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.
Modal Ontological Arguments might, at first, seem stronger than the more classical formulations, but they just use a different kind of ambiguity to make their “hop”: Using Rule S5 to squish “redundant” modal operators together that actually have different modal scopes (and thus aren’t actually redundant and squishable). Modal scope fallacies famously foster Trojan Horsesque conjuration.
Use epistemic modality to “lead-line your lab.” Here, the scopes of modal operators are easier to intuitively track, and it becomes more obvious when a string of operators should not be collapsed together (when they have different scopes).
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 does not match with the idea of “endless rebellion” to justify endless hell or “incorrigible rebellion” to justify annihilation.
As such, some have 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.”
And here it must be noted that the above idea is not found in Scripture. It was invented centuries later, “post hoc” (that is, after the “need” for such conjecture arose). So this isn’t a matter of dueling prooftexts; “endlessly-incorrigible people” lacks Scriptural warrant. Scripture instead says everyone will bend the knee, “as surely as God lives.”
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” (in this case, one driven by an upstream composition 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”; that sanctification and relationship with the Creator of the Universe, and the duty of the ministry he calls us to, is not valuable enough to make it preferred over the ‘benefits’ sinning and faithlessness.
This is a ridiculous premise. Any believer that realizes they’re holding this premise should be concerned. 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.
“For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not wholeheartedly bring affliction or grief to any person.”
“For the Lord’s wrath is fleeting,
but his goodwill lasts a lifetime.
Weeping may stay for the night,
but in the morning, rejoicing comes.”
- 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.
Over the last several years I’ve had a lot of great discussions with Open Theists.
Open Theism — perhaps more properly called open futurism — is the idea that what we imagine as plausible future possibilities are all realizable (and not simply imaginary).
For them all to be realizable, it is asserted, God cannot have certain knowledge of a single future course.
There are 3 big reasons why folks might be interested in this sort of thing:
- It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
- It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
- If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever-you-please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Sounds pretty good, right?
The bad news is that all 3 of these have major snags (and we’ll get into the specifics in just a moment).
First, let’s talk about what you’d expect if it’s true that these have major snags.
If these contributions are deeply problematic (as opposed to surface-only problems with ready solutions) — like a leaky wooden ship set-sail — you’d expect:
- Radically novel conjecture (not just refinement or development) in order to “jury-rig.”
- Selective appeals to solutions pioneered by competing hypotheses in order to “patch.”
- Logical wildcards to keep the ship’s captain blissfully oblivious to the problems below; to “obfuscate.”
Open Theology is under development, and as such, different Open writers and thinkers have different ideas and approaches. Even so, I’m noticing those “you’d expect” patterns more and more.
This is especially of interest to me as a Christian compatibilist.
Because compatibilist solutions are very often being procured from the compatibilist “vessel” for at-sea patching! “Hey, that’s ours!”
Compatibilism is the idea that while creatures make decisions as strict functions of who they are and what makes them tick, we still make real choices, can be held responsible, and have free will. The angle is that these “agency things” dwell on a layer of meaningfulness that emerges from discriminatory interests (including interests of God).
It doesn’t seem like it at first, but compatibilism isn’t a big jump from Open Theism.
This is evinced by the fact that our vessels are neighborly enough for “trading”!
Of course, the hope is that Open brethren will eventually jump ship and board the U. S. S. Compatibilism, which is an amazing ship, and which would love a bigger crew to battle (in a friendly way) common theological foes.
Let’s tackle the snags within each of the above 3 contributions.
… In reverse order!
If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever you please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Problem 1.1: The Incoherence of Folk Responsibility
Notice “selectively apply folk responsibility.” That “selectively” is important: Folk responsibility is a logical wildcard.
Logical wildcards are hard to directly address because their power is in their ghostly incoherence, vagueness, and inconsistency.
There are two ways to battle these ghosts:
- Demand definition. (This is rhetorically weak because the ghosts will just fly away.)
- Show how the ghosts are yielding logical contradictions and/or algorithmic inconsistencies. (This is more rhetorically effective.)
The latter takes place in the following article: “Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible.” There, you’ll see definitively how folk responsibility is leveraged inconsistently to “clean God’s hands.”
Problem 1.2: The Triviality & “Raah” of Deterministic Processes
This applies only to the subset of Open Theists who admit that some processes are indeed deterministic (or, would be unless effected by a “libertarian free agent”).
One such process might be the molding of costal cliffs. After millennia of water against rock, each coastal cliff is indescribably unique. So, did God micromanage each cliff face around the world?
A common, and (I think) proper, answer is, “No. There’s a difference between the micromanaged results of deterministic processes and the corollaries thereof. The former has teleology; the latter is just ‘byproduct.'”
Sweet! That’s a patch borrowed from compatibilism. And it works pretty well with coastal cliffs.
But what about tsunamis against cities? Or Pompeii?
At this fork in the road, the subset might jury-rig with radical novelty. For example, one could posit that libertarian-free demons are driving every natural disaster and accident.
