Iron and Clay: Mixed Messages From Clay Jones on What We Should Fear

Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Talbot Seminary, has recently written a blog about annihilationism—sort of. It’s called “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist,” a title that quite evidently calls to mind the thought that the atheist and the annihilationist have a sort of peace or union over an issue, in much the same way that “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” in peaceful coexistence. The article is just not very good (sorry), and in his better moments (such as when writing a recent and excellent book about the human fear of death), I would hope that the author would recognize this.

Tainted by Association

This rather scandalous sounding title is followed up with such section titles as: “The Sadducees Expected Annihilation,” “Naturalists Expect Annihilation,” along with other headings citing Epicurus, Sam Harris, and Mark Twain. You might well wonder (if you’re a bit on the innocent side), right at the outset, what is going on here. When you then scan to then end of the article to see where all of this was supposed to be leading, however, you’ll notice that there is no conclusion. What exactly was the point of all this? Was there a central truth claim in play that the author was trying to defend?

I’ll get into the apparent logic behind what these sections contain shortly, but the fact that this short article is essentially a series of statements linking annihilation to people and groups who reject Christianity is doing something non-cognitive. That is, the presentation is doing something that is not a matter of persuasion by fact and reason, but is something more emotive. The author has already said that he is not arguing that annihilationism is not true (fortunately, as nothing in the article seems to lend support to that claim). Instead, the emotive impact of a piece like this is that the doctrine of annihilationism is associated with a list of boogeymen, points of view that the Christian quite understandably wants nothing to do with. I pointed this out when Clay shared his article on Facebook, and the response, unfortunately was one of indignation—do I have the ability to read his heart and assess his motives? Naturally, it is awkward to be confronted with the claim that you are doing something like insinuating guilt by association, but in all honesty the response to the question of “can you read my heart?” is: Look, we’re not idiots. Just look at the title of this article. It’s not “Annihilation just isn’t a threat,” or “Eternal torment is punishment. Annihilation isn’t.” No, it’s “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Annihilationist”! We are, in some way at least, on the same team! So yes, Clay, inasmuch as reading your heart is necessary to know that this is in part a game of association, we can read your heart. The idea that a person’s words reveal their motives is hardly shocking. It is even biblical, as Jesus remarked that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

Minor Factual Quibbles

After clearing aside the sort of rhetorical flair we see in the article’s title, what remains, in terms of persuasive arguments? We might quibble with some of the fact claims being made here. For example, Jones alleges that tens of millions of “Eastern religionists” hope to be annihilated by attaining Nirvana. Well… maybe, and plenty of “Eastern religionists” believe and hope for the opposite! As Jones gets close to granting, the fact that plenty of Eastern religionists might hope for nonexistence (or rather, might expect nonexistence), is no less true than the fact that millions of the people he is referring to do not have this hope or expectation at all. Nonexistence is in no sense inherent in the concept of nirvana, and there are millions upon millions who hope for a nirvana in which something of themselves still exists, albeit free of all the desires and vices they now have.1Cousins, L.S., “Nirvana,” in Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, Nihilism to Quantum Mechanics (Taylor & Francis: 1998). But this would be a side issue.

Another factual concern is over the way Jones describes the view of the Jewish sect called the Sadducees, who are referred to in the New Testament. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. But then after noting that this is what they believed, Jones, quite inexplicably, says:

So, as opposed to living in desperate fear of annihilation, instead of trusting Jesus who had offered them eternal life, the Sadducees were satisfied with annihilation.

“Satisfied” with annihilation? On what basis does Jones think the Sadducees didn’t fear death? None of the sources he cites, the New Testament or the works of Josephus, support this contention. As it turns out, Jones is on record maintaining that people do indeed fear death, in his book Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It. Why would the Sadducees be an exception to this observation? Their position was not that they did not want there to be a resurrection of the dead. Rather, their position was that there will not be a resurrection of the dead.

Yet another possible factual concern here is that Jones has relied on Josephus’ scant comments on the Sadducees maintaining that the soul dies with the body. It is worth at least noting that this claim has been described in the literature as a misrepresentation on Josephus’ part. The Sadducees, T. W. Mason contends, although they rejected the later doctrine of resurrection, did not give up all hope for the future, locating it instead in Sheol. The hope of resurrection, of course, dissolves the need to try to shoehorn anything that might provide hope into Sheol, something the Hebrew Scripture describes as a state of death, lack of thought, of sleep in the dust, and a state of inability to worship God. But without the resurrection, hope must be located somewhere other than in future bodily life, so it must, reasoned the Sadducees (on Manson’s view), be located in Sheol, the state when the body is dead.2T. W. Manson, “Sadducee and Pharisee—The Origin and Significance of the Names,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 22:1 (1938), 154.

