Intrinsic Value, Sanctity of Life, and Capital Punishment: A Response to J. P. Moreland

1998 marked the publication of journalist and legal editor Lee Strobel’s popular-level apologetic work, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Two years later he went on to publish The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity, which details his quest for answers to several issues that had still nagged at him even after having published his previous book. Among other questions, Strobel asked, “If God cares about the people he created, how could he consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about him?” 1
In his search for an answer to this objection Strobel turned to notable philosopher and theologian, Dr. James P. Moreland. Perhaps unsurprisingly the topic of annihilationism came up and, in answering Strobel’s questions, Moreland argued not only that the traditional view of hell is more consistent with the text of Scripture than annihilationism but that it is in fact morally superior to it. In so doing, however, he appears to have forgotten what a co-author and he had written a decade earlier concerning the ethics of capital punishment.

Imprisonment versus capital punishment

Moreland explains to Strobel that in his view hell is not an eternal, horrifying torture chamber but everlasting banishment from God and from his kingdom, comparing the need for its existence to society’s need for prisons. After Moreland answered a few initial objections, Strobel reflected on Moreland’s comparison of hell to prison: 2

In the United States, the most serious crime—murder—is punishable by its most severe sanction, which is being separated from society for life in prison. And there did seem to be a certain logic in saying that defiantly violating God’s ultimate law should bring the ultimate sanction, which is being separated from God and his people for eternity.

In fact, being imprisoned for life is not the most severe sanction with which the United States punishes murderers. In Washington state, for example, most Class A felonies are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. 3 This includes aggravated first degree murder, but if “the trier of fact finds that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency, the sentence shall be death” 4 (emphasis mine). In that state, then, life in prison without possibility of parole is actually a more lenient punishment than the more severe punishment of execution.
Annihilationism is the view that, upon rising from the dead at the general resurrection, those who had died apart from Christ, rather than sentenced to an eternity of misery, will instead be executed. Their risen bodies will die a second death, and if humans have an immaterial soul that lives on after the first death, it will die along with the body in the second. In other words, annihilation is capital punishment—the ultimate capital punishment. If Strobel is right, and if there is “a certain logic in saying that defiantly violating God’s ultimate law should bring the ultimate sanction,” then capital punishment, rather than (eternal) life in prison, would best qualify.

Instrumental value

Strobel goes on to ask Moreland about annihilation, but first he ponders universalism, asking, “Why can’t [God] simply force everyone to go to heaven?” 5 Moreland’s answer is that it would be immoral of God to do so: 6

Follow me on this: there’s a difference between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something has intrinsic value if it’s valuable and good in and of itself; something has instrumental value if it’s valuable as a means to an end . . .

Now, when you treat people as instrumentally valuable, or only as a means to an end, you’re dehumanizing them, and that’s wrong. You’re treating people as things when you treat them merely as a means to an end . . .

. . . You would be saying that the good of what you want to do is more valuable than respecting their choices . . .

. . . The option of forcing everyone to go to heaven is immoral, because it’s dehumanizing; it strips them of the dignity of making their own decision; it denies them their freedom of choice; and it treats them as a means to an end.

In other words, if God’s desired end is that everyone goes to heaven, then to force them there is to treat them as only instrumentally valuable and as nothing more than a means to accomplishing that end, rather than as intrinsically valuable. And as Strobel would go on to discover, Moreland thinks annihilationism is immoral for precisely the same reason: 7

Believe it or not, everlasting separation from God is morally superior to annihilation,” he replied. “Why would God be morally justified in annihilating somebody? The only way that’s a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you’re treating people as a means to an end. It’s like forcing people to go to heaven. What you’re saying is, ‘The thing that really matters is that people no longer suffer consciously, so I’m going to snuff this person out of existence in order to achieve that end.’ Do you see? That’s treating the person as a means to an end.

Now, one might be forgiven for raising the very same objection to Moreland’s own view. One might argue that to quarantine the unredeemed, separated from God and his people forever simply for the purpose of keeping his kingdom unstained by sin is to treat them as no more than a means to that desired end. Of course, Moreland would likely reply that this is not, in fact, the reason God will choose to do so. Maybe he thinks they deserve it, or that they really want to be separated from God, or maybe he thinks there is some other reason. But then, neither is relief from suffering the only reason God might annihilate the lost. Indeed, the literature in favor of annihilationism does not even suggest that this is one of the reasons that God has.
Moreland’s argument appears to assume that the just punishment for sin is everlasting conscious separation from God, and that the annihilation of the lost would serve no purpose other than to relieve their suffering. But this is not so if “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23, emphasis mine). If death is what God deems to be the just punishment for sin, then the final capital punishment of the unrepentant is not to use them as instruments to bring about a desired end but rather is to secure perfect justice. Annihilationism is not, therefore, morally inferior to the traditional view of hell based on intrinsic versus instrumental value.

