The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Hell: Definition vs description


I’ve been prompted by a recurring experience to write a very boring post about a basic distinction. Here it is: Definitions are not exactly the same thing as descriptions.

At first glance that sounds pretty simple, and brief reflection shows that it’s obviously correct. Why am I pointing out such a trivial thing? Here’s why: I hold to a view of eternal punishment called annihilationism. That’s the view that instead of being tormented forever, those who do not find favour with God will die finally and forever. They will, in simple terms, permanently cease to exist one day. I have a friend who holds to a more traditional view of hell, in which eternal punishment consists of eternal torment. This friend – and this person is not alone, there are many sincere (but mistaken) people who make this same error – has claimed several times that not only do I hold a different view of hell, but I actually do not believe in hell at all. When I explain that in fact I do believe in hell, but I do not believe that it consists of eternal torment, here is (my paraphrase of) the reply I got:

“Well, I define hell as something involving eternal torment, therefore you’re radically re-defining hell, which is the same as denying its existence altogether, because you might say that hell exists, but that word carries a different definition when you’re using it than when I’m using it.”

What has happened here is that people who think this are confusing descriptions with definitions. Perhaps a few hypothetical examples of this exact same tactic in other situations will make if clear why this is a confused way to reason:

Jim: There’s a mustang convertible in that closed garage over there.

Bob: No, actually there’s a Volkswagen Beetle in that closed garage over there.

Jim: Oh, so you don’t believe there’ s a car in that garage, huh?

Bob: Of course I do. I just think the car is a Volkswagen Beetle and not a Mustang Convertible.

Jim: Oh Bob, don’t be so slippery. I define a car as a Mustang convertible! Therefore you’re radically re-defining the car, which is the same as denying its existence altogether, because you might say that a car exists in the garage, but the word “car” carries a different definition when you’re using it than when I’m using it.

Is Jim correct? Of course not! Jim is mistaking his description of the car (a Mustang convertible) for the very definition of a car. In a way, he’s screening out any possibility of debate over what type of car might be in the garage, because he will assume that “car” in and of itself just means what he thinks the car is like. Here’s another example of two people from different periods of history who just entered a time warp and ended up together:

Herb: I think the President of the USA is John Adams

Fossy: No, I think the President of the USA is Teddy Roosevelt

Herb: Oh? So you think there’s no President of the USA?

Fossy: What? I just said there was a President of the USA, namely Teddy Roosevelt!

Herb: But Fossy, I define the President of the USA as a John Adams! Therefore you’re radically re-defining the President of the USA, which is the same as denying its existence altogether, because you might say that a President of the USA exists, but that term carries a different definition when you’re using it than when I’m using it.

Is Herb right? Of course not! Both of these absurd arguments – about cars and Presidents – have one mistake in common. They are confusing specific possible manifestations of a thing with what that thing is by definition. The car in the garage might be a number of things – a Dodge, a Ford, a Toyota etc. But it is not defined in terms of any one of those particular things. It is defined much more basically than that, otherwise there could literally not even be a disagreement about what type of car is in the garage, unless at least one of the participants is hopelessly ignorant and has never heard of a car at all. Likewise, the President of the USA could be any number of people. But it is not any one person by definition, otherwise there could not be a succession of presidents, since the next person to come into office would be a different person and hence not the actual president!

In short, the people who make the glaringly obvious errors in the above hypothetical scenarios do so because they confuse a particular description of what something might be like with the very definition of that thing. The exact same error occurs when somebody says that an annihilationist doesn’t believe in hell. “Hell” here just means the afterlife – the postmortem fate – of those who ultimately do not find favour with God. There is, and has been for some time now, a debate raging over the nature of hell. A book featuring several views on what hell is like was called Four Views on Hell. One of those views was that hell will consist of eternal torment for those people (actually two of the views both expressed slightly different versions of that view). But just imagine how absurd it would have been if the book began by saying “Hell means a place of eternal torment. Now here are four view on hell, some of which deny eternal torment.” Eternal torment is, as in the arguments about cars and presidents, a candidate among views of what hell is like. To say that hell just means “eternal torment” is to brush away all possibility of debate about “hell” by saying “The word hell means eternal torment. The word hell is in the Bible. Therefore eternal torment is in the Bible. Game over.”

This lesson in linguistic basics 101 was brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood annihilationist.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Glenn

    I was prompted today to add a few more examples to drive the point home. The car and the president examples work fine, I think, but here’s a theological example that may work even better.

    Art: I’m a Calvinist. I believe in the grace of God. Also, I think that grace is irresistible.
    Jack: I’m an Arminian. Of course, I also believe in the grace of God, but I think it can be resisted.
    Art: Woah, you don’t believe in grace?
    Jack: Of course I believe in it, I just don’t think it works the way you said it does.
    Art: But Jack, I define the grave of God as irresistible! That’s what the very word means! Therefore you’re radically re-defining the grace of God, which is the same as denying its existence altogether, because you might say that the grace of God exists, but that term carries a different definition when you’re using it than when I’m using it.

    One problem, which I did not note earlier, is that the use of terms like “hell,” “grace,” “car” and other terms, is supposed to treat those terms as corresponding to just one thing with a definition. “Grace,” for example, means something like “favour,” by definition. Art and Jack are not really disagreeing about that, but rather about how that grace/favour operates. Art doesn’t have the right to take all the things he believes about grace and claim that they belong to the very definition of the word itself. “Hell,” likewise, has a definition along the lines of “the place or state of the lost after this life.” You can’t just take everything you believe will happen in that place/state (a disputed matter) and squeeze it into the meaning of the word.

