It’s been over 3 years since I last posted on this blog! Where on Earth have I been?!
First, having two children is a lot harder than just one. Second, my career has become quite a bit more demanding. Third, it was hard to think of more things to say without repeating myself, and I’m happy with the amount of airtime my existing posts have been getting.
From this and direct feedback, it’s apparent that folks appreciate quiet theology. It doesn’t skyrocket YouTube hits from dramatic confrontations and rebuttals. But perhaps it accomplishes something a little better.
A while ago I made a “clip show” post that summed up my views on libertarian free will. The time has now come to make a “clip show” post on metaethics. Brazenly I assert that all metaethics can be captured in brief.
All of it.
Let’s see if you agree.
- Morality is subjective in one way and objective in two ways (“SOO“). It is subjective in that it always proceeds from the interests and preferences of persons (or Persons, like God). It is objective in that there are statements about those interests that are factual (such that I could lie about them). It is also objective in that the way to optimize those interests is a strategic question with correct and incorrect answers. Any search for “ultimate objective value” is doomed to failure.
- Ignoring or “failing to mention” the subjective component makes commands more effective. We parents learn this very quickly. It catches the listener flatfooted and often roots the imperative in what feels immovable and irresistible. In other words, there is memetic fitness in using moral language that ignores the “S” in #1. We then trick ourselves into thinking that the “SOO” framework is bad, because it fails to capture the moral language with which we’re familiar, and which proves so effective on us and others! But this is only because our familiarity has a utile error embedded in it, into which we’re inculcated from a very young age.
- Per the 2nd “O” in #1, we tend to think consequentially. But since we’re not omniscient — in fact, we’re rather poor at anticipating all the meaningful consequences of our actions — heuristics can be helpful. While heuristics always come with certain risks, they can also give us powerful shortcuts and social cohesion. Here we distilled it into three “moral musicians”: Red (rules), green (clumsy goal-seeking), and blue (intuition). The article includes a breakdown of “minority reporting” showing that, schematically, this is indeed all a consequential system.
The above 3 observations, if true, adequately explain the existence of any metaethical position you please. In other words, take any moral theory, and you can explain it in the above terms.
Addendum for Christian readers:
These observations are also consonant with Scripture, which has a “social interest exchange” view of morality that incessantly puts it in monetary language (covenants, debit, credit, obligation/owing, justice in merchant’s scales terms, etc.) that is alien to the purely objective moral realism of the Hellenic pagan philosophers.
“Heed God” doesn’t come from him weirdly entailing some Platonic abstract. “Heed God” comes from his being Creator (so we owe him everything), Father (so he has our best interests at heart), and Judge (so he’ll eventually bring everything to account).
The Ontological Argument for God has always been controversial. Some believers think it works. Other believers say it does not. I am in the latter group.
It’s good to explore when and if arguments for God are dysfunctional.
I am indeed asserting that the Ontological Argument does not work. It’s tricky, though, because OA’s power is in its incoherence, and incoherent things are like ghosts (through which swords of coherence impotently pass).
As the above linked article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy remarks, “This helps to explain why ontological arguments have fascinated philosophers for almost a thousand years.”
The following is a new rhetorical attempt at exposing why it’s bad.
Here’s something that looks sort of like the Ontological Argument. I’ll call it the “’Idea-About-an-Ontological-Thing’ Argument.”
- The idea of God is that of that which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
- Existent things are greater than nonexistent things.
- It follows from 1 and 2, therefore, that the idea of God is that of a being that exists (whether or not he really does; somebody can say that this idea corresponds to something that really does exist, and someone else can deny that).
The above is true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what really exists (or not). Everything is properly “cloistered” in a discussion about ideas.
Now, here’s a trick of language.
Consider these two statements:
- (A): The idea of God is that of that which a greater thing thing cannot be conceived.
- (B): God is that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
Notice the difference? (A) says “The idea of” at the front. And yet, when paired, these statements basically mean the same thing to us.
They’re both “bluish.”
We drop “the idea of” in (B) for brevity, but we understand that it’s still just a hypothetical, especially in the context of (A) — that is, “Hey, we’re just talkin’ ideas here, definitions.”
Now consider these two statements:
- (B): God is that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
- (C): God is, in actuality, that of which a greater thing cannot be conceived.
When paired, these two statements also basically mean the same thing to us.
They’re both “olivish” — they’re ontologically affirmative.
Of course, the unbeliever would reject (C) because that’s the point in question.
So, how do you make subtly make an ontological affirmation while making it look like innocent, “Hey, we’re just talkin’ definitions?”
You use (B) as a Trojan Horse… a . It acts one way one moment, and another way another moment, because it is ambiguous.