But let’s set the factual concerns aside for now, as they are distractions from the point of Jones’s article. What is actually going on in this article, and what force is it supposed to have against annihilationism?

Is death really no big deal?

Jones gives numerous examples of people or groups who expect to no longer exist one day, and who say that this fact does not bother them. Although on face value Jones is committed to saying that this is not the appropriate response to death and that death really is fearful (as he is on the record saying in Immortal), he nevertheless writes, “the fear of eternal torment dwarfs the fear of annihilation to insignificance.” So what the rest of this article does, in effect, is to allege that death as a final fate really isn’t all that frightening for people who don’t believe in God. Eternal torment would be a lot worse, and so death is something of a relief by contrast.

The trouble (or at least one of Jones’s problems) is, the examples cited here are in general not examples of people who say that they fear death but are glad because (my paraphrase) “at least it’s not eternal torment.” What Jones ends up doing, for the most part, is accumulating a list of names of people who alleged that they just don’t fear death at all—full-stop. How is this not screamingly obvious to him? Just look at the quotes he draws on for support. Charles Darwin said, “I’m not the least afraid to die.” Not the least afraid! Jones quotes Epicurus as saying, “death means nothing to us.” Nothing! Sam Harris is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing to worry about.” Bart Ehrman is quoted as remarking that death “does not greatly bother me anymore.” Mark Twain is quoted as saying that his own nonexistence would be a “holiday” for goodness’ sake.

Clay Jones is a man trying to have it both ways, I’m afraid. On the one hand, he has published a book that explores a perfectly obvious fact: People do fear death. On the other, however, when groping around for a stone to throw at annihilationists, he passes himself off as accepting as true the claims of atheists who allege that they really don’t fear death at all. Again, they are not just saying, “death is comparatively less nasty than eternal torment.” No, they are saying that they aren’t worried about death at all. They aren’t afraid of it. It’s nothing at all. No, in fact it’s better than nothing at all, it’s a holiday!

But as we will see in a moment, Jones does not believe this. He knows very well that people do not view death as a holiday or as no big deal. Why in the world is he suddenly willing to throw his own knowledge of this fact out the window and simply take these people at their own word? Elsewhere he has complained of precisely this sort of falsehood coming from the mouths of atheists. It is almost unbelievable, after reading this hit piece on annihilationism, to read the following words, from Clay Jones himself in his book:

Even though many psychologists, anthropologists, and, most importantly, Scripture tell us that humans fear death, if you ask people if they fear their own deaths, most will say no. … But when they find a lump, have a chest pain, or receive a positive blood test, their fear of death towers in front of them and won’t leave the room.3Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House: 2020), 22.

This comes right after Jones has shared one after another piece of evidence that people simply do dread death, citing a variety of individuals and psychologists or sociologists who provide vivid testimony of how frightening people find the prospect of their own non-being. One of my favorite examples—purely for its imagery—is Jones’s quote from Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, who claim that if people “had an ongoing awareness of their vulnerability and mortality,” they would be reduced to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”4Ibid., 20. Jones’s examples are sobering, and it is perfectly obvious that he thinks descriptions like these are true and that is why he is quoting them. This is what he actually thinks is the human view of our own annihilation. He openly refers to “the fear of death” and “the terror of death,” and he even, like an Evangelical annihilationist himself, explicitly says that it is specifically the fear of death that “compels everyone to seek some salvation,” going on to quote Romans 2:7, where St Paul speaks of seeking immortality and finding immortality in Christ.5Ibid., 21.

If Clay Jones wrote that book, then who on earth wrote this article? The writer of this article did not believe the things Clay Jones believed, Clay Jones who said that in spite of their false denials, in fact people are terrified—terrified!—of death, death to which the remedy, eternal life, is found in Christ. No, the writer of this article is a different man, a man who is immediately credulous when an atheist says that “death is nothing,” or even more ludicrously, that it is a holiday!

Jones is not alone. Other proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment have trivialised the severity of losing one’s life this way. When trying to reason that annihilationism just didn’t present a fate that was scary enough, Robert Peterson rejected the claim that “the obliteration of the wicked is a terrible destiny when measured against the bliss of the righteous,” insisting that “it is simply not that bad to cease to exist,” an observation he thinks is true in its own right, but all the more so given how terrible endless torment would be.6Peterson, “Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999), 27.

It’s hard to know what line of defense we should prepare. On the one hand, traditionalists (like Jones or Peterson) insist that loss of being really doesn’t amount to a serious fate. On the other, there are those (like Hank Hannegraaff, Norman Geisler, or J. P. Moreland) who insist that annihilation is too severe a fate—a horrific evil—to inflict on a person made in God’s image in response to the misuse of human freedom. My hunch is that such arguments about annihilation being too severe or, as in Jones’s argument, not severe enough, is not a principled argument. The point is that it is an argument which, in the moment, serves a rhetorical function against annihilationism, so it will do.

