(Or, “How to Keep a Republic.”)
Election methods may seem a bit off-topic for this blog, but it couldn’t be more appropriate.
It’s a contemporary American story, and it starts with systems, flows into memetics, and finally has things to say about morality and culture, including the state of American Christianity as popularly portrayed.
Stick with me here. Each step is crucial.
Part I: Anchovy Pizza
Yes, anchovy pizza.
… Hey, I said stick with me! Your rewards will be great: You’ll soon know the 3 Clues of a Wrong Winner.
Imagine there are 5 people at a party, enough money for 1 pizza, and 4 pizza choices — cheese, pepperoni, veggie, and anchovy.
3 of the people despise anchovy pizza.
2 of the people love — absolutely adore — anchovy pizza and spurn anything else when anchovy is in play.
They want the pizza choice to represent the group. Their pizza should be like a strong republic — an expression of the “will of the people” that serves those same people and their preferences.
So what method do they use to gather group preference?
They could use Approval Vote, where each person gives “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” to each option. The pizza with the highest number of “thumbs up” wins.
Here, Cheese pizza is the winner, with 3 thumbs up.
Or, they could use Score/Range Vote, where each person gives a score to each option (here, 0 to 5). This is what we in the game development industry normally rely on for audience tests.
Again, Cheese pizza is the winner, with a score of 12. This also gives the clearest picture of where preferences fall, and in this case provides us with a powerful intuitive sense of which pizza certainly shouldn’t win (Anchovy).
Unfortunately, these 5 folks did not use the above methods.
Instead they decided to use Plurality Vote, where you mark only your very favorite option and are robbed of the ability to express anything else.
And now Anchovy pizza wins. Pretty awful, eh?
So… what happened? Well, when robbed of the ability to express anything except which choice is your very favorite, the anti-Anchovy majority got split up.
This is called, appropriately enough, “splitting the vote.”
And it’s not a joke.
In the July 1932 German federal election, Anchovy Hitler and the Nazi Party acquired a plurality of seats in the Reichstag for the first time. The use of “mark only your favorite,” combined with the number of choices involved, meant that, for all we know, the results did not express popular will in the least.
Think about it. The percentages above are not measures of popular will; they are measures of sizes of blocs of favorites. The Reichstag was apportioned according to sizes of blocs of favorites. This is stupid. A stupid system for goofs. A system simply itching to give power to the next Anchovian pied piper that comes along.
The Nazis didn’t win a majority that July — they never won a majority prior to banning the other parties — but it kicked the snowball down the slope. Emboldened by their victory, they ramped up violent terrorism and increased pressure against their political rivals. A multi-way power-struggle ensued throughout the remainder of 1932, with would-be dictator Franz von Papen grasping to advance his own Machiavellian ambitions, culminating in a final, desperate re-coalition that handed the German government to the Nazis the next January. In March 1933, another election increased their seat dominance — again, leaning on the artificial advantage that Plurality Vote gives to extremists. Soon after, they passed the Enabling Act, eviscerating what separation of powers remained.
The core issue is the following stupid problem: When “mark only your favorite” is used, the sway of ideological groups is effectively divided by the number of choices in that group. Those variables should never affect one another; but here, they do. It’s as if they’re grafted together “upside-down,” since mainstream views tend to have a greater number of candidates representing them.
When this happens, the vote-splitting is given the name “spoiler effect.”
Therefore, one Clue that suggests a Wrong Winner (“Someone who won under Plurality Vote but is a bad representative of the group, i.e., would lose a head-to-head match-up vs. another candidate”) is when there’s a clear “cohort split” across ideological groups or personal loyalties (following “pied pipers”). We can call this the “Pied Piper” Clue.
But this data is sometimes hard to come by, since individual preferences can get “averaged out” in reports.
Another Clue that suggests a Wrong Winner is when the winner is uniquely polarizing or controversial, which can be measured using approval ratings.
Even though Demeter and Edna abhor the non-Anchovy options, they are unable to make the non-Anchovy options look controversial because there simply aren’t as many of them influencing the tally.
This Clue, which we’ll call the “Controversial Character” Clue, paints the following picture:
The final Clue that suggests a Wrong Winner is if, in head-to-head match-ups, or “duels,” the so-called “winner” loses most often, or even every time.
Notice what dueling does: It corrects for Plurality Vote’s devastating problem (breaking completely with more than 2 options available) by limiting the vote to 2 options only:
We’ll call that the “Duel Loser” Clue.
To recap, that’s:
- “Pied Piper” Clue. (An ideological cohort split or fringe personality.)
- “Controversial Character” Clue. (Remarkably more polarizing than others.)
- “Duel Loser” Clue. (He’s actually quite the loser, when we correct for Plurality Vote’s stupid nonsense.)
And now let’s apply these to something more contemporary: The 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination.
The Republican Primaries and Caucuses of 2016 were hotly contested between candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and to a lesser extent (but still relevant) John Kasich and Ben Carson.
After March 1st’s “Super Tuesday,” 15 of the contests were over. Trump had won 337 delegates to Cruz’s 235, Rubio’s 112, Kasich’s 27, and Carson’s 8. Trump had also won 10 states vs. Cruz’s 4 and Rubio’s 1.
But every contest was either using pure Purality Vote or using a system that involved Plurality Vote at one or more stages (which is also corrupting).
Like in Germany in July 1932, the results were not necessarily measures of popular will, but of sizes of blocs of favorites.
According to the systems at play, Trump was winning after Super Tuesday. However, at this point, Trump may have been a Wrong Winner. This is a devastating possibility because Wrong Winners do not look like the losers they are. As such they gain the momentum, the loyalty, and the solidarity. (Remember when your NeverTrump uncle morphed into a Trump apologist? I certainly do.)
On March 8, one week after Super Tuesday, Langer Research Associates released a poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. The researchers asked a variety of questions, and was deep enough to go “under” superficial and corrupt Plurality-style polling.
This study showed that Donald Trump was a “Controversial Character” in the sense defined before:
But, most horrifyingly, it showed that Donald Trump was a two-fold “Duel Loser”:
What a loser!
So how on Earth was he winning? Smells fishy, right?
Fishy… like an anchovy!
This is exactly the kind of ideological and/or personality-driven cohort split that makes Plurality Vote so screwed up when there are more than 2 choices on deck.
Through the Podesta e-mail leaks, we discovered that a year prior, the Clinton campaign understood that fringe candidates like Donald Trump, if legitimized, could “force all Republican candidates to lock themselves into extreme conservative positions” in order to maintain a coalition between Republican-leaning independents and the Far Right. “The variety of candidates is a positive here… we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates… we need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
In other words, the campaign saw that it was to their advantage to use their influence with the media to elevate Donald Trump. And when Trump became the nominee, they were pleased as punch.
But it’s important to note that Donald Trump never had a majority result until June 2016, with his big, expected win in New York. Back in March 2016, the other candidates knew what was happening, but refused to ally into an anti-Trump coalition — even as Trump averaged a 40% vote shortfall vs. the combined vote count of his strongest 2 opponents in each race.
The nonpartisan electoral reform organization FairVote, which advocates Ranked Choice Vote (another fine system), also knew what was happening: “The GOP split vote problem continues,” they wrote on March 8, 2016. “Its use of a plurality voting system may well allow a candidate to win the nomination who would be unlikely to win in a head-to-head contest with his strongest opponent.”
In other words… the Wrong Winner!
After Rubio dropped out after his disappointing result in Florida, the Cruz and Kasich campaigns called one another “spoilers.” It wasn’t until a month later that Cruz and Kasich finally set their differences aside, as their delegate shortfall grew and grew, and as Trump continued to feed off of Plurality Vote‘s toxic sewage and mutate out of control.
Cruz and Kasich came up with a “noncompete” plan so that they could stop spoiling one another, divide a few first-place wins among themselves, and push Trump into a series of second-place finishes.
Ultimately, it was the only math that could lead to a contested convention.
But it was too late.
Part II: Avoiding Anchovies
The only way to stop a Wrong Winner is to:
- Coalition in order to circumvent Plurality Vote‘s unacceptable, atrocious vote-splitting effect, and
- do so early enough so that the Wrong Winner hasn’t already captured the support and enthusiasm of the group, enchanted by his pseudo-crown, that is, the powerful — but wrong — signal that this is truly the group’s favorite.
The mainstream Republicans failed to coalition early enough to stop Donald Trump, a Wrong Winner if there ever was one, from securing the nomination. He never should have been the Republican Party candidate, and needless to say, did not represent the GOP’s platform and stated principles.
Because Plurality Vote takes a chaos-chainsaw to candidates when there are 3 or more in play, decisionmakers (whether party insiders, campaign strategists, or voters) — if they are rational decisionmakers — will do what they can to control the chaos:
- Party insiders will try to elevate somebody early, around which they can rally the masses into a united coalition.
- Campaign strategists will recommend “take-down” tactics against candidates with the biggest “my favorite!” bloc, and against candidates that share values and may be acting as direct “spoilers.”
- Voters will desperately try to stop their buddies from voting third party, since voting third party under Plurality Vote is about as helpful as eating your own ballot. Many of us intuitively sense the rational need to coalition under Plurality.
And this is why the United States is a Two Party regime.
It’s not a Two Party system; the system is Plurality Vote, which drives and sustains Two Party dominance precisely because there is no plausible, incremental way to rationally-decide our way out of it.
Put another way, to “avoid anchovies,” there is an overwhelming incentive to coalition tighter and tighter until there are only 2 choices left, because that’s the only circumstance in which Plurality Vote is fine. Failures to do this result in chaos and anti-republic results, and increase the chance of fascist and extremist cult-like personalities coming to power.
