(WARNING: This article presents a significantly simplified taxonomy. Further, there are many meta-ethical views within Christianity; this article is incompatible with some of those views, including Divine Command Theory, moral absolutism, and CCC 1753-1754.)
Until confronted with moral dilemmas, right decisionmaking — once we’ve got our interests reasonably well-defined — seems pretty straightforward.
Like this guy. One happy fellow, playing his guitar:
And when we’re no longer “in dilemma,” we can forget about the complexity of morality, and revert to this “straightforward” / “common sense” / “plain to see” / “easy” falsity.
But it turns out that our moral practice is — roughly — a trio of three guitarists, all playing at the same time.
- Red is all about the rules. He represents moral stipulations that you’ve been taught, or that you’ve “red,” or what have you.
- Green is all about seeking goals in service of all sorts of interests. But that’s not all; he’s also clumsy. Very clumsy. In the day-to-day, we’re rather inadequate at forecasting the innumerable consequences of each action we take. But, Green tries his darndest.
- Blue is all about intuition; his feelings and gut-reactions to moral situations. His moral force is powered by direct appeals to conviction, disgust, anger, felt affection, etc.
A Beautiful Song…
For the most part, the three musicians play together very nicely.
Even if one musician rests while another plays, it sounds good.
Even if one musician plays a major and another its relative minor, it sounds pretty neat as a minor seventh.
But sometimes, one musician plays a radically mismatched chord vs. the other two.
And it sounds terrible.
In other words, sometimes the gut and the clumsy goal-seeking go way against the rules. Sometimes the clumsy goal-seeking goes against both the rules and the gut. And sometimes the rules and clumsy goal-seeking are allied, but the gut dissents.
(Aside: After writing dozens and dozens of plotlines during my career in game development, one starts to notice that when a story’s moral dilemma isn’t about mere interest disagreement — that is, when there is interest consensus — the dilemma is always reducible to Red/Green/Blue interplay. As a fun exercise, surf through TVTropes.org and dissect these “shared interest” moral tensions into their RGB components.)
Judging the Musicians
So when one musician is out of sync, how do we figure out if he’s right to be out of sync?
To explore this question, let’s examine the three out-of-sync dilemmas in the abstract.
Red Out of Sync
This is when a common moral rule seems very counterproductive according to Green (clumsy goal-seeking) and Blue (gut intuition).
- Maybe Red is wrong. It may be that times, culture, or circumstances have changed so that the rule is no longer useful.
- But maybe Red is right. It may be that the rule remains good, but the ways by which the rule is useful are very difficult to understand or untangle, and the gut and clumsy goal-seeking fail to ascertain them.
Green Out of Sync
This is when clumsy goal-seeking feels wrong and violates the common rules. The tension here is whether the person can be certain enough in his goal-driven analysis that he can say, “I’ve gotta do it anyway.”
- Maybe Green is wrong. The forecast was incorrect.
Example: You live in poverty and your family is very hungry. You see an opportunity to steal some groceries. You do not notice a plainclothes officer nearby, who will arrest you if you do; you will then be put in prison, and your family will be even worse off.
And this is just considering the interests of you and your family. Ideally our actions are in the best interests of our other relationships and even the world at large. Perhaps you won’t go to prison, but your theft will damage other people irreparably through unforeseen butterfly effects. And perhaps it may do damage to your own conscience, setting you on a dark path that ends in ruin.
You are not omniscient. You cannot know about every detail of your circumstances and what exhaustively will come of your actions. This is what makes your forecasting clumsy. The rules tell you not to steal, your feelings tell you not to steal, and even though your clumsy goal-seeking says to steal, you’d be best — here — to ignore it.
- But maybe Green is right. The forecast, though clumsy, is indeed correct.
Blue Out of Sync
The rule says “do it,” the decision analysis says “do it,” but it feels wrong anyway; the gut says, “No, don’t!”
- Maybe Blue is wrong. The intuition is molded and crafted by experience, but that doesn’t make it impeccable — in fact, it’s largely driven by momentum and unconscious “preprogrammed” feelings of disgust, loss-aversive fear, righteous indignation, and even vengeance without fruitfulness. Good decisions can yet rub it the wrong way.
- But maybe Blue is right. The rule is counterproductive (perhaps outdated, or should have been regarded as context-constrained) and the clumsy analysis was incorrect. Thankfully the intuition had been molded and crafted by experience to rebel against both the official rules and the incorrect analysis (clumsily performed).
The Common Denominator
Let’s simplify the above to answer our earlier question.
- When Red is out of sync, Red is right when the rule is useful (beneficial and constructive).
- When Red is out of sync, Red is wrong when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive).
- When Green is out of sync, Green is right when the analysis (albeit clumsy) is correct. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
- When Green is out of sync, Green is wrong when the analysis is incorrect. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
- When Blue is out of sync, Blue is right when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive) and the clumsy analysis (which measured benefit and constructiveness) was incorrect; thankfully, the intuition’s formative experience and other “preprogramming” raised warning flags.
- When Blue is out of sync, Blue is wrong when the intuition’s limited formative experience and other “preprogramming” yields a gut-feeling contrary to usefulness (benefit and constructiveness).
See the pattern?
It’s consequence. Consequence is schematically “king.” We know this because it is the common judge against which all the musicians are measured.
- A rule is bad when it makes things worse.
- A prospective analysis is bad when it through erroneous forecasting makes things worse.
- One’s intuition is bad when it bends toward making things worse.
Let’s call “consequence as schematic ‘king'” CASK for short.
The Danger of Pure Consequentialism
As we’ve talked about several times, pure consequentialism can be dangerous. CASK can be true, but Green is still a clumsy analyzer.
We are not equipped for pure consequentialism; we are clumsy.
A practical adoption of pure consequentialism has us pitiful, clumsy humans deferring to Green every time, foolishly hoping that Green is a perfect “oracle” for CASK.
But as we’ve seen above, Green can be wrong.
Conflation of CASK and “always defer to Green” is a modal scope fallacy, and — tragically — fosters doubt in CASK.
The Danger of Deontology
But it’s also horrible to proclaim that the rules are schematically “king,” as if “Do this and not that” is the fabric of moral decisionmaking. It isn’t. Rather, rules are very useful ways of helping to guide us pitiful, clumsy humans to good decisions.
Rules are tools. And Red can be incorrect — or become incorrect over time, as circumstances change.
As Emergent Patterns
These strategies — rules, robust character guides called “virtues,” clumsy goal-seeking, and gut intuitions — emerge when CASK collides with the “real world” of human limitations.
When we recognize them as emergent from CASK — and not “more fundamental” than CASK — things make a whole lot more sense.
- Deontology, the idea that rules are the schematic “king” of meta-ethics, is misguided; rules emerge as useful under CASK.
It surprises us that Red and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t; this surprise is a product only of the aforementioned modal scope fallacy. Red and Green can fight all day; only the referee of true consequence — something to which we humans have limited access — can judge the winner.
- Similarly, moral intuition is not the schematic “king” of meta-ethics. It likewise emerges from CASK, through both genetic and memetic evolutionary patterns.
It surprises us that Blue and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t. Blue is a bit “stuck in the past” due to how it’s made, and Green makes clumsy guesses about the future. It stands to reason they’d be prone to argument.
Retaliation as an Emergent Pattern
There are other patterns that emerge as well.
One of the biggest relates to justified moral reaction.
Under CASK, a justified moral reaction (to some bad thing) ideally has three missions: Repairing the situation, repairing the person, and repairing the institution.
- The situation was such that the transgressor was free to transgress and hurt others. Attempt to repair that situation by restricting that person.
- The person needs to learn — convincingly — not to transgress anymore. Attempt to repair the person by whatever means are most feasible and practical.
- Society as an institution seems to be producing people who behave this way. Attempt to repair the institution by going after institutional cofactors, like domestic abuse, poverty, and lack of education and mentoring guidance. (One very common play at institutional repair is to overpunish people for its deterring effect… but we’d hope to find a better way.)
It goes without saying that if all of these missions were “easy” for us, we’d do them with every transgressor, and with no rational hesitation.
But they aren’t easy for us. They’re really hard.
And thousands of years ago, they were even harder.
- It’s not easy to restrict a person when you have no secure prisons and a lack of sufficient infrastructure to sustain prisoners indefinitely and humanely.
- It’s not easy to repair a person. Even to this day, our most common remedial response is “put them in a prison for a long while and see if that teaches them a lesson.”
- And it’s not easy to repair an institution. It’s especially difficult when people’s views of culpability view institutional repair as “excuse-making” and dismiss the exercise entirely.
So, what happens when the “three missions” are incredibly difficult, but correct under CASK?
For beings that aren’t very developed — either in terms of biology or civilization — this “rough approximation” is remarkably optimal (as compromise between “CASK” & “doable”).
It’s so optimal that we see it baked-in to the intuitions of birds, fish, dogs, and a host of other animals.
(After all, that highly complicated network of causes and effects is vaguely triangle-like.)
But this — purely retributive justice, “just deserts,” lex talionis, etc. — isn’t the schematic “king.” This isn’t really how morality “works” underneath.
Retaliation is just a crayon-drawn approximation of silicon circuitry. It’s an emergent result of CASK being confronted by the complexity and challenge of the real world, which includes our amazing-and-pathetic (depending on your reference point) brains.
And as human civilization “grows up,” we should be graduating more and more toward a more nuanced and difficult understanding of justified moral reaction, even including decisions that come at personal cost for a better, greater good.
- “The Fourfaced Writ.” A thought experiment that shows us how, under Christianity, the New Covenant points us to greater recognition of CASK with the goal of loving others.
- “The Angelic Ladder.” How one’s place on the “ladder” — the degree to which a person or a people-group is truth-aware, altruistic, and good at forecasting — determines one’s allowed moral freedom (even as this freedom comes with New burdens).
- “Omniscient Prole Dilemmas.” Certain thought experiments will try to convince you that CASK is untenable by granting you CASK-knowledge in a situation, then watching you squirm with resultant Red/Blue dissension. These hypotheticals are loaded garbage. The answer against these people is, “Give me a hypothetical with Clumsy Green instead of CASK, and I’ll tell you what I’d do.”
Adequate determinism (or determinism for short) is the idea that on the level of human decisionmaking, history flows into the future in a deterministic way — there aren’t really multiple futures, but we talk and imagine as if there are.
Because we talk and imagine as if there are really multiple futures, confronting an assertion of determinism often yields Kochab’s Errors, where folks think that determinism fundamentally “changes” things and destroys all sorts of stuff we value.
With determinism, the fear is typically that we lose morality, choice, volition, agency, efficacy, and free will. This fear is called “incompatibilism” — where one believes that our treasured “volitional dictionary” is not compatible with determinism.
Incompatibilism usually prompts people to reject determinism, but there are deterministic incompatibilists as well, like atheist Sam Harris. Indeed, for some this isn’t a fear, but something to accept with open arms.