Or rather, if they please, they’re invited to borrow another patch from our compatibilistic ship: Not only can there be byproduct trivialities, but there can also be byproduct “raah,” like wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, lava flows, meteoroids, lightning, blizzards, famines, floods, plagues, etc.
Some of these may have ancillary consequences — the more ancillary the better — but we need not ascribe to them “total teleology,” frantically searching for folks like Hindus or gay people or pervasive demons or “Christians-from-wrong-denominations” to blame.
It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
Problem 2.1: Analysis Nags
When we look up at the starry sky, it appears as if all of the stars are the same distance away from us. But when we use observational instruments other than our “eyes & guts,” we see that this is false; they’re at all sorts of different distances.
Our “eyes & guts” tell us that we’re quite spontaneous. But other observational instruments keep telling us that we aren’t. We act according to who we are, and who we are is a function of what makes us tick.
Now, as a Christian, I have a faith-premise in some supernatural stuff. It comes with the territory. But supernaturalism is often used as a shoehorn toward arbitrary conclusions. And one way it protects this maneuver is through “gapping.”
By defining a treasure in an ambiguous or indiscernible way, there’s no way to disprove its existence. It establishes a “bunker,” “sandbag,” or “motte” — a “gap.”
Atheists accuse believers of positing a “God of the Gaps” all the time, and — to a point — there’s some validity to this indictment, especially because some believers recklessly plaster supernaturalism onto everything.
But we have faith in “He Who Is Unseen”; Paul tells us that unlike the readily tangible and powerless idols, God is powerful and wants to be sought, though he is not far from any of us. In other words, there is purpose in God’s veil of subtlety.
Here, though, folks take shelter in a “spontaneous will of the gaps,” and there is no such teleology explaining it.
No matter what analysis or observations we make, “something-or-other” can always live in the “something-or-other zone” (it’s no coincidence that libertarian free will lacks a coherent, positive definition; it is a “something-or-other”).
Problem 2.2: Coherent Remedial Response is Ruined by Spontaneity
When a child is spoiled, whom do we blame?
We don’t apply “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the child’s bad behavior.
But nor do we excuse the child.
Rather, we assign responsibility to every cofactor, focusing especially on those cofactors with the capacity to recognize a problem and the power to change catalyzing circumstances.
In short, we focus our attention on the parents and other environmental cofactors.
But the dynamism of responsibility (which entails a rejection of folk responsibility) is predicated on the fact that our decisions are influenced, molded, and knitted by prior causes.
How can this be reconciled with having a “free will”?
The compatibilist solution is to say that there is a sort of free will in the gap of human understanding and an interest in formative self-guidance:
- If I don’t know what’s causing you to do choose something bad (let’s talk about only bad behavior for now), I call that your “free will.”
- If I know what’s causing you to do something bad, but can anticipate you coming to correction in your own time, I also call that your “free will.”
- If, however, I know what’s causing you to do something bad, and cannot anticipate a self-guided turn-around, then I do not call that your “free will”; rather, I call it a disease or defect or disorder. No longer can you be held exhaustively culpable for persisting in your bad behavior. And if I know how to cure you of your disease and can easily do so, then I bear culpability by omission until I help cure it (and can be blamed or credited for any delay, depending on the prospects and costs thereof).
This should be rather intuitive. But the idea of spontaneity allows us to insert “buck-stops-here culpability-breaks.”
And what does that do for us? It lets us excuse potential “surgeons” of their omissive culpability!
And certain eschatologies need this excuse, else they become theodicean problems.
We talked before how folk responsibility is used as a logical wildcard. It rears its head here, too. One minute, an Open Theist named Linda might claim that George can become rooted in his behavior and lose his spontaneity. The next, she’ll use George’s spontaneity to excuse the “Great Surgeon” of omissive culpability for George’s predicament.
The former claim and latter excuse are not at all consonant. Typically, Linda’s confusion comes from equivocating George’s past spontaneity (where culpability still lived with George) with “current spontaneity” (or lack thereof, such that current-George is inexorably enslaved to bad decisions of past-George and needs external help).
Problem 2.3: God’s Still Sovereign
I don’t mean to say that Open Theism denies God’s sovereignty. Many Open Theologies uphold God’s sovereignty with certain re-stipulations.
The issue is that even under Open Theism, God’s “wholly puppeteering will” follows from benign premises unless and until compatibilism is employed to erase the qualifier “wholly puppeteering” through forms.
We’ve talked before about these ingredients:
- God has the raw power to do anything (at least things that are logically possible); if there is a coherent challenge to be met, God could do it if he net-wanted to.
- God knows everything about the past and present.
- God is occasionally willing to intervene and influence to various degrees.
- God has done this before, sometimes gratuitously.
Within the first ingredient, the following is entailed:
- No matter what happens, God can functionally undo it, such that it would not “stick.” Even if he cannot rewind time, he can manipulate particles and memories to duplicate the function of rewinding time.