Part III: Inflame & Divide
Once there are only two viable parties left, a new overwhelming incentive emerges: Any issue that could be politicized “should” be.
With the right messaging, incoming complicated issues can be framed within a narrative in which your party is the hero and the other party is the villain — or where your party is “like us,” and the other party is “not like us.”
The leaked copy of Frank Luntz’s 2006 “The New American Lexicon” shows how neoconservatives like Luntz had been using such methods since the early 1990s to “hook” these political memeplexes into our deepest fears, hopes, and loyalties.
That messaging is “spin.” And that framing is “shoehorning.” They require dishonesty about the complexities of these issues and they require persuasive hyperbole about the “other side.”
But it’s undeniable, and irresistible. The worse the other guys look, the better you’ll do, because there are only two viable parties. Every complicated issue is “untamed land” to conquer, study, prepare, sow politicization, and reap polarization.
And the result?
Now, remember how I just used the word “irresistible?” It is mistaken to think that we can solve this problem by collectively changing our minds and deciding to come together as a country. And yet that’s how our American polarization problem is framed again and again.
If we go back one step, we notice similar “it’s our fault” framing whenever we’re stuck deciding between two candidates for President that we’re not satisfied with. “If everyone voted third party,” we hear incessantly, “we wouldn’t have to settle!”
But as we saw, Plurality Vote does not reliably produce correct winners, and the more viable candidates there are (like via third party groundswells), the more random chaos it causes.
That’s why we’re stuck in this Two Party regime.
We’re locked in it.
Part IV: Culture Power
Most of us aren’t aware that Plurality Vote gives us Wrong Winners. We assume that the system in place isn’t abysmal; we assume that the system is “good enough” that our vote “trickles up” with fidelity, and won’t betray us.
As such, we see our vote as a morally-significant expression of support.
Since we’re rationally locked-in to one of the Two Parties, we tend to rationalize those expressions of support that we give. We hitch our wagons, and our reputations, to what these “teams” are doing. It affects how we think, how we talk, how we behave, and how we socialize.
Of course, you don’t have to be a Party loyalist.
Plenty of principled libertarians can barely stomach the GOP.
Avowed leftists vote for Democrats only begrudgingly.
But the less reliable we are as Party supporters, the less the Two Parties care about us. Why grovel to purists when it’s the central terrain that’s actively contested, especially those indecisive, low-information folks who can be won-over by scaremongering and wordplay?
The Two Parties especially can’t afford to waste their energy on high-information ideological purists whose interests straddle the Party platforms. Not only are they unreliable — “disloyal” — but they can’t be won-over through clever marketing.
Who does that sound like?
That sounds to me like moderate Christians: Mainline Protestants, American Catholics, and American Orthodox.
White Evangelicals, by contrast, get lots of attention. For whatever reasons — and those reasons are myriad, really, and go back decades — white Evangelicals are reliable Republican Party loyalists.
Their strong alignment with one of the Two Parties means there’s a network of strong incentives to “boost” them, both from the Republican Party itself and from entertainment/news media profiting off of the sports-like “Civil War” narrative. So you hear from their leaders, you see them being interviewed, and when the media wants “The Christian Perspective” from “The Christian Worldview,” a white Evangelical appears on screen.
But what if they’re the “Wrong Winner” when it comes to representing Christians in the United States? They’re only 25% of Americans; Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox combine for 35%. Notice a “Plurality Problem”?
Remember that the pseudo-crown of Wrong Winner sends a powerful — but wrong — signal that this is truly the best representative.
And, of course, this is to say nothing for the liberals and concerned conservatives whose voices within the white Evangelical cohort are tougher to hear.
For 4 years we’ve heard folks baffled that “American Christians” so openly abdicated even a pretense of moral authority in their thralldom to such a clownish, depraved political leader. The solution to the puzzle is those quotation marks at the beginning of the paragraph. The real sample of American Christians is as split as anyone else, grumbling every election cycle about the need for a third way along with the inability to muster one.
Part V: The Meaning of a Vote
Deja vu warning. (And thank you for bearing with me; you’re almost done.)
Most of us aren’t aware that Plurality Vote gives us Wrong Winners. We assume that the system in place isn’t abysmal; we assume that the system is “good enough” that our vote “trickles up” with fidelity, and won’t betray us.
As such, we see our vote as a morally-significant expression of support.
But Plurality Vote does give us Wrong Winners. The system in place is abysmal; the system is not “good enough” that our vote “trickles up” with fidelity. It can definitely betray us.
As such, we should not see our vote as a morally-significant expression of support.
Instead, it is only a helpful exertion of power, contributing to the primary mission of making sure the worst viable candidate loses.
- Under fine systems, like Score/Range Vote or Ranked Choice Vote, our vote is a morally-significant expression of support.
- Under Plurality Vote, our vote is only a helpful exertion of power against the biggest threat.
Yes, the meaning of your vote just got trashed. That’s a lame meaning. It’s certainly not what we were taught.
But don’t kill the messenger.
Kill Plurality Vote.
And don’t vote like it’s gone until it’s gone.
The politicization of ecological science is threatening the future quality of life of our children and grandchildren. This isn’t alarmism. It’s just an alarm.
We are the stewards of our families, our homes, the land we live on, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the systems we maintain for the good of our neighbors around the planet. It’s “on us.”
And yet, there may be no plausible way to take rational action with Plurality Vote standing in the way. This is already
inexplicably part of the “Culture War.” There’s only one way forward. Use your time, money, and voice to fight for electoral reform, at a local level and nationwide.
Sharing this is a good first step. Please take more steps, too.
- The Equal Vote Coalition, advocating Score/Range Voting (S.T.A.R. method).
- FairVote, advocating Ranked Choice Voting.
- American RCV electoral reform efforts and successes thus far.
Plurality Vote won’t go away until we end it. Notice the “red” hidden within our elections. Tell others. Fight the good fight.
Quietude might be described as as figuring out under what odd conditions it might be good to question some of our most trustworthy guides in philosophy and theology.
This is dangerous stuff, because we depend on those guides. We rely on their investment of (life)time, their investment of contentious discourse, and we take advantage of their brainpower. We stand on their shoulders. So when we choose to hop off their shoulders (or more commonly, hop onto another giant’s shoulders), we’d better have a good reason.
After we invest our trust in a person, concept (meme), or family of concepts (memeplex), it’s tough to make us leave. The speedbump we felt on the way “in” grows into a wall against going back “out.”
The feeling there is “incredulity.” As Manowar‘s 1987 heavy metal song “Carry On” claims, “100,000 riders! We can’t all be wrong!”
To keep incredulity in check, we ask, “When might even 100,000 heavy metal fans be wrong?” or more to the point, “When might dozens of brilliant philosophers be relying on fundamentally poor metaphysics?” What memetic “forces” could entrap even the otherwise trustworthy? When should we row against the current?
We talked before about logical Wildcards. Any concept that has “vivid ambiguity” can be used, deliberately or not, to “bridge-make” (jump to conclusions that don’t really follow) and “bridge-break” (make legitimate conclusions seem like they don’t follow).
But this doesn’t just happen in isolated moments and stop there. Anything “useful” can stick and spread. This includes “Monkey’s Paw useful,” granting immediate wishes at a hidden, horrifying downstream cost.
Furthermore, that downstream cost may be “confusion, and the chatter it causes.” While we’d call this a “cost” in terms of what we consider praiseworthy and constructive, it is not a memetic cost, it is a memetic benefit.
That’s because this chatter boosts surfacing. It’s hard to hear Quiet folks.
The rhetorical utility of vivid ambiguity, combined with its natural self-surfacing, becomes a Wildcard-fueled memetic engine:
A Potential Problem
An example of the above pattern may be the philosophical concept of Aristotelian potentiality.
I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s possible to confront Wildcards directly (see the bottom-right gray box, above). All we can do is consider alternatives and try them on for size. Last time we did this with metaethics. Today it’s potentiality.
We read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“… Another key Aristotelian distinction [is] that between potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (entelecheia or energeia)… a dunamis in this sense is not a thing’s power to produce a change but rather its capacity to be in a different and more completed state. Aristotle thinks that potentiality so understood is indefinable, claiming that the general idea can be grasped from a consideration of cases. Actuality is to potentiality, Aristotle tells us, as ‘someone waking is to someone sleeping, as someone seeing is to a sighted person with his eyes closed, as that which has been shaped out of some matter is to the matter from which it has been shaped.’
This last illustration is particularly illuminating. Consider, for example, a piece of wood, which can be carved or shaped into a table or into a bowl. In Aristotle’s terminology, the wood has (at least) two different potentialities, since it is potentially a table and also potentially a bowl.”
(I’m not going to summarize the above so you’ll have to read it.)
This Aristotelian perspective, whereby potentiality in a sense ‘lives’ within an object, is widespread in classical Christian theology and reverberates even in modern modal analytic philosophy. But I suspect it may just be a poor (but intuitive!) way of expressing prospective imagination. I’ll show you what I mean, and why the Aristotelian sense doesn’t fit nicely with a couple examples (which in turn expose the inconsistency of the language games we play).
I can look at a quarry and imagine the potential of building a cathedral using its stone. But if we allow the test of “potential or not” to include every other requirement for cathedral assembly (including laborers to work the quarry and adequate incentives to motivate them), then it doesn’t seem so natural to say that some rock formation has such potential, in isolation. It needs help. Reductively, nothing happens unless the universe helps, including all prior states of the universe up to that point, in a cosmic help-funnel of “efficacious Grace” concluding at that final capstone. This is not simply universal reliance on some Unmoved Mover; this is, “potentiality is not real.”