Compatibilism, by contrast, is a semantic response to determinism that avoids Kochab’s Errors, remembering that the world remains just as it was, but commits to a refined edition of the “volitional dictionary” when speaking philosophy and theology with precision.
Compatibilism is exciting because — though it’s a bit mind-bending at first — it yields more robust, coherent, and resilient philosophy (especially with regard to meta-ethics), but also a theology under Christianity that finally proclaims both human choicemaking and God’s exhaustive sovereignty. We assert that the Bible is compatibilistic by means of “heterophroneo.”
The Open Future
No matter which position we hold, we all nevertheless use open language to talk about the future.
Consider the diagram below.
Before me is a choice between two mutually-exclusive options. One option will yield “Future A,” and the other “Future !A.”
This seems pretty intuitive. The past is on the left, and the future possibilities on the right.
Only one problem, though. Those futures are colored the full black of “reality,” as real as “Me Right Now.”
But we know this cannot be. They have not yet been “real-ized.” In other words, they’re not “act-ual” because nothing has “acted” them yet.
The simple answer is that these prospects aren’t floating around in the future, but floating around in my mind.
We who have well-developed neocortices can very vividly project, using our imaginations, possible futures. This is very useful to us, because we can “see future worlds” as concepts and pictures rather than being burdened to forecast detail after detail. This generally helps us make better decisions more quickly (to a point).
But still, we’re seeing these prospects as full black. Even though we’ve done the correct thing by encasing these prospects where they truly live — our minds — we haven’t accounted for the fact that these things are mutually exclusive. If one happens, the other cannot, and so even in our brains, they should not simultaneously be full black.
Rather, they should be faded according to their plausibility.
If they’re each about 50% plausible, like a coin-flip, then we could imagine them as 50% ghostly:
It’s very important, however, to note that we don’t intuitively take this step.
Equally plausible options — especially arbitrary decisions, such as whether to get seconds at a potluck — tend to stay fully black in our minds. This quirk is so stubborn that we commonly employ language about these being “real possibilities” even though we know they’re doubly non-real: (1) They’re mutually exclusive, and so cannot be simultaneously real, and (2) they’re in our minds (not yet “real-ized”).
Seeking precision with quietude would have us admit that we use “real” as a nickname to describe prospects that are simply “plausible,” “appreciable,” “real-istic,” etc.
Now consider when one prospect is extremely implausible:
Here, we say things like, “Future !A isn’t a real option,” because we see it as so difficult or otherwise unlikely.
This includes unlikely prospects about behavior that I’d never see myself doing. If someone asked me, “Could you strike your partner?” I’d quickly shout, “No, never!” This isn’t because I lack arms or motor functions therein, but because that prospect is so un-real-istic.
The Open Past
Just as we use open language to talk about the future, we use open language to talk about the past (and the present, which for our purposes is a part of the past, that is, it is the immediate past).
Even though we know the past is closed, we still use open language to talk about the past. Isn’t that strange?
So, when do we do this?
We do this when we’re uncertain about the past.
Put a coin in a cup, shake it around, and slam the cup onto the table.
You can see just enough that you know the coin has fallen. But the cup is just opaque enough that you can’t tell whether it’s fallen heads or tails.
Let’s call heads “Fact A” and tails “Fact !A”:
Because I cannot ascertain the result, the most I can do is imagine the two possibilities. It may be heads, but it may be tails. It certainly can’t be both.
But look! I just talked about possibilities. I talked about what “may be the case”; I’m not talking not talking about a future reveal — perhaps I never plan to peek — but talking about what was and is currently the case, using the word may.
That’s open language!
We don’t just do this with the coin/cup game — (everyone’s favorite pastime) — but with any past-or-present thing of which we’re uncertain:
- “Is Harriet already at the restaurant?”
“It’s possible. But maybe she got held up.”
- “I don’t know what the bug in the code is. It’s possible that it’s a null pointer exception.”
- “Did you remember to feed the dog today?”
“For the life of me, I can’t remember. It’s possible I forgot.”
- “I didn’t speak to George before he left for vacation. Did he get those e-mails sent?”
“Possibly. I saw him hurrying to get something done.”
- “Did God use some degree of evolution to yield the diversity of life we see on Earth today?”
- “It’s possible that some supposed Apostolic martyrdoms are legends that didn’t actually occur. We don’t know for sure.”
- “Is Janice a double agent?”
“Possibly! We’ll need to keep an eye out to find out.”
Open language is a function of uncertainty — it is not at all evidence for the simultaneous reality of mutually-exclusive prospects.
Open Language as Strategy
Little Davi’s birthday is coming up, and you’ve told him that you plan to give him a present.
“What is it?” Davi asks. Davi is ignorant, that is, he does not know what the gift shall be.
“It’s something from your birthday list,” you say, “but it needs to be a surprise. I’ll tell you this: It could be a skateboard, a video game, or a jacket.”
Later that year, you’ve planned a vacation at a famous theme park. Airfare, hotel, tickets, etc. have all been booked.
The night before the flight, Davi’s behavior is out of control. You make the following threat, “If you don’t behave immediately, Davi, we will not be flying anywhere tomorrow. I will not be rewarding this behavior.”
You know for sure that this will be compelling. You know for sure that you’ll be flying tomorrow. These are closed facts for you.
But the hypothetical remains true; if he didn’t behave, there would be no flight. You weren’t lying about that.
This is because true hypotheticals can have false — even knowingly false — antecedents.
In other words:
- You can be a truth-teller,
- and convey a contingency using open language,
- while simultaneously knowing the falsity of the antecedent and what tomorrow’s outcome shall be.
For a couple more examples, you could tell Davi, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he’ll finish his chores; it may even be that obedience is contingent upon hearing that threat, which you know.
Or, you could tell him, “If you don’t finish your chores today, then we won’t go to the movies tonight,” even if you know for certain that he won’t. You could do this as a sort of investment to further prove that your “threats have teeth”; that is, you consistently follow-through with the punishments you threaten.
Open language does not at all suggest that multiple mutually-exclusive things can all be “real.” It is not a “gotcha” vs. determinism. We use open language with past facts which are commonly regarded as closed.
Furthermore, a person can honestly and productively use open language with regard to certain events even if that person knows the facts of those events in a closed way. That person can nevertheless employ “maybes” and other hypothetical statements, and this communication strategy can be very useful for interaction and relationship.
As such, whether or not determinism is true, we can say confidently that determinism is compatible with the common and purposeful use of open language about the future.
One can be a Christian deterministic compatibilist without becoming a Calvinist; Calvinism entails several further assertions, and I am not a Calvinist.
- “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
A primer on the Biblical compatibilist solution.
- “Jumping Ships from Open Theism to Compatibilism.”
Ten challenges for Open Theism (or “Open Futurism”), and why compatibilism ought be adopted instead.
- “Libertarian Free Will is a Poweful Meme, Whether or Not It’s True.”
How our feelings of spontaneity and “prospect realism” turn into a virulent, resilient meme.
We are no longer under the guardianship of the Law, but rather are made-right with God by faith, through love, working (Galatians 3:24-25):
“So the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Some people, however, would like it if we as Christians are still under the guardianship of the Law.
- Christians who would like to selectively cite Leviticus so that they can cudgel other people with judgment.
- Anti-Christians (people who go after Christianity as false and bad) who want to claim that Christians don’t take their religion seriously and/or are bound to follow Laws that no longer make sense in our cultural context (indeed, many of those Laws we’d call rather bizarre and unacceptable, requiring faith in a ‘time-and-culture-limited’ ancillary context).
By far the most popular passage cited in support of this is Matthew 5:17-20:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The incorrect reading of this passage often employed by anti-Christians will contradict Paul’s statements about no longer being a slave to the Law, especially in Galatians and Romans.
Anti-Christians have an explanation ready for this: “Yes, Paul contradicts Jesus.”
This rides along with a popular “Pauline conspiracy theory” meme, which claims Paul hijacked Christianity from the original Apostles and changed it considerably from the original teachings of Jesus.
The text, especially when primed with the idea that Jesus is talking about maintaining the guardianship of the Law, very easily yields that incorrect reading if we’re not careful to answer the following 2 questions:
- (A) What did “fulfill” mean?
- (B) Why did Jesus go out of his way to say this? What was his intent?
The word for “fulfill” here is pleroma.
Pleroma means absolute filling-up to completion, even to excess, such that it was sometimes used as an idiom for patched clothing.
It is one of the most theologically significant words in Christianity, leveraged in assertions about God’s sovereignty, Jesus Christ’s Godhood, and God’s ultimate plan in Romans ch. 11.
Jesus came, therefore, to absolutely complete the Law.
Imagine the Law as a cup that demands to be filled; Jesus came to fill it up, up, up, right up to the brim, and even spilling over.
And what is the means by which Jesus would do that?
By instituting a moral reformation, restructured entirely upon love (Galatians 5:6,14):
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working (pistis di agapes energoumene). … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
In other words, through Christ, the entirety of the Law can be satisfied/completed/pleroma’d just by loving others, and doing so passionately, wisely, genuinely, patiently, mercifully, and self-sacrificially.
This is the means by which “your righteousness can surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.” Faithful love “practices” all of its commands, so to speak. Teaching faithful love “teaches” all of these commands, so to speak.
Notice “so to speak.” A flat, surface reading really does seem like Jesus is not fulfilling the Law, but holding us to fulfill it ourselves, as before. And yet, he says he came to fulfill the Law!
The resolution here is this “so to speak” replacement of how fulfillment of the Law — down to the tiniest command — “works” under the New Covenant.
It’s a bit confusing, to be sure. This article wouldn’t exist if such confusion didn’t exist. Indeed, many things Jesus said were confusing, and interpretations of his teachings and parables are debated among Christians to this day.
Given this confusion, we wonder, “Why did Jesus say this, then? Why did he put it this way?”
The answer is that the Law stands to convict us as sinners who fall short, in a general and broad sense. Jesus wanted everyone to feel convicted. He wanted people to marvel at the impossibility of fulfilling the Law themselves.
Jesus wanted to provoke this: “How could my righteousness surpass even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!?”
Which, of course, is a great question.
This is also why he kept hammering on keeping the “tiniest command.” Many of the religious elite who antagonized Jesus — frequently Pharisees and teachers of the Law — saw themselves as having fulfilled the Law themselves. But they had a tiny problem: Many had unjustly divorced and remarried, and were adulturers under the Law. As such, “the Law stands to convict” was the means by which Jesus could tell them and convict them, “You are Lawbreakers, too. You, too, need what I’ve come to offer.”
(A) + (B) = Correct Reading
When we answer those two questions, we can finally read this passage correctly, and understand that we can bear the Law’s burden — an otherwise astronomical impossibility — by taking advantage of what Christ offered:
- Through Christ, the Law is completely satisfied, completely taught, and completely practiced, down to the tiniest command, by faithfully loving others.