These ingredients yield the following 2 “question-answer” pairs:
- When would something happen and “stick”? When and only when letting-stick conforms to God’s net-wants.
- When would something be “undone”? When and only when that undoing conforms to God’s net-wants.
Notice the reductive, ultimate appeal that answers both questions?
Now, remember that reduction destroys meaning. The above chain of logic — and its reductive conclusion — feel horrible and nihilistic, even as they are inarguable (assuming we agree on the premises).
So, how do we “get out” of this? How do we come up for air?
Again, we have a little fork in the road, this time 4-pronged:
- We can “come up for air” by cupping hands over ears and reverting to non-analysis.
- We can “come up for air” by using logical wildcards (like folk responsibility and libertarian freedom) to bridge-break the logic.
- We can “come up for air” by denying the premises. A subset of Open Theists, for example, has dabbled in denying God’s raw power. A weak God would not yield the sovereign conclusion; theodicy is solved by positing a God “wholly willing, but unable.”
- We can “come up for air” by plowing forward, blasting through the nihilism of reduction to capture our refined, meaningful forms.
The last is entailed by compatibilism.
One such discriminating interest is that between “directly affected stuff vs. stuff affected through distant indirection.” The forms that emerge from such an interest allow us to take a HUGE breath after ascending from the fish’s belly of reduction.
Some Open Theists sense this payoff!
Some will even package this interest-driven discrimination into a stipulative (“True Scotsman”) redefinition of sovereignty and/or power, e.g., “True power is that which subtly influences.”
(This is like to borrowing a patch from the compatibilistic ship but claiming it was in the other cargo hold all along.)
Problem 2.4: Its Theodicean Sword is Borrowed
It’s one thing to appeal to a permissive interest in indirection. But you have to further claim that this is part of a manifold interest set, in which there are two or more interests that are incommensurable.
That’s because we know that God isn’t just interested in indirection or permission or “allowing for free will” or what have you. We know that he’s also interested in beautiful stuff like “nonsuffering.”
Circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set (“CIWAMIS”), in other words, acts like a “from-God confounder” that tells us why we might have both a benevolent God and bad stuff in the world.
We get theodicean “oomph” from CIWAMIS.
But here’s the upshot: “God’s not knowing the future” and/or “libertarian free will” has no “oomph” without it!
In other words, “God’s not knowing the future” and “libertarian free will” both bragged about their theodicean “oomph,” but were just brandishing CIWAMIS’s sword, while claiming it was their smithery.
And CIWAMIS, as it turns out, lends its theodicean sword to all sorts of theologies, including compatibilistic theologies.
I want to point out that at this point, we’ve taken the wind out of Open Theism’s theodicean sails.
- Remove libertarian free will; replace with “compatibilistic free will” or “natural will” or something.
- Remove folk responsibility; replace with dynamic responsibility.
- Uphold God’s discriminating interest in “direct/indirect” influence.
- Uphold CIWAMIS.
Zero theodicean “oomph” is lost in the above cookie recipe. The cookies still taste great, perhaps even better, after we replace the raisins with chocolate chips.
It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
Problem 3.1: Face Value is Still Denied Selectively
We depend on anthropomorphic and/or hyperbolic interpretations anyway.
That’s because a face-value interpretation makes God not merely uncertain, but capricious and recklessly curiosity-driven. He wouldn’t just be imperfect at prediction — he’d have to be really, really terrible at it.
The “waiting to see” and “fickle” passages do not supply proof texts for those Open Theologies actually being proposed, which generally go out of their way to laud God’s exhaustive wisdom to guide history through subtle influences and maintain a stability of interests and firmness in purpose.
Often an Open Theologian will admit that Genesis 6 (for example) is being rather hyperbolic for whatever reason (to resonate with fickle man? to express CIWAMIS via athropomorphism? both?) when it talks about God regretting having made mankind… and beasts… and birds.
Problem 3.2: The Book of Job Lacks it
This would be a fallacious argument from silence, except that the Book of Job goes out of its way cover all sorts of theodicean proposals (most rebuked). It’s bizarre that it lacks any sort of libertarian excuse-making (i.e., “I didn’t do this to you; Satan did!”) if such a thing ought indeed be considered legitimate theodicy.
Job is rebuked (and repents) for claiming that God lacks justice and/or is distant and powerless.
The three stooges of Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are rebuked for claiming that Job’s predicament was a perfect divine expression of karmic justice, and that all lowly humans deserve unbridled suffering for their failing such a lofty God.
By contrast, Elihu, who (1) boasts perfect knowledge, (2) introduces the Storm of God, and (3) is never rebuked, weaves a theodicy of hope. He affirms God as super-powerful, completely wise, firm in purpose, despising nobody, and the ultimate teacher of mankind.
This is the theodicy that introduces the Storm, after which Job admits having failed to ascertain the grand plan “to wonderful for me to know.”