In other words, in a universe empty of sculptors, but replete with rocks, no rock has potential to be sculpted. It is only when we grant the antecedent “but if there were sculptors” that its potential suddenly “is there.”
This is not real stuff. Rather, potentiality is simply a roundabout, yet shorthand way of conjoining a fact or object X with a set of antecedents, imaginary or not, which as a group are sufficient for some consequent Y. And then we utter, “X has the potential for Y.”
Aristotelian Potentiality’s Payoff
Whenever widespread language and intuitive conceptualization is imprecise in this way, we’d expect a sensible explanation for it — a rational reason why the irrational description has memetic resilience and virulence (sticky and spready).
The answer is that we’re very sub-omniscient. We don’t know very many of the facts “God knows,” so to speak. And we therefore treat the unknowns as “possible worlds,” leaning on the “holodecks of our imaginations” to narrow the focus of our prospect-seeking. This helps us avoid the anxiety of “analysis paralysis,” which is handy because, of course, the early bird gets the worm.
It should be noted that well-developed spatiotemporal faculties may be a prerequisite for using this “visual” approach to handling evaluation of contingency and consistency given uncertainty. Some studies suggest that children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, while just as capable as others in handling counterfactuals, take different strategies to evaluate them, preferring lists of facts and their contingent relationships vs. “holodeck stories.” However, as they age they acquire skill in both.
Aristotelian Potentiality’s Discomfiture
One way to expose the irrealism of Aristotelian potential is to apply it to that which is real and closed, and find it doing conflicting things; examples where it clearly “ain’t right.”
“Sea Peoples Potential”
Consider the sentence, “The Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt in the 12th century B.C. could’ve been Aegeans.” We say “could’ve” here when we know the answer is fixed, but simply unknown. And therefore there’s a sense of “potentiality” even when it’s obvious the Sea Peoples have already come and gone, and were who-they-were.
“Fallen Coin Potential”
Another example is, “The coin could‘ve landed tails, but it landed heads.” We say “could’ve” here, and retrospectively invoke the sense of potentiality we felt 5 seconds ago, prior to the flip, when the result was unknown, and therefore probabilistic. We say this even though the result of the flip was deterministic, the fixed result of chunky kinetic forces* we humans have trouble tracking.
Put another way: “Deterministic results couldn’t be other than what they were; so why/when do we give them probabilities anyway? How on Earth do we get away with saying both ‘couldn’t’ and ‘could’ve’ about them?” These questions now have simple answers.
* (If needed, imagine the coin flip in a virtual simulated environment, to control for “quantum” or “free will” factors.)
I affirm the finding of a number of early 20th century philosophers that metaphysics comes down to language. It’s often buggy. These bugs sometimes foster tiny, sneaky non sequiturs that let astounding conclusions pop forth. Unless trained against these, even brilliant people are more likely to shout “Eureka!” than “Error!”
This phenomenon creates a memetic incentive to unknowingly exploit, and tendency to inherit, buggy metaphysical concepts (because we trust tradition and the brilliant, renowned people who pass it along). I suspect Aristotelian potentiality is such a thing.
- To explore how open language is compatible with a closed past, present, and future, read “Schrödinger’s Cup: A Closed Future of Possibilities.”
It’s been over 3 years since I last posted on this blog! Where on Earth have I been?!
First, having two children is a lot harder than just one. Second, my career has become quite a bit more demanding. Third, it was hard to think of more things to say without repeating myself, and I’m happy with the amount of airtime my existing posts have been getting.
From this and direct feedback, it’s apparent that folks appreciate quiet theology. It doesn’t skyrocket YouTube hits from dramatic confrontations and rebuttals. But perhaps it accomplishes something a little better.
A while ago I made a “clip show” post that summed up my views on libertarian free will. The time has now come to make a “clip show” post on metaethics. Brazenly I assert that all metaethics can be captured in brief.
All of it.
Let’s see if you agree.
- Morality is subjective in one way and objective in two ways (“SOO“). It is subjective in that it always proceeds from the interests and preferences of persons (or Persons, like God). It is objective in that there are statements about those interests that are factual (such that I could lie about them). It is also objective in that the way to optimize those interests is a strategic question with correct and incorrect answers. Any search for “ultimate objective value” is doomed to failure.
- Ignoring or “failing to mention” the subjective component makes commands more effective. We parents learn this very quickly. It catches the listener flatfooted and often roots the imperative in what feels immovable and irresistible. In other words, there is memetic fitness in using moral language that ignores the “S” in #1. We then trick ourselves into thinking that the “SOO” framework is bad, because it fails to capture the moral language with which we’re familiar, and which proves so effective on us and others! But this is only because our familiarity has a utile error embedded in it, into which we’re inculcated from a very young age.
- Per the 2nd “O” in #1, we tend to think consequentially. But since we’re not omniscient — in fact, we’re rather poor at anticipating all the meaningful consequences of our actions — heuristics can be helpful. While heuristics always come with certain risks, they can also give us powerful shortcuts and social cohesion. Here we distilled it into three “moral musicians”: Red (rules), green (clumsy goal-seeking), and blue (intuition). The article includes a breakdown of “minority reporting” showing that, schematically, this is indeed all a consequential system.
The above 3 observations adequately explain the existence of any metaethical position you please. In other words, take any moral theory, and you can explain it in the above terms.
This is a significant discovery if true. Right now we’re simply proposing it and trying it on for size. To do so, if you’re interested in more details about the above observations, follow the links inside to the deeper explanations. Then, put it to the test: Think of a moral theory, and see if it can be explained by the above 3 observations. A more fiery way to frame it: Try to think of a moral theory that cannot be elegantly explained by them.
Addendum for Christian readers:
These observations are also consonant with Scripture, which has a “social interest exchange” view of morality that incessantly puts it in monetary language (covenants, debit, credit, obligation/owing, justice in merchant’s scales terms, etc.) that is alien to the purely objective moral realism of the Hellenic schools.
“Heed God” doesn’t come from him weirdly entailing some Platonic abstract. “Heed God” comes from his being Creator (so we owe him everything), Father (so he has our best interests at heart), and Judge (so he’ll eventually bring everything to account).
“Fatherhood” (so-defined) theoretically cancels out subjective impasses, like canceling out terms in math, leaving us with objective normativity. And therefore, “at the end of the day,” nothing much changes; “during the day,” however, we enjoy a solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma that doesn’t involve (as much) special pleading.
Welcome to the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
This is a tour through the issues and questions related to hell’s duration being finite rather than infinite.
It isn’t absolutely comprehensive, but I hope this is dense enough that you’ll feel that the case is made and that your questions have answers. If you have any corrections, insight, or additional questions, feel free to comment below.
A: Main answer. Other details and bonus information. My own opinions on some matters.
It’s meant to be read as an article, but you can use it for reference later on.
Q: What is purgatorialism?
A: Purgatorialism is the view that hell is purgatorial (“pur” is Greek for “fire”). Hell is measured in equity according to what a person did, and is for a remedial (healing/surgical) purpose.
It is agonizing and humiliating and we should fear it, and the Good News is, in part, that we can be forgiven and avoid the wrath we’d otherwise bear.
Q: What other names does it go by?
A: It’s also called purgatorial universal reconciliation (“PUR” for short) because the end result is God’s stated master plan in Ephesians 1:8b-10:
“With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment: To bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Even though this relates specifically to the duration and nature and purpose of hell, much of Christian theology (God’s character, nature, purposes, plans, ways, and our worldview and mission methodology) is influenced by the kind of hell we believe in. The theology that proceeds from hell being finite rather than infinite is “PUR theology.”
Q: What are some related names/labels I should be aware of?
A: PUR stands in contrast to “no-punishment universalism,” the idea that the threats of God’s hellish wrath were just scare tactics and exaggerations, and — surprise! — everyone will be saved from their due punishment. This “no punishment” view — “NPUR” — cannot be reconciled with Scripture and was not believed among early Christians.
“Christian Universalism” is an attempt to differentiate universalist eschatology from the non-Christian denomination, “Unitarian Universalism.” It doesn’t go far enough, however, because a Christian Universalist may still espouse NPUR.
“Evangelical Universalism” or “EU” is sometimes used to preclude NPUR, since some folks use “Evangelical” as an idiom for a “Bible-first” heuristic. I assert this is mostly confusing, however, since “Evangelicalism” implies all sorts of unrelated things.
Q: Was it believed among early Christians?
A: Yes. It was one of the “big three” views of hell that we find in early Christian texts, even taught by orthodox Christian saints.
Those “big three” views were:
- Annihilationism. Either the unsaved are never resurrected, or there is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo suffering, and obliterated (Arnobius, St. Ignatius of Antioch).
- Endless hell. There is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo suffering forever (Tertullian, Athenagoras, St. Basil the Great).
- Purgatorial hell. There is a general resurrection and Judgment, where the saved are found in the Book of Life, and the unsaved undergo punishment measured in equity according to what a person did, and are ultimately reconciled, but through dishonor and shame, like being procured from the dross (St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius, St. Gregory of Nyssa).
Q: Which of the “big three” views was prevalent?
A: We don’t know.
Annihilationists like to say it was annihilation. Endless hell believers like to say it was endless hell. Purgatorialists like to say it was purgatorial hell.
But we don’t really know. Complications:
- Writings from all three camps used the same Biblical language to support their view. For example, St. Irenaeus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil the Great would all three say that the unsaved shall suffer the kolasin aionion (the punishment-of-ages). As such, we can’t depend on such language to support any specific camp unless a writer also makes statements that further clarify their position. And many did not do this.
