Untangling Doctrinal Paradoxes
Here’s a free truth we have by virtue of classical logic:
- All self-contradictory claims are necessarily false.
This is very useful, and (of course) very intuitive. If Harriet says I’ve got the job, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, we know that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct,” is a false claim.
If you’re like me, however, your brain did something funny upon reading the above sentence.
If you’re like me, the first thing you did — upon reading that brazen declaration of the claim being false — was re-read the premise and excitedly explore if there was a strange way that Harriet and Bernard might both be correct.
For example, it may be that the hiring team is definitely going to give me the job. So in a sense, Harriet is correct; the job is headed my way. But since I don’t yet have it officially, Bernard is correct when he says I don’t have it.
It’s important to recognize, however, that to make “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” true, we had to add extra qualifiers to make Harriet’s sense of “got the job” and Bernard’s sense of “got the job” different.
In doing so, we actually changed the premise to, “Harriet says I’ve got the job in one sense, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, but in a different sense.”
And, of course, it no longer necessarily follows that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” is a false claim.
Paradoxes vs. Contradictions
A paradox is a claim that appears to be contradictory on the surface, whether or not it actually entails a contradiction.
Paradoxes are useful for conveying non-contradictions because, by looking like a contradiction at first, they excite and engage the reader. They pique the reader’s curiosity.
This is due to stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is correlated with reward-interested contemplation, and which is extra active when dealing with spikes of uncertainty or surprise, especially in anticipation of prospective rewards. These rewards can be solid (like a donut), imagined (like a promised donut inside an actually-empty box), or psychological (like feelings of self-validation).
In other words, the brain activates “nitro,” trying extra hard to untangle what just occurred, and/or to refine strategic expectations and hold on to important data. And this “nitro” experience is almost always euphoric.
It’s a brain chemical trick, in a sense, and the Bible frequently takes advantage of it for greater resonance, just as so many songs employ rhyming and so many novels employ plot twists.
Because “All actual contradictions are false” is a “free truth” that we know for certain, it follows that if some paradox is true, it must not entail a contradiction. There must be some way to resolve it, even if humans cannot yet know that way.
Sometimes, we can think for a brief moment and see that, even on its face, the paradox in question is just wordplay using antonyms.
- For example, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a mere reversal of fortune; it’s not contradictory any more than saying, “He who is hired now shall be fired tomorrow.” Exchanges, like “You must give to receive,” are similarly obviously non-contradictory.
Sometimes, we can (like with the Harriet and Bernard example above) infer qualifiers that, when selectively applied, “split” a single term into two different terms.
- For instance, “When I am weak, then I am strong” is resolved through inference and context — “Ah! He’s saying, ‘When I am weak in myself, then I am strong in Christ.'”
Sometimes, we can resolve a paradox partially by the above method, but cannot “dig deeper” once we’ve reached the limit of human observation and divine revelation.
- The Trinitarian paradox — “both three and one” — is a good example. This would be contradictory, but we’re supposed to infer qualifiers that break the contradiction: “Three in one respect, but one in another respect.”
Do we know precisely what those “different respects” are? Of course not; we’re dead-ended at grunting analogies at best.
But that’s okay. The paradox is resolved, even though we’re at the limits of explication.
Finally, we can resolve some of the most notorious paradoxes through philosophical deconstruction, especially through theological quietude: Refining terms that we erroneously thought were coherently defined, jettisoning unworkable garbage, and recognizing/accepting linguistic fuzziness and modality of communication.
Some examples of philosophical deconstruction through theological quietude:
- “God ‘changes moral rules’ while being himself unchanging” can be resolved by treating moral rules as functions that make references to, among other things, those being given the rules and of what they’re capable. Check out pivotal philosopher of language R. M. Hare’s “Angelic Ladder” figure for more about this.
- “God forbidding humans to do things he himself does” is similarly resolved through the “Angelic Ladder” (but is a bit more obvious, akin to having special rules for my dog that I don’t follow).
- “God willing evil come to pass while not willing that evil come to pass” is resolved by parsing the variety of senses of “willing” and “wanting” — just as we parsed the variety of senses of “got the job” in our earlier example. See “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’)“.
- “Human responsibility vs. sovereignty.” Paradoxes of sovereign (superordinate) ascription and subordinate ascription are resolved through the Bible’s heterophroneo.
The Doctrinal Refrigerator
While there are limits to human reason and the revelation we’ve been given, with most paradoxes of doctrine, I don’t think we should feel content “riding the dopamine wave” of perpetual tension — which many believers are prone to do — however exciting (and often very mystical-sounding) it might be to do so.
Like leftovers sitting in the back of the fridge, these things can breed and cultivate incoherent doctrine, especially since contradictions serve as powerful logical wildcards.
When you’re asked which of two contradictory doctrines is correct, it’s seldom the case that the answer is simply, “Yes!”
That’s a very cute, even mystical-sounding answer. But on many issues, a moldy answer.
We have the tools — in our noggins and in our Bibles — to explore and articulate the doctrines of our faith in a best, responsible attempt at coherence.
Is Killing in Self-Defense a Sin?
