Hypothetically considered in theology, annihilation is the total reduction of the whole being from existence to nonexistence. Whereas creation in the active causal sense is the act whereby the entire supposit (the individual being as such) is brought from nonexistence to existence, the act of annihilation is the reduction of the supposit in its entirety from existence to nonexistence (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 41.3; 45.4, 8; 104.1, 3, 4; De potentia Dei 3.3; 5.1, 4).
Comparison with Creation. Annihilation, theologically considered, is used in the proper sense and can be understood only by comparison with the concept of creation. God's causality of a being effects the production of the total creature from absolute nonexistence. The divine causality of the existence of being is not distinct as the principle of its being and as the principle of its conservation in being. Creation is the continuous conservation of the being in existence by the First Cause of its existence. The First Cause as the essential proper cause of being remains the proper direct cause as long as being, the proper effect, continues to exist (see conservation, divine).
To say that God could create a being that would not need to be conserved in existence involves a contradiction in terms. Only that which has no proper cause needs not to be kept in existence by its proper cause. The withdrawal of the proper cause of existent being would constitute annihilation of being.
While science, philosophy, and theology deny annihilation in the real order, speculative theology, nevertheless, asks the question whether or not God could annihilate creatures. Since God is the cause of all being by His absolute will and not by intrinsic or extrinsic necessity, He could withdraw His creative act and thereby annihilate created being (Summa theologiae 1a, 9.2). As before He caused its existence, without prejudice to His goodness He could have abstained from bringing it into existence, so He could withdraw His act and as He did so creatures would cease to exist. An act may be said to be impossible to God either because the very act involves a contradiction, or because the opposite of the act would be necessary. But absolute nonexistence of creatures does not involve a contradiction, otherwise they would be necessary and not contingent. Moreover, God's power is not determined to the existence of creatures by any necessity. His goodness does not depend on their existence and gains nothing therefrom. He who is their First Cause is not necessitated to give them being unless He has divinely decreed their being. Therefore, it is not impossible for God to reduce being to nonexistence by the simple withdrawal of His conserving power.
The Fate of the Sinner. Although God could annihilate creatures who sin against Him, yet it is more fitting that He conserve them in existence. Sin involves the rebellion of the will against the will of the Creator; it does not involve rebellion of the created nature as such; for despite the moral state of the sinner, his nature observes the order assigned it by God. Since sin is both aversion from the ultimate Good and conversion to an apparent, but not real, transient good, fitting punishment involves, therefore, the pain of loss proportionate to the sinner's aversion from the ultimate Good, and the pain of sense proportionate to the conversion to the apparent transient good. But if the sinner were annihilated, there could be no such fitting punishment, since the whole being would be reduced to nonexistence (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 87.4; 87.1).
Failing to find in reason or revelation any support for the erroneous supposition that there should be an ultimate conversion of all sinners, and considering immortality of the soul to be a grace rather than its natural attribute, some persons who came to be known as annihilationists proposed annihilation as the ultimate end of the finally impenitent, and maintained that God would be compelled thereby to confess failure of His purpose and His power.
In Eucharistic Theology. In the history of theological speculation relative to the nature and effects of the act of Consecration in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, certain theologians of the Scotist and nominalist schools came to advance the theory of annihilation as an explanation for what St. Thomas and his followers described to be "the disappearance" of the bread and wine after the words of the separate consecrations. As a result of long profound argumentation between the adherents of the respective positions, there gradually emerged the theological clarification of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ultimately, theologians came to distinguish the concept of change in which one of the two terms, the terminus a quo, or the terminus ad quem, may be expressed negatively, from that of substantial conversion in which two positive extremes are involved, each of which is related to the other by such an intimate connection that the last extreme (terminus ad quem ) begins to exist only as the first extreme (terminus a quo ) ceases to exist, while a third element (commune tertium ) unites the two extremes with each other, and continues to exist after the conversion of the substances has taken place (De veritate 28.1; De potentia Dei 3.2). This unique conversion was defined by the Council of Trent as transubstantiation (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion 1642). In the use of the phrase, "disappearance of the bread and wine," St. Thomas had consistently refused to equate annihilation simply and properly; and while at first Scotus was inclined to accept annihilation as identified with "disappearance," the speculations that his position induced ultimately led to the clarification of the meaning of the Consecration of the Mass as the positive action of God effecting a total conversion of the terminus a quo into the terminus ad quem with the commune tertium of the accidents of the bread and wine remaining (Summa theologiae 3a, 75.3; 77.5; Denzinger 1642, 1652).
See Also: change; elementary particles; generation-corruption.
Bibliography: k. jÜssen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 1:576–577. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 15.1:1396–1406. p. raymond, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 4.2: 1916–18. a. piolanti, The Holy Eucharist, tr. l. penzo (New York 1961) 54–77. e. doronzo, De eucharistia (Milwaukee 1947) 1:224–367.
[m. r. e. masterman]