Archive | August 2014

The Big Three Sovereignties

What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?

Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.

The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:

  • The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
  • The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
  • The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Nineveh in the above image.

The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.

What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?

The “Free Will” Brand

The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as well as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.

This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.

sov_freewill

Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.

There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.

The Problems

In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:

  • God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
  • God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
  • God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
  • God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.

The only other option is:

  • Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.

(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)

Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).

I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.

What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.

(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer to the ancient puzzle comes down to how responsibility works.)

The “Reformed” Brand

The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.

In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.

sov_reformed

The Problems

Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.

But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!

Where on Earth did that come from?

How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?

It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”

But this brand needs that purple.

Why?

Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forevera down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.

The Situation

The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”

The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”

The situation is that these paradigms together:

  • Are overwhelmingly dominant among Christians today.
  • Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
  • Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”

And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:

  • Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
  • In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
  • Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.

The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)

There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.

sov_purg

First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)

This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.

Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.

Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.

From our last post on hell:

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial.”
  • “Hell is endless torment.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Result

The result is pretty amazing:

  • Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
  • “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.

So, what’s the catch?

  • It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
  • It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. See the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
  • It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not always what they meant.

Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.

And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.

And there’s probably no way around this.

St. Isaac of Nineveh on the Folly of the First Two Brands

In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Nineveh were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).

The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.

St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:

“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.

Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”

St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:

“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.

All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”

St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:

“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.

This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”

St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:

“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.

For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”

St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.

“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.

At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.

Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”

We know that doctrine develops.

Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.

But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.


Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”

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“Genuineness” by Association

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. It goes something like this:

“All Scotsmen enjoy haggis,” says Mike.

“My father’s Scottish, though, and he hates haggis!” objects Julia.

“Then your father,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”

Instead of “true,” Mike could have said “genuine” or “real,” but the fallacy remains: he is, on the fly, stipulating a persuasive definition in order to defend his original claim against the clear rebuttal.

Let’s look at another version of the above exchange for a moment.

“All Scotsmen hate haggis,” says Mike.

“My brother’s Scottish, though, and he loves haggis,” objects Julia.

“Then your brother,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”

This exchange is much more absurd, isn’t it?

Why is that?

Even though Mike’s original claims in both situations are false, and even though Mike’s replies in both situations are fallacious, his second reply is zanier because there is indeed an association between being from Scotland and enjoying traditional Scottish food, like haggis.

It’s one thing to fashion a stereotype along a vector of strong association; it’s quite another to fashion a stereotype completely against that association.

I think you’ll agree that this is pretty basic stuff so far.

But it turns out that these odd exchanges can go a long way toward helping us think about theology and philosophy.

Step 1: The Red Flag

Any time someone prepends the qualifiers “true,” “genuine,” or “real” in front of a relatively familiar concept, it should serve as a red flag to you that a persuasive definition might be at play.

Often times, such persuasive definitions aren’t employed as dirty tricks as with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but as sincerely felt foundations for various theological claims.

So when you see those words, your brain should tell you, “Shields up!

Step 2: Recognize the Association

Remember that most persuasive definitions — “true _______,” “genuine _______,” “real _______,” etc. — subsist upon stereotyping a strong association.

(I say “most” because, sometimes, a theologian or philosopher really is attempting to advance a new, bizarre, idiosyncratic definition in order to provoke a dopamine-exciting response. These maneuvers are usually recognized easily, without need for shields or red alerts.)

So step 2 is to recognize that association.

For example, Fred might say, “Risk is innate to love. Without risk, there cannot be genuine love.”

The association here is clear: In some of the most loving relationships and loving actions we can take, there’s something about that relationship or action that can be correctly described as “risky.”

Furthermore, risk multiplies against evaluation. I may value something, but if the work necessary to acquire or reaquire that thing is very intense — particularly if it is something that cannot be reaquired if I lose it —  it does a number on our prospect-seeking and our loss-aversive neurotransmitter activity.

This is why the evil “Art of Seduction” fad involves emotionally abusing a partner into being afraid you’ll leave and uncertain about your ultimate intentions. This makes unsuspecting partners fall in love way earlier than is healthy, “cheating” people into love using the “hack” of perceptive risk cultivation.

