So last week we talked about how for Aquinas, all of creation depends on God for its existence. Not just in a ‘God created everyone and wandered off’ kinda way, but as in ‘Everything’s existence actively depends on God continuing to maintain their existence’. If God stops thinking about you, you vanish or something. You ded. In 1a.104.3, then, Aquinas asks whether God has the power to annihilate things. The answer is obviously yes, but let’s run it through.
Aquinas opens by saying that no, God doesn’t have the power to annihilate things, so – ah fuck it, we know the answer’s going to be yes, just get to the point. But Aquinas sets up a couple relatively strong arguments against the idea of God annihilating shit. He quotes Augustine twice: “God is not the cause of anything’s tending towards non-existence,” and “Because God is good, we exist.” You can see how these arguments will shape up. God doesn’t make anything tend towards non-existence, because existence is good; therefore God cannot annihilate anything because that’s making something tend towards non-existence and God can’t do that. Also, we exist because God is good. Our existence is predicated on God’s goodness, and God can’t stop being good, so therefore we can’t stop existing, because that would mean that God had stopped being good. You’ve got to be careful with ‘because’ around Aquinas – he’s a man who takes it very literally.
Speaking of taking things literally, his opening rebuttal has some very literal interpretation of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 10:24 reads “Correct me, O Lord, but yet with judgement and not in thy fury, lest thou bring me to nothing.” Aquinas reads that and goes well, Jeremiah can’t have been speaking figuratively, so therefore he’s afraid that God will bring him to nothing, ie annihilate him, and therefore God can annihilate people because that’s what this verse is supposed to mean.
So how does this annihilation gel with the whole God being good thing? It’s basically similar to the sin explanation, which we’ve covered before. In that argument, Aquinas says that God isn’t responsible for sin – He just allows it to happen and coincidentally prepares a special place of punishment for all the people that freely sinned of their own accord but it’s still not His fault at all and He had nothing to do with it seriously guys okay stop laughing it’s true. In the same way, Aquinas argues that God never actively annihilates anyone – He just stops exerting effort to make them exist. It’s a cessation of action, rather than an active new action, and in Aquinas’s book that’s a satisfactory loophole.
Obviously you and me might suggest that stopping an action can in and of itself be an action. If you stop breathing to try and bring yourself to the verge of unconsciousness, that’s stopping an action from happening, but it’s also kinda an action in and of itself. But Aquinas is happy with his argument. As far as he’s concerned, stopping an action is definitely not a type of action, and therefore God is not ‘causing’ anything to stop existing. God is just removing His causality that allowed the thing to exist in the first place – and that’s definitely not an action.
Well, alright, I’m starting to feel jaded about this whole thing. Let’s move on. Aquinas has a briefly interesting point about how God doesn’t create the world out of any necessity – it’s basically just something He does for a laugh. The idea is that God is already complete and perfect and happy within Himself, and so making stuff is just sort of a bonus venture. Thus Aquinas argues that “His goodness is the cause of things, yet not as though by a natural necessity, but by His free will.” God can un-create everything and it doesn’t impinge on His goodness. It’s not a necessary consequence of God’s goodness in the first place – so the strict causality of ‘Because God is good, we exist’ just doesn’t apply.
Moving on to 104.4, Aquinas asks whether anything is in fact annihilated. It’s one thing to say that God can do it, but does He? Will He? Aquinas pulls another out of context quote from Ecclesiastes, where the author says “I have learned that all the works that God hath made continue forever.” Aquinas continues to argue that basically there’s no point to God annihilating stuff, because “the divine power and goodness are shown rather through the keeping of things in existence.” So He can, but He doesn’t, because if nothing exists there’s nothing to appreciate how good God is. Man, getting really jaded. Have to rein it in.
I guess this one is a weird one because we like to think about things having their own intrinsic value. It’s important for how we discuss the natural world, for instance. We’re experiencing the ongoing extinction of all sorts of animals, and we instinctively want to say that those animals are worth preserving. If you asked me whether or not God would annihilate shit, my instinct would be to say no. I have this inherent belief, I guess, that there’s something important and valuable about the world, and all the different creatures and things within it. I’d say that God wouldn’t annihilate things purely because creation has its own inherent value. This article is weird because it doesn’t really touch on that idea. It almost seems to say the opposite – that God can just blink the whole universe out of existence on a whim and that’s totally morally fine. It doesn’t impinge on God’s goodness for Him to just destroy everything. That – I mean it’s really kinda frustrating. What’s our value in this system? How are we supposed to view ourselves? Supposedly God loves us, but it’s still totally fine for Him to blink us all out of existence. He can be perfect and good and utterly holy, utterly loving, sending His own son to die for our sins – but also it’s fine if He kills everything. That’s a pretty precarious situation for us to be in.