- Even if all such writings were 100% unambiguous, the plurality of supporting writings does not indicate plurality of early supporters.
- Further, plurality of existent supporting writings is an even worse indicator, since writings were, at various lamentable times, subject to selective destruction as it suited church authorities (this isn’t a conspiracy theory, but a benign fact that complicates our search).
- And, of course, there’s the nagging fact that popularity does not entail veracity (truth/falsehood). It’s just an okay heuristic.
Q: Which of the “big three” views eventually prevailed?
A: Endless hell, of course! This happened in the 5th century, largely due to the influence of St. Augustine, a full-on Christian celebrity-theologian of his day.
St. Augustine considered it one of his missions to convince the Christian purgatorialists of endless hell, and entered into the “friendly debate” (City of God). As an endless hell believer, he’s our best “statistician” on this issue, since he admitted in Enchiridion that, in his day, there were a “great many” Christians that believed hell was purgatorial.
St. Augustine is largely responsible for the turn toward endless hell dominance in the church: He was eloquent, prolific, assertive, and creative.
Q: What are the “impasses” that divide the “big three”?
A: The “big three” cannot agree on how to interpret Gr. apoleia / apololos and Gr. aion / aionios /aionion.
The first word family is variously translated as “perishing,” “destruction,” “lost”-ness, and “cutting-off.” Annihilationists would prefer to take these literally and at face-value when possible. Those who believe in experiential hell (purgatorial hell and endless hell) say that everyone will receive perpetuity (“lingering forever”), and so these words should be taken in the sense of “lost-ness” and “cutting-off.” Purgatorialists would then say that even those lost and cut-off are salvageable, like Luke 15’s “lost (apololos) son” and “lost (apolesa) coin.”
The second word family is variously translated as “age,” “of ages,” “of the age,” “eternal,” and “everlasting.” Those who believe in an interminable doom (annihilation and endless hell) say that “eternal” and “everlasting” are good translations of these words when pertaining to the fate of the unsaved. Purgatorialists counter that such assertions are reckless and imprudent: According to the ancient lexicographers these words mean only “age-pertaining” and do not speak for the duration, but only that their duration and/or place in time is significant.
Q: So… who’s right?
A: Purgatorialists. (At least, that’s how a purgatorialist would answer!)
The Positive Case for Purgatorial Hell
Q: Enough history! Does it say in the Bible that everyone will be reconciled?
A: Yes, in Romans 11. Romans 8:18 through 11:36 is a prophetic theodicy that ends with the “upshot” of universal reconciliation.
A “theodicy” is a rationalization of some “bad thing” in terms of its being ancillary (useful and necessary as part of an optimal plan). There are experiential theodicies (specific rationalizations of specific sufferings) and abstract theodicies (showing how bad stuff could be rationalized in theory; that is, we can maintain a non-deluded hope in rationalization).
For most of us, experiential theodicy is above our paygrade. But if you’re a prophet or otherwise divinely inspired, you can be given the Grace to reveal a specific experiential theodicy.
It goes something like this:
- Admit a bad thing and lament over it.
- Postulate different ways to frame the bad thing, some of which make it more understandable.
- Appeal to God’s sovereignty over the good stuff and bad stuff.
- Postulate a reason for the bad stuff. If you’ve got guts, assert a reason for the bad stuff.
- Assert how the bad stuff is temporary.
- Assert the happy upshot with praise and thanksgiving.
- Shout God’s praises, shout the mystery of his plans, then fall flat on the floor in exhaustion.
In this case, the “bad thing” is the fact that, in Paul’s day, very few of his kin — “familiar Israel” — were recognizing Christ as the Messiah (9:2). He lamented it, even such that he’d sacrifice himself to make this bad thing not the case (9:3).
He postulates a different way to think about the bad thing; that there is a new, “spiritual” Israel of God’s elect, and so in a sense, all Israel (in this sense) has signed-on (9:6). But Paul soon returns to the discussion of regular, “familiar” Israel (9:24+, 31).
He appeals to God’s sovereignty over the good stuff and bad stuff (9:11-18), even to the degree that one might complain about God’s will being superceding over human will (9:19). But Paul holds his ground (9:20-21).
He then asserts a reason for this bad thing: The stumbling of familiar Israel is ancillary to bring in the Gentiles, who will (in turn) provoke a legitimate jealousy that will eventually bring in familiar Israel (11:11-12).
“Coming in” is contingent upon belief, but all will eventually believe. We know this because Paul says the “pleroma” will be reconciled.
Pleroma means overfull abundance, of such excess that it was used as an idiom for patched clothing. Some ultra-important theological pleromas in Scripture:
- “The Earth is the Lord’s, and the pleroma in it.” (1 Corinthians 10:26)
God is sovereign and owns absolutely everything.
- “Whatever commands there may be are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the pleroma of the law.” (Romans 13:9b-10)
Love completely fulfills the law under the New Covenant.
- “For in Christ is the pleroma of the Deity, bodily.” (Colossians 2:9)
In the Trinity, Jesus Christ is full-on God, not some lesser being.
See how important pleroma is for orthodoxy?
Paul explicitly says that the elect are not the only ones with hope — the hope of reconciliation awaits even those who are not elect:
“What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened… Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will the pleroma of them bring!”
Is reconciliation for nonbelievers? Nope:
“Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off (11:22).”
But is the cutting-off a sealed end? Nope:
“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again (11:23).”
Paul wants to be clear, here. He does not want us to be “ignorant of this mystery” else we might get conceited — like Jonah or the Prodigal Son’s brother — about our “specialness” vs. the for-now hold-outs:
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the pleroma of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved (11:25-26a).”
The ancillary purpose to God’s deliberate election and stumbling:
“Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you (11:30-31).”
“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (11:32).”
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? (11:33-34)”
Q: The pleroma stuff aside, what if some people persist in endless rebellion and refuse to confess?
A: Romans 14 says that won’t happen. Romans 14:10b-11 says, “We will all stand before God’s Judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will fully confess to God.'”
- “Every knee will bow” is full submission. It is implausible that anyone will submit to God Himself and then pop back into rebellion like a jack-in-the-box.
- “Every tongue will fully confess” is full confession, Gr. exomologo-. This is the attitude of those who repented and were baptized by John (“Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” Matthew 3:6) and those who heeded James’s admonishment (“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for each other” James 5:16a).
This is a devastating blow against the novel invention of “endless rebellion” to justify endless hell or “incorrigible rebellion” to justify annihilation.
As such, some have — very creatively — said that Judgment at this “phase” is limited to the saved. Indeed, the context of Romans 14 is against intolerant believers. But Paul’s quoted passage from Isaiah continues: “All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.”
The conclusion, we assert, is rock-solid: The pleroma will be reconciled, some after a cutting-off and shameful submission. The Good News is that we don’t have to be in that shamed group, and can become implements of honor, knowing God through Christ Jesus right away in the zoen aionion of the Kingdom of God.
Q: Doesn’t this, then, contradict free will?
A: No. Promises about the eventual willful submission and full confession of all people do not oppress anyone in any meaningful way. All will volunteer this submission and full confession.
The idea that such promises invalidate free will comes from a thing called the “modal scope fallacy,” which very often pops out of certain ideas of free will that are ill-defined or incoherent.
Here’s a thought experiment to help explain the modal scope fallacy at play.
Let’s say there’s a 5 x 5 board containing 25 light bulbs. Each bulb can be either off, or red, or green.
Every 1 second, the whole board lights up. For each bulb, it has a 50% chance of being red and a 50% chance of being green. Then, the board shuts off again.
A bulb’s random chance to be one color or the other we can call “light bulb randomness,” or “LBR.”
Here are three board states over 3 seconds:
Seems pretty random, right? If I told you that there was LBR here, you wouldn’t complain.
But what if I said that this board showed up eventually:
Here George might say, “How could LBR still be true, here? This doesn’t look random at all; all the bulbs are the same color.”
This is an example of a modal scope fallacy. LBR is about individual bulbs. LBR doesn’t mean that the board has to look random. LBR isn’t about the board as a group. Probability dictates that it would take about a year, but we’d eventually expect all light bulbs to be the same color at least once. And if we “froze” a bulb whenever it turned green, it would take only a few seconds.
Now, this is not to say that free choices are random. This is just to show how easy it is to commit a modal scope fallacy when we’re not careful to avoid it. It’s a fallacy even some very brilliant thinkers commit.
LBR isn’t about the lightbulbs as a group, and neither is free will about humanity as a group. It’s about individual choicemaking. Free will is not at all infringed even if all individuals make the same choice eventually. And it shouldn’t matter which definition of “free will” you use.
Q: Where, though, is hell described as purgatorial?
A: 1 Corinthians 3:15-17. The context is Paul lambasting a certain group of believers who were lazy and failing to build on their initial confession — the foundation of Jesus Christ, laid down for them by Paul as “foundation-builder.”
Paul makes an eschatological threat against these believers. (We could say “so-called” believers with an failing faith; “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. … I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.”)
At Judgment, the bad builders are in for a bad time.
The “bad time” they’re in for:
- They’ll “suffer loss,” Gr. zemio-. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but himself being lost (Gr. apolesas) or suffering loss (Gr. zemiotheis)?” That specific disownment, in the context of Luke, is the same kind threatened in Matthew 10:32-33.
- Their “lazy servanthood” parallels that of the gold-burier of Jesus’s parable: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
In other words, this isn’t just a “tut-tutting.” This is agony and humiliation. Disownment. And the result is the Gehenna hell of Judgment (see Matthew 10:28, the cost of disownment). A deconstruction by fire, the record exposed, and the shoddy works set ablaze.