It can seem a bit strange that you could get credit for various commands you’re only doing “by love-proxy.”
But that’s the correct reading, as the next section will help make very obvious.
Rebuttal of “Pauline Conspiracy Theories”
Since Paul most clearly articulates in what ways the Law lingers (and in what ways it doesn’t) under the New Covenant, Paul is “inconvenient” for those who’d prefer the incorrect reading, insofar as the incorrect reading would be very problematic for Christianity.
As such, these folks often argue that Paul is radically out-of-sync with Jesus and the original Apostles — that he “hijacked” Christianity and changed it.
This assertion requires imaginative fantasy about first century church history, but more humorously, requires simply not reading the Bible, where the correct reading is supported by Jesus elsewhere and by epistles from the original Apostles, including James, John, and Peter.
Jesus taught that all the Law and Prophets “hung on” loving others (God and neighbor) (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus made it clear that the Law stopped being proclaimed with John the Baptist, because the imminent Kingdom of God (under the New Covenant) was the new paradigm. But Law would continue as a convicter, especially against the self-righteous who were technically adulturers according to the Law (Luke 16:16-18):
[Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law sneering at Jesus, saying,] “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law: ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'”
Jesus made similar remarks, later, to the chief priests and elders at the Temple (Matthew 21:31b):
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors [known as grifters in that culture] and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
John, one of the original Apostles, made sure we understood the love-based architecture of the New Covenant (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Peter, Jesus’s prime Apostle, supported Paul as a brother and explicitly endorsed Paul’s articulation of the New Covenant (2 Peter 2:15-16):
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
James, also an original Apostle, home-runs — or touchdowns, or whatever sports analogy you please — the proclamation of the Law’s fulfillment in love (James 2:8-10, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
That “Royal Law of Freedom” is love, and its power — through Christ — to completely fulfill the Law in teaching and practice, every jot and tittle, up to the brim, and overflowing it.
This is why we listen to Paul: Because Paul was just conveying, explicitly and eloquently, what Jesus taught and the original Apostles reiterated, and the exciting, beautiful, brilliant New Covenant that Christ instituted (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
Welcome to the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
This is a tour through the issues and questions related to hell’s duration being finite rather than infinite.
It isn’t absolutely comprehensive, but I hope this is dense enough that you’ll feel that the case is made and that your questions have answers. If you have any corrections, insight, or additional questions, feel free to comment below.
A: Main answer. Other details and bonus information. My own opinions on some matters.
It’s meant to be read as an article, but you can use it for reference later on.
Q: What is purgatorialism?
A: Purgatorialism is the view that hell is purgatorial (“pur” is Greek for “fire”). Hell is measured in equity according to what a person did, and is for a remedial (healing/surgical) purpose.
It is agonizing and humiliating and we should fear it, and the Good News is, in part, that we can be forgiven and avoid the wrath we’d otherwise bear.
Q: What other names does it go by?
A: It’s also called purgatorial universal reconciliation (“PUR” for short) because the end result is God’s stated master plan in Ephesians 1:8b-10:
“With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment: To bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Even though this relates specifically to the duration and nature and purpose of hell, much of Christian theology (God’s character, nature, purposes, plans, ways, and our worldview and mission methodology) is influenced by the kind of hell we believe in. The theology that proceeds from hell being finite rather than infinite is “PUR theology.”
Q: What are some related names/labels I should be aware of?
A: PUR stands in contrast to “no-punishment universalism,” the idea that the threats of God’s hellish wrath were just scare tactics and exaggerations, and — surprise! — everyone will be saved from their due punishment. This “no punishment” view — “NPUR” — cannot be reconciled with Scripture and was not believed among early Christians.
“Christian Universalism” is an attempt to differentiate universalist eschatology from the non-Christian denomination, “Unitarian Universalism.” It doesn’t go far enough, however, because a Christian Universalist may still espouse NPUR.
“Evangelical Universalism” or “EU” is sometimes used to preclude NPUR, since some folks use “Evangelical” as an idiom for a “Bible-first” heuristic. I assert this is mostly confusing, however, since “Evangelicalism” implies all sorts of unrelated things.
Q: Was it believed among early Christians?
A: Yes. It was one of the “big three” views of hell that we find in early Christian texts, even taught by orthodox Christian saints.
Those “big three” views were:
- Annihilationism. Either the unsaved are never resurrected (Didache), or there is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo suffering, and obliterated (St. Irenaeus, Arnobius).
- Endless hell. There is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo suffering forever (Tertullian, Athenagoras, St. Basil the Great).
- Purgatorial hell. There is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo punishment measured in equity according to what a person did, and are ultimately reconciled, but through dishonor and shame, like being procured from the dross (St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius, St. Gregory of Nyssa).
Q: Which of the “big three” views was prevalent?
A: We don’t know.
Annihilationists like to say it was annihilation. Endless hell believers like to say it was endless hell. Purgatorialists like to say it was purgatorial hell.
But we don’t really know. Complications:
- Writings from all three camps used the same Biblical language to support their view. For example, St. Irenaeus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil the Great would all three say that the unsaved shall suffer the kolasin aionion (the punishment-of-ages). As such, we can’t depend on such language to support any specific camp unless a writer also makes statements that further clarify their position. And many did not do this.
- Even if all such writings were 100% unambiguous, the plurality of supporting writings does not indicate plurality of early supporters.
- Further, plurality of existent supporting writings is an even worse indicator, since writings were, at various lamentable times, subject to selective destruction as it suited church authorities (this isn’t a conspiracy theory, but a benign fact that complicates our search).
- And, of course, there’s the nagging fact that popularity does not entail veracity (truth/falsehood). It’s just an okay heuristic.
Q: Which of the “big three” views eventually prevailed?
A: Endless hell, of course! This happened in the 5th century, largely due to the influence of St. Augustine, a full-on Christian celebrity-theologian of his day.
St. Augustine considered it one of his missions to convince the Christian purgatorialists of endless hell, and entered into the “friendly debate” (City of God). As an endless hell believer, he’s our best “statistician” on this issue, since he admitted in Enchiridion that, in his day, there were a “great many” Christians that believed hell was purgatorial.
St. Augustine is largely responsible for the turn toward endless hell dominance in the church: He was eloquent, prolific, assertive, and creative.
Q: What are the “impasses” that divide the “big three”?
A: The “big three” cannot agree on how to interpret Gr. apoleia / apololos and Gr. aion / aionios /aionion.
The first word family is variously translated as “perishing,” “destruction,” “lost”-ness, and “cutting-off.” Annihilationists would prefer to take these literally and at face-value when possible. Those who believe in experiential hell (purgatorial hell and endless hell) say that everyone will receive perpetuity (“lingering forever”), and so these words should be taken in the sense of “lost-ness” and “cutting-off.” Purgatorialists would then say that even those lost and cut-off are salvageable, like Luke 15’s “lost (apololos) son” and “lost (apolesa) coin.”
The second word family is variously translated as “age,” “of ages,” “of the age,” “eternal,” and “everlasting.” Those who believe in an interminable doom (annihilation and endless hell) say that “eternal” and “everlasting” are good translations of these words when pertaining to the fate of the unsaved. Purgatorialists counter that such assertions are reckless and imprudent: According to the ancient lexicographers these words mean only “age-pertaining” and do not speak for the duration, but only that their duration and/or place in time is significant.
Q: So… who’s right?
A: Purgatorialists. (At least, that’s how a purgatorialist would answer!)
The Positive Case for Purgatorial Hell
Q: Enough history! Does it say in the Bible that everyone will be reconciled?
A: Yes, in Romans 11. Romans 8:18 through 11:36 is a prophetic theodicy that ends with the “upshot” of universal reconciliation.
A “theodicy” is a rationalization of some “bad thing” in terms of its being ancillary (useful and necessary as part of an optimal plan). There are experiential theodicies (specific rationalizations of specific sufferings) and abstract theodicies (showing how bad stuff could be rationalized in theory; that is, we can maintain a non-deluded hope in rationalization).
For most of us, experiential theodicy is above our paygrade. But if you’re a prophet or otherwise divinely inspired, you can be given the Grace to reveal a specific experiential theodicy.
It goes something like this:
- Admit a bad thing and lament over it.
- Postulate different ways to frame the bad thing, some of which make it more understandable.
- Appeal to God’s sovereignty over the good stuff and bad stuff.
- Postulate a reason for the bad stuff. If you’ve got guts, assert a reason for the bad stuff.
- Assert how the bad stuff is temporary.
- Assert the happy upshot with praise and thanksgiving.
- Shout God’s praises, shout the mystery of his plans, then fall flat on the floor in exhaustion.
In this case, the “bad thing” is the fact that, in Paul’s day, very few of his kin — “familiar Israel” — were recognizing Christ as the Messiah (9:2). He lamented it, even such that he’d sacrifice himself to make this bad thing not the case (9:3).
He postulates a different way to think about the bad thing; that there is a new, “spiritual” Israel of God’s elect, and so in a sense, all Israel (in this sense) has signed-on (9:6). But Paul soon returns to the discussion of regular, “familiar” Israel (9:24+, 31).
He appeals to God’s sovereignty over the good stuff and bad stuff (9:11-18), even to the degree that one might complain about God’s will being superceding over human will (9:19). But Paul holds his ground (9:20-21).
He then asserts a reason for this bad thing: The stumbling of familiar Israel is ancillary to bring in the Gentiles, who will (in turn) provoke a legitimate jealousy that will eventually bring in familiar Israel (11:11-12).
“Coming in” is contingent upon belief, but all will eventually believe. We know this because Paul says the “pleroma” will be reconciled.
Pleroma means overfull abundance, of such excess that it was used as an idiom for patched clothing. Some ultra-important theological pleromas in Scripture:
- “The Earth is the Lord’s, and the pleroma in it.” (1 Corinthians 10:26)
God is sovereign and owns absolutely everything.
- “Whatever commands there may be are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the pleroma of the law.” (Romans 13:9b-10)
Love completely fulfills the law under the New Covenant.
- “For in Christ is the pleroma of the Deity, bodily.” (Colossians 2:9)
In the Trinity, Jesus Christ is full-on God, not some lesser being.
See how important pleroma is for orthodoxy?
Paul explicitly says that the elect are not the only ones with hope — the hope of reconciliation awaits even those who are not elect:
“What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened… Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will the pleroma of them bring!”
Is reconciliation for nonbelievers? Nope:
“Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off (11:22).”
But is the cutting-off a sealed end? Nope:
“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again (11:23).”
Paul wants to be clear, here. He does not want us to be “ignorant of this mystery” else we might get conceited — like Jonah or the Prodigal Son’s brother — about our “specialness” vs. the for-now hold-outs:
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the pleroma of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved (11:25-26a).”