Sanctity of life and the image of God

Elsewhere, Moreland argues that annihilationism is morally deficient on slightly different grounds: 8

Regarding the end of life, sanctity-of-life advocates reject active euthanasia (the intentional killing of a patient), while quality-of-life advocates embrace it. In the sanctity-of-life view, one gets one’s value, not from the quality of one’s life, but from the sheer fact that one exists in God’s image. The quality-of-life advocates see the value of human life in its quality; life is not inherently valuable. Thus the sanctity-of-life position has a higher, not a lower, moral regard for the dignity of human life.

The traditional and annihilationist views about hell are expressions, respectively, of sanctity-of-life and quality-of-life ethical standpoints. After all, the grounds that God would have for annihilating someone would be the low quality of life in hell. If a person will not receive salvation, and if God will not extinguish one made in his image because he values life, then God’s alternative is quarantine, and hell is certainly that. Thus the traditional view, being a sanctity-of-life and not a quality-of-life position, is morally superior to annihilationism.

Once again Moreland argues from the mistaken assumption that the only reason God would have for annihilating someone is so that they will not have to face the just punishment for sin, which he presumes consists in an everlasting low quality of life. But if the just punishment for sin consists instead in death, then God’s basis for destroying the lost would be the same as the basis for their everlasting separation in the traditional view: justice. Contrary to Moreland’s claim, the traditional and annihilationist views simply are not expressions, respectively, of sanctity-of-life and quality-of-life ethical standpoints. They disagree, not over where one’s value comes from (the fact of one’s life or the quality thereof), but over what Scripture says justice requires, and what Scripture says the perfectly just God will do.
But what about Moreland’s implied claim that God would not extinguish one made in his image? In his interview with Strobel he put it this way, adding the element of freedom of choice: 9

What hell does is recognize that people have intrinsic value. If God loves intrinsic value, then he has got to be a sustainer of persons, because that means he is a sustainer of intrinsic value. He refuses to snuff out a creature that was made in his own image. So in the final analysis, hell is the only morally legitimate option.

God doesn’t like it, but he quarantines them. This honors their freedom of choice. He just will not override that. In fact, God considers people so intrinsically valuable that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die so that they can, if they choose, spend eternity in heaven with him.

So very much could be said in response to this line of reasoning, but perhaps there is no better response to Moreland’s own arguments than what he had himself already written around ten years earlier. The book he co-authored with Norm Geisler, The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Time, discusses among other issues the debate over capital punishment, and Moreland and Geisler present the arguments for and against three views of capital punishment. One of those views, which they call rehabilitationism, denies that it is ever legitimate for the state to execute a criminal, no matter what crime was committed. Because their treatment of the debate is presented as neutrally as possible, it is not 100% clear which of these three views Moreland and Geisler hold. Nevertheless, because annihilation is the capital punishment to traditionalism’s eternal prison sentence, some of the reasons they offer for rejecting rehabilitationism serve equally well as reasons to reject Moreland’s arguments against annihilationism.

“The right to life can be forfeited”

Given the nature of Moreland’s moral argument against annihilationism on the basis of intrinsic value and the sanctity of life, it is astonishing that in response to rehabilitationism’s claim that capital punishment violates the right to life, Moreland and Geisler posit that “the right to life can be forfeited”: 10

John Locke argued that even a person’s natural and inalienable right to life can be forfeited under some circumstances. And it is forfeited whenever one person violates the right to life of another. He insisted that “The offender, by violating the life, liberty, or property of another, has lost his own right to have life, liberty, or property respected. …” Sir William Blackstone, in his influential Commentary on the Laws of England (1776), carried over the principle of forfeiture into Anglo-American criminal law.

One way the basic principle is justified is to note that even “absolute” rights can be preempted. Moral duties are only prima facie; they stand only until challenged by something greater, like the law of justice or protecting the lives of the innocent. Killing in self-defense is an example. While it is a moral duty not to kill another person-even a bad person-nonetheless, it is another matter if they are about to kill you.

Although the language here is in terms of “rights” rather than “value,” the principle nevertheless applies. God’s moral obligation to respect man’s intrinsic value, if such an obligation exists, stands “only until challenged by something greater, like the law of justice.” Once again, the debate between traditionalists and annihilationists hinges on what Scripture says is the punishment God has declared sinners deserve. If sinners deserve death, then the law of justice requires the execution of the unsaved, despite their intrinsic value.