The sufferer is eventually rescued. Verse 15: “But he himself shall be saved, though only as through fire.”
(It’s, of course, possible to dispute that this is about the hell of Judgment, which is the proposal on deck. But it’s not possible to dispute that this is a real threat of real loss and yet real reconciliation, which supplies a reductio ad absurdum against those who think a pre-reconciliation agony is “meaningless.”)
Q: This is confusing. The unsaved shall be saved?
A: It can be confusing because there are many senses of salvation in Scripture. This is commonly recognized by all theologians, from all three “camps.” For every kind of trouble — whether spiritual or eschatological or physical and mundane — there is a Gr. soterios “from it.”
Usually, when we say salvation, we refer to “salvation from due wrath” which also entails salvation from sin in life (through forgiveness) and from the sinful nature in life (through sanctification). And that’s usually the sense meant by “salvation” by the New Testament writers and it’s the salvation to which believers in Christ have exclusive claim.
But there is a further sense of “salvation from ultimate ‘lost-ness.'” It is a rescue from unreconciliation that everyone will eventually experience, whether or not they were saved/unsaved (in the traditional sense).
As such, these passages give us the complete Pauline eschatology. Reconciliation is contingent upon submission and confession. Everyone will eventually submit and confess. The unsaved, at Judgment, will come in shame, and will be rescued, but only as through the purging fire of wrath (which we’d much rather avoid).
St. Clement of Alexandria puts it this way, in his commentary fragment on 1 John 2:2, from the late 2nd century:
“And not only for our sins,’ — that is for those of the faithful, — is the Lord the propitiator, does he say, ‘but also for the whole world.’ He, indeed, rescues all; but some, converting them by punishments; others, however, who follow voluntarily with dignity of honor; so ‘that every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth.”
Q: So, Ephesians 1, Romans 11, Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 3, and 1 John 2. Any other places where an ultimate reconciliation is promised?
A: Yes. The Bible repeatedly talks of God’s in-time desire that all be saved from sin and wrath, and God’s ultimate desire that all be reconciled.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness [pleroma] dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
1 Timothy 2:1-6
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority — that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.”
1 Timothy 4:10
For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.
“Especially,” Gr. malista, really does mean “especially” and not “only.” See Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 5:8, 1 Timothy 5:17, and Titus 1:10. Paul’s letter to Timothy is consonant with Paul’s eschatology: Everyone will be saved, but believers especially so, since they’ll receive all senses of salvation, i.e., not just the ultimate reconciliation, but salvation from wrath at Judgment.
Q: Do some PUR believers cite verses that don’t strongly support PUR?
A: Yes. Some passages look at first glance to be about an ultimate reconciliation, but are actually about the earlier, exclusive salvation — the salvation to which we traditionally refer — that has a person avoiding God’s wrath by being found in the Book of Life.
2 Peter 3:9
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish [apolesthai], but everyone to come to repentance.”
God’s in-time interests can be confounded by other interests of God, like his allowing us freedom, and his forbearing subtlety. But God’s ultimate interests will never be confounded; “All my desire I shall do.”
This verse expresses God’s forbearance, waiting until just the right time to pull the trigger on Judgment. It may be a long, long time until that happens. Who knows?
These kinds of verses merely express God’s in-time interests. Many will not have been fully-drawn at Judgment. The way is narrow, and few find it.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
2 Corinthians 5:18
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
I assert that these verses should not be used to make a case for PUR, since they are too-easily contested and may refer to the exclusive kind of salvation (from wrath), even under PUR theology.
One of the most egregious examples is a selective citation of John 3:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
But note the following verse:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John 3:17 tells us only that Jesus didn’t bring along with him additional condemnation above what one would already expect for sin: An equitable, wrathful recompense.
A prudent theology is self-critical. That’s why we must use discernment and care when we make our eschatological case, no matter which camp we belong to.
Q: The wages of sin is death. How do we know God isn’t “okay” with the unrighteous getting what’s coming to them?
A: We know through reason, and we know through Scripture.
Through reason, we know that he isn’t content with this because otherwise he wouldn’t do anything special — even die on a cross — to help anyone out. If his love and his wrath were equally weighted, something like a theological “Newton’s First Law” would be in effect: There would be no positive motivation to change the momentum of anyone’s deadly fate.
Through Scripture, we know that it is an ultimate or axial interest of God that a person come to repentance and redemption. He relaxes this interest only lamentably, and only when it would serve an ancillary purpose. For example, if a person deserves death, God would rather have that person repent, and he settles with deadly consequences only regrettably.
This is explained in Ezekiel 33:11:
“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?'”
Combine this with Christ’s conquest of the grave (death’s doors are flung open) and with the universal submission and full confession (Romans 14), and we’re left with the benign, analytical conclusion that God’s love will be universally victorious by means of his wisdom and justice.
St. Gregory of Nyssa described it this way, 4th century:
“Justice and wisdom are before all these; of justice, to give to every one according to his due; of wisdom, not to pervert justice, and yet at the same time not to dissociate the benevolent aim of the love of mankind from the verdict of justice, but skilfully to combine both these requisites together, in regard to justice returning the due recompense, in regard to kindness not swerving from the aim of that love of man.”
Q: You bring up justice, but endless hell believers say that justice for sin demands an infinite penalty. How do you respond?
A: Endless hell violates the Biblical definition of God’s ultimate justice. God’s ultimate justice is this: Repaying in equity according to what a person did. That’s the definition.
Endless hell believers don’t like this definition, because it’s measured. A person who does more bad things gets a worse punishment. A person who does fewer bad things gets a lighter punishment. That’s what “according to” means.
But that’s the definition we’re given over and over and over again in Scripture:
From one of the oldest books, the Book of Job…
He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice. (Job 34:11-12, God’s unrebuked introducer, Elihu, speaking)
From the Gospel…
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:27)
From Paul’s eschatology…
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ (Romans 2:5-6, against the hypocrites)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
From the conclusion of Revelation…
Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy. Look, I am coming soon! My recompense is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. (Revelation 22:11-12)
From the Psalms, in a bi-fold definition of God’s benevolence broadly…
“One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love’; and, ‘You repay everyone according to what they have done.'” (Psalm 62:11-12)
In other words, with the grave conquered, only PUR maintains the Biblical definition of God’s justice. Indeed, it doesn’t make any sense to punish infinitely for a measurable crime. This is why you so often hear endless hell believers invoke God’s “higher ways/thoughts”; it’s a hand-wave that means, “I know this doesn’t make sense, but please, just accept it.”
Thankfully, Scripture supplies us with the definition above. God’s ultimate justice is mysterious in how it’s playing-out globally (as the Book of Job explains), but its definition — equitable recompense — is not mysterious at all.
Purgatorialists “win” the argument when it comes to the Biblical definition of justice.
That’s why an extra maneuver is necessary to “adjust” the gravity of a sin to warrant unbridled suffering in return using some sort of ferried-in coefficient.
We could call this “sin algebra.”
“Sin algebra” is a perversion of justice whereby an extraneous consideration is added to the scales to force a preferred balance. Scripture has many examples of justice perversions, including bias against foreigners, indifference to widows, bribery, and incorporating the great status of a claimant.
13th century luminary St. Thomas Aquinas’s “sin algebra” looked like this:
“The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin — it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen — and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.”
The simple rebuttal is that we mete greater punishment for injury against high human officials for consequential deterrence only. Indeed, if you ask someone to find this “sin algebra” in Scripture, they’ll have a hard time. Ask them for a passage that defines justice in this manner, and they’ll fail.
You see, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics didn’t actually “invent” this. It’s more proper to say that they picked some pre-chewed gum off the wall-of-rebuked-theology and started chewing it (gross, I know).
You will find this idea in Scripture, in only one general area: The rebuked diatribes of Eliphaz and Bildad, two of the “Three Stooges” of the Book of Job. Eliphaz and Bildad take this approach when Job insists that he hasn’t sinned enough to warrant his suffering.
Their logic is specifically rebuked by God’s introducer, Elihu, and they are broadly rebuked by God himself thereafter.
“I would like to reply to you [Job] and to your friends with you [the Three Stooges, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad]. Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”
In other words, our sins are disappointing to God, but they don’t damage him, and God’s loftiness vs. our lowliness makes them less injurious, not more.
We sinners are frustrating little creations. Pathetic, yes. In need of fixing, yes. But not “maggots” (to use Bildad’s word) that warrant whatever unbridled flaying.
See this article for more about what the Book of Job tells us about eschatology, theodicy, and God’s character.
Q: Is this the same thing as Catholic Purgatory?
A: No. Catholics believe in both endless hell and in a purgatorial “antechamber.” It is a spiritual state reserved for those who are saved, but where their sins warranted temporal discipline that has yet to be dished-out. Catholic Purgatory “catches” this discipline and handles it. It’s unpleasant, but everyone who goes there is heaven-bound, so there’s happiness as well. Meanwhile, those not needing Purgatory fly straight through, and some other number of souls end up in endless hell.
Q: Why become a believer? Why not just sin, sin, sin, since you’ll be reconciled eventually?
A: This relies on a false premise. To accept this argument, one must have the premise that a life of “sin, sin, sin,” is in-and-of-itself “better” than a life of sanctification and relationship with God, and thus that latter life of sanctification and relationship with God needs endless hell as a crutch or buttress in order to “win” against a life of “sin, sin, sin.”
This is a ridiculous premise that any believer should be ashamed of holding. As the Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us, “sin, sin, sin” is the way of swine and muck. It is not praiseworthy in any way. And the humiliation, agony, and dishonor of hell remains firmly in place.