God’s superordinate responsibility (in a hierarchical stack) + a theodicy of corollary and ancillary function?
Such are the hull and sails of the U. S. S. Compatibilism.
Problem 3.3: That God is Worse
Josephus has a must-read account of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God’s purpose is explicated: To see what’ll happen! ‘I’m going to tell Abraham to do this horrifying thing and see what he does.’
Afterward, this God is genuinely surprised; ‘Wow, I’m shocked at how readily you did that!’
The hilarious part about Josephus’s account is that both Abraham and Isaac reason a prospective justification for God’s command, that is, they conclude that God — in his wisdom and foresight — knew that Isaac would otherwise undergo some horrible disease or murder or other “severity” if Isaac were not kindly slain now.
In other words, in the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and cosmic foresight.
The reason this is hilarious is because — in Josephus’s account — the God in which Abraham and Isaac believed is clearly better (in terms of benevolence) and wiser (in terms of foresight) than the “actual” God (presented by the omniscient narrator).
When we finish reading the story, and our own giggles fade to crickets, we come to the sobering realization that a God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity — instead of benevolent ancillary investment and/or corollaries to creative processes — is indeed “less good.”
The common response is an insistence that only this “less good” situation is fertile turf to garden “genuine love.” Seasoned compatibilists, however, have been trained by experience to spot “genuine/authentic/true/real” persuasive stipulations a mile away. This one is the product of “genuineness by association.”
“Open Theism helps with theodicy.”
- It relies on folk responsibility which is demonstrably bad.
- “Creation’s deterministic trivialities” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling leaves have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- “Creation’s deterministic raah” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Jury-rig: “Demons do those things.”
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling boulders have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
“Open Theism prevents the existential anxiety of the loss of origination.”
- Deeper analysis has been scoring slam dunks and three-pointers only for the following team: “We decide based on who we are, which is a function of that which makes us tick.”
- Obfuscate: “Gapping” maneuvers keep the game clock going. But a deliberately subtle God would preclude overt detection; there is no such teleological explanation for the “gapping” of libertarian free will.
- A coherent theology of remediation is selectively ruined by spontaneity. This is woefully useful because certain eschatologies need such selective ruination.
- God’s superordinate responsibility still pops from his classical attributes like toast from a toaster, even if he has no clue about the future.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- Obfuscate: Logical wildcards to bridge-break the logic.
- Jury-rig: Explore “weak God” theology.
- Patch: Borrow “direct/indirect” formation from compatibilism.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- It never had theodicean “oomph” anyway. The “oomph” was from “CIWAMIS”: circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set. Compatibilism can fence with the same sword (and is, in fact, more adept at it).
“Open Theism plays more nicely with Scripture.”
- Open Theologies actually being proposed leverage the same “anthropomorphic and/or hyperbole” interpretations as compatibilist Christians to handle certain passages that would otherwise have God being clueless or capricious.
- The Book of Job is theodicean. It has a libertarian defense readily available to it and avoids its use, preferring instead God’s superordinate responsibility. Neither Job, nor the three stooges, nor “perfect knowledge” Elihu, nor the Storm of God employ it.
- A “mad scientist” God is worse, as exemplified in the laughably upside-down account of Abraham & Isaac given to us by Josephus.
- Obfuscate: Persuasive stipulation of what “genuine love” requires. (An ancient maneuver that has always been non-cogent.)
If you’re an Open Theist, I hope this has at least piqued your curiosity in solutions pioneered by compatiblistic theology and perhaps fostered some prudent internal scrutiny.
In appealing to scrutiny, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit my own fallibility. But I nonetheless have conviction that compatibilism is the way to go. It’s a really, really, really great ship, resolute enough and flexible enough to navigate the waters of Scripture Sea.
In addition to the in-line hyperlinks in this post, check out the following:
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.
When I was a product manager on social games, we enjoyed several different avenues of direct communication to our players, like e-mails or mobile push notifications. These we called “channels.”
In order to remind players that our games existed, we took advantage of these channels and sent messages. Up to a certain point, the more frequently you sent messages, the higher rate of average user engagement you’d receive in return.
The problem was that in order to fill that “air time,” you’d be forced to send more and more messages that wouldn’t be considered meaningful. It would start to come across as spam. Eventually, players could get so annoyed that they’d either block us, or they’d mentally ignore our messages. We’d have “burned our channel.”
Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”
“There was a shepherd boy who was so bored that he cried, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to feign an emergency, summon the town, and prompt some excitement and attention. The town showed up, and the boy claimed that the wolf fled just before they arrived.
Each time this happened, the town’s trust in the boy eroded more and more, until eventually they concluded that the boy wasn’t trustworthy.
One day, a wolf really did show up, and the town ignored the boy’s cries.”
The boy, in this story, also burned a channel — his avenue of receptive communication to the town.
In the former case, the catalyst was true information that lacked value to the receiver. In the latter case, the catalyst was false information (which thereby lacked value to the receiver). Notice that whether the information is true or not is not important for catalysis; rather, the catalyst is whether the information has or lacks value to the receiver.