“Capital punishment is pro-human”

As noted earlier, man’s freedom also played a part in Moreland’s moral challenge to annihilationism. But then, if Moreland’s and Geisler’s second reason for rejecting rehabilitationism is sound, then annihilationism turns out to be quite moral, for as they put it, “capital punishment is pro-human”: 11

According to some, punishing persons for their wrong is a compliment, not an insult to their freedom and dignity. First of all, as C. S. Lewis aptly put it, “To be punished, however severely, because we deserved it, because we `ought to have known better,’ is to be treated as a human person … after all, to do anything less is to reduce human dignity, to treat a person like a thing.” Capital punishment, then, is the ultimate compliment to human dignity; it implies the most pro-human stance possible. Second, it is not cruel and unusual punishment; it is exactly the punishment that fits a capital crime. Whether it is more cruel than life imprisonment is not the point. (Surveys of “lifers” would indicate that many of them believe that they would have preferred capital punishment to a life sentence.) According to proponents of capital punishment, the only question is whether it is a just and fitting punishment for the crime. There is nothing “unusual” about the punishment being appropriate to the crime. And the way it is applied in most civilized countries, there is nothing “cruel” about it either, certainly not as compared to the way most criminals inflicted death on their victims.

Moreland had told Strobel, “God doesn’t like it, but he quarantines [the lost]. This honors their freedom of choice.” But if what they deserve is death, then to do anything less than punish them with execution is to treat them as less than human. As Moreland and Geisler so aptly put it, “The only question is whether it is a just and fitting punishment for the crime.” How does the Bible answer that question? In the beginning God punished Adam and Eve with banishment from the garden so that they would die, rather than live forever (Genesis 3:22-23). Paul said that “those who practice [things which are not proper] are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32, emphasis mine), that “the outcome of those things is death” (6:21, emphasis mine) and that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23, emphasis mine).

Red letter eschatology

As his final nagging objection to the problem of hell, Strobel wonders if reincarnation doesn’t make more sense. He asks, “Wouldn’t reincarnation be a rational way for a loving God to give people a fresh start so that they might repent the next time around and he wouldn’t have to send them to hell?” 12 Concluding his answer to Strobel’s question, Moreland responds, “I don’t believe in reincarnation because there’s an expert on this question and he’s Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person in history who died, rose from the dead, and spoke authoritatively on the question.” 13
Annihilationists can wholeheartedly agree. Whether or not Moreland and Geisler personally agree with the arguments they offered in response to rehabilitationism, many others do agree that capital punishment is the ultimate complement to the freedom and dignity of man, and that man’s intrinsic value and right to life can be preempted by the requirements of justice. It is not at all clear that Moreland is correct in claiming, on the basis of man’s intrinsic value and the sanctity of life, that annihilationism is morally inferior to traditionalism. If we turn to the words of the since-risen Lord in order to answer the question, what do we discover?
We discover that just as weeds are completely burned up in a fire, so too will the lost be thrown into a furnace of fire (Matthew 13:40-42; cf. Malachi 4:1, 3). We discover that they will be slain and their bodies consumed by maggots and by fire (Mark 9:48; cf. Isaiah 66:24). We discover that we are to fear not man who can kill the body only but God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). And of course we discover that those who do not believe in him, rather than living forever, will instead perish (John 3:16). If Jesus of Nazareth is the expert who alone can authoritatively tell us what awaits those who die apart from a saving relationship with himself, then we have ample reason to accept Moreland’s justification for capital punishment as a sufficient answer to his own moral arguments against annihilationism.

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  1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Zondervan, 2009), Kindle edition, locations 305-306.[]
  2. Ibid., 3159-3162.[]
  3. Rev. Code Wash. § 9A.20.021 (2012).[]
  4. Rev. Code Wash. § 10.95.030 (2012).[]
  5. Strobel, 3165.[]
  6. Ibid., 3166-3178.[]
  7. Ibid., 3185-3190.[]
  8. J. P. Moreland, “Does the Bible teach annihilationism?” The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen, Paul Copan, and J. P. Moreland (Holman Bible, 2007), 1292.[]
  9. Strobel, 3190-3195.[]
  10. J. P. Moreland and Norman L. Geisler, The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Time (Praeger, 1990), Kindle edition, p. 105; all emphases mine.[]
  11. Ibid., 105-106; all emphases mine.[]
  12. Strobel, 3300-3301.[]
  13. Ibid., 3322-3323.[]