Here is a list of excellent features of coming to faith in Christ. This list doesn’t go away upon adoption of PUR theology. The idea that it does is a non sequitur, specifically a kind of “Kochab’s Error.”
Q: But why does any of that interim stuff matter, if we’re all reconciled at the end of the day?
A: That degree of “at the end of the day” is radically reductive and destroys interim meaning. There is meaning to our lives, thoughts, actions, words, love, relationships, families, struggles, blessings, and punishments beyond “what happens in the very very end.”
Q: Okay, but isn’t there less urgency, if hell is purgatorial?
A: It is less urgent, but still urgent, since a real punishment looms from a wrathful (but just!) God. It is akin to saying that you’ll serve a year for theft rather than suffer ceaselessly for it; it would be absurd to say that the deterrent force against theft is eliminated thereby.
And, of course, urgency does not entail veracity. For example, an unjust, overpunishing God would compel greater urgent response. That doesn’t mean we should believe in an unjust, overpunishing God.
For each virtue there are two bookends of vice. The virtuous view is a proper fear and respect of equitable punishment. The vice of dearth is disregard for punishment entirely. The vice of excess is worry of overpunishment. Endless hell compels the latter, which is why so many clergy have struggled with anxiety-ridden parishioners on the topic of hell.
Q: What about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which shall not be forgiven?
A: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — misattributing the work of the Spirit to something else — is indeed a sin so serious that it shall not be forgiven. All sins that are not forgiven shall receive measured, wrathful recompense. This is the simple — almost surprisingly simple — answer under PUR theology.
As it so happens, the issues around blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are much more difficult for endless hell believers to address. It doesn’t really “fit” endless hell soteriology to say that such a misstep is necessarily unforgivable.
That’s because, under most brands of endless hell theology, anything not forgiven has endless hell as consequence. It’s just obviously out-of-proportion and thus prompts horrifying anxiety in rational people. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes, “Today virtually every Christian counseling manual contains a chapter on the sin to help counselors deal with patients who are terrified that they have already or might sometime commit this sin.”
And so, in rides St. Augustine on his galloping hippos to endless hell’s rescue, redefining this sin from “misattribution of the work of the Spirit to something else” — clearly the infraction that occurred in the story — to “dying in a state of stubbornness against Grace.”
Very creative! It makes no sense with the actual story — “Everyone will give account at Judgment for every empty word they have spoken,” Jesus says — but sandbags against the aforementioned anxiety issues.
Q: What about Judas? Will he be reconciled?
A: We don’t know, but I think so.
St. Gregory of Nyssa didn’t think so, since the Bible says it would have been better for him never to have been born. He reasons, “For, as to [Judas and men like him], on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity.”
Indeed, there are many varieties of PUR theology. Don’t feel bound to a specific take on it. Do your own study and exploration.
I think “better never to have been born” is better taken as an idiom. It means his station is woeful — really, really woeful.
Consider what Solomon wrote, in his existential exploration:
“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed — and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors — and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”
Judas was seized with remorse (Matthew 27:3-5). That means there was some good left in him, something to be salvaged, in Judas and perhaps people like him. This perhaps extends even to monsters like Adolf Hitler, who while a charismatic villain and brilliant in many ways, was also very, very screwed-up and stupid. He will receive his just recompense. I don’t envy what awaits him.
Q: What about Satan? Will he be reconciled?
A: We don’t know, but I don’t think so.
It depends on what Satan “is.” We don’t know exactly how he “works.” Perhaps he has some good left in him that can be salvaged. Perhaps, however, he was created as enmity-in-form (the “Lucifer” backstory is an erroneous folktale, Luther and Calvin rightly observe), and as such his redemption is an instance of “Winning the Mountain Game.” If so, his fate would be annihilation or sequestration, a special exception according to his special, by-nature antagony.
Again, there are varieties of PUR theology, and many debates to be had from the PUR foundation. St. Jerome tells us that most believers — or, at least, most of his purgatorialist ilk — in his day did believe in the eventual redemption of Satan: “I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.” (Commentary on Jonah)
But for my part, I doubt it.
Addressing Other Interpretations
Q: What about the impassable chasm of Luke 16?
A: This has nothing to do with the hell of Judgment. Luke 16’s story is about a descent into Gr. Hades / Heb. Sheol, the “Grave Zone” of Hebrew folk eschatology. Hades/Sheol are emptied at Judgment per Revelation 20. Regardless of what you think happens afterward, its chasm is moot.
For more about the difference between “Hades/Sheol” and “the hell of Judgment,” see this article, which also includes a discussion of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
It’s important to point out that St. Augustine completely missed this distinction, conflating the two and allowing this blunder to infect this theology, and the theology of the church broadly thereby.
Q: What about the Jesus’s reference to the immortal worms and unquenchable fire in Mark 9?
A: This is a reference to the corpses of Isaiah; the figurative fate of God’s enemies. Christ’s thesis is that it’s better to remove stumbling-catalysts than to stumble and thereby become an enemy of God, defeated in the end.
It cannot be used in support of an endless experiential torment; these are unthinking corpses laid to waste on the field. Annihilationists can claim a “face value” victory here, but then might be challenged to explain in what “face value” sense Jesus asks us to amputate ourselves. This is figurative (not at all uncommon for Jesus). Read the chapter for yourself.
We further point to the mysterious following verse, 49: “Everyone will be salted with fire.” It looks as if this “unquenchable fire” will affect everyone to some degree or another, spurring convicted change or eventual purgation.
Q: I see the Bible talk about “endless punishment” over and over again. I see the “smoke of their torment rising forever and ever.” What gives?
A: These come from reckless, imprudent, widespread, and popular translations of the Gr. aion / aionios / aionion word family. This is the toughest sticking point. Indeed, it is the only really resilient hanger upon which the ugly sweater of endless hell hangs, and it’s baked into the vast majority of Bible translations.
Aion means age. Aionios & aionion mean “of ages” or “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of gravity or significance. More prudent translations would read, “punishment of ages” or “punishment of the age,” and “smoke of their torment rising to ages of ages.”
When we scan through both modern and ancient lexicography, we see a bunch of different views. One view is that the word family is silent on finitude/infinitude and can qualify things of any duration. Another view is that the word family adopts finitude/infinitude according to context and that which the words qualify. And, of course, some modern lexicographies under ubiquitous endless hell belief say they wholly mean “everlasting,” when that was the domain of Gr. aidios.
We see that Hesychius of Alexandria, a Hellenic lexicographer from the late 4th century, defined aion as simply, “The life of a man, the time of life,” in his “Alphabetical Collection of All Words.” Bishop Theodoret of the theological school of Antioch, early 5th century, took the view that aion adopted the meaning of that which it qualified: “An interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man.”
But in investigating aionios specifically, the task becomes more difficult. Plato used the term occasionally but idiosyncratically. From what we can tell, our best clue on aionios specifically comes from Olympiodorus.
6th century Hellenic scholar Olympiodorus’s story is of very high interest to us. His story takes place a century into endless hell becoming dominant in the church. Olympiodorus found himself in contest with Christians who, by this time, were unanimous in treating these words as equivocal with “everlasting.” This was corrupting their interpretation of Aristotle, and Olympiodorus’s commentaries elucidate this “intrusion of theologians.”
Olympiodorus spoke of Tartarus, the Hellenic idea of the bad afterlife and analogue to the hell of Judgment, this way:
“Tartarus is a place of judgment and retribution, which contains the places of retribution … into which souls are cast according to the difference of their sins… Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages (‘apeirou aionas’) in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the Deity, but for the sake of healing… we say that the soul is punished for a period ‘aionios,’ calling its life and assigned period in Tartarus an ‘aion.'”
He further wrote:
“When aionios is used in reference to a period which, by assumption, is infinite and unbounded, it means eternal; but when used in reference to times or things limited, the sense is limited to them.”
This isn’t pagan novelty, but an annoyed reclamation of how the Greek-speakers generally understood the term (this is why St. Gregory of Nyssa called a purgatorial hell “the Gospel accord”) against the new wave of endless hell believers misunderstanding it.
What does this mean for us? It means that every time you see the word “forever” or “everlasting” in Scripture, you may need to double-check whether the underlying word is Gr. aion / aionios / aionion. If it is, then the translation you use may be “begging the question” in service of endless hell as a “given.”
It’s important to understand that without this “question” settled in favor of endless hell, endless hell belief no longer has any Biblical case left. Only annihilationism and PUR remain with positive cases, but remain divided over how to interpret apoleia and the recognition of God’s stated preference-stacking, promises, and plans.
Q: Matthew 25:46 says, “Then they will go away to kolasin aionion [punishment of ages], but the righteous to zoen aionion [life of ages].” We know that the zoen aionion lasts forever. The parallelism shows us that the kolasin aionion must last forever, right?
A: This is an ancient, unsound argument in the “hell’s duration” debate.
Here’s some reading to help detect the unsoundness. It’s tricky, but it’s discernible:
- An Ancient, Unsound Argument in the “Hell’s Duration” Debate.
See especially the analogy to Habakkuk 3:6 in the end.
- The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.
This thought exercise helps us see why “information from parallelism” is reckless and wrong.
Q: Does that mean that the zoen aionion is limited, too?
A: No; this would be a non sequitur. But first we need to do a quick untangling.
Both endless hell believers and purgatorial hell believers agree that the saved and unsaved receive everlasting perpetuity, that is, we will all continue onward forever. So (these two camps would agree) the zoen aionion doesn’t mean, in the strictest sense, “immortality” (like Gr. athanasia and aphtharsia).