Is killing in self-defense a sin?
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to do everything in your power to self-defend doing the least possible damage. Killing should be “prioritized last” on our list of options, and the manner of self-defense we employ should not recklessly catalyze a “killing” conclusion.
This makes us and our families more vulnerable — when in immediate danger — than someone who is willing and eager to kill any assailant.
The previous sentence bothers some folks enough to rationalize violence in their minds. This anxiety can affect even us Christians, who are called to radical love and peace, even at the expense of our property, welfare, and lives.
The debate within Christianity is mostly tension between deontological morality and consequential morality.
Deontological morality is where “rules rule.”
About what rules are we talking here? Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, and showed by example what that can mean: martyrdom.
Many believers thereafter, and I’m sure plenty of their family members, too, followed that example to their graves.
Consequential morality is where “results rule.”
We can vividly imagine situations in which an otherwise ill action is the right action in terms of consequence.
For example, James praised Rahab for saving lives through deception, and we praise those who used deception to save Jews from Nazi investigators.
The clearest statement of New Covenant consequentialism comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 — “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable; all things are lawful, but not all things are constructive” — after he relaxed a moral rule (forbidding the eating of idol-sacrificed food) held sacrosanct by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Some of us — for better or for worse — extend this “justified means” to allow killing in certain circumstances.
Now, consequentialism is how morality “works,” if “morality” is defined as “right decisionmaking on lofty or grave issues.” Or, at least, that’s the assertion driving this post!
But there are two big problems with pure consequentialism:
- First, it has a subjective appeal to make. A particular person’s interest set might be wildly out of sync with the interest set of society in aggregate.
There is no “objectively right” interest set under consequentialism, because the question of “rightness” in turn makes an appeal to an interest set. Is Madeline consequentially right to defend herself and her family if her actions unintentionally spark a war? Well, depends whose interest set we’re using, right?
Madeline may say, “I don’t care! My family’s all that matters.” Under consequentialism, it is not foregone that humanity “ought be valued” at all, let alone society vs. me (some New Atheists propose otherwise, and are flatly mistaken).
- Second, we’re notoriously terrible at understanding the full consequences of our actions.
A more plausible version of the above “sparking war” example would have Madeline not at all fathoming that defending her family would spark a war!
To solve these two problems in practice, a two-fold solution is employed:
- An agent can force his interest set upon another agent. The more powerful he is, the more he is able to do this.
This power can be in numbers — i.e., a town against a serial killer — or can be in raw ability — i.e., God against the wicked.
So, an interest set is forced. It helps if these forced interests are not popularly thought to have subjective roots (even though they do).
- Once we have an interest set, we can simplify moral action using rules.
Instead of permitting a person to think for himself when contemplating whether stealing bread is justified (Surprise! He very often thinks it’s justified!) we tell him “You are forbidden to steal.”
Occasionally, this will cause something bad to happen, but a good (as defined by the interest set) rule will be generally profitable (as defined by the interest set) when followed by everyone all the time.
So, morality is simplified into rules. Assuming these rules are good (that is, generally consequentially profitable), it helps if morality is popularly thought to be “primarily about rules” (even though it isn’t) so that folks don’t think their rule-breaking is ever justified (even though it can be).
Now, we don’t simplify everything into rules; consequentialism is still how morality “works,” and we can make most decisions day-to-day by applying observation, reason, and prediction.
But for very impactful actions whose consequences are numerous and incalculable, we say to ourselves, “Only an expert should feel entitled to violate this rule” (trivially true) and “No human is an expert” (trivially true). The “free truth” that pops out of these trivial truths is, “No human should feel entitled to violate this rule.”
Further, we’re more inclined to “rule-ify” something if we notice that individuals are weirdly quick to take certain actions at the expense of everyone else. That is, for highly-tempting actions.
We can see Jesus employ this practical solution in his radical advocacy of nonviolent response:
- An interest set is forced. Our own interest set, including the safety of our families, is made subordinate to the will of God and the good of his Kingdom, and his good purposes for the whole world.
- Knowing that violent response is high-impact and highly-tempting, the morality thereof is simplified into rules.
It remains false that “the ends never justify the means” — under consequentialism, means are justified (or not) by their many ends — but extrapolating the impact of killing people to defend ourselves and our families is astronomically above our “non-expert” paygrade.
As such, we’re “no longer allowed” to think completely for ourselves about killing people.
Put simply, God’s interests reign supreme and we are non-experts. And so we’re called to be hyper, hyper reluctant, exhausting every other option, even if it means our families are at greater risk because we try warnings before punching and punching before shooting (so to speak).
We recognize that “results rule,” but we reject pure consequentialism and find rule obligations very useful. This is what compels us, in humility and obedience, to resist violence under the banner of Jesus Christ.
The following talks about the intersection of deontology and consequentialism through the figure of the “Angelic Ladder,” introduced by pivotal 20th-century Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare:
- The Angelic Ladder (with video)
The following talks about why “the ends can’t justify the means” is false in theory, but why it’s super-useful and, for most of us, practically true when it comes to very-ill means:
- Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1 (with diagrams)
Does Universal Reconciliation Destroy Free Will?