    In other words, by insisting on this “correspondence” approach, I’m saying that by claiming that a thing has different features, people are not thereby entitled to just re-write language in some postmodern way and have their own private definitions of words. That’s the point that I was reminded of today in discussion about this issue. They might have their own private descriptions of the thing signified by that word (be it a car, a president of the USA, grace, or hell), but they haven’t changed language by holding those beliefs, because…. definitions are not descriptions (and vice versa).

  2. Dude, I love you 😛

    Some how.. and this is freaking me out, you reach into my mind and find the responses to people that I want to make, rip them out and restate them in nice clear logical fashion. How do you do that?

    Keep up the good work and congrats on the Doctory thingi.

  3. Bob LeChef

    This post is confused (could have expected it from the arrogant domain name). In any case, the essential problem is not a distinction between definition and description.

    There are many kinds of definitions, perhaps most famous of which is the classical, Aristotelian definition which consists of the genus and differentiating characteristic which is meant to specify the species we are defining. So, for example, “human” is defined as “rational animal” where “animal” is the genus and “rational” is the characteristic that differentiates the species from others in the genus.

    I could go on to describe other kinds of definitions (including ostensive definitions or normative definitions), but there’s no need. The distinction between definition and description is pointless because it’s not what’s at issue. However, let me give a little more context to kill off any doubts. What really distinguishes a definition from a description, generally speaking, is precision, not accuracy. Definitions tend towards the essential and the substantial, not the accidental. Take the definition of “human” I gave. It is an accurate and essential characterization of the species. What makes us human above all is our rational nature. However, we can describe what human beings are in better detail by getting a little more concrete about the accidental features human beings are generally endowed with (note that this description will be inductive; if you want a completely perfect description, you’ll need to restrict yourself in some way, either in the details given or the sample chosen, and in the latter case, this would depart from “human” to some subset thereof).

    Now, in your examples, you actually don’t distinguish between rigid designation and obstinate designation, which means this essentially has nothing to do with definitions at all because no one actually defines the car in the garage or the president of the US. FDR, JFK, these aren’t definitions, they’re designators. So you’re completely wrong there. You can’t *define* the president to be JFK or FDR and you’re not describing the president either. You can include the name of the president in a description, but that’s not the mode you’re working in.

    In the case of hell, I would ask you what your definition of hell is because you give not. If you were right, then you could draw the distinction between hell defined and hell described, but you do not. Certainly, your friend could be in error if he can’t distinguish between particular conceptions of hell (fiery furnace, existential isolation, both, etc), but I can just as easily see how he could accuse you of denying hell. If hell is a designator, i.e., something which refers to some existing state-of-affairs of whatever incarnation that a person may find himself in, then obviously annihilationism can’t be a position about what hell *is* because there isn’t anything which “hell” designates. After all, those who are destined for hell are destined for annihilation and annihilation isn’t a something that *is* but the end of being for those annihilated. It may seem that you can, at best, make hell a synonym for annihilation, but even that is incoherent and handwavy. As I already said, you wouldn’t be defining or describing hell by invoking annihilation, you’d be *describing* what happens to those who fail to meet God’s criteria. To say annihilation IS hell is a sloppy game of semantics at best. What YOU have is an alternative to hell and so your friend can be completely justified by saying that you’re denying hell, not because you don’t agree with HIS conception of hell (after all, you can have a different one and yet not deny hell), but because there is no hell to speak of on your account. You fail to conform the most basic requirement you can have when asserting x of y (that y exist in the first place). Hell is an end, not a means, and annihilation is a means to an end which is nonexistence.

  4. “could have expected it from the arrogant domain name” Eh? “Right reason” is a concept in natural law.

    “So you’re completely wrong there. You can’t *define* the president to be JFK or FDR and you’re not describing the president either. You can include the name of the president in a description, but that’s not the mode you’re working in.”

    It’s true that the current president of the US isn’t a good example (because, yes, they aren’t really describing the President but using a rigid designator to state who is the President – although the confusion over the word “define” is of the sort I am talking about), but “Car” is fine. All that really matters in the example is the meaning of the word “car.” The Calvinist / Arminian example that I used further illustrates the point, where the definition of “grace” is in view.

    You ask for a definition of hell. Sure: In Christian theology, the final fate of those who are not saved (supposing that there is a final fate of such people, i.e. some people are not finally saved). Now, some believe that this fate will actually amount to eternal suffering. I don’t.

    And so by saying that I do not believe in hell at all, even though I certainly do believe that there is something that answers to this definition, a person is smuggling their description of hell into the very definition of the word, meaning that it is pointless to even discuss with that person what hell is like.

    “there is no hell to speak of on your account” – This is only true if you think hell just means (i.e. is defined as) a place where people spend a protracted period of time. Now, some annihilationists do believe this about hell (i.e. they would describe hell this way), thinking that people will suffer there for a while and then come to an end. So this notion that there is no hell to speak of is obviously not true for them. But more importantly, if hell just means, within a Christian framework, the fate of the lost (again, supposing that some will be finally lost), then anyone who believes that there are some who will finally be lost and who believes that such people have a fate at all, believes in hell. What’s more (to bring biblical considerations to bear on the current discussion), a turn of phrase like being “cast into Gehenna” need not, when interpreted, mean that people are sent anywhere in particular, provided the phrase has a meaning of “be destroyed.” But even if that’s what the phrase means, it would be missing the point to say “there is no Gehenna to speak of.”

    Of course you could just say to me, “you don’t believe in a place of protracted existence/suffering following the judgement,” which is fine as a claim about many annihilationists, because many annihilationists do not conceive of hell that way, believing that the lost will be destroyed. And we think that this is what Scripture indicates in its references to Gehenna / hell. But I would define hell that way, otherwise it would be impossible to ask “but is that really what hell is like?”

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