If the OA’s first premise = (A), then you get “’Idea-About-an-Ontological-Thing’ Argument.” Inert and useless!
If the OA’s first premise = (C), then the unbeliever — very rightly — complains about a begged question. Fallacious!
By using (B), you get the innocence of (A) and the affirmative power of (C).
That is, since OA’s first premise = (B), it looks like a mere hypothetical that suddenly, somehow materializes.
That is exactly how OA feels, and this is why.
The Ontological Argument is not cogent, but its bugs are subtle.
Kant dealt with the problem elegantly when he said, “Existence is not a predicate,” but isolating the Trojan Horse may be more vivid for some folks.
There are other problems with OA, like “‘Greatness’ requires a referent,” but the above should do.
There’s a meme that universal reconciliation (wherein the Gehenna of Judgment doesn’t last forever) doesn’t work with free will (or agency, or dignity, or cooperation, or what have you).
We’ve discussed this before on this blog, but that material had some distractions that I hope we can avoid this time around.
The point this time is to focus, and make a really simple rebuttal of the idea that these two things are incompatible.
In order to focus, we’re going to avoid defining free will — whether you think it’s the libertarian kind, or a compatibilistic kind, or something else, should be unimportant to the argument.
(The argument is pointing out a non sequitur — “Free will’s falsity is not a corollary of purgatorial universal reconciliation, and PUR’s falsity is not a corollary of free will” — by way of a thought experiment.)
The Three Humans
Imagine that there are only 3 humans: John, George, and Ringo.
Here are 3 possibilities:
- In possibility 1, only John shall freely submit to God at Judgment, and George/Ringo shall remain in rebellion.
- In possibility 2, both John and George shall freely submit to God at Judgment, but Ringo shall remain in rebellion.
- In possibility 3, all three of John, George, and Ringo shall freely submit to God at Judgment.
We don’t have to commit to any of these possibilities, but can talk about a series of “ifs” related to possibility 3.
In other words, let’s “float” possibility 3 for a moment, and see what happens:
- If possibility 3 happens, there’s no contradiction between possibility 3 and free will, since all three humans in the group freely submitted.
- Furthermore, if God knows that possibility 3 shall come about, there still shouldn’t be any contradiction with free will.
- (God knowing something does not have any effect on the group’s free will.)
- (God knowing something does not have any effect on the group’s free will.)
- Furthermore, if God inspires a writer to assert that possibility 3 shall come about, there still shouldn’t be any contradiction with free will.
- (God inspiring a writer to make that assertion does not offend the group’s free will.)
- (God inspiring a writer to make that assertion does not offend the group’s free will.)
- Furthermore, if folks read those assertions and subsequently believe with confidence that possibility 3 shall come about, there still shouldn’t be any contradiction with free will.
- (Folks holding to a conveyed foretelling with confidence does not offend the group’s free will.)
All across the board, John, George, and Ringo’s free wills have not been offended in any way, even if possibility 3 is held true for the sake of argument. This hypothetical premise simply isn’t catastrophic to freedom, dignity, agency, and whatnot. Everything’s fine.
PUR may be false. Perhaps some will refuse to submit at Judgment, and opt for interminable rebellion instead.
But the truth or falsity of PUR is not presently at issue.
Rather, at issue is the meme, “PUR would contradict free will if it were true.”
And that meme is false. It entails non sequiturs.
How can it be that the above meme is so virulent and resilient, even among very educated, sincere, brilliant thinkers?
The reason is because non sequiturs are extremely difficult to root-out, especially when they involve tough-to-crack concepts like free will.
I suspect that a modal scope fallacy is responsible for this non sequitur. Modal scope fallacies are very, very easy to commit, even from people vastly more intelligent than you or me.
Visit the Purgatorial Hell FAQ and search the page for “free will” to look deeper into the modal scope fallacy we often see here.
The Bible talks about justice a lot.
In the abstract, Biblical justice is really straightforward. But the manner in which Biblical justice plays out is complicated.
That’s because justice — that is, “equitable recompense for behavior” — is not just about “following rules,” as if rules are the basis of all moral decisionmaking.
Rather, things like rules and deals and deserts (what is “deserved”) are strategies under a purpose-driven plan.
That is to say, these things are very useful, which is why we see them used. But they’re not “home runs” every time.
Imagine that your child misbehaves. There are many different ways you could respond in equity to that infraction.
- You could pull them aside and give them a time out.
- You could take away a privilege for a while.
- You could threaten to take away access to some future event.
- (And more.)