Last summer, we talked about how the claim, “If universal reconciliation (like through purgatorial hell) were certain, then free will would be destroyed,” reveals the incoherence of libertarian notions of free will.
At that time, I gave brief support to a direct rebuttal. That wasn’t really the primary thesis, though; the primary thesis was that “this whole thing” served as a good red flag “alert” that libertarian free will is just a logical wildcard (useful in rhetoric and conceptually-evocative, but mostly incoherent and ultimately confusing).
It turns out, however, that this rebuttal wasn’t very well-crafted, and I needed to do a better job of showing clearly why that original claim is false.
Hopefully I can do that irrespective of what kind of “free will” we’re talking about or in which we believe.
In this thought experiment, we’re going to pretend that Patricia is the only human being. God created Patricia and called it done. Patricia is the whole of the human race.
Patricia sins and undergoes the Fall, and is in need of reconciliation. To accept God’s offer of reconciliation, she must exert her “free will,” whatever that might mean. But she hasn’t done it yet.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Patricia will eventually be reconciled.”
One of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has destroyed her “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has not destroyed her “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
I think most Christians (who aren’t Open Theists) would bank on option #2: God’s knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation has no effect on her freedom or lack thereof.
In this next thought experiment, we’ll pretend that Patricia and Patrick are the only human beings. They Fall, they need reconciliation, and they must exert their “free wills” to accept it.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Both Patricia and Patrick will eventually be reconciled.”
Again, one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has destroyed their “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has not destroyed their “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of their eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
That Christian from the previous thought experiment, who banked on option #2, has no justifiable reason to change his mind here. Adding a second individual changes nothing.
The trick, of course, is that God’s statements were statements of universal reconciliation in both thought experiments.
And we can just keep adding people to the thought experiment — adding Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — until we arrive at the total real population of human souls.
Thus, if you’re the sort of Christian who believes that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of a particular individual does not destroy “free will,” then you’re burdened to also believe that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would likewise not destroy “free will.”
This argument should work no matter what you mean by “free will,” as long as you’re a “Green Christian.”
Even Vague Promises are Promises
But what if you’re not a “Green Christian?” What if you’re an “Orange Christian?”
(In this case, you’d probably be an Open Theist; you deny God’s certainty of future will-contingent events.)
Let’s revisit the second thought experiment, the one with both Patricia and Patrick.
This time, though, God turns to an angel and declares, “One of these two will eventually be reconciled; the other will never be reconciled.”
In this case, where no specific declaration is made about the destination of any particular individual, the options mutate slightly. We find that one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has not destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God doesn’t have knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person; he’s just guessing or hoping.
Option #3 doesn’t seem so bad with only Patricia and Patrick in play.
But when we add the rest of humanity into the thought experiment — Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — option #3 remains annoyingly unchanged.
In other words, for “Orange Christians,” God isn’t sure that even one person will be reconciled. It may be that, in the end, literally everybody will (in exercise of their “free will”) spurn God at the last moment.
He can play the odds, of course. “What are the chances,” a future-uncertain God might ask, “that everyone will duck out at the last moment? Pretty slim!”
But it remains possible under that paradigm. The final apocalyptic expectation may be a disaster. The New Jerusalem may be empty of citizenry.
Put simply, under option #3, God supplied us with vivid promises, and there’s a possibility that he may be proven a liar.
Either Bail Out…
That “liar possibility” is a reductio ad absurdum against option #3.
If we don’t think there’s any chance that the City will be empty — if our confidence in God’s revelatory imagery is more than just “he’s pretty dang sure some folks will make it” — then option #3 must be rejected (in favor of, say, option #2).
And if option #2 is accepted, then one is burdened to admit that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would not destroy “free will.”
… Or Bite the Bullet
If a person does not “bail out” of option #3, then they must bite the bullet on the possibility of a complete eschatological failure of God’s plan.
“But that’s so implausible as to be silly,” such a person might say.
But now the trap is sprung; any “probability against” this silly result can be employed as “probability against” a failure of universal reconciliation (by, say, an Open Theist who believes in universal reconciliation).
Put another way, under Open Theism, the contradictory force of universal reconciliation vs. “free will” is equal to the contradictory force of “at least somebody will be reconciled” vs. “free will.”
That is, “an infinitesimally insignificant amount of contradictory force.”
If you’re a person who asserts option #1, then there’s no “free will” regardless of whether universal reconciliation is true. As such, universal reconciliation represents no “additional invalidating power” against “free will.”
Otherwise, you’re left with either option #2 or option #3. Whichever of these other routes you take, a confidence in universal reconciliation can coexist with “free will” — regardless of how you define “free will.”
- For those of us who believe God knows the future with certainty, that confidence can be a complete confidence, and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- Under Open Theism, that confidence can be a near-complete confidence — akin to the confidence one has that at least somebody will be reconciled — and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For a big primer on purgatorialism, see the Purgatorial Hell FAQ. Included is additional discussion of free will, and how incoherent views of free will can allow “modal scope fallacies” to emerge.