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Does Universal Reconciliation Destroy Free Will?

Last summer, we talked about how the claim, “If universal reconciliation (like through purgatorial hell) were certain, then free will would be destroyed,” reveals the incoherence of libertarian notions of free will.

At that time, I gave brief support to a direct rebuttal. That wasn’t really the primary thesis, though; the primary thesis was that “this whole thing” served as a good red flag “alert” that libertarian free will is just a logical wildcard (useful in rhetoric and conceptually-evocative, but mostly incoherent and ultimately confusing).

It turns out, however, that this rebuttal wasn’t very well-crafted, and I needed to do a better job of showing clearly why that original claim is false.

Hopefully I can do that irrespective of what kind of “free will” we’re talking about or in which we believe.

Lonely Patricia

In this thought experiment, we’re going to pretend that Patricia is the only human being. God created Patricia and called it done. Patricia is the whole of the human race.

Patricia sins and undergoes the Fall, and is in need of reconciliation. To accept God’s offer of reconciliation, she must exert her “free will,” whatever that might mean. But she hasn’t done it yet.

God turns to an angel and declares, “Patricia will eventually be reconciled.”

One of the following must be true:

  • God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has destroyed her “free will.”
  • God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has not destroyed her “free will.”
  • God doesn’t have knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.

I think most Christians (who aren’t Open Theists) would bank on option #2: God’s knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation has no effect on her freedom or lack thereof.

Add Patrick

In this next thought experiment, we’ll pretend that Patricia and Patrick are the only human beings. They Fall, they need reconciliation, and they must exert their “free wills” to accept it.

God turns to an angel and declares, “Both Patricia and Patrick will eventually be reconciled.”

Again, one of the following must be true:

  • God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has destroyed their “free will.”
  • God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has not destroyed their “free will.”
  • God doesn’t have knowledge of their eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.

That Christian from the previous thought experiment, who banked on option #2, has no justifiable reason to change his mind here. Adding a second individual changes nothing.

The trick, of course, is that God’s statements were statements of universal reconciliation in both thought experiments.

And we can just keep adding people to the thought experiment — adding Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — until we arrive at the total real population of human souls.

Thus, if you’re the sort of Christian who believes that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of a particular individual does not destroy “free will,” then you’re burdened to also believe that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would likewise not destroy “free will.”

This argument should work no matter what you mean by “free will,” as long as you’re a “Green Christian.”

Even Vague Promises are Promises

But what if you’re not a “Green Christian?” What if you’re an “Orange Christian?”

(In this case, you’d probably be an Open Theist; you deny God’s certainty of future will-contingent events.)

Let’s revisit the second thought experiment, the one with both Patricia and Patrick.

This time, though, God turns to an angel and declares, “One of these two will eventually be reconciled; the other will never be reconciled.”

In this case, where no specific declaration is made about the destination of any particular individual, the options mutate slightly. We find that one of the following must be true:

  • God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
  • God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has not destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
  • God doesn’t have knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person; he’s just guessing or hoping.

Option #3 doesn’t seem so bad with only Patricia and Patrick in play.

But when we add the rest of humanity into the thought experiment — Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — option #3 remains annoyingly unchanged.

In other words, for “Orange Christians,” God isn’t sure that even one person will be reconciled. It may be that, in the end, literally everybody will (in exercise of their “free will”) spurn God at the last moment.

He can play the odds, of course. “What are the chances,” a future-uncertain God might ask, “that everyone will duck out at the last moment? Pretty slim!”

But it remains possible under that paradigm. The final apocalyptic expectation may be a disaster. The New Jerusalem may be empty of citizenry.

Put simply, under option #3, God supplied us with vivid promises, and there’s a possibility that he may be proven a liar.

Either Bail Out…

That “liar possibility” is a reductio ad absurdum against option #3.

If we don’t think there’s any chance that the City will be empty — if our confidence in God’s revelatory imagery is more than just “he’s pretty dang sure some folks will make it” — then option #3 must be rejected (in favor of, say, option #2).

And if option #2 is accepted, then one is burdened to admit that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would not destroy “free will.”

… Or Bite the Bullet

If a person does not “bail out” of option #3, then they must bite the bullet on the possibility of a complete eschatological failure of God’s plan.

“But that’s so implausible as to be silly,” such a person might say.

Indeed!

But now the trap is sprung; any “probability against” this silly result can be employed as “probability against” a failure of universal reconciliation (by, say, an Open Theist who believes in universal reconciliation).

Put another way, under Open Theism, the contradictory force of universal reconciliation vs. “free will” is equal to the contradictory force of “at least somebody will be reconciled” vs. “free will.”

That is, “an infinitesimally insignificant amount of contradictory force.”

Conclusion

If you’re a person who asserts option #1, then there’s no “free will” regardless of whether universal reconciliation is true. As such, universal reconciliation represents no “additional invalidating power” against “free will.”

Otherwise, you’re left with either option #2 or option #3. Whichever of these other routes you take, a confidence in universal reconciliation can coexist with “free will” — regardless of how you define “free will.”

  • For those of us who believe God knows the future with certainty, that confidence can be a complete confidence, and “free will” remains undestroyed.
  • Under Open Theism, that confidence can be a near-complete confidence — akin to the confidence one has that at least somebody will be reconciled — and “free will” remains undestroyed.

  • We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
  • For a big primer on purgatorialism, see the Purgatorial Hell FAQ. Included is additional discussion of free will, and how incoherent views of free will can allow “modal scope fallacies” to emerge.

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Appellate Prayer, Sovereignty, and Superstition

For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.

1 John 5:14

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.

That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.

With All of Our Hearts

We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.

First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.

Philippians 4:5b-7

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”

Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3

[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.

1 Chronicles 16:11

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”

We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need

Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.

James 4:3,8a

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.

As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.

Romans 8:26-27

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

With All of Our Minds

At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.

It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.

We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.

  • Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
  • Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
  • Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.

That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”

Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayerReason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.

At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.

Between Heart and Mind

Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.

But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.

 

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