But how will we scare people?

Lastly, Jones briefly makes a pragmatic argument for teaching the eternal torment, rather than the final end, of the lost. He observes that “the fear of eternal torment leads many to repent.” Given the context in which this observation appears, namely the disagreement between those who believe in eternal torment and those who believe the lost will finally die one day, one can only surmise that the response to the observation is meant to be something like “and therefore we should teach eternal torment.” Really, though? Is the idea that all we want to do is come up with the most persuasive story possible to get people to make a decision for Christ? I am sure that is not what Jones thinks, but that is certainly what is suggested by such purely pragmatic approaches as this.

My fear is the fear of death, pure and simple. It is, without even the slightest hint of doubt, the king of all fears in my mind. If it is any sort of fear that keeps me from leaving the faith (and no, I did not just say that it is simply fear that keeps me from leaving the faith), it is a fear that might be expressed in the words of Simon Peter in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” I would be giving up the only hope there is of eternal life, committing everlasting suicide. I know very well that I am not alone, if the discussions I have with fellow annihilationists are anything to go by.

… there is every reason to think that more people think the doctrine of eternal torment is so objectionable that they reject it and possibly God altogether than those who are not believers but who are somehow scared of the possibility of hell and so become Christians.

What’s more, the argument from pragmatic concerns backfires in a way that should surely have been obvious to Jones. He teaches apologetics, of all things, at a Christian college. He knows all too well that the doctrine of eternal torment is frequently offered up as an objection to the Christian doctrine of God, as a reason to reject, rather than accept, the Christian message. Jones might not think the objections are sound, but so what? We are being purely pragmatic now, rather than talking about what’s true. I don’t think the message of eternal torment is true, but that in itself doesn’t stop people from being scared by it. As I have explained at more length elsewhere, the doctrine of eternal torment is an apologetics liability, providing an opportunity to reject the Christian God because he is a torturer. The apologetic problem cannot be dismissed with pat answers like “well, that’s what happens when humans have free will,” or “but God is a God of justice as well as love.” Moreover, there is every reason to think that in our day and age, more people think the doctrine of eternal torment is so objectionable that they reject it and possibly God altogether than those who are not believers but who are somehow scared of the possibility of hell and so become Christians. If the mere fact that some people are scared into the church by the doctrine of eternal torment counts as a reason to teach eternal torment, then similarly the mere fact that some people reject Christianity because of the doctrine of eternal torment counts as a reason to teach against it. If Jones wants to object that subjective human responses to the doctrine of hell don’t tell us much about whether or not we should believe it, then he must abandon his own appeal to subjective human experience.

In Short

In the end, “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist” does not read like a clear argument for anything in particular. It’s a disagreeable title linking Evangelical Christians who are annihilationists to atheism, followed by a list of people with an anti-Christian worldview that we’re supposed to associate somehow with belief in annihilation, coupled with a strange about-face on Jones’s own view that people really do fear death, instead suggesting that annihilation is no biggie. This is all topped off with a purely pragmatic gesture to the fact that there are people who were scared into the faith with tales of eternal torment. But in the end, what’s even going on here? Is there an argument for eternal torment, and against annihilationism? Well, no. There isn’t an argument for anything. There’s just this hodge-podge of sentiments about annihilation and hell pushed together on the (virtual) page, and on closer inspection those sentiments are either false (such as the suggestion that people don’t really fear death) or easily countered (such as the suggestion that eternal torment scares people to God, so we should teach it).

There’s a better version of Clay Jones, and that version wrote a book called Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It. In it, he makes the point made already by Scripture that in fact people do fear death terribly, and that no human effort can do a thing to avoid the fate. The real solution, Jones tells us, is the divine gift of a “wonderful forever.”

The fear of death is at the heart of what we call existential dread, and it is a fear that God can deliver us from—and a fate from which we can ultimately be saved, passing from death to life. According to the Bible, and contrary to Clay Jones (version 2.0, who wrote “The atheist shall lie down with the annihilationist”), it is not the fear of eternal torment, but the fear of death itself from which God delivers us through the Gospel.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
(Hebrews 2:14-15)

If only Jones would rethink hell! His book about death would suddenly become a jigsaw piece that fitted perfectly into the Gospel, into the biblical hope of deliverance from death and the hope of everlasting life, a worldview in which eternal torment simply has no place.

1. Cousins, L.S., “Nirvana,” in Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, Nihilism to Quantum Mechanics (Taylor & Francis: 1998).
2. T. W. Manson, “Sadducee and Pharisee—The Origin and Significance of the Names,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 22:1 (1938), 154.
3. Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House: 2020), 22.
4. Ibid., 20.
5. Ibid., 21.
6. Peterson, “Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism?” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999), 27.