That’s the “dark side” of risk.

The “light side” includes when I have awful dreams about being married to someone else, I wake up feeling a buzz of thankfulness that I’m with my wife. My imagination races to the numerous possible worlds in which I missed out on this blessing in my life. The overwhelming gratitude I feel in being fortunate to be her husband, when so many things could have gone wrong, and when so many disasters may befall us in the future, multiplies against the natural satisfaction I have enjoying her company and interacting with her every day.

And thus, for emotions to escalate into being “in love,” it often takes the perceptive value-multiplier of risk.

There is a very, very strong association here.

Step 3: Search for Decoupling Corner-Cases

So the question here is, “Is X merely strongly associated with Y, or is X absolutely necessary for ‘true’ Y?”

To put it in terms of our example, “Is risk merely strongly associated with love, or is risk absolutely necessary for ‘true’ love?”

To answer this question, we can go through the exercise of searching for “decoupling corner-cases.” This are the uncommon instances in which there is Y without X — e.g., a Scotsman without the affinity for haggis.

In terms of our example, we’d be searching for situations in which there is love expressed — which everyone would describe as genuine, true, and real — but in which there is very low, even zero risk.

One corner case might be the love a (particular, loving) new mother has for her newborn. There is no risk of the newborn defying her or rebelling against her, and yet the love toward the baby is genuine.

Down the road, the baby will inevitably leave the mother, and there are thoughts about the child’s path in life and destination, and this multiplies against the perceptive value. But this risk is not a predicate. The mother need not appeal to some future risk in order to genuinely love her child.

(Neither must the mother have a measure of unreliability to express such! Good gravy!)

The next corner case is much less heartfelt, but shows how affinity is a product of interest resonance independent of any risk-driven “multipliers.”

Over the last 20 years, I’ve written many simulations of deterministic automata. These are virtual worlds in which little, simplistic virtual organisms go about their business.

The following is from a schema called “Durdle Dwarves.”

dwarves

Even though these virtual units act deterministically, they find themselves in all sorts of situations.

In the following, two units chase one another in an endless race in the larger cell on the right. On the left, a unique condition is changing mindless rock into a mobile unit and he fumbles about before turning back into stone.

cycling

But there are many less-stable patterns as well. These “dwarves,” like the stalwart dwarf adventurers from Lord of the Rings, dig walls, build bridges, carve mines, push minecarts, collect rocks from one location and deposit them in others, and more.

When I watch one unit chase another, or watch a unit build a long bridge, I know exactly what he’s going to do. The delight for me isn’t in the “riskiness” of his endeavor — after all, these are all deterministic. Rather, I delight simply because they are doing things that resonate with me. These aren’t real-life bridges or minecarts or rocks, but the patterns are so analogous that I like watching them. (I used the pronoun “he” in this paragraph — did you notice that, or did the word feel acceptably natural?)

None of this is to imply that we are much akin to the “Durdle Dwarves.” We’re much more complicated, for one. We also make decisions, through a neural process called “decisionmaking,” in which we measure and select an action according to an evaluation of imaginary opportunities.

This is only meant to show that I can “enjoy” or “have affinity for” things that literally cannot defy my foreknowledge.

I can imagine a world in which I’ve created a hyper-complicated automata with extremely human-like units, and genuinely love and feel for them as my creations even if I know exactly what they’re going to do, just as I genuinely love and feel for my dog even though his behavior is almost completely predictable — and as that predictability increases, my love continues fully and ever onward, unscathed.

That isn’t a stretch to me. To me, this is a valid demonstration of the “decoupling” of affinity from risk and, eventually, given a sufficient increase in resonance and affinity, genuine love and care.

In the Abstract

This 3-step process should be our modus operandi whenever we see someone making a persuasive argument using a “limited” sense of “true _______,” “genuine _______,” or “real _______.”

“Genuine love” isn’t the only word finding itself used in this persuasive, stipulative manner.

As you engage in theological and philosophical discussions, you’ll see all sorts of terms like this:

  • Real freedom”
  • Genuine choice”
  • True Christians”
  • Real value”
  • Genuine altruism”
  • True justice”
  • Real spirituality”
  • Genuine possibility”
  • Truly rational”

Each of these probably trigger a few mental images and concepts. You might even feel a sense of what the author might be intending.