The ancillary purpose to God’s deliberate election and stumbling:
“Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you (11:30-31).”
“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (11:32).”
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? (11:33-34)”
Q: The pleroma stuff aside, what if some people persist in endless rebellion and refuse to confess?
A: Romans 14 says that won’t happen. Romans 14:10b-11 says, “We will all stand before God’s Judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will fully confess to God.'”
- “Every knee will bow” is full submission. It is implausible that anyone will submit to God Himself and then pop back into rebellion like a jack-in-the-box.
- “Every tongue will fully confess” is full confession, Gr. exomologo-. This is the attitude of those who repented and were baptized by John (“Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” Matthew 3:6) and those who heeded James’s admonishment (“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for each other” James 5:16a).
This is a devastating blow against the novel invention of “endless rebellion” to justify endless hell or “incorrigible rebellion” to justify annihilation.
As such, some have — very creatively — said that Judgment at this “phase” is limited to the saved. Indeed, the context of Romans 14 is against intolerant believers. But Paul’s quoted passage from Isaiah continues: “All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.”
The conclusion, we assert, is rock-solid: The pleroma will be reconciled, some after a cutting-off and shameful submission. The Good News is that we don’t have to be in that shamed group, and can become implements of honor, knowing God through Christ Jesus right away in the zoen aionion of the Kingdom of God.
Q: Doesn’t this, then, contradict free will?
A: No. Promises about the eventual willful submission and full confession of all people does not oppress anyone in any meaningful way. All will volunteer this submission and full confession.
The idea that such promises invalidate free will comes from a thing called the “modal scope fallacy,” which very often pops out of certain ideas of free will that are ill-defined or incoherent.
Here’s a thought experiment to help explain the modal scope fallacy at play.
Let’s say there’s a 5 x 5 board containing 25 light bulbs. Each bulb can be either off, or red, or green.
Every 1 second, the whole board lights up. For each bulb, it has a 50% chance of being red and a 50% chance of being green. Then, the board shuts off again.
A bulb’s random chance to be one color or the other we can call “light bulb randomness,” or “LBR.”
Here are three board states over 3 seconds:
Seems pretty random, right? If I told you that there was LBR here, you wouldn’t complain.
But what if I said that this board showed up eventually:
Here George might say, “How could LBR still be true, here? This doesn’t look random at all; all the bulbs are the same color.”
This is an example of a modal scope fallacy. LBR is about individual bulbs. LBR doesn’t mean that the board has to look random. LBR isn’t about the board as a group. Probability dictates that it would take about a year, but we’d eventually expect all light bulbs to be the same color at least once. And if we “froze” a bulb whenever it turned green, it would take only a few seconds.
Now, this is not to say that free choices are random. This is just to show how easy it is to commit a modal scope fallacy when we’re not careful to avoid it. It’s a fallacy even some very brilliant thinkers commit.
LBR isn’t about the lightbulbs as a group, and neither is free will about humanity as a group. It’s about individual choicemaking. Free will is not at all infringed even if all individuals make the same choice eventually. And it shouldn’t matter which definition of “free will” you use.
Q: Where, though, is hell described as purgatorial?
A: 1 Corinthians 3:15-17. The context is Paul lambasting a certain group of believers who were lazy and failing to build on their initial confession — the foundation of Jesus Christ, laid down for them by Paul as “foundation-builder.”
Paul makes an eschatological threat against these believers. (We could say “so-called” believers with an failing faith; “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. … I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.”)
At Judgment, the bad builders are in for a bad time.
The “bad time” they’re in for:
- They’ll “suffer loss,” Gr. zemio-. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but himself being lost (Gr. apolesas) or suffering loss (Gr. zemiotheis)?” That specific disownment, in the context of Luke, is the same kind threatened in Matthew 10:32-33.
- Their “lazy servanthood” parallels that of the gold-burier of Jesus’s parable: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
In other words, this isn’t just a “tut-tutting.” This is agony and humiliation. Disownment. And the result is the Gehenna hell of Judgment (see Matthew 10:28, the cost of disownment). A deconstruction by fire, the record exposed, and the shoddy works set ablaze.
The sufferer is eventually rescued. Verse 15: “But he himself shall be saved, though only as through fire.”
(It’s, of course, possible to dispute that this is about the hell of Judgment, which is the proposal on deck. But it’s not possible to dispute that this is a real threat of real loss and yet real reconciliation, which supplies a reductio ad absurdum against those who think a pre-reconciliation agony is “meaningless.”)
Q: This is confusing. The unsaved shall be saved?
A: It can be confusing because there are many senses of salvation in Scripture. This is commonly recognized by all theologians, from all three “camps.” For every kind of trouble — whether spiritual or eschatological or physical and mundane — there is a Gr. sozo “from it.”
Usually, when we say salvation, we refer to “salvation from due wrath” which also entails salvation from sin in life (through forgiveness) and from the sinful nature in life (through sanctification). And that’s usually the sense meant by “salvation” by the New Testament writers and it’s the salvation to which believers in Christ have exclusive claim.
But there is a further sense of “salvation from ultimate ‘lost-ness.'” It is a rescue from unreconciliation that everyone will eventually experience, whether or not they were saved/unsaved (in the traditional sense).
As such, these passages give us the complete Pauline eschatology. Reconciliation is contingent upon submission and confession. Everyone will eventually submit and confess. The unsaved, at Judgment, will come in shame, and will be rescued, but only as through the purging fire of wrath (which we’d much rather avoid).
St. Clement of Alexandria puts it this way, in his commentary fragment on 1 John 2:2, from the late 2nd century:
“And not only for our sins,’ — that is for those of the faithful, — is the Lord the propitiator, does he say, ‘but also for the whole world.’ He, indeed, rescues all; but some, converting them by punishments; others, however, who follow voluntarily with dignity of honor; so ‘that every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth.”
Q: So, Ephesians 1, Romans 11, Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 3, and 1 John 2. Any other places where an ultimate reconciliation is promised?
A: Yes. The Bible repeatedly talks of God’s in-time desire that all be saved from sin and wrath, and God’s ultimate desire that all be reconciled.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness [pleroma] dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
1 Timothy 2:1-6
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority — that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.”
1 Timothy 4:10
For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.
“Especially,” Gr. malista, really does mean “especially” and not “only.” See Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 5:8, 1 Timothy 5:17, and Titus 1:10. Paul’s letter to Timothy is consonant with Paul’s eschatology: Everyone will be saved, but believers especially so, since they’ll receive all senses of salvation, i.e., not just the ultimate reconciliation, but salvation from wrath at Judgment.
Q: Do some PUR believers cite verses that don’t strongly support PUR?
A: Yes. Some passages look at first glance to be about an ultimate reconciliation, but are actually about the earlier, exclusive salvation — the salvation to which we traditionally refer — that has a person avoiding God’s wrath by being found in the Book of Life.
2 Peter 3:9
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish [apolesthai], but everyone to come to repentance.”
God’s in-time interests can be confounded by other interests of God, like his allowing us freedom, and his forbearing subtlety. But God’s ultimate interests will never be confounded; “All my desire I shall do.”
This verse expresses God’s forbearance, waiting until just the right time to pull the trigger on Judgment. It may be a long, long time until that happens. Who knows?
These kinds of verses merely express God’s in-time interests. Many will not have been fully-drawn at Judgment. The way is narrow, and few find it.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
2 Corinthians 5:18
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
I assert that these verses should not be used to make a case for PUR, since they are too-easily contested and may refer to the exclusive kind of salvation (from wrath), even under PUR theology.
One of the most egregious examples is a selective citation of John 3:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
But note the following verse:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John 3:17 tells us only that Jesus didn’t bring along with him additional condemnation above what one would already expect for sin: An equitable, wrathful recompense.
A prudent theology is self-critical. That’s why we must use discernment and care when we make our eschatological case, no matter which camp we belong to.
Q: The wages of sin is death. How do we know God isn’t “okay” with the unrighteous getting what’s coming to them?
A: We know through reason, and we know through Scripture.
Through reason, we know that he isn’t content with this because otherwise he wouldn’t do anything special — even die on a cross — to help anyone out. If his love and his wrath were equally weighted, something like a theological “Newton’s First Law” would be in effect: There would be no positive motivation to change the momentum of anyone’s deadly fate.
Through Scripture, we know that it is an ultimate or axial interest of God that a person come to repentance and redemption. He relaxes this interest only lamentably, and only when it would serve an ancillary purpose. For example, if a person deserves death, God would rather have that person repent, and he settles with deadly consequences only regrettably.
This is explained in Ezekiel 33:11:
“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?'”
Combine this with Christ’s conquest of the grave (death’s doors are flung open) and with the universal submission and full confession (Romans 14), and we’re left with the benign, analytical conclusion that God’s love will be universally victorious by means of his wisdom and justice.
St. Gregory of Nyssa described it this way, 4th century:
“Justice and wisdom are before all these; of justice, to give to every one according to his due; of wisdom, not to pervert justice, and yet at the same time not to dissociate the benevolent aim of the love of mankind from the verdict of justice, but skilfully to combine both these requisites together, in regard to justice returning the due recompense, in regard to kindness not swerving from the aim of that love of man.”
Q: You bring up justice, but endless hell believers say that justice for sin demands an infinite penalty. How do you respond?
A: Endless hell violates the Biblical definition of God’s ultimate justice. God’s ultimate justice is this: Repaying in equity according to what a person did. That’s the definition.
Endless hell believers don’t like this definition, because it’s measured. A person who does more bad things gets a worse punishment. A person who does fewer bad things gets a lighter punishment. That’s what “according to” means.
But that’s the definition we’re given over and over and over again in Scripture:
From one of the oldest books, the Book of Job…
He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice. (Job 34:11-12, God’s unrebuked introducer, Elihu, speaking)
From the Gospel…
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:27)
From Paul’s eschatology…
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ (Romans 2:5-6, against the hypocrites)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
From the conclusion of Revelation…
Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy. Look, I am coming soon! My recompense is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. (Revelation 22:11-12)
From the Psalms, in a bi-fold definition of God’s benevolence broadly…
“One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love’; and, ‘You repay everyone according to what they have done.'” (Psalm 62:11-12)
In other words, with the grave conquered, only PUR maintains the Biblical definition of God’s justice. Indeed, it doesn’t make any sense to punish infinitely for a measurable crime. This is why you so often hear endless hell believers invoke God’s “higher ways/thoughts”; it’s a hand-wave that means, “I know this doesn’t make sense, but please, just accept it.”
Thankfully, Scripture supplies us with the definition above. God’s ultimate justice is mysterious in how it’s playing-out globally (as the Book of Job explains), but its definition — equitable recompense — is not mysterious at all.
Purgatorialists “win” the argument when it comes to the Biblical definition of justice.
That’s why an extra maneuver is necessary to “adjust” the gravity of a sin to warrant unbridled suffering in return using some sort of ferried-in coefficient.