Put another way, “Can the receiver trust that the information being conveyed is dependably important?”
There are 4 big ways for communication to lack or lose value to the receiver.
- It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
- It’s seemingly worth less than its postage. As with the case of spamming to players, there’s some resonance, but the updates are too anemic and/or non-novel.
- It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
- It’s a “shadow cry.” What if the boy, each time, really did think he saw a wolf’s shadow flitting along the tree line at the edge of the field? The boy’s paranoia and excessive panicking over shadow problems would similarly burn his channel to the town, even if he isn’t trying to be malicious.
The endeavor of Christian evangelism has been guilty of all 4 of these communication blunders.
That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that these blunders burn channels.
1. Non-Resonant Evangelism
Paul saw evangelization as a process of slavish bowing to resonance in order to convey the Gospel therethrough.
1 Corinthians 9
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Evangelization wasn’t a prideful bulldozing. It wasn’t a juggernaut, let alone a state-sponsored and state-funded juggernaut.
It was a crawling appeal, in person, for the cause of Christ.
Consider Paul’s evangelization strategy with the pagans in Athens:
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are unaware of the very thing you worship, and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. … He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill.'”
The controversy and confrontation was there, such that “some of them sneered,” but it was full of shrewd parleying along vectors of shared resonance.
This aligns with Jesus’s command for evangelization in Matthew 10: “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.”
Paul recognized the Athenians’ genuine sense of spirituality. He quoted their own poets. And he appealed to their reason, arguing how a genuine deity wouldn’t need anything, let alone need to be graven into visibility — rather, a genuine deity would be known by his power, found through genuine seeking and finding.
Anti-atheism is now a business. Under the auspices of evangelization, and/or “fighting fire with fire” against the New Atheist luminaries, some notable Christians have taken it upon themselves to launch acid volleys at anyone who dares doubt the “obviousness” of our God — our God, who is invisible and must be sought.
Books, blogs, Twitter accounts, seminars, and conferences are being filled with what amounts to choir-preaching that reaches very few atheists at all.
Acts 17 says that some Athenians sneered, but some became followers.
What is the response from unbelievers when faced with aggressive charges of nihilism, amoralism, immoralism, or outright stupidity?
I’m probably lowballing it still.
And when I hear, “But that notorious New Atheist is acerbic, too!,” I must ask, is that person’s behavior to what we should aspire?
When the reputation and impression of Christ is on the line, we shouldn’t be weaponizing our witnessing, nor should we be banking on the efficacy of excessive eccentricity. God wants to meet people where they’re at, and we’re called to help foster that rendezvous.
2. Spam Evangelism
Dropping millions of leaflets from the sky is a great way to get raw volume. But are recipients more likely to read and absorb the content, or are they more likely to gripe about the litter in their lawn?
Whether one’s evangelical “carpet-bombing” is in the form of something as benign as bumper stickers or as insulting as tip tracts, cheap volume floods and destroys channels.
Think about it. Which is more effective?
- A bumper sticker with “WWJD” on it, or a co-worker exemplifying patience and wisdom?
- A tract on a car window, or a commitment to volunteer work?
- A billboard with a scary Bible verse, or an invitation to church?
Now, this isn’t a zero-sum proposition, as if doing the latter precludes the former. But the former things are so cheap — and thereby ubiquitous — that they can mold what following Jesus “looks like” to nonbelievers.
And it looks like spam.
Folks aren’t deeply reached through sterile, inauthentic ad blasts.
3. Crying Wolf
You can convince a lot of people that you’re healing people when you’re not. False faith healers are exploiting people all around the world, giving false promises of recoveries of which they are obviously uncertain.
But there’s another kind of faith healing: Healing bank accounts.
Some — like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — insinuate that by sending them money, miraculous wads of money will start showing up in return.
Others — like Joel Osteen — giftwrap “The Secret” positive thinking in vaguely-Christian clothing. From his book, “Your Best Life Now”:
“Each day, you must choose to live with an attitude that expects good things to happen to you. … Friend, that’s what faith is all about. You have to start believing that good things are coming your way, and they will!”
And what if they don’t? What if no miraculous money wad pops into their mailbox? What if they don’t get that promotion or that new house? What if monetary success and security is not at all a guarantee for every believer, and the “Prosperity Gospel” is a load of garbage?
What happens, of course, is that the disappointed folks will stay silent or stop attending, and the successful folks will stay hooked.
Such a result is great for business, if we’re talking about the publishing and broadcasting businesses of Robertson and Osteen.
But not so good for the health of the church.
Like crying wolf, crying “Monetary success is headed your way!” is dishonest and reckless. It hooks plenty, but it burns the channel of genuine, healthy communion with Christ and his church.
4. Crying Shadow
Apocalyptism — the idea that the world is getting worse and that we’re on the precipice of a collapse — is extremely dopamine stimulative. However frightening such a situation might sound on the surface, it’s actually an exciting narrative that provides many folks with a sense of existential meaning and self-validation.