But is that the same sense the author intended?

Remember that I’m the author, here…

… And I didn’t intend anything by any of them!

I have no idea what those stipulative “reals/genuines/trues” are doing to those words. They could be doing anything! (Thank goodness they’re not being employed toward some rhetorical strategy right now! They’d be really dangerous if they were!)

And that’s why those words should always prompt “shields up” as part of that slow, “boring,” critical, 3-step evaluation.

Where have you seen these kinds of phrases being used?

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Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 2

Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.

Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.

Last time in this 2-part series, we talked about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” Today, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.


“Ignorance is No Excuse”

Let’s say you’re a manager who delegates many of your responsibilities to your subordinates.

One day, one of your subordinates mails a package without including a special serial number, and it causes problems for your team. You call him into your office.

“You’re in trouble,” you say. “You mailed a package off to finance without including the sorting number.”

“But I had no idea I was supposed to do that!” he replies.

“Ignorance is no excuse,” you say.

The thing is, it was your responsibility to train him, a week ago, in applying proper serial numbers on special packages. You know that you failed to do this; you cut the training short to pick up your dog and didn’t get to the part about numbering packages. You knew this would leave a gap in his ability to make right decisions according to your company’s processes, and yet you did it anyway, and didn’t bother to fill him in later.

The reason I transferred the responsibility for this mistake to you is because it most obviously alleviates the subordinate’s responsibility. Clearly, ignorance was a perfectly valid excuse.

How can you act upon what you did not know, and couldn’t have known?

When Ignorance is Blameworthy

Here are some alternative versions of the above thought experiment.

  • You (the manager) stayed for the whole training, but the subordinate left early, and never followed-up to get the information he missed.
  • The training hasn’t happened yet, but it was expected of the subordinate to ask a superior or experienced coworker to make sure that new-to-him tasks are done properly.

In these cases, the subordinate’s ignorance was catalyzed by his own blameworthy behavior — here, negligent behavior.

“Invincible Ignorance”

Ignorance that was not catalyzed by blameworthy behavior is called “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly identifies this brand of ignorance (1790-1791, 1793a):

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

If — on the contrary — the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.

When Ignorance Cannot be Respected

Even though invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse, there’s no way for one human to know for certain that another’s ignorance is invincible.

Humans lie all the time, and will (if given a cultivating environment) pretend that their blameworthy (usually by way of negligence) ignorance is invincible.

We will, in fact, lie to ourselves to alleviate guilt of this kind. “I couldn’t have known,” is a common self-encouraging mantra, when we often could have known, if only we had practiced some due exploratory diligence.

(The trick, here, is not to “overcorrect” into paranoia or worry — that is, excessive and deleterious bet-hedging and consciously-made anxiety. Diligence is a “too cold,” “too hot,” “just right,” Goldilocks issue, like with many virtues.)

Humans Can’t Verify Invincibility… but God Can

Of course, verifying invincibility isn’t a problem for an omniscient God.

This is why the judgment to which we Christians look forward judges the secret thoughts of everyone. A person’s thoughts will at times accuse them, but at other times excuse them.

Romans 2:15-16

They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

… But, Again, Humans Can’t

Many practical human-to-human systems will have “ignorance is no excuse” as an official position because of the impracticality of verifying invincibility.

This position, though not how morality “works,” is a decent practical rule to account for the failings of human weakness (that of one party to lie, and that of the other party to be unable to verify).

The previous article in this series, if you remember, ended similarly. And this gives us a cool pattern in the abstract against which to evaluate those funny moral chestnuts. It tells us that just because something is a classic chestnut, and is a popular rule, and is a useful rule very often, doesn’t mean it should be considered fundamental when we’re talking meta-ethics — that is, how morality “works” underneath.

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Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1

Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.

Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.

Today, we’ll talk about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” In the next post, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.


“The Ends Can’t Justify the Means”

I’m sure you’ve heard this one a billion times.

It’s usually uttered by the hero of a story, against some villain who’s decided to bring about some praiseworthy conclusion by means of a horrific plan.

“But I’ll create a better world!” cries the villain, Viktor.