Rather, it means life-of-ages, especially related to the Messianic Age. It represents having rushed-in to the Kingdom of God, where we can know the Father and the Son whom he sent. This direct interaction and revelation is the zoen aionion.
At Judgment, the zoen aionion (or aionios zoe) entails being found in the Biblou tes Zoes — the Book of Life.
Rather than being disowned (Matthew 10:32-33), Christ will advocate for us (Revelation 3:5). We receive a special inheritance that “can never perish, spoil, or fade… kept in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). We eschew the “perishable crown” now in order to inherit the “imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
1 Corinthians 15 describes the general resurrection starting with those that belong to him. Then the end will come, and all enemies will be subdued… even death itself. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
This only becomes confusing when we read the zoen aionion / aionios zoe strictly as “immortality.” Consider the rich young man in Matthew 19. He asks, “What good thing must I do to receive zoen aionion?” We imagine that he’s asking about living forever. But Jews in the Pharisaic tradition at the time already believed in a general resurrection (John 11:24, 2 Maccabees 12:38-46).
Rather, he’s talking about entering the zoen aionion: Knowing God, which (per Matthew 9:21) means righteousness now and inheriting “treasure in heaven” later. It is the “Life of the Age,” not “immortality.”
How do you get in? The commandments, which are fulfilled in love. But this rich young man needed to do one more thing. In order to receive that righteousness now and inherit that “treasure in heaven” later, he was called to give up his treasure on Earth (much like the contrast given in 1 Corinthians 9:25 and Matthew 6:19-21).
Jesus’s somber conclusion (Matthew 19:29-30):
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit zoen aionion. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
Only PUR preserves this “first-ness / last-ness” (vs. “first-ness / never-ness”) and maintains the original meaning of the zoen aionion / aionios zoe. Endless hell advocates are forced into cognitive dissonance, claiming that the aionios zoe literally means “everlasting life” while simultaneously proclaiming that both the saved and unsaved have endless perpetuity.
How do we know for sure that the zoen aionion / aionios zoe means “Knowing God intimately and directly through the Son”?
- First, that’s how Jesus defines it in John 17:3. We don’t have to make wild guesses. The definition is sitting right here.
- Second, that’s how it’s employed across the epistle of 1 John (the same author as recorded Jesus’s prayer above). Several verses in 1 John don’t make very much sense when we read the term as “immortality,” but make perfect sense when we read it as, “knowing God and participating in His New Covenant Kingdom, which brings with it righteousness and an inheritance.”
- Third, the definition Jesus used, and the way John employed the term, conforms precisely to the prophecy from Jeremiah about the Messianic life-of-the-age (Hebrews 8:10b-13): “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
Even though the zoen aionion isn’t strictly “immortality,” immortality rides alongside it insofar as death itself has been conquered by Christ’s death and resurrection, and will be destroyed as the last enemy. In addition, Revelation 22 shows that the Edenic “Tree of Life” will make its return at long last.
Q: You ask us to accept that endless hell is a doctrinal error. How could such an error be so widespread under God’s watch for 1500 years?
A: This is a theodicean issue. God’s Spirit shall guide the church into all truth, but this guidance is on God’s timetable.
- Protestants should especially resonate with this; a Protestant would say that false doctrine was widespread in the church, at least in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
- On the other side of the table, Catholics should remember that doctrine develops, and some of the most cherished dogmas received articulation only after centuries of debate. Perhaps the ordinary and universal Magisterium will someday develop consensus that any purported place of endless torment shall be largely empty, and a purgatorial fixing awaits nearly all.
Based on our experiences with suffering, evils in the world, confusion, disunity, etc., the only workable theodicy is one that operates both on God’s timetable, and according to God’s interests, one of which must be a subtlety, patience, and working through our fumbling human wills as much as feasible.
Here’s a video that talks more about theodicy. Experiential incredulity is overwhelmed by a sacred expression of faith and hope in God’s plan, purposes, and timing. It helps that it’s easy to postulate benefits of temporary, widespread belief in endless hell (though we’d rather not do so unless we think ourselves prophets).
Again, Romans 11:33-34:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
Q: Still, how could an idea become so popular if it’s in error? Wouldn’t everyone have noticed?
A: A glance at memetic theory tells us that an idea’s popularity is a function of its virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stick-iness”). Those, in turn, are functions both of truth/falsehood and human quirks — weird little follies that affect both individuals and groups.
Indeed, we can all admit that endless hell has strong “memetic legs,” whether or not it’s true.
Q: Do you people really think you’re smarter than St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the rest?
A: No. We pale in brilliance to many Christian luminaries who’ve struggled to make sense of endless hell. And beyond that, we admit that there are many other Trinitarians — as well as Hindus, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists — that would destroy us in an IQ test.
But orthodoxy on hell’s duration, just like orthodoxy about anything we can say about God or religion, is not a smartness contest. It’s an exercise in searching the Scriptures like Bereans and, prayerfully and together, debating and arguing the nitty-gritty until arriving at the most sensible conclusion, even if it takes centuries, and even if it takes thousands of Spirit-seeking voices in friendly contest, and even if that conclusion is the mere recovery of a smothered historical teaching.
Q: This seems like a tiny change at first: “Rather than hell being infinite, it is finite.” But it seems to have a huge, devastating impact on traditional soteriology. Who can accept it?
A: The libraries of traditional soteriology exploded out of the “baking soda + vinegar” of endless hell being (1) ubiquitous and sacrosanct, and (2) morally untenable. This yielded a bizarre situation wherein a doctrinal blunder is simultaneously a doctrine with volumes of supporting commentary by countless brilliant thinkers.
But the case is demonstrable. Search the Scriptures, maintain a depth of diligence and scrutiny, and find out if PUR is true.
In many ways, it’s like time-traveling back to do an ancient king a small favor. Upon completing the favor and returning to the present, the favor’s butterfly effect has changed whole cultures and national borders.
In this way, it is a small correction, while also being one of the most significant corrections we can make as Christians.
- Gerard Beauchemin’s “Hope Beyond Hell” is an extremely readable introduction. You can get it on Amazon (free on Kindle) or download it for free from his web site.
- Fr. Aiden Kimel’s reading list can take you from there.
A while back, my wife and I attended a small family reunion, and observed the behavior of some little humans to which I am related.
Three of the children were involved in a drawn-out game of tag, and one of those being chased was clearly losing steam.
That’s when he had an ingenious idea.
“Okay, break time!” he cried out. And all three children stopped immediately.
After all, it was break time now.
Had he shouted, “I want to take a break!,” it probably wouldn’t have had the desired effect. The chaser might even have responded, “Tough luck!” and tagged him.
By wrapping his interests in objective language, it no longer felt a disputable and subjective matter; it’s almost as if the universe itself was invoked. Discussion isn’t needed or wanted. It’s just break time.
My wife teaches second grade, and has her students do a certain small group exercise in which each group member has a role, one of which is “writer.”
During one of these exercises, she recounts a certain little boy (we’ll pretend his name was Charlie) announcing, “I’m the writer, period, end of discussion.” His groupmates were subdued immediately.
My wife saw this happen, though, and asked, “Charlie, why do you get to be writer?”
“Because,” Charlie revealed, “I want it the most.”
At this point, a wave of realization swept over the children — it wasn’t “end of discussion” at all. They’d been tricked!
Everyone wants to be writer. You don’t get to be writer just because you want it.
But if my wife hadn’t intervened, they’d never have put that together. When he just is the writer, objectively, there’s nothing to discuss.
But when he just wants to be the writer, the matter’s in dispute.
Both “Break Time” and “Rightful Writer” proceeded from personal interests, and a desire to manipulate or subjugate group behavior. But both proclamations “invoked the universe” — cited objective states of the world — in order to obfuscate those interest contingencies, since personal interest contingencies weaken attempts at group manipulation and subjugation.
The “Rightful Writer” case was especially amusing to me, because I’m almost certain the child learned this technique from his parents.
Parents do universe-invocation all the time.
Silencing the Ice Scream
There are several good reasons to reject a child’s plea for pre-dinner ice cream. If the child pesters for a “good reason,” there are many to give.
One is that delayed ice cream is effective to compel dinner-finishing. It’s “bait,” in other words.
We can’t say that, though. “You can’t have any yet because I’m using it as bait” feels manipulative, and too arbitrary against such a “really-really-needs-ice-cream-now” emergency.
Another reason is that too much dessert is unhealthy, and inconsistent giving-in yields child-spoiling. But recognition of incentive gradients to ill consequences aren’t very convincing in the moment; “I know, I know,” the child says, “It’s just this once.”
Another is that you just plain don’t want to bother.
“I’ll get it myself!” the child offers.
Nothing is working.
But what if you invoke the universe?
“Dessert comes after dinner, not before.”
Now, this isn’t to say that a child won’t continue to protest. But this new reason doesn’t feel so dodgeable. You can “rest your case” here and repeat this invocation until the child is exhausted.
Indeed, every reason that made an interest appeal had the weakness of interest-circumvention. This new reason doesn’t have an interest appeal; as a result, there’s no circumventing it.
It’s just a “fact” about dessert and dinner. No subjective referents. No slipperiness.
Hot and Cold
There are all sorts of objective things about hot and cold.
- Water boils at 100° C. That’s hot. Water freezes at 0° C. That’s cold!
- When my wife and I get into our outside-parked car on a sunny day, we rush to turn on the air conditioning. It’s hot! We want it cooler.
- During summer, it’s on-average hotter than during winter. In winter, it’s on-average colder than during summer.
Pretty straightforward, right? Seems basically objective.