Apocalyptism subsists on a perception of “shadow wolves” — that any tree-line movement is from vicious, drooling wolves, planning their imminent attack.
In the case of Christianity — at least, American Christianity — it’s most often in the form of overblown “Culture War” memes in a grand persecution narrative.
Consider the following facts:
- Increasingly, government institutions are being barred from praising God as part of their official state business.
- Department store employees are commonly instructed to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
- States are overturning, as unconstitutional, bills that outlawed same-sex marriage. [EDIT: Since this writing it has become the case that, in the United States, any person can now legally marry his/her life partner.]
These facts are easily woven into a persecution narrative that’s powered by the fuel of apocalyptism. And the paranoid alarmism about these facts is, in turn, crafted into what the general public perceives Christianity to be “about.”
But these three facts are, at the end of the day, rather trivial, regardless of where you stand on they’re being good or bad.
Even if these facts are considered lamentable (which is debatable), they frankly aren’t that big of a deal compared to the horrors, injustices, vice, idolatry, laziness, violence, and wanton selfishness that pervade our culture.
And, thus, the outrageous focus on “Culture War” drama burns that channel of authentic Christ-seeking. Outsiders can’t depend on Christian expertise on moral issues because the high-volume, apocalyptic kind of Christianity is so obsessed with trivial things.
In these cases, the boy does think a wolf is stalking his flock from the tree-line. But that doesn’t change the fact that the town has learned, rightly, to ignore his paranoid cries.
It’s hard to articulate the virtue of self-control when it comes to something that is, in proper doses and proper method, a good thing.
We humans generally have trouble leaving food on the plate, even when we’re full.
That’s why it can be useful to put vice and virtue in terms of fables or parables, like Highlights for Children‘s “Goofus and Gallant.”
As we weigh evangelization strategies and how bad ones might burn bridges and damage the mission for Christ, Goofus and Gallant provide for us an easy way to envision which strategies are praiseworthy.
Regarding non-resonant evangelism, Goofus:
- … Brags about how he is saved and everyone else is going to hell.
- … Goes out of his way to insult those who disagree with him.
- … Is needlessly offensive to those of other religions.
- … Puts non-believers into pigeonholing boxes.
- … Gossips about other groups with which he is unfamiliar.
- … Finds common ground.
- … Recognizes the good in contrary positions while staying honestly critical.
- … Is strikingly courteous and charitable.
- … Is warm and polite.
- … Is patiently articulate and slow to anger.
- … “Walks” more than he “talks.”
1 Corinthians 10
“I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”
Regarding spam evangelism, Goofus:
- … Leaves a tract instead of a tip, while brazenly assuming his waitress isn’t a believer.
- … Litters driveways and windshields with literature, causing more irritation than interest.
- … Plasters his car with loud, aggressive slogans unlikely to intrigue anyone.
- … Pays for billboards that make people more afraid of Christianity than attracted.
- … Searches for opportunities to reach non-believers in meaningful ways.
- … Acts in service of people individually rather than as a group to be pelted.
- … Finds creative ways to avoid offense and irritation while prompting interest.
- … Engages folks with authentic, personal witnessing, even though it takes longer and targets fewer.
“Each one should carry their own load… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Regarding crying wolf, Goofus:
- … Promises that life will be easy with Christ.
- … Assures folks that any suffering will yield payoffs in life (Zophar’s fallacy).
- … Guarantees that giving to the church will yield monetary dividends in return.
- … Insists that some fortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous blessing.
- … Insists that some unfortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous judgment.
- … Insists that some amazing natural wonder or mechanism must have been due to God’s miraculous, exceptional intervention.
- … Preaches a hope in a downward payoff for any suffering in life.
- … Paints a realistic picture of the difficulties but peaceful promise of the Christian faith.
- … Stays reluctant about reckless prophesying, encouraging others to admit the mystery of the intricacies of God’s plans.
- … Searches for natural explanations for the amazing, natural phenomena of God’s creation, rather than rushing to, “God zapped this!”
- … Helps folks make wise, responsible decisions given our stewarding role on Earth, rather than fatalistically punting on decisionmaking.
2 Corinthians 8
“For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”
And regarding crying shadow, Goofus:
- … Gets worried about the extrication of church from state.
- … Sees “agendas” around every corner.
- … Thinks state sponsorship of gay marriage is a “top 10” issue to which to devote his attention.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything with which he disagrees.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything he hasn’t taken the time to research or understand.
- … Falls for “news entertainment” that hooks people into paranoid, apocalyptic narratives.
- … Understands that the Kingdom of God needs no theocratic representation.
- … Recognizes that of which he’s ignorant and which deserves close, critical investigation.
- … Is skeptical of “news entertainment”; he checks his food before eating.
- … Is earnest and diligent about keeping Christ’s message pure and undefiled by the image-crafting of commercial interests that seek to exploit Christians and the Christian “brand.”