We could call this “sin algebra.”
“Sin algebra” is a perversion of justice whereby an extraneous consideration is added to the scales to force a preferred balance. Scripture has many examples of justice perversions, including bias against foreigners, indifference to widows, bribery, and incorporating the great status of a claimant.
13th century luminary St. Thomas Aquinas’s “sin algebra” looked like this:
“The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin — it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen — and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.”
The simple rebuttal is that we mete greater punishment for injury against high human officials for consequential deterrence only. Indeed, if you ask someone to find this “sin algebra” in Scripture, they’ll have a hard time. Ask them for a passage that defines justice in this manner, and they’ll fail.
You see, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics didn’t actually “invent” this. It’s more proper to say that they picked some pre-chewed gum off the wall-of-rebuked-theology and started chewing it (gross, I know).
You will find this idea in Scripture, in only one general area: The rebuked diatribes of Eliphaz and Bildad, two of the “Three Stooges” of the Book of Job. Eliphaz and Bildad take this approach when Job insists that he hasn’t sinned enough to warrant his suffering.
Their logic is specifically rebuked by God’s introducer, Elihu, and they are broadly rebuked by God himself thereafter.
“I would like to reply to you [Job] and to your friends with you [the Three Stooges, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad]. Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”
In other words, our sins are disappointing to God, but they don’t damage him, and God’s loftiness vs. our lowliness makes them less injurious, not more.
We sinners are frustrating little creations. Pathetic, yes. In need of fixing, yes. But not “maggots” (to use Bildad’s word) that warrant whatever unbridled flaying.
See this article for more about what the Book of Job tells us about eschatology, theodicy, and God’s character.
Q: Is this the same thing as Catholic Purgatory?
A: No. Catholics believe in both endless hell and in a purgatorial “antechamber.” It is a spiritual state reserved for those who are saved, but where their sins warranted temporal discipline that has yet to be dished-out. Catholic Purgatory “catches” this discipline and handles it. It’s unpleasant, but everyone who goes there is heaven-bound, so there’s happiness as well. Meanwhile, those not needing Purgatory fly straight through, and some other number of souls end up in endless hell.
Q: Why become a believer? Why not just sin, sin, sin, since you’ll be reconciled eventually?
A: This relies on a false premise. To accept this argument, one must have the premise that a life of “sin, sin, sin,” is in-and-of-itself “better” than a life of sanctification and relationship with God, and thus that latter life of sanctification and relationship with God needs endless hell as a crutch or buttress in order to “win” against a life of “sin, sin, sin.”
This is a ridiculous premise that any believer should be ashamed of holding. As the Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us, “sin, sin, sin” is the way of swine and muck. It is not praiseworthy in any way. And the humiliation, agony, and dishonor of hell remains firmly in place.
Here is a list of excellent features of coming to faith in Christ. This list doesn’t go away upon adoption of PUR theology. The idea that it does is a non sequitur, specifically a kind of “Kochab’s Error.”
Q: But why does any of that interim stuff matter, if we’re all reconciled at the end of the day?
A: That degree of “at the end of the day” is radically reductive and destroys interim meaning. There is meaning to our lives, thoughts, actions, words, love, relationships, families, struggles, blessings, and punishments beyond “what happens in the very very end.”
Q: Okay, but isn’t there less urgency, if hell is purgatorial?
A: It is less urgent, but still urgent, since a real punishment looms from a wrathful (but just!) God. It is akin to saying that you’ll serve a year for theft rather than suffer ceaselessly for it; it would be absurd to say that the deterrent force against theft is eliminated thereby.
And, of course, urgency does not entail veracity. For example, an unjust, overpunishing God would compel greater urgent response. That doesn’t mean we should believe in an unjust, overpunishing God.
For each virtue there are two bookends of vice. The virtuous view is a proper fear and respect of equitable punishment. The vice of dearth is disregard for punishment entirely. The vice of excess is worry of overpunishment. Endless hell compels the latter, which is why so many clergy have struggled with anxiety-ridden parishioners on the topic of hell.
Q: What about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which shall not be forgiven?
A: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — misattributing the work of the Spirit to something else — is indeed a sin so serious that it shall not be forgiven. All sins that are not forgiven shall receive measured, wrathful recompense. This is the simple — almost surprisingly simple — answer under PUR theology.
As it so happens, the issues around blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are much more difficult for endless hell believers to address. It doesn’t really “fit” endless hell soteriology to say that such a misstep is necessarily unforgivable.
That’s because, under most brands of endless hell theology, anything not forgiven has endless hell as consequence. It’s just obviously out-of-proportion and thus prompts horrifying anxiety in rational people. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes, “Today virtually every Christian counseling manual contains a chapter on the sin to help counselors deal with patients who are terrified that they have already or might sometime commit this sin.”
And so, in rides St. Augustine on his galloping hippos to endless hell’s rescue, redefining this sin from “misattribution of the work of the Spirit to something else” — clearly the infraction that occurred in the story — to “dying in a state of stubbornness against Grace.”
Very creative! It makes no sense with the actual story — “Everyone will give account at Judgment for every empty word they have spoken,” Jesus says — but sandbags against the aforementioned anxiety issues.
Q: What about Judas? Will he be reconciled?
A: We don’t know, but I think so.
St. Gregory of Nyssa didn’t think so, since the Bible says it would have been better for him never to have been born. He reasons, “For, as to [Judas and men like him], on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity.”
Indeed, there are many varieties of PUR theology. Don’t feel bound to a specific take on it. Do your own study and exploration.
I think “better never to have been born” is better taken as an idiom. It means his station is woeful — really, really woeful.
Consider what Solomon wrote, in his existential exploration:
“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed — and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors — and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”
Judas was seized with remorse (Matthew 27:3-5). That means there was some good left in him, something to be salvaged, in Judas and perhaps people like him. This perhaps extends even to monsters like Adolf Hitler, who while a charismatic villain and brilliant in many ways, was also very, very screwed-up and stupid. He will receive his just recompense. I don’t envy what awaits him.
Q: What about Satan? Will he be reconciled?
A: We don’t know, but I don’t think so.
It depends on what Satan “is.” We don’t know exactly how he “works.” Perhaps he has some good left in him that can be salvaged. Perhaps, however, he was created as enmity-in-form (the “Lucifer” backstory is an erroneous folktale, Luther and Calvin rightly observe), and as such his redemption is an instance of “Winning the Mountain Game.” If so, his fate would be annihilation or sequestration, a special exception according to his special, by-nature antagony.
Again, there are varieties of PUR theology, and many debates to be had from the PUR foundation. St. Jerome tells us that most believers — or, at least, most of his purgatorialist ilk — in his day did believe in the eventual redemption of Satan: “I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.” (Commentary on Jonah)
But for my part, I doubt it.
Addressing Other Interpretations
Q: What about the impassable chasm of Luke 16?
A: This has nothing to do with the hell of Judgment. Luke 16’s story is about a descent into Gr. Hades / Heb. Sheol, the “Grave Zone” of Hebrew folk eschatology. Hades/Sheol are emptied at Judgment per Revelation 20. Regardless of what you think happens afterward, its chasm is moot.
For more about the difference between “Hades/Sheol” and “the hell of Judgment,” see this article, which also includes a discussion of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
It’s important to point out that St. Augustine completely missed this distinction, conflating the two and allowing this blunder to infect this theology, and the theology of the church broadly thereby.
Q: What about the Jesus’s reference to the immortal worms and unquenchable fire in Mark 9?
A: This is a reference to the corpses of Isaiah; the figurative fate of God’s enemies. Christ’s thesis is that it’s better to remove stumbling-catalysts than to stumble and thereby become an enemy of God, defeated in the end.
It cannot be used in support of an endless experiential torment; these are unthinking corpses laid to waste on the field. Annihilationists can claim a “face value” victory here, but then might be challenged to explain in what “face value” sense Jesus asks us to amputate ourselves. This is figurative (not at all uncommon for Jesus). Read the chapter for yourself.
We further point to the mysterious following verse, 49: “Everyone will be salted with fire.” It looks as if this “unquenchable fire” will affect everyone to some degree or another, spurring convicted change or eventual purgation.
Q: I see the Bible talk about “endless punishment” over and over again. I see the “smoke of their torment rising forever and ever.” What gives?
A: These come from reckless, imprudent, widespread, and popular translations of the Gr. aion / aionios / aionion word family. This is the toughest sticking point. Indeed, it is the only really resilient hanger upon which the ugly sweater of endless hell hangs, and it’s baked into the vast majority of Bible translations.
Aion means age. Aionios & aionion mean “of ages” or “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of gravity or significance. More prudent translations would read, “punishment of ages” or “punishment of the age,” and “smoke of their torment rising to ages of ages.”
When we scan through both modern and ancient lexicography, we see a bunch of different views. One view is that the word family is silent on finitude/infinitude and can qualify things of any duration. Another view is that the word family adopts finitude/infinitude according to context and that which the words qualify. And, of course, some modern lexicographies under ubiquitous endless hell belief say they wholly mean “everlasting,” when that was the domain of Gr. aidios.
We see that Hesychius of Alexandria, a Hellenic lexicographer from the late 4th century, defined aion as simply, “The life of a man, the time of life,” in his “Alphabetical Collection of All Words.” Bishop Theodoret of the theological school of Antioch, early 5th century, took the view that aion adopted the meaning of that which it qualified: “An interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man.”
But in investigating aionios specifically, the task becomes more difficult. Plato used the term occasionally but idiosyncratically. From what we can tell, our best clue on aionios specifically comes from Olympiodorus.
6th century Hellenic scholar Olympiodorus’s story is of very high interest to us. His story takes place a century into endless hell becoming dominant in the church. Olympiodorus found himself in contest with Christians who, by this time, were unanimous in treating these words as equivocal with “everlasting.” This was corrupting their interpretation of Aristotle, and Olympiodorus’s commentaries elucidate this “intrusion of theologians.”
Olympiodorus spoke of Tartarus, the Hellenic idea of the bad afterlife and analogue to the hell of Judgment, this way:
“Tartarus is a place of judgment and retribution, which contains the places of retribution … into which souls are cast according to the difference of their sins… Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages (‘apeirou aionas’) in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the Deity, but for the sake of healing… we say that the soul is punished for a period ‘aionios,’ calling its life and assigned period in Tartarus an ‘aion.'”
He further wrote:
“When aionios is used in reference to a period which, by assumption, is infinite and unbounded, it means eternal; but when used in reference to times or things limited, the sense is limited to them.”
This isn’t pagan novelty, but an annoyed reclamation of how the Greek-speakers generally understood the term (this is why St. Gregory of Nyssa called a purgatorial hell “the Gospel accord”) against the new wave of endless hell believers misunderstanding it.
What does this mean for us? It means that every time you see the word “forever” or “everlasting” in Scripture, you may need to double-check whether the underlying word is Gr. aion / aionios / aionion. If it is, then the translation you use may be “begging the question” in service of endless hell as a “given.”
It’s important to understand that without this “question” settled in favor of endless hell, endless hell belief no longer has any Biblical case left. Only annihilationism and PUR remain with positive cases, but remain divided over how to interpret apoleia and the recognition of God’s stated preference-stacking, promises, and plans.
Q: Matthew 25:46 says, “Then they will go away to kolasin aionion [punishment of ages], but the righteous to zoen aionion [life of ages].” We know that the zoen aionion lasts forever. The parallelism shows us that the kolasin aionion must last forever, right?
A: This is an ancient, unsound argument in the “hell’s duration” debate.
Here’s some reading to help detect the unsoundness. It’s tricky, but it’s discernible:
- An Ancient, Unsound Argument in the “Hell’s Duration” Debate.
See especially the analogy to Habakkuk 3:6 in the end.
- The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.
This thought exercise helps us see why “information from parallelism” is reckless and wrong.
Q: Does that mean that the zoen aionion is limited, too?
A: No; this would be a non sequitur. But first we need to do a quick untangling.
Both endless hell believers and purgatorial hell believers agree that the saved and unsaved receive everlasting perpetuity, that is, we will all continue onward forever. So (these two camps would agree) the zoen aionion doesn’t mean, in the strictest sense, “immortality” (like Gr. athanasia and aphtharsia).
Rather, it means life-of-ages, especially related to the Messianic Age. It represents having rushed-in to the Kingdom of God, where we can know the Father and the Son whom he sent. This direct interaction and revelation is the zoen aionion.
At Judgment, the zoen aionion (or aionios zoe) entails being found in the Biblou tes Zoes — the Book of Life.
Rather than being disowned (Matthew 10:32-33), Christ will advocate for us (Revelation 3:5). We receive a special inheritance that “can never perish, spoil, or fade… kept in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). We eschew the “perishable crown” now in order to inherit the “imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
1 Corinthians 15 describes the general resurrection starting with those that belong to him. Then the end will come, and all enemies will be subdued… even death itself. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
This only becomes confusing when we read the zoen aionion / aionios zoe strictly as “immortality.” Consider the rich young man in Matthew 19. He asks, “What good thing must I do to receive zoen aionion?” We imagine that he’s asking about living forever. But Jews in the Pharisaic tradition at the time already believed in a general resurrection (John 11:24, 2 Maccabees 12:38-46).
Rather, he’s talking about entering the zoen aionion: Knowing God, which (per Matthew 9:21) means righteousness now and inheriting “treasure in heaven” later. It is the “Life of the Age,” not “immortality.”
How do you get in? The commandments, which are fulfilled in love. But this rich young man needed to do one more thing. In order to receive that righteousness now and inherit that “treasure in heaven” later, he was called to give up his treasure on Earth (much like the contrast given in 1 Corinthians 9:25 and Matthew 6:19-21).
Jesus’s somber conclusion (Matthew 19:29-30):
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit zoen aionion. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
Only PUR preserves this “first-ness / last-ness” (vs. “first-ness / never-ness”) and maintains the original meaning of the zoen aionion / aionios zoe. Endless hell advocates are forced into cognitive dissonance, claiming that the aionios zoe literally means “everlasting life” while simultaneously proclaiming that both the saved and unsaved have endless perpetuity.
How do we know for sure that the zoen aionion / aionios zoe means “Knowing God intimately and directly through the Son”?
- First, that’s how Jesus defines it in John 17:3. We don’t have to make wild guesses. The definition is sitting right here.
- Second, that’s how it’s employed across the epistle of 1 John (the same author as recorded Jesus’s prayer above). Several verses in 1 John don’t make very much sense when we read the term as “immortality,” but make perfect sense when we read it as, “knowing God and participating in His New Covenant Kingdom, which brings with it righteousness and an inheritance.”
- Third, the definition Jesus used, and the way John employed the term, conforms precisely to the prophecy from Jeremiah about the Messianic life-of-the-age (Hebrews 8:10b-13): “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
Even though the zoen aionion isn’t strictly “immortality,” immortality rides alongside it insofar as death itself has been conquered by Christ’s death and resurrection, and will be destroyed as the last enemy. In addition, Revelation 22 shows that the Edenic “Tree of Life” will make its return at long last.
Q: You ask us to accept that endless hell is a doctrinal error. How could such an error be so widespread under God’s watch for 1500 years?
A: This is a theodicean issue. God’s Spirit shall guide the church into all truth, but this guidance is on God’s timetable.
- Protestants should especially resonate with this; a Protestant would say that false doctrine was widespread in the church, at least in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
- On the other side of the table, Catholics should remember that doctrine develops, and some of the most cherished dogmas received articulation only after centuries of debate. Perhaps the ordinary and universal Magisterium will someday develop consensus that any purported place of endless torment shall be largely empty, and a purgatorial fixing awaits nearly all.
Based on our experiences with suffering, evils in the world, confusion, disunity, etc., the only workable theodicy is one that operates both on God’s timetable, and according to God’s interests, one of which must be a subtlety, patience, and working through our fumbling human wills as much as feasible.
Here’s a video that talks more about theodicy. Experiential incredulity is overwhelmed by a sacred expression of faith and hope in God’s plan, purposes, and timing. It helps that it’s easy to postulate benefits of temporary, widespread belief in endless hell (though we’d rather not do so unless we think ourselves prophets).
Again, Romans 11:33-34:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
Q: Still, how could an idea become so popular if it’s in error? Wouldn’t everyone have noticed?
A: A glance at memetic theory tells us that an idea’s popularity is a function of its virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stick-iness”). Those, in turn, are functions both of truth/falsehood and human quirks — weird little follies that affect both individuals and groups.
Indeed, we can all admit that endless hell has strong “memetic legs,” whether or not it’s true.
Q: Do you people really think you’re smarter than St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the rest?
A: No. We pale in brilliance to many Christian luminaries who’ve struggled to make sense of endless hell. And beyond that, we admit that there are many other Trinitarians — as well as Hindus, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists — that would destroy us in an IQ test.
But orthodoxy on hell’s duration, just like orthodoxy about anything we can say about God or religion, is not a smartness contest. It’s an exercise in searching the Scriptures like Bereans and, prayerfully and together, debating and arguing the nitty-gritty until arriving at the most sensible conclusion, even if it takes centuries, and even if it takes thousands of Spirit-seeking voices in friendly contest, and even if that conclusion is the mere recovery of a smothered historical teaching.
Q: This seems like a tiny change at first: “Rather than hell being infinite, it is finite.” But it seems to have a huge, devastating impact on traditional soteriology. Who can accept it?
A: The libraries of traditional soteriology exploded out of the “baking soda + vinegar” of endless hell being (1) ubiquitous and sacrosanct, and (2) morally untenable. This yielded a bizarre situation wherein a doctrinal blunder is simultaneously a doctrine with volumes of supporting commentary by countless brilliant thinkers.
But the case is demonstrable. Search the Scriptures, maintain a depth of diligence and scrutiny, and find out if PUR is true.
In many ways, it’s like time-traveling back to do an ancient king a small favor. Upon completing the favor and returning to the present, the favor’s butterfly effect has changed whole cultures and national borders.
In this way, it is a small correction, while also being one of the most significant corrections we can make as Christians.
- Gerard Beauchemin’s “Hope Beyond Hell” is an extremely readable introduction. You can get it on Amazon (free on Kindle) or download it for free from his web site.
- Fr. Aiden Kimel’s reading list can take you from there.
Here’s the latest “Philosophy Drive” episode!
It’s 14 minutes long and discusses theodicy, our response to problems of evil and suffering in order to neutrally defend a belief in God.
It also talks about a “second order problem” called “the problem of gratuitous puzzlement.” I claim that this benignly reduces to the plain-ol’ problem of suffering, and give my take on theodicy broadly.
0:18 – What theodicy means. Two kinds: Experiential (also called “evidential”) and abstract (also called “theoretical”). The former is above our paygrade. The latter looks like a hand-wave, but technically works.
2:21 – The “problem of gratuitous puzzlement.”
3:08 – Quick nags. “Gratuitous” as a subtle question-begging. Wouldn’t God have inspired somebody to give us correct theodicy? (He did!) Why hasn’t it caught on, then? Questioning “earliness.” Remarks on the state of the world and where we’re going.
5:28 – Unpacking “surprising.” Remarks on humanity’s dearth of “RAM slots,” the wobbly crutches on which we depend, and how woefully unequipped we are to draw any experiential theodicean conclusion, whether or not such a remark is for or against a good God.
8:34 – Our woeful underqualification for this task leads to a Job-like confession. Remarks on the Book of Job and its role as the Bible’s theodicy.
11:14 – Theodicy requires “CIWAMIS” (circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set). Remarks on God’s “natural garden” preference.
12:34 – Summing up abstract theodicy (which, of course, looks like a hand-wave). Conclusion: If it works for “basic” suffering, it handles “surprising puzzlement,” too.
- What is the Book of Job really all about? Read “Elihu, the Forgotten Prophet of Job.”
- How can God both will and not will that evil come about? Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”
Over the last several years I’ve had a lot of great discussions with Open Theists.
Open Theism — perhaps more properly called open futurism — is the idea that what we imagine as plausible future possibilities are all realizable (and not simply imaginary).
For them all to be realizable, it is asserted, God cannot have certain knowledge of a single future course.
There are 3 big reasons why folks might be interested in this sort of thing:
- It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
- It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
- If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever-you-please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Sounds pretty good, right?
The bad news is that all 3 of these have major snags (and we’ll get into the specifics in just a moment).
First, let’s talk about what you’d expect if it’s true that these have major snags.
If these contributions are deeply problematic (as opposed to surface-only problems with ready solutions) — like a leaky wooden ship set-sail — you’d expect:
- Radically novel conjecture (not just refinement or development) in order to “jury-rig.”
- Selective appeals to solutions pioneered by competing hypotheses in order to “patch.”
- Logical wildcards to keep the ship’s captain blissfully oblivious to the problems below; to “obfuscate.”
Open Theology is under development, and as such, different Open writers and thinkers have different ideas and approaches. Even so, I’m noticing those “you’d expect” patterns more and more.
This is especially of interest to me as a Christian compatibilist.
Because compatibilist solutions are very often being procured from the compatibilist “vessel” for at-sea patching! “Hey, that’s ours!”
Compatibilism is the idea that while creatures make decisions as strict functions of who they are and what makes them tick, we still make real choices, can be held responsible, and have free will. The angle is that these “agency things” dwell on a layer of meaningfulness that emerges from discriminatory interests (including interests of God).
It doesn’t seem like it at first, but compatibilism isn’t a big jump from Open Theism.
This is evinced by the fact that our vessels are neighborly enough for “trading”!