“No,” responds the hero, Herbert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

We cheer the Herbert at this point, right?

Okay. Now let’s take these characters and transplant them into a different situation.

Viktor and Herbert are shop owners in Nazi Germany. For months, they’ve been harboring a Jewish family in a secret attic above their shop. This morning, they’ve heard that Nazi investigators will be going shop to shop and asking for information about harbored Jews in the area.

“We should lie to the investigators,” says Viktor. “A little dishonesty will bring about a greater good by saving lives.”

“No,” responds the “hero,” Hubert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

Notice how in both cases, Viktor wants to do something considered morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good. But in the latter situation, we can all clearly see that it is no longer Viktor who is the villain — rather, it is Hubert who we all rebuke as morally askew.

We’re quite practiced at cheering duty-bound heroes and chastising “good ends / ill means” supervillains. What we forget is that there are plenty of “good ends / ill means” heroes as well, from Oskar Schindler to Rahab, who we (alongside James) recognize as righteous for heroism that required deception.

The Better Chestnut

The answer to the puzzle is that “The ends can justify ill means.”

The question is, when?

Well, ends are more likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are really, really good…
  • … and you’re really, really sure that they’ll come about.
  • The ill means aren’t that bad…
  • … and you’re really, really sure that there won’t be horrible unintended consequences, neither for those in your local area, nor for the world in general, and neither for things right now, nor for things down the road.
  • There aren’t safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Similarly, ends are less likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are good, but not that great.
  • You’re not sure they’ll come about.
  • The ill means are pretty bad.
  • You aren’t sure that there won’t be a bunch of horrible unintended consequences.
  • There are safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Decisionmaking is Complicated

Consider the following diagram, where the ill dark-red “bad” circle is committed, while intended to make the green “good” circle come about.

cons1

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? We could say, “You can’t use bad things to make good things happen.”

In reality, those “circles” need moral weight/gravity/intensity assigned to them according to what we value.

cons2

Suddenly, that seems okay. Once we account for the moral weights, a tiny moral ill can indeed be acceptable in service of a huge moral payoff.

But it still isn’t that simple! We need to account for the likelihood of that good consequence coming about!

cons3

If there’s only a 20%, or one-fifth, chance of that big payoff happening, it might still be a good investment, but it’s “worth less” as a prospect. In decision theory, we call that “net worth” our “expected value” or “EV.”

But it still isn’t that simple! We haven’t accounted for any of the consequences that are foreseeable but unintended!

cons4

Ew, gross! This decision is looking pretty ghastly now, isn’t it?

But…

… wait for it…

… it still isn’t that simple! That’s because there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences lurking in the shadows of human unknowability.

cons5

It turns out that we, as humans, are so bad at considering the unintended and unforeseen consequences — often when a bee-line prospect looks very tantalizing — that “blind rule-following” has a certain consequential strength or fitness. This is especially the case when, in the shadows of human unknowability, habitual ill behavior can translate into numerous personal erosions of character and will.

And that’s why “The ends can’t justify the means,” is a decent “rule” for folks who can’t handle the complications of decision theory, or who think themselves wiser and/or more knowledgeable than they really are — which is almost everybody.

But it’s not really true.

That’s what makes it thorny.

And so when we’re engaged in lofty discourse about how morality “works,” we need to be careful not to treat that thorny chestnut as fundamental or sacrosanct.


For more about how deontology (“morality is about rules”) and consequentialism (“morality is about consequences”) “converge” on the practicalities of human weakness, take a gander at the Angelic Ladder.

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We Know Endless Hell Doesn’t Really Make Sense

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial. It is agonizing, humiliating, and may last a long time, but ultimately purges away sin and reconciles. Salvation from hell means salvation from the imminent, terrifying outpouring of the wrath of remedial justice due our sins.”
  • “Hell is endless. It is an interminable torment due those who did not accept salvation in life. Beyond death’s threshold, hope is gone. Salvation from hell means salvation from this endless horror.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Scriptural Issues

We’ve already covered many of the Scriptural issues at play here and elsewhere.

But there are simple “sniff test” problems with endless hell as well.