- … Prioritizes important problems like violence, sickness, poverty, laziness, injustice, and oppression above trivial things like how department store employees send good December tidings to customers.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Like chocolate, there is such thing as too much evangelism, even though evangelism is good.
“Too much” is when our ministerial message is crafted haphazardly and broadcasted brainlessly.
“Too much” is when we find ourselves enthralled by numbers games, lazy carpet-bombing, and manufactured culture controversies.
The ministry of Christ, to which we’re called to passionately and carefully pursue, is a ministry of the heart. Let’s not get carried away by the loud, aggressive, reckless patterns of this world, however tempting that too-much-chocolate can be.
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.
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.
In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:
- Reject that God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- Reject that God is omniscient (even if only about present states of affairs).
- Reject that God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- Reject that 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.
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.
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 forever, a down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.
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.
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 majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes 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:
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 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’).”
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.”
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.
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?
This is the first in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.
The first part will be about the exploitation by media, and the second part will be about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.
Let’s take a look at event patterns in the world.
When we notice, through some study, that pattern A is correlated with pattern B, what does it tell us?
- Does it mean that A makes B more likely?
- Does it mean that B makes A more likely?
- Does it mean that a third pattern, C, makes both A and B more likely?
- Or, was the coincidence of A and B simply random noise?
The sad fact is that we don’t know which of these causal possibilities (and a non-causal possibility) is actually true. This is why we say, “Correlation does not equal causation.”
It turns out, though, that the brain is very eager — dopamine stimulated — to jump to causal conclusions. Furthermore, we’re most excited at the possibility — of the above four — that is most startling and weird.
It “feels” like new revelation.
And Commercial Media Knows This
Let’s say there’s a study that correlates non-married cohabitation with a higher incidence of physical abuse. What is the most sensible, boring explanatory possibility?
The most sensible, boring explanatory possibility is that there is a third factor C — likely something to do with socio-economic status, and population density, and the cultural byproducts therefrom — that makes non-married cohabitation and physical abuse rise in tandem, without being causally related to one another with any statistical significance.
But that’s “boring.” It doesn’t sell tabloid newspapers and doesn’t serve as social clickbait.
The more “exciting” possibility is that being non-married causes abuse.
This would have us conclude, “To lower partner abuse, those partners should get married.”
Which is, of course, precisely the opposite strategy one should employ.
The problem is, again, that we love counterintuitive revelations. There’s a measured “second opinion bias” that has us feel excited about having the “privilege” of being an honest devil’s advocate. As soon as we’re tricked into thinking that some bizarre claim is merely misunderstood, or deceived into thinking it has statistical backing, its “bizarreness” becomes extra fuel to fight on its side with conviction.
Whenever you read, or hear from a friend, about a study showing some A-to-B causation, do the following in your brain:
- Un-cause the causation. Separate the two parts into “A” and “B.”
- Run through the four explanatory possibilities mentioned before.
- Evaluate which possibility makes the most sense. Extra points if it’s also boring, which is a memetic weakness.
But Remember: Common Sense Isn’t Infallible
At the same time, remember that certain systems in the world really are very complex, and can yield causal relationships that are both counterintuitive and true. Common sense gets you past the exploitive headlines, but it’s no replacement for an actual, knee-deep understanding of complicated systems.
In other words, common sense isn’t “common,” but it also isn’t always “sense.”
And Remember: Studies Can Be Awesome or Crap
When I did product management for social games, one of my jobs was user experimentation and data analysis in order to make design decisions that optimized the interests of the customer and company.
The reality is this: Data is absolutely vital for getting a correlative, and ultimately causal, understanding of how the world works.
At the same time: There’s no shortage of ways to screw it up, and even maliciously fudge the data, and perhaps even get away with it. We’ve seen this happen with the “vaccines cause autism” fiasco, where an atrocious study catalyzed a tragic memetic bloom that, today, continues to threaten the health of our children.
I think, if we all get a healthy scrutiny against urban myths about causal claims, and fight hard for the “boring,” we’ll go a long way toward killing memetically strong falsehoods, which is necessary to optimize peace, wisdom, virtue, and charity in the world.
For more about memetics and how to avoid the value pitfalls therein, rewind to the four-part series we ran earlier this year.
Let’s play the Gift Game! It’s the hottest new game around.
The Gift Game tests your ability to extract the meaning of an unknown term by means of investigating the surrounding context.
But beware! The Gift Game can be sneaky, and if you’re not careful, you could end up practicing reckless hermeneutics.
– Round 1 –
So, can you do it? Are you able to discern the contents of those gifts?
The correct move in the Gift Game, at this juncture, is to say, “I don’t know yet. I don’t have enough information.”
Okay, that round was easy. Let’s try the next one.
– Round 2 –
Unfortunately, as might be apparent to you, we still don’t have enough information. The gift might contain “perfect,” as we Christians say that our God is perfect. But it might also just contain, “great.”
