my two-part interview with Dr. Philip Payne.) Generally Matt is smart and knowledgeable and I appreciate his ministry, but when it comes to the topic of final punishment he is not a sound thinker.
Approximately 31 minutes into the 26 June 2012 episode of CARM radio, a caller asked Matt about physicalism,1 which led to a conversation that also included conditionalism. In addition to his arguments against physicalism he offered an argument against annihilation as final punishment, wherein he labeled a man’s state prior to conception as A,2 his state after conception as B, and his state following annihilation as A again since it is allegedly identical to his state prior to conception, that of non-existence.
Matt concluded that since the first A state could not be called a punishment, neither can the second A state. So this might be called the “A, B, A” argument against conditionalism. Were I his teacher, I would give Matt an F.

This argument might be summarized in syllogistic form as follows:

  1. The state of a man before he exists cannot be called a punishment
  2. The state of a man after annihilation is identical to his state before he exists
  3. Therefore the state of a man after annihilation cannot be called a punishment

This argument attempts to challenge the contention of many evangelical conditionalists, including myself, that the “eternal punishment” of Matthew 25:46 refers to the everlasting effect of being punished with annihilation.3 This everlasting effect, so Matt argues, is that the wicked no longer exist, which was true of them prior to their conception, and since their non-existence prior to conception cannot be called a punishment, neither can their non-existence following annihilation.

Capital Punishment

Given even a modicum of thought, however, Matt’s argument becomes obviously absurd, for it would disqualify as punishment several penalties inflicted by governments upon criminals. Consider the penalty of a fine, for example. If a person lacks some amount of money, then earns it, and at some point commits a crime punished by a fine of that amount of money, the state of lacking it before earning it is the same as lacking it after being fined. Or consider the penalty of confiscation of property, in which the state of not owning that property before it is acquired is the same as not owning that property after it is confiscated. According to Matt’s reasoning, neither of these are punishments, and yet we intuitively know that they are.
Even more so, we intuitively know that execution is punishment, and yet Matt’s reasoning would disqualify it as well. After all, if A is the absence of a man’s life prior to conception and B is the presence of his life immediately upon conception, then his execution constitutes a return to state A since he is no longer alive. And so if Matt’s reasoning is sound, then capital punishment, usually reserved for the worst of criminals by societies for millennia (including ancient, theocratic Israel), turns out to not be any punishment at all!
Of course, as a traditional dualist, Matt might object on the grounds that in this example the man’s state prior to conception and following execution are not identical; in the former, he did not exist at all, whereas in the latter he exists in a disembodied state. But this assumes that the reason dualist communities consider execution to be punishment is because of the executed criminal’s presumed ongoing, disembodied existence. I suspect that very few laws prescribe capital punishment on those grounds, and besides, secular communities and individual physicalists likewise consider execution to be the fitting punishment for the most heinous of crimes.
Alternatively, Matt could respond to my counter-argument by saying that the measure of capital punishment is not in the lifelessness that results from execution, but rather in the process of being executed. In so doing, however, he would be abandoning his “A, B, A” argument since the position it attempts to challenge is one in which the measure of capital punishment is in the executed criminal’s consequent lifelessness, and not in its process. Besides abandoning his own argument, Matt would be forced to consider a lengthy prison sentence a greater punishment than a quick and painless execution, such as death by lethal injection. I suspect that most of us, on the other hand, concur with the wisdom of one of conditionalism’s earliest critics, Saint Augustine, who rhetorically asked, “As to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?”4
So it is clear that one’s state following execution is indeed a punishment, even if that state is identical to his state prior to conception. The same is true of annihilation as the final, permanent execution we conditionalists propose awaits the risen wicked. Matt, then, with his “A, B, A” argument against conditionalism, deserves the failing grade I said I would give him.

Not the Same

But if both A states are identical, why do we still instinctively recognize the second as a punishment? Because the states aren’t identical, at least not when certain key differences aren’t arbitrarily ignored. I contend that there are (at least) three fundamentally important differences between them—and hence I’ll call them states A and C moving forward—which cause us to recognize that the state that results from being executed is a punishment, despite being similar to one’s state prior to conception.
First, and perhaps most obviously, state C follows state B in which the executed criminal was alive, whereas state A does not. That is to say, one reason C can be called a punishment is because there was someone to be punished with it! But the same is not true of A, before which the criminal did not exist. Second, state C is something which is inflicted, whereas state A is not. In other words, C is intentionally caused by an external agent, but this is not true of A. Third, state C is determined by this external agent to be the just sentence for crimes committed, whereas state A is not. Put another way, C is the result of being judged guilty by a judge, unlike A.
With these three key differences between states A and C in mind, consider the Oxford English Dictionary definition of punishment as, “The infliction of a penalty or sanction in retribution for an offence or transgression; (also) that which is inflicted as a penalty.”5 Each of the three differences I identified is implicit in the definition of punishment. One must have existed in order to have committed “an offence or transgression;” an external agent must be responsible for “that which is inflicted as a penalty;” and being judged guilty by a judge is required in order for punishment to qualify properly as “retribution.”

Not So Slick

And so we’ve seen that, as it turns out, Matt is not so slick when it comes to his analysis of annihilation as final punishment. His “A, B, A” argument against conditionalism depends upon the premise that what is true of one’s state prior to conception is true of one’s state following annihilation, and yet we’ve seen that there are at least three key differences between those two states, differences inherent in the definition of punishment. The reality—the obvious reality—is that capital punishment is punishment, measured in its resulting lifelessness, and the same is true of the final, permanent, eternal capital punishment of annihilation.

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  1. Physicalism is a monistic view of man which denies the existence of an immaterial soul or spirit that lives on after death. To learn more, you can check out my interviews on the topic. []
  2. Since a man does not exist prior to his conception, technically this is not a “state,” but to keep things simple I’ll use the term to refer even to the state of non-existence. []
  3. Date, C. (2012, June 19). “‘Punishment’ and the polysemy of deverbal nouns.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 12 July 2012. []
  4. St. Augustine (2011-10-04). The City of God – Enhanced (Kindle Locations 16804-16805). Kindle Edition. []
  5. punishment, n. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, September 2007; online version June 2012; accessed 19 June 2012 []