The other day, though, my wife and I had a dispute in the car. I thought the cabin temperature was hot, and flipped the dial to barely-blue. My wife thought the temperature was cold, and responded by cranking the dial slightly into the red zone.
This is our eternal struggle.
You see, we have different comfort zones. Whether it’s the temperature of water or the temperature of the car, there is a dispute within the blurriness between hot and cold.
That’s because “hot” and “cold” are experiential reactions to objective things. They’re ultimately interest-driven.
Did I arbitrate my comfort zone, and my wife hers? Of course not. If we could, we’d avoid all sorts of drama by syncing-up.
But they’re subjective things — proceeding from personal interests — nonetheless.
To what can my wife appeal to win the dial debate over what we “should” do? (It’s a zero-sum game in a car without dual-zone climate control.)
She could appeal to interest-consensus to invalidate my interests. “You always are too hot. Everyone else would think it’s cold right now.”
She could circumvent interest-appeals entirely by invoking the universe. “It is not cold right now. You’re just wrong.”
But those don’t work on me anymore. I can spot them a mile away.
And so, she does the only thing left: She engages me in a physical battle over the dial, a War of Mutually-Assured Destruction (given that I’m trying to drive) that I quickly concede.
As we’ve talked about many, many times on this blog (and will continue to talk about), right decisionmaking — the way in which we determine the answers to “shoulds” and “oughts” — works like this:
The square on the upper-right is purely objective.
But the circle on the upper-left proceeds subjectively. And this can cause problems when presented with zero-sum interest impasses.
So how do we solve those problems, in practice?
- (Plan A) We can assert personal interests for sympathy or (Plan B) appeal to (hopefully) shared higher interests, but those often don’t work in genuine impasse.
- (Plan C) We can then play at invalidating their interests by appealing to consensus interests. But why should a vegetarian bow to getting pepperoni pizza just because the rest of the group wants it?
- (Plan D) We can then invoke the universe; “The thing that aligns with my interests, and against yours, is simply right, purely objectively.”
Notice what’s happening. A failure to subjugate through sympathy, shared consensus, and invalidation by external consensus naturally leads to the “pure objectivization” backup plan.
It’s technically erroneous (clearly, it is not “pure”; there are clearly interests spurring this thing).
It is meta-ethically incoherent.
It’s a language bug.
But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that pure objectivization is the natural plan D and often works.
And, of course, a refusal at this juncture leads to a bland power struggle.
So “plan D” is the last “civilized” border town before the wild frontier, even while it’s corrupt.
Non-Objective Meaning and Morality
Meaning and morality are non-objective, which is to say, they are not purely objective.
Similarly, they are non-subjective, which is to say, they are not purely subjective.
Both the circle and the square are essential for coherent moral facts.
Ecclesiastes goes out of its way to explore this puzzle, and comes to the very same conclusion.
It’s a bullet we must bite.
But that doesn’t mean it ain’t handy to ignore this conclusion. Many smart folks have been doing so — by mistake or on purpose — for centuries.
Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?
We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.
- 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
The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.
As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!
(1) It’s the Default Feeling
As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.
Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”
So, what is “it”?
Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”
- First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.
It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.
- Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”
- Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.
Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”
So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).“
(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)
And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.
(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition
Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”
And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.
This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.
Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”
This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.
For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.”
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”
This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.
These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”
This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.
Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).
How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?
The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!
Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.
For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”
Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.
What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”
As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.
The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.
Who has time for that?
Who has the patience?
Who has the driving interest?
Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.
The Resilient Cocktail
The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.
- First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
- Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.
And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.
It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”
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 vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.
Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.
Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.
From our last post on hell:
Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:
- “Hell is purgatorial.”
- “Hell is endless torment.”
The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).
(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)
Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”
But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The result 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’).”
This is the second in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.
The first part was about the exploitation by media, and the second part (below) is about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.
Commission & Omission
Jimmy Fallon’s “Your Company’s Computer Guy,” about to recommend omitting action.
You’ve noticed that when confronted with a situation in which you must either commit action or omit action, you often take the omissive route due to a lack of information.
Acting recklessly beyond what is known can create all sorts of problems, which you know.
As a result, omissive action becomes generally correlated with “more correct” action.
But does this make omission less morally intense than commission? Is it always slightly more grevious, for example, to kill by commission than by omission?
But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”
Retribution & Remediation
Corporal punishment from the movie, “Catching Fire.”
You’ve noticed that when faced with the bad decision of someone over whom you have authority, you want to react in a way that teaches that person a lesson and corrects the problem, now and for the future.
This is the remedial prospect of assigning judgment.
But you’ve also noticed that, often, the response is something punitive — frequently, Pavlovian behavior modification that requires only that the person be repaid in proportion to how much you were wronged.
As a result, justice becomes generally correlated with “retributory” action.
But does this mean that this is the “point” of justice? Is the prospective “goal” merely to repay?
But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”
Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”: Very blameworthy.
You’ve noticed that bad results can often be attributed to a single person making a single bad decision.
Usually, we’re all working as hard as we can for productive results, and when that goal is undermined, it’s usually because someone screwed up. If the cofactor was something mindless — like a broken pipe for which nobody has responsibility — then we often say, “Nobody is responsible.”
Thus, finding responsibility becomes generally correlated with finding a single, blameworthy decisionmaker.
But does this mean that this is how responsibility “works”? Is there always a single person solely responsible? And is it useful to limit responsible cofactors exclusively to decisionmakers? And is responsibility always about blameworthiness, never about creditworthiness?
The answer to all three is, “No.”
But it can feel like “Yes” due to those correlative “lessons.”
An invaluable gold statue of Michael Jackson.
You’ve noticed that when you look at an object of value, you think of the value “living inside” that object.
You also value things without consciously valuing them; you value food not because your rational mind is convinced of its utility, but because without food you feel hunger. That feeling is out of your control, and so it further feels like the food “contains” value.
You’ve also noticed that an object “becomes” more valuable the more work it would take to acquire or reacquire, which is not something over which you have arbitrary control.
Finally, you’ve been taught that certain things are valuable — even those things, which, if you hadn’t been taught as such, you wouldn’t value.
Thus, this constant bombardment of correlative lessons can make you feel like an object can have “intrinsic value.”
But can it, really? Would gold be valuable if there were no valuing things — that is, minds with interests — to respect it? Is value purely objective?
But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”
A veggie pizza from Maurizio’s.
We all agree that taste is a matter of taste. Some people are going to prefer Armanno’s Pizza on 12th and some people are going to prefer Maurizio’s Pizza on Washington.
You’ve just been hired, however, to head up local marketing for Maurizio’s. What do you do, given that taste is a matter of taste?
You could run a blind taste-test in service of finding the “aggregate taste,” such that you could boast, “Most people prefer Maurizio’s!”
Unfortunately, the results indicate that most people, in fact, prefer Armanno’s.
How about this.
You put together a campaign that proclaims Maurizio’s is just better. It just “tastes better.”
It’ll be true for some people, right?
And by wrapping it in objective language, you’ve divorced it from fickle personal preferences and given it the mystique of objectivity. Its superiority has been enshrined on a pedestal that no filthy human hands have touched.
If you weren’t the marketer, someone else would be. And they’d eventually start playing around with objective language. That’s because there’s selective memetic momentum toward enshrining things preference-based as objective, preference-less facts.
Pretty sleazy, right?
But, what if the success of Maurizio’s had some huge, higher-order payoff for everyone? What if that connection was hard to show, or hard to articulate, but nonetheless 100% true? What if, in the here and now, it’s absolutely vital for society that folks be convinced to go against their personal impulsive pizza tastes and gravitate toward Maurizio’s?
Suddenly, wrapping the marketing of Maurizio’s pizza within incomplete, “objective” language, however sloppy and technically erroneous, starts to have utilitarian merit.
The language “bug” becomes useful.
But does this mean that it isn’t a bug? Does this selective momentum suggest that these things really are a matter of purely objective worth and purely objective “rightness”?
But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”
Each of these examples have been of myths, driving persistent philosophical questions, from ancient debates to contemporary contemplation.
Is commission more morally intense than omission? No. Omission is just more often correct, because it usually is less reckless (but is sometimes more negligent).
An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.
Is justice about pure retribution? No. Justice is about fixing a person or that which he represents in the abstract, but retribution is a very common, intuitive, and historically effective way of employing such fix attempts (even if the “fix” is “repair that which a murderer represents by locking him away forever”).
An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.
Is assigning responsibility about finding a single blameworthy decisionmaker? No. Assigning responsibility is about finding all causal cofactors in service of what needs to be fixed or encouraged. This just, very often, points to a single person’s behavior in need of repair.
An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.
Is there “intrinsic value”? No. Value is imputed by evaluators with interests. But there are all sorts of complications that make value seem, conceptually, “within object.”
An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.
Are there “objective interests”? No. “Subjective-as-objective” language errors are just very often useful for behavior modification, and behavior modification has been historically effective — perhaps even necessary — for social stability.
An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.
But the Undead are Entertaining
There’s a natural selective bias toward things that are exciting. It’s more fun to chatter than to sit in silence. Controversy is more entertaining than complacency. Story arcs sell better than story flatlines.
Remember that popular philosophy, just like anything else with the “popular” qualifier, is much more a product of memetics than of coherence or truth.
- For a discussion of how memetics can select for the popularity of garbage, see “Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths).”
- For more about the psychology of omission versus commission, conveyed through a personal anecdote, read “Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing.”
- For a rebuttal of another bad correlative lesson — that morality is primarily about “rules” — read “The Angelic Ladder.”
- To review the Bible’s lesson that meaning is non-objective, see “Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning.”
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.