Each of these might be, individually, equitable to the infraction. They’re not so excessive that they feel arbitrary and give your child anxiety issues. But they’re not so light that they affect no change of behavior. Not too hot; not too cold; just right.
Notice that equity is defined according to purpose on both ends.
So, which method should you apply?
Let’s look at more purposes to help answer that question.
Earlier, you told your children that if they misbehaved this morning, they would lose access to video games. You “laid down a law.”
It makes a ton of sense to go by that law, even though you have several equitable responses before you.
- First, it feels less arbitrary because it seems “objective” (even though you came up with the law yourself). This is great, because objective references feel both stable (less anxiety) and immovable (less “b-b-but!” push-back).
- Second, it’s an effective display of your seriousness; it teaches your children that you make good on your warnings.
Boom! Two more purpose-driven considerations.
But there may be even more purpose-driven considerations, depending on the circumstance.
- Was your earlier law tailored as a general broadcast to all of your children, but may not be best-suited to the child who ended up disobeying?
Ouch. That one’s not so easy.
- Is the disobedient child now showing genuine remorse and proof of regret? Should you mitigate the punishment? To what degree (remember, the other kids are watching)?
- Let’s say they’re not showing regret; is positive punishment even helpful in this particular instance? Would positive punishment only incite resentment, due to the child (as she currently is) and the circumstance (as it is)? If you took a self-sacrificial approach — bearing the burden of the infraction in a different but compelling way — would you powerfully evoke empathy? Would that prove to be better in terms of purpose?
Notice that with each of these questions, you’re considering something other than equitable recompense — in the familiar sense — for the infraction. (You’re considering violating a previous law in the first, you’re considering mercy and forgiveness in the second, and, in the third, you’re volunteering for injustice to provoke a needed change of heart from a hardened person.)
And why are we considering these things?
Purpose is — in the moral hierarchy — supreme.
That is, justice (“equitable recompense for behavior”) is
- tailored to purposes when many responses would qualify as equitable, and
- can even bow-the-knee entirely to purposes, when purposes demand.
Sedeq & Mispat
As we see above, what starts out looking relatively simple — “equitable recompense” — is very soon complicated by the supremacy of purposes, leading to all sorts of twists, turns, and surprises.
This is what makes the topic complicated in Scripture, even though Biblical justice has a clear definition in the abstract.
First, we have the concept of Heb. sedeq — what is correct and true, especially according to expectations between people, and between people and God.
“You shall have sedeq balances, sedeq weights, your ‘ephah’ (a unit of dry measure) shall be sedeq, and your ‘hin’ (a unit of liquid measure) shall be sedeq.”
(There are numerous verses along the same lines.)
Second, we have the concept of Heb. mispat — which is an administered judgment with overtones of sedeq (and especially when it’s God’s judgment).
Job 34:10-12 (Elihu, speaking on God’s behalf)
“Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong. For He pays a man according to his work, and makes him find it according to his way. Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert mispat.”
Scripture explodes with vivid articulations of mispat, and how mispat is perverted: Through equity (sedeq) failures.
(The concepts are not synonymous, but so interrelated that they are paired together dozens and dozens of times.)
Sometimes these failures are due to favoritism, like preferring one person over another with no warrant.
“You shall do no iniquity in mispat; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor with sedeq.”
Other failures can be through excess or recklessness.
For example, Abraham appealed to God not to destroy Sodom because of collateral damage against some hypothetical number of good people — and how this would violate mispat.
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do mispat?”
God’s mispat Judgment, of course, will be sedeq — that is, it will not be a show of favoritism, and will not be excessive.
“Let all creation rejoice before the Lord! For He comes, He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in sedeq, and the people with His faithfulness.”
Third, we have Heb. aph — furious anger, fuming through the nostrils, often described as “kindled” and “burning.” (There are other “flavors of wrath” as well, but we’ll focus on aph here.)
And here’s where it gets complicated.
We know that aph and mispat/sedeq can be expressed simultaneously — God’s “just wrath.”
Consider Eliphaz’s ranting, false claim that Job’s children must have sinned to cause their deaths:
“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of His aph they come to an end.”
Eliphaz’s buddy Bildad backs him up:
“Does God pervert what is mispat? Does the Almighty pervert sedeq? When your children sinned against Him, He sent them away for their sin.”
(When Job stands his ground, insisting that these misfortunes were not sedeq, Bildad retreats to a catch-all — ‘all people are terrible’ (Job 26:4-6), so whatever suffering befalls them is legit. Job correctly responds that this is less-than-useless; “catch-all depravity theodicy” would make God’s mispat meaningless.)
But when Elihu — speaking on behalf of God — comes on the scene, he throws a curveball, and interrupts the bickering with a fresh, revelatory picture of God’s ways. (More about Elihu.)
Elihu agrees that God’s aph brings punishment to the wicked (Job 35:15), but rightly insists that God’s loftiness makes our sins less injurious against God, not more (Job 35:6, 8).
God may express aph, but:
“God is mighty but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in purpose.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
And this isn’t the only place we see this. In Scripture, mispat/sedeq are frequently portrayed as something “less intense” than aph, even subduing or metering aph in service of purpose and productivity.
“Lord, do not rebuke me in your aph or discipline me in your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.”
“Discipline me, Lord, but only in mispat — not in your aph, or you will reduce me to nothing.”
Notice that? Mispat for a set of infractions is explicitly juxtaposed against an excessive (beyond mispat) reaction of “ceasing to be.” You can say it’s aph to obliterate somebody for any amount of sin, but you cannot say it is mispat.
Mispat and aph don’t seem like unconditional pals anymore, do they?
“‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
“‘Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant, for I am with you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in mispat; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.'”
Here again we see that a mispat reaction — a “Biblical justice” reaction — is tailored to specific infractions.
Boolean extremes need not apply at the court of mispat.
But how can this be? Is this a contradiction? How can mispat/sedeq and aph play nicely together one moment, but mispat/sedeq be defined against aph the next?
Scripture supplies the answer: His aph lasts only for a moment (Psalm 30:5).
(We ought to have suspected something like this, since “time & circumstances” can break such apparent contradictions.)
In Scripture, God’s looming wrath is conveyed through all sorts of vivid, and often frightening, and sometimes humorous, illustrations:
- Broken bones
- Total obliteration (no corpse; all memory wiped out)
- Slaughter (corpse; memory remains, in shame)
- Weapons disarmed
- Exposed loins
But his purposes remain supreme. Any aph “only for a moment” shall not override God’s expressed “as surely as I live” interests.
Implications for Eschatology
In discussions about the nature of God’s Judgment and the Second Death, it’s really common to see folks come to the table with assumptions that act as “filters” on Scriptural imagery.
Indeed, which “road” you take at the multi-pronged eschatological “fork” is largely about buying into one set of stipulations and/or heuristics over another. Anybody who’s spent time and self-critical honesty in the nitty-gritty knows that there’s no proposal that fits “cleanly”; each proposal, if it is coherent, must relax some things and treat other things at full, face-value force.
Scripture ain’t simple on this topic. Period. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves (or trying to sell you their book).
But formal logic can serve as referee.
As long as we keep our philosophy “quiet” — doggedly resisting the temptations of utile ambiguity — we can derive powerful corollaries from bold Scriptural assertions like:
- God is abounding in love and mercy.
- God doesn’t ultimately despise anyone, but is firm in purpose (as such there may be ancillary disfavor, e.g., Rom. chs. 9-11).
- Mispat and sedeq are often “less than aph.”
- God’s aph lasts only for a moment.
- Even mispat and sedeq are subordinate to God’s purposes; the King can see fit to forgive debts, reinstate debts, and tailor the forms of equitable recompense to suit his plans (Matthew 18:21-35).
- God makes the sinner listen to correction.
- God’s arm is never too short.
- God’s practice of mispat and sedeq is upon and from a throne established in love.
And these bold assertions, and their direct corollaries, point to a particular set of eschatological stipulations/heuristics — one of the “big three” early Christian teachings on Judgment — as a forthright and powerful compass.
You’ve heard this hand-waving chestnut before: “God is loving, sure. But, he is also just.”
When do folks typically say this?
They typically say this when they want to rationalize a proposal that is otherwise plainly suboptimal in terms of God’s stated “as surely as I live” interests.
This only “flies” if Biblical justice is an ambiguous logical wildcard that rationalizes any old punishment at all.
The real complexity of Biblical justice — when the straightforward definition collides with purpose-driven nitty-gritty — often makes people think they can get away with this.
But mispat tells a different story.
“Durdle Dwarves” is a simulation where little “Dwarf” pixels dig-through and build rock-like structures. They do this according to a set of 20 rules. A rule tests a Dwarf’s vicinity and provides a response. (For example, if a Dwarf notices a drop-off to his left, he’ll build a new piece of “bridge”; that’s 1 rule of the 20.)
The simulation is 100% deterministic, and the state of the world at a certain time is a strict function of those initial rules, plus the starting state.
For instance, this starting state:
Yields this world state after 13,500 ticks:
Let’s pretend we don’t like something about this result. Perhaps that structure just below the middle — the one that looks a bit like a road with a lane divider — displeases us.
We could just pause the simulation and erase it, of course.