Of course, the hope is that Open brethren will eventually jump ship and board the U. S. S. Compatibilism, which is an amazing ship, and which would love a bigger crew to battle (in a friendly way) common theological foes.
Let’s tackle the snags within each of the above 3 contributions.
… In reverse order!
If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever you please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Problem 1.1: The Incoherence of Folk Responsibility
Notice “selectively apply folk responsibility.” That “selectively” is important: Folk responsibility is a logical wildcard.
Logical wildcards are hard to directly address because their power is in their ghostly incoherence, vagueness, and inconsistency.
There are two ways to battle these ghosts:
- Demand definition. (This is rhetorically weak because the ghosts will just fly away.)
- Show how the ghosts are yielding logical contradictions and/or algorithmic inconsistencies. (This is more rhetorically effective.)
The latter takes place in the following article: “Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible.” There, you’ll see definitively how folk responsibility is leveraged inconsistently to “clean God’s hands.”
Problem 1.2: The Triviality & “Raah” of Deterministic Processes
This applies only to the subset of Open Theists who admit that some processes are indeed deterministic (or, would be unless effected by a “libertarian free agent”).
One such process might be the molding of costal cliffs. After millennia of water against rock, each coastal cliff is indescribably unique. So, did God micromanage each cliff face around the world?
A common, and (I think) proper, answer is, “No. There’s a difference between the micromanaged results of deterministic processes and the corollaries thereof. The former has teleology; the latter is just ‘byproduct.'”
Sweet! That’s a patch borrowed from compatibilism. And it works pretty well with coastal cliffs.
But what about tsunamis against cities? Or Pompeii?
At this fork in the road, the subset might jury-rig with radical novelty. For example, one could posit that libertarian-free demons are driving every natural disaster and accident.
Or rather, if they please, they’re invited to borrow another patch from our compatibilistic ship: Not only can there be byproduct trivialities, but there can also be byproduct “raah,” like wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, lava flows, meteoroids, lightning, blizzards, famines, floods, plagues, etc.
Some of these may have ancillary consequences — the more ancillary the better — but we need not ascribe to them “total teleology,” frantically searching for folks like Hindus or gay people or pervasive demons or “Christians-from-wrong-denominations” to blame.
It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
Problem 2.1: Analysis Nags
When we look up at the starry sky, it appears as if all of the stars are the same distance away from us. But when we use observational instruments other than our “eyes & guts,” we see that this is false; they’re at all sorts of different distances.
Our “eyes & guts” tell us that we’re quite spontaneous. But other observational instruments keep telling us that we aren’t. We act according to who we are, and who we are is a function of what makes us tick.
Now, as a Christian, I have a faith-premise in some supernatural stuff. It comes with the territory. But supernaturalism is often used as a shoehorn toward arbitrary conclusions. And one way it protects this maneuver is through “gapping.”
By defining a treasure in an ambiguous or indiscernible way, there’s no way to disprove its existence. It establishes a “bunker,” “sandbag,” or “motte” — a “gap.”
Atheists accuse believers of positing a “God of the Gaps” all the time, and — to a point — there’s some validity to this indictment, especially because some believers recklessly plaster supernaturalism onto everything.
But we have faith in “He Who Is Unseen”; Paul tells us that unlike the readily tangible and powerless idols, God is powerful and wants to be sought, though he is not far from any of us. In other words, there is purpose in God’s veil of subtlety.
Here, though, folks take shelter in a “spontaneous will of the gaps,” and there is no such teleology explaining it.
No matter what analysis or observations we make, “something-or-other” can always live in the “something-or-other zone” (it’s no coincidence that libertarian free will lacks a coherent, positive definition; it is a “something-or-other”).
Problem 2.2: Coherent Remedial Response is Ruined by Spontaneity
When a child is spoiled, whom do we blame?
We don’t apply “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the child’s bad behavior.
But nor do we excuse the child.
Rather, we assign responsibility to every cofactor, focusing especially on those cofactors with the capacity to recognize a problem and the power to change catalyzing circumstances.
In short, we focus our attention on the parents and other environmental cofactors.
But the dynamism of responsibility (which entails a rejection of folk responsibility) is predicated on the fact that our decisions are influenced, molded, and knitted by prior causes.
How can this be reconciled with having a “free will”?
The compatibilist solution is to say that there is a sort of free will in the gap of human understanding and an interest in formative self-guidance:
- If I don’t know what’s causing you to do choose something bad (let’s talk about only bad behavior for now), I call that your “free will.”
- If I know what’s causing you to do something bad, but can anticipate you coming to correction in your own time, I also call that your “free will.”
- If, however, I know what’s causing you to do something bad, and cannot anticipate a self-guided turn-around, then I do not call that your “free will”; rather, I call it a disease or defect or disorder. No longer can you be held exhaustively culpable for persisting in your bad behavior. And if I know how to cure you of your disease and can easily do so, then I bear culpability by omission until I help cure it (and can be blamed or credited for any delay, depending on the prospects and costs thereof).
This should be rather intuitive. But the idea of spontaneity allows us to insert “buck-stops-here culpability-breaks.”
And what does that do for us? It lets us excuse potential “surgeons” of their omissive culpability!
And certain eschatologies need this excuse, else they become theodicean problems.
We talked before how folk responsibility is used as a logical wildcard. It rears its head here, too. One minute, an Open Theist named Linda might claim that George can become rooted in his behavior and lose his spontaneity. The next, she’ll use George’s spontaneity to excuse the “Great Surgeon” of omissive culpability for George’s predicament.
The former claim and latter excuse are not at all consonant. Typically, Linda’s confusion comes from equivocating George’s past spontaneity (where culpability still lived with George) with “current spontaneity” (or lack thereof, such that current-George is inexorably enslaved to bad decisions of past-George and needs external help).
Problem 2.3: God’s Still Sovereign
I don’t mean to say that Open Theism denies God’s sovereignty. Many Open Theologies uphold God’s sovereignty with certain re-stipulations.
The issue is that even under Open Theism, God’s “wholly puppeteering will” follows from benign premises unless and until compatibilism is employed to erase the qualifier “wholly puppeteering” through forms.
We’ve talked before about these ingredients:
- God has the raw power to do anything (at least things that are logically possible); if there is a coherent challenge to be met, God could do it if he net-wanted to.
- God knows everything about the past and present.
- God is occasionally willing to intervene and influence to various degrees.
- God has done this before, sometimes gratuitously.
Within the first ingredient, the following is entailed:
- No matter what happens, God can functionally undo it, such that it would not “stick.” Even if he cannot rewind time, he can manipulate particles and memories to duplicate the function of rewinding time.
These ingredients yield the following 2 “question-answer” pairs:
- When would something happen and “stick”? When and only when letting-stick conforms to God’s net-wants.
- When would something be “undone”? When and only when that undoing conforms to God’s net-wants.
Notice the reductive, ultimate appeal that answers both questions?
Now, remember that reduction destroys meaning. The above chain of logic — and its reductive conclusion — feel horrible and nihilistic, even as they are inarguable (assuming we agree on the premises).
So, how do we “get out” of this? How do we come up for air?
Again, we have a little fork in the road, this time 4-pronged:
- We can “come up for air” by cupping hands over ears and reverting to non-analysis.
- We can “come up for air” by using logical wildcards (like folk responsibility and libertarian freedom) to bridge-break the logic.
- We can “come up for air” by denying the premises. A subset of Open Theists, for example, has dabbled in denying God’s raw power. A weak God would not yield the sovereign conclusion; theodicy is solved by positing a God “wholly willing, but unable.”
- We can “come up for air” by plowing forward, blasting through the nihilism of reduction to capture our refined, meaningful forms.
The last is entailed by compatibilism.
One such discriminating interest is that between “directly affected stuff vs. stuff affected through distant indirection.” The forms that emerge from such an interest allow us to take a HUGE breath after ascending from the fish’s belly of reduction.
Some Open Theists sense this payoff!
Some will even package this interest-driven discrimination into a stipulative (“True Scotsman”) redefinition of sovereignty and/or power, e.g., “True power is that which subtly influences.”
(This is like to borrowing a patch from the compatibilistic ship but claiming it was in the other cargo hold all along.)
Problem 2.4: Its Theodicean Sword is Borrowed
It’s one thing to appeal to a permissive interest in indirection. But you have to further claim that this is part of a manifold interest set, in which there are two or more interests that are incommensurable.
That’s because we know that God isn’t just interested in indirection or permission or “allowing for free will” or what have you. We know that he’s also interested in beautiful stuff like “nonsuffering.”
Circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set (“CIWAMIS”), in other words, acts like a “from-God confounder” that tells us why we might have both a benevolent God and bad stuff in the world.
We get theodicean “oomph” from CIWAMIS.
But here’s the upshot: “God’s not knowing the future” and/or “libertarian free will” has no “oomph” without it!
In other words, “God’s not knowing the future” and “libertarian free will” both bragged about their theodicean “oomph,” but were just brandishing CIWAMIS’s sword, while claiming it was their smithery.
And CIWAMIS, as it turns out, lends its theodicean sword to all sorts of theologies, including compatibilistic theologies.
I want to point out that at this point, we’ve taken the wind out of Open Theism’s theodicean sails.
- Remove libertarian free will; replace with “compatibilistic free will” or “natural will” or something.
- Remove folk responsibility; replace with dynamic responsibility.
- Uphold God’s discriminating interest in “direct/indirect” influence.
- Uphold CIWAMIS.
Zero theodicean “oomph” is lost in the above cookie recipe. The cookies still taste great after detoxification.
It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
Problem 3.1: Face Value is Still Denied Selectively
We depend on anthropomorphic and/or hyperbolic interpretations anyway.
That’s because a face-value interpretation makes God not merely uncertain, but capricious and recklessly curiosity-driven. He wouldn’t just be imperfect at prediction — he’d have to be really, really terrible at it.
The “waiting to see” and “fickle” passages do not supply proof texts for those Open Theologies actually being proposed, which generally go out of their way to laud God’s exhaustive wisdom to guide history through subtle influences and maintain a stability of interests and firmness in purpose.
Often an Open Theologian will admit that Genesis 6 (for example) is being rather hyperbolic for whatever reason (to resonate with fickle man? to express CIWAMIS via athropomorphism? both?) when it talks about God regretting having made mankind… and beasts… and birds.
Problem 3.2: The Book of Job Lacks it
This would be a fallacious argument from silence, except that the Book of Job goes out of its way cover all sorts of theodicean proposals (most rebuked). It’s bizarre that it lacks any sort of libertarian excuse-making (i.e., “I didn’t do this to you; Satan did!”) if such a thing ought indeed be considered legitimate theodicy.
Job is rebuked (and repents) for claiming that God lacks justice and/or is distant and powerless.
The three stooges of Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are rebuked for claiming that Job’s predicament was a perfect divine expression of karmic justice, and that all lowly humans deserve unbridled suffering for their failing such a lofty God.