In other words, even though the case for purgatorialism is stronger than that of endless hell using Scripture alone, we can also apply a reasoned moral sense against the idea of a just, benevolent God prescribing an endless hell.

And I think all of us Christians have done this, at one time or another. You’ve done it, I’m sure!

I’ll bet that, like me, you’ve asked a minister about one of these problems. And, if you’re like me, you got an unsatisfying response in return, perhaps something like, “I know it doesn’t make much sense, but the Bible says it, so we believe it.” Or, perhaps, you were given something more creative and elaborate.

The Odd Smell

At the end of the day, even if someone is convinced that “the Bible says it” or has bought in to some elaborate system, we can all agree in our heart of hearts that endless hell just doesn’t make much sense for many reasons:

  • It is an interminable punishment for a finite infraction. How could that be considered just?
  • Humans aren’t that complicated. An omniscient God could figure anyone out and fix them somehow, correct?
  • Even with libertarian freedom, God is ultimately responsible for a person’s constraints. Our steps are not exclusively our own. Isn’t it cruel to ordain to a hopeless destiny?
  • Surely infants and toddlers wouldn’t be thrown into endless torment, right?
  • And if they’re not thrown into torment, wouldn’t right decisionmaking dictate euthanasia (!?) to hedge bets against an infinite agony? God forbid! (But is “God forbid!” the only reason?)
  • Surely a person never given the opportunity to hear the Gospel wouldn’t be guaranteed endless torment, right?
  • And if that’s the case, aren’t we doing such folks a disservice through missions? Wouldn’t we rather they remain invincibly ignorant?
  • Doesn’t the Bible say that God would rather redeem someone if it’s an option?
  • What about the threshold of death “ties God’s hands”? What mechanism or tether would make this the case?
  • Won’t the saved agonize over their loved ones in torment?

I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking these questions. If you’ve asked or pondered these questions, it means that you have:

  • An understanding of how goal-oriented decisionmaking works.
  • An understanding of what satisfies justice vs. what makes a mockery thereof.
  • A visceral, intuitive, and reliable sense of what a truly benevolent God would and wouldn’t do, even while being wholly just.

I’m not trying to tickle your ears or make you feel validated or something. Those questions are simply the products of having some measure of those properties — however obviously imperfect they are — before being twisted by elaborately systemized doctrinal error.

Now, questions and uncertainties should never trump prudent Scripturally-acquired revelation. After all, it’s called revelation, which means we couldn’t access it ourselves without being handed it.

Furthermore, human understanding is notoriously limited: We’re bad at perception, recognition, foresight, higher-order interest-seeking, and all manner of other things.

But if a Scriptural interpretation smells like garbage, our first inclination shouldn’t be to doubt our noses. Our first inclination should be to investigate what Scripture really says and doesn’t say.

A Dilemma-Free Eschatology

Aside from the intimidating Scriptural case for purgatorialism, there’s also the fact that purgatorialism yields none of the dilemmas and questions listed above, all without sacrificing any justice.

  • Those dilemmas simply evaporate, cleanly and elegantly.
  • God’s justice suddenly makes sense.
  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about how and why God punishes.
  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about his ultimate, lofty, final goals.
  • When an infant dies, we don’t have to invent Limbos or special baby exceptions, but instead answer confidently, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire…? But I do not see how we can imagine that, in the case of such a soul. The word ‘retribution’ implies that something must have been previously given…” (On Infants’ Early Deaths)

Decades before St. Augustine’s campaign, that same St. Gregory, who was our most eloquent early purgatorialist, wrote the following beautiful exposition of purgatorialism:

“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.

His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.’

… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”

Purgatorialism is not “no-punishment universalism.” There is punishment. There is wrath. There is agony.

There is also mercy and salvation from that due punishment. We can avoid this hellish purgation! We can be forgiven! Our sins will be remembered no more! What Good News!

Let us chase after and cling to the view of punishment that has the best Scriptural case. And if it also “smells nice,” let us smile all the wider, and rejoice all the louder, for having a God even more completely benevolent than we thought before.


Nine months after this was posted, the Purgatorial Hell FAQ was finally finished. Go there to explore the issues and questions involved in a rediscovery of purgatorialism.

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