Because we have the arbitrary power to change things at any time, you and I are sovereign over this world.
But each interruption like this comes at a cost. Even though we were displeased by the road-like shape, we’re also displeased to intrude upon the natural flow of events. In our set of innate interests, one interest is that the world have as few of these intrusions as feasible.
Another option is to change the starting state of the world. Let’s make our initial two “Adam & Eve Dwarves” one block farther apart.
And here’s what things look like after 13,500 ticks:
Hooray! We got rid of that nasty road-like pattern.
But there was a cost here, too. The world is dramatically different now. Here’s the “Before & After”:
This kind of thing is nicknamed the “Butterfly Effect” in chaos theory. The tiniest of changes, over time, produces explosive world differences in nonlinear and/or interactive systems.
This is irritating, too, because we liked the world basically how it was, we just didn’t like the road pattern. Now everything is way, way different.
Let’s define micromanagement as, “Controlling things with surgical precision.” Is there a way to micromanage-away that road, so that we keep the rest (through our precise surgery), but also without using the blunt force of the eraser?
You might be thinking, “Why don’t we alter the starting rules, so that the road never appears?”
Unfortunately, merely altering one of the 20 core rules, or adding just a few rules, has the same explosive “Butterfly Effect” that dramatically changes the world state at frame 13,500. So, this would fail to micromanage.
As it turns out, the only way to pull this off is to have tons and tons and tons of core rules.
And this, of course, has the cost of being horribly ugly and inelegant.
Some folks would tolerate that inelegance. But you and I agree that this basically defeats the point of creating these guys at all. We take pleasure — let’s say — in the emergence of these forms out of an elegant, simple foundation.
Where This Leaves Us
“Durdle Dwarves” is just a computer program.
However, it’s such an obvious deterministic cloister that it serves as the “worst case” for verifying whether determinism always means full micromanagement.
The answer? It doesn’t.
If we have an innate interest in maintaining systemic elegance, then the degree to which the world is micromanaged is equal to the degree to which we have found it warranted, in certain rare circumstances, to intrude, even as we’d rather not intrude.
Notice that our innate interests have what’s called “circumstantial incommensurability” at the “13,500 circumstance.”
It’s not power-weakness that makes a wholly-satisfying solution impossible. Remember, we’re 100% powerful over that world.
Rather, a wholly-satisfying solution is arithmetic nonsense.
What This Shows Us
An entity can be 100% sovereign and powerful over an interactive deterministic world, including that world’s core rules, starting state, and modifications to any subsequent state.
But if that entity has innate interests in an elegant ruleset, then the world is not necessarily micromanaged. Then, if the entity never intrudes, then the world is not micromanaged at all. And if the entity intrudes to some limited degree, then the world is micromanaged only to that degree.
Primary Causation & Secondary Causation
If we start with an elegant core ruleset in a sizeable interactive system, then as time goes on, I will lose surgical control over that system, even if I’m 100% sovereign over it.
True, but pretty dang counterintuitive.
It is only when I find it justifiable to intrude that I can wrest-back some amount of surgical control, temporarily.
- The reductive perspective is that since these decisions are all “up to me,” everything in the system reduces to “my causation.”
This is the perspective from which St. Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd century, “The will and the energy of God is the effective and foreseeing cause of every time and place and age, and of every nature.”
But this fails to capture something important to me, doesn’t it? Indeed, a formative perspective is needed to capture my interests.
- The formative perspective is that there is a meaningful — according to my interests — difference between primary causation, the stuff that glows brightly with my exceptional exertions of power, and secondary causation, the “teleologically-dimmer” stuff that starts to act weirder and weirder as time goes on.
This is the perspective whereby we rightly deny that God “authors” sin under chaotic determinism; rather, he broadly suffers it.
These two perspectives are simultaneously true in heterophroneo (a concept we’ve been exploring on this site that’s similar to Aristotle’s hylomorphism, but not exactly).
- Those who say “under determinism, primary and secondary causation have no meaningful distinction” are mistaken.
- Those who say “under determinism, a sovereign entity has 100% micromanagement, irrespective of that entity’s interests” are mistaken.
Please see last year’s article, “The Sun Also Rises,” to explore other philosophical and theological puzzles that “form heterophroneo” finally puts to bed.
Explore “Durdle Dwarves” for yourself here. Press “Start” to see the world erupt chaotically but deterministically, according to a small set of rules.
(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 and moral absolutism.)
Until confronted with moral dilemmas, right decisionmaking — after we untangle our interests — 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.
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).
- … And some other folks.
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 “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, 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 (Arnobius, St. Ignatius of Antioch).
- 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 do 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. soterios “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’).”