By contrast, Elihu, who (1) boasts perfect knowledge, (2) introduces the Storm of God, and (3) is never rebuked, weaves a theodicy of hope. He affirms God as super-powerful, completely wise, firm in purpose, despising nobody, and the ultimate teacher of mankind.
This is the theodicy that introduces the Storm, after which Job admits having failed to ascertain the grand plan “to wonderful for me to know.”
God’s superordinate responsibility (in a hierarchical stack) + a theodicy of corollary and ancillary function?
Such are the hull and sails of the U. S. S. Compatibilism.
Problem 3.3: That God is Worse
Josephus has a must-read account of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God’s purpose is explicated: To see what’ll happen! ‘I’m going to tell Abraham to do this horrifying thing and see what he does.’
Afterward, this God is genuinely surprised; ‘Wow, I’m shocked at how readily you did that!’
The hilarious part about Josephus’s account is that both Abraham and Isaac reason a prospective justification for God’s command, that is, they conclude that God — in his wisdom and foresight — knew that Isaac would otherwise undergo some horrible disease or murder or other “severity” if Isaac were not kindly slain now.
In other words, in the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and cosmic foresight.
The reason this is hilarious is because — in Josephus’s account — the God in which Abraham and Isaac believed is clearly better (in terms of benevolence) and wiser (in terms of foresight) than the “actual” God (presented by the omniscient narrator).
When we finish reading the story, and our own giggles fade to crickets, we come to the sobering realization that a God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity — instead of benevolent ancillary investment and/or corollaries to creative processes — is indeed “less good.”
The common response is an insistence that only this “less good” situation is fertile turf to garden “genuine love.” Seasoned compatibilists, however, have been trained by experience to spot “genuine/authentic/true/real” persuasive stipulations a mile away. This one is the product of “genuineness by association.”
“Open Theism helps with theodicy.”
- It relies on folk responsibility which is demonstrably bad.
- “Creation’s deterministic trivialities” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling leaves have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- “Creation’s deterministic raah” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Jury-rig: “Demons do those things.”
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling boulders have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
“Open Theism prevents the existential anxiety of the loss of origination.”
- Deeper analysis has been scoring slam dunks and three-pointers only for the following team: “We decide based on who we are, which is a function of that which makes us tick.”
- Obfuscate: “Gapping” maneuvers keep the game clock going. But a deliberately subtle God would preclude overt detection; there is no such teleological explanation for the “gapping” of libertarian free will.
- A coherent theology of remediation is selectively ruined by spontaneity. This is woefully useful because certain eschatologies need such selective ruination.
- God’s superordinate responsibility still pops from his classical attributes like toast from a toaster, even if he has no clue about the future.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- Obfuscate: Logical wildcards to bridge-break the logic.
- Jury-rig: Explore “weak God” theology.
- Patch: Borrow “direct/indirect” formation from compatibilism.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- It never had theodicean “oomph” anyway. The “oomph” was from “CIWAMIS”: circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set. Compatibilism can fence with the same sword (and is, in fact, more adept at it).
“Open Theism plays more nicely with Scripture.”
- Open Theologies actually being proposed leverage the same “anthropomorphic and/or hyperbole” interpretations as compatibilist Christians to handle certain passages that would otherwise have God being clueless or capricious.
- The Book of Job is theodicean. It has a libertarian defense readily available to it and avoids its use, preferring instead God’s superordinate responsibility. Neither Job, nor the three stooges, nor “perfect knowledge” Elihu, nor the Storm of God employ it.
- A “mad scientist” God is worse, as exemplified in the laughably upside-down account of Abraham & Isaac given to us by Josephus.
- Obfuscate: Persuasive stipulation of what “genuine love” requires. (An ancient maneuver that has always been non-cogent.)
If you’re an Open Theist, I hope this has at least piqued your curiosity in solutions pioneered by compatiblistic theology and perhaps fostered some prudent internal scrutiny.
In appealing to scrutiny, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit my own fallibility. But I nonetheless have conviction that compatibilism is the way to go. It’s a really, really, really great ship, resolute enough and flexible enough to navigate the waters of Scripture Sea.
In addition to the in-line hyperlinks in this post, check out the following:
Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest “bugs” in theology, which cascades down into conversation & contemplation bugs in soteriology, eschatology, metaphysics, and more.
This “bug” underpins much of what we’ve already talked about on this site over the past year or so.
First, let’s meet Apollos.
This is because Apollos is exclusively about reduction.
As soon as he found out that the blue rider and red horse were “both Play Doh,” he took a hammer to them and squished them into a hideous, formless mass.
His problem wasn’t that he looked deeper. And he wasn’t lying when he observed that both forms were, ultimately, “Play Doh.”
But he went too far in drawing a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion merely from observing shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
See the other guy in that last panel? That’s Amon.
The story’s not over. Let’s see what happened the next day.
This is because Amon is exclusively concerned with maintaining forms.
Here, the problem wasn’t that Amon wanted to protect Blue-Monkey-on-Red-Elephant. Of course he wanted to protect it! It is interesting and meaningful and beautiful!
Rather, the problem was that — like Apollos — he erroneously thought that a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion proceeds from any observation about shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
This reasoning error prompted a loss-aversive overreaction against anyone making such an observation.
The inhumanly pallid faces of both Apollos and Amon represent the fact that both characters represent errors of reasoning (in specific, they are powered by the same is/ought non sequitur). These errors yield lifeless, bug-ridden theology, and Christianity has had a major problem with it for over 1800 years.
The Checkmark-Shaped Reaction
It’s true that as we practice reduction, a sort of “existential gravity” makes us feel as if we’re losing our forms.
This is because forms are where all meaning resides.
The situation looks a bit like this — for everything we care about:
This is the teaching of the Teacher, concluded “upright and true” in Ecclesiastes. “At the end of the day,” all prospects can be reduced to that which is ultimately empty of meaning — “hollow.” (Read more about Ecclesiastes and meaning here.)
In other words, by default we live in a “macroscopic” world where forms are common-sense and plain-to-see. We have all sorts of folk conclusions about the simplicity of the world, like that meaning is purely objective (has no interest-dependencies), that responsibility is “buck-stops-here,” and that we have spontaneity and multiple realizable futures (encapsulated in a feeling of libertarian free will).
But as soon as someone busts out a “microscope” — literally or proverbially — these folk ideas begin to break down, and we start to feel “existential gravity” just like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (probably Solomon) did:
There are 3 reactions we can have.
The first is Apollos’s reaction: Radical reduction into a “tomb,” “dungeon,” or “fish’s belly” of nihilism, denying formative truth.
The third is Solomon’s reaction: Remember that formative truth remains true, even while reductive truth is also true, although some forms need to be dropped, modified, or refined, like a faceted gem cut from rough rock.
This “check-marked shaped” journey ends in a declaration of compatibility: Formative truth is compatible with reductive truth, and their appearance of “disagreement” — their paradoxy — is because they proceed from different vantage points, i.e., “hetero-phroneo.”
(That, and the surface forms did contain a bit of false junk.)
Our quirky brains have trouble with heterophroneo; by default, they’re rather “monophroneo.”
And this yields the huge theology bug. It’s solvable, but only with hard work, and a refusal to be an Apollos or Amon (both of these characters are “Kochabs“).
“The dog and the dirty napkin” (we used this example before):
- Dogs and dirty napkins are 100% different.
- Actually, they’re 100% the same: They’re both mere collections of particles.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they’re both reducible to mere collections of particles, and we should avoid thinking that there’s some “magical” animating principle in dogs that makes them substantially distinct. But I don’t care much about that. I care about the fact that the former has feelings, thoughts, loyalty, and can play fetch, and is happy to greet me when I come home. The latter doesn’t have any of that stuff. And that’s where meaning lives.
“Altruism” (we also used this one before):
- Altruism and selfishness are 100% different.
- (“Psychological egoism”) Actually, they’re 100% the same. They’re both products of what eventually reduce to self-interests. For example, your desire to give to a certain charity reduces to something you care about. Even self-sacrifice is always in terms of what prospects you hope to achieve or principles you hope to exemplify.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they are both so-reducible. But our dictionary still functions. There’s still a difference in form between generosity and stinginess. There’s still a difference in form between sacrifice and retention. There’s still a difference in form between love-driven behavior and gratuitous self-service. Those are the things I care about. That’s where meaning lives.
“Ecclesiastes” (a deeper look here):
- Objectives and objects are brimming with meaning.
- Actually, everything is ultimately empty and meaningless. Laughter is great, but what does it accomplish? Wealth seems awesome, but it never satisfies. Ambition is an envy-fueled treadmill. The ground on which we build children, projects, labor, and learning is hollow.
- (“Existentialism”) The search for ultimate meaning is futile — a chasing after the wind. This is an upright and true teaching. But it is also upright and true that laughter is great. Our journey should not yield nihilism, but a gem-like refinement toward what is really meaningful in life according to our interests, that is, food, drink, friends, family, finding satisfaction in our labor and projects, and fulfilling our “owes” to one another (social and moral obligations, including oaths to leaders and God) so that we avoid the “Collection Agent.” That’s where meaning lives. (Later, Christus Victor restores the shattered vessel, so that helps.)
“Freedom & Sovereignty” (many examples on this site; start here):
- We act with free will; we make real choices and can be held accountable.
- Actually, we are causal creatures and our thoughts & decisions are products of that which makes us “tick.” Rewinding far enough, we owe ourselves ultimately to external factors.
- (“Compatibilism”) You’re both right depending on the vantage point. I’m a caused, causal creature, and I make real choices all the time. I have interests, emotions, thoughts, a will, and all of these are genuine. I make mistakes and have successes and triumphs, all of which are products of who I am, and who I am is always changing (God willing, I can even change myself in a recursive way!). As such, I can be held truly accountable for my real choices, but we definitely need to jettison folk notions of responsibility.
The Sun Also Rises
Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”
But does it really do this?
The sun’s behavior used to be a big deal. The fact of sunsets/sunrises being mere perceptual phenomena from rotational motion — and the additional fact of the sun’s relative stagnancy compared to the Earth — so violated folk “surface forms” that many people became Amons and took up hammers.
When we take a microscope to the situation, we find that the sun isn’t actually traveling across the sky and “hurrying back.” The sun is millions of miles away, relatively still, while the Earth flies around it, rotating while it does so and illuminating a perpetually-changing hemisphere.
To some folks, this reduction destroys sunrises. And it does, sort of.
But look out the window!
See the fiery sky against the shadowy land?
See the clouds underlit with morning?
Look! The sky has been punctured with a knife of blinding light!
The sword of morning is slaying shadows right and left. The stone is rolling. The dungeon gate is opening. The fish’s maw is heaving.
Our reduction “destroyed” the sunrise.
And yet, the sun also rises.