If it contained “great,” that wouldn’t mean that God lacks something. It just means that he is great. And that’s great! Lots of things are great across various metrics of measurement, finite and infinite.
– Round 3 –
No, I suppose not.
We’re still lacking vital information. The gift still could contain just “great.” What a challenging game the Gift Game is!
– Round 4 –
WE KNOW It does not contain “perfect,” because my son makes mistakes occasionally.
HOWEVER… This admission does not mean that we’re saying God is imperfect. That would be a non sequitur from the above admission.
Let’s open the gift box and see if we were right:
Excellent. “Hermeneutical Hero” achievement unlocked!
Round 5 presents us with a new set of sentences.
– Round 5 –
Watch out now! Remember what we learned before. It might be tempting to rush into assuming that the gift box contains “forever,” but that’s a trick of the Gift Game. It included the third sentence so that you would jump to that conclusion.
If we’re to be prudent sleuths, we need to recognize how much we know and how much we don’t. The gift box could, for example, contain “a long time” or “the future.”
– Round 6 –
Look at that! We were right not to make our guess just yet. Now, with these new sentences, WE KNOW that the gift box does not entail “forever.” HOWEVER… we can say this even as we believe that God’s dominion will endure forever. This is because God’s dominion will also endure for a long time and into the future, two softer statements that are nonetheless true.
When we examine these sentences, it looks like each of the gift-boxes contains something that means “age-related” or “of an age” or “of ages.” We also notice that it has certain overtones of significance (as in the case of the age of Moses) and perhaps long domain (like Isaiah’s patient silence or God’s dominion).
Let’s open the box (containing a lexicographical proposal):
The Real Gift Box
The latter gift box corresponds to a real word family we find in Scripture.
- The Hebrew word is olam.
- The Greek words are aion, aionios, and aionion. In the Greek Septuagint, likely the Bible with which Jesus and the Apostles were familiar, these words are often used in verses where the Hebrew was olam.
The Hermeneutical Error
There are intelligent, rational scholars today — and indeed scholars in ancient Christendom — who when confronted with Round 5 of the Gift Game, proclaimed, “The gift box contains ‘forever.'”
This is because the Gift Game’s tricky way of telling them that the life was forever, and contrasting the “life” destination with the “punishment” destination in the very same sentence.
We’ve talked about this problem before, when we covered St. Augustine’s dispute with the theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you remember, St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end [of punishment] for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into [aionion] punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into [aionion] life.’”
In this case, St. Augustine — obviously an intimidating intellectual — nonetheless “lost the Gift Game.”
Here’s theologian Dr. Todd Miles, from his book, A God of Many Understandings? (emphasis mine):
“Since the biblical testimony is clear that the life granted by faith in Christ is eternal, the only possible interpretation of Matt 25:46 is that the punishment of the wicked is likewise eternal.”
Here’s pastors Dr. Francis Chan and Dr. Preston Sprinkle, from their book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (emphasis mine):
“While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean ‘everlasting,’ when used here to describe things in the ‘age to come,’ it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.”
As you’ve seen, each of these brilliant men were nonetheless caught off-guard when it came to the Gift Game.
WE KNOW olam (and aion/aionios/aionion) does not ever mean “everlasting,” just as “great” never means “perfect,” and “broad” never means “infinite in broadness.” (EDIT: Perhaps a better way to say this is, “These are not automatically limited, in their range of meaning, to ‘everlasting.'”)
HOWEVER… this fact does not imply that olam means “not-everlasting,” just as “great” doesn’t mean “not-perfect,” and “broad” doesn’t mean “limited in broadness.”
And the parallelism tells us literally nothing beyond this, just as “The great king Solomon owed his wisdom to his great God” would not imply that Solomon was perfect, or of equal greatness to God.
To win the Gift Game on olam (and the Biblical usage of aion/aionios/aionion), the answer is to stick to the only definition we can derive. If it leaves us with ambiguity, then so be it; theological quietude demands that we boldly embrace the boring ambiguity and not use it as a platform for reckless conjecture.
This is why I applaud Dr. Chan and Dr. Sprinkle for the following:
“What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here. It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked… The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate…. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.”
In the first two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”
In the third video, we talked about how some of the neuropsychological patterns that drive our decisionmaking can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”). In that video, we focused primarily on loss aversion.
In this video, we’re going to talk about another such pattern, called secret gnosis stimulation.
We’ll find out why having and enjoying “hidden knowledge” can make you feel privileged, validated, and “rooted” to your local “tower,” even if it’s not tallest. This “hidden knowledge” often takes the form of esoteric or counterintuitive claims that can be convincing when internally consistent, and/or without a competitor recognized as viable.
We’ll also discuss several specific case examples of groups of people who are rooted to false conspiracy theories. Controversial!
Secret gnosis stimulation is very effective here, too. … It gets you locked into conspiracy theories when the body of [apparent evidence for the conspiracy] is dwarfed by reality.
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis