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.
Here’s the latest “Philosophy Drive” episode!
It’s 14 minutes long and discusses theodicy, our response to problems of evil and suffering in order to neutrally defend a belief in God.
It also talks about a “second order problem” called “the problem of gratuitous puzzlement.” I claim that this benignly reduces to the plain-ol’ problem of suffering, and give my take on theodicy broadly.
0:18 – What theodicy means. Two kinds: Experiential (also called “evidential”) and abstract (also called “theoretical”). The former is above our paygrade. The latter looks like a hand-wave, but technically works.
2:21 – The “problem of gratuitous puzzlement.”
3:08 – Quick nags. “Gratuitous” as a subtle question-begging. Wouldn’t God have inspired somebody to give us correct theodicy? (He did!) Why hasn’t it caught on, then? Questioning “earliness.” Remarks on the state of the world and where we’re going.
5:28 – Unpacking “surprising.” Remarks on humanity’s dearth of “RAM slots,” the wobbly crutches on which we depend, and how woefully unequipped we are to draw any experiential theodicean conclusion, whether or not such a remark is for or against a good God.
8:34 – Our woeful underqualification for this task leads to a Job-like confession. Remarks on the Book of Job and its role as the Bible’s theodicy.
11:14 – Theodicy requires “CIWAMIS” (circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set). Remarks on God’s “natural garden” preference.
12:34 – Summing up abstract theodicy (which, of course, looks like a hand-wave). Conclusion: If it works for “basic” suffering, it handles “surprising puzzlement,” too.
- What is the Book of Job really all about? Read “Elihu, the Forgotten Prophet of Job.”
- How can God both will and not will that evil come about? Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”
Over the last several years I’ve had a lot of great discussions with Open Theists.
Open Theism — perhaps more properly called open futurism — is the idea that what we imagine as plausible future possibilities are all realizable (and not simply imaginary).
For them all to be realizable, it is asserted, God cannot have certain knowledge of a single future course.
There are 3 big reasons why folks might be interested in this sort of thing:
- It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
- It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
- If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever-you-please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Sounds pretty good, right?
The bad news is that all 3 of these have major snags (and we’ll get into the specifics in just a moment).
First, let’s talk about what you’d expect if it’s true that these have major snags.
If these contributions are deeply problematic (as opposed to surface-only problems with ready solutions) — like a leaky wooden ship set-sail — you’d expect:
- Radically novel conjecture (not just refinement or development) in order to “jury-rig.”
- Selective appeals to solutions pioneered by competing hypotheses in order to “patch.”
- Logical wildcards to keep the ship’s captain blissfully oblivious to the problems below; to “obfuscate.”
Open Theology is under development, and as such, different Open writers and thinkers have different ideas and approaches. Even so, I’m noticing those “you’d expect” patterns more and more.
This is especially of interest to me as a Christian compatibilist.
Because compatibilist solutions are very often being procured from the compatibilist “vessel” for at-sea patching! “Hey, that’s ours!”
Compatibilism is the idea that while creatures make decisions as strict functions of who they are and what makes them tick, we still make real choices, can be held responsible, and have free will. The angle is that these “agency things” dwell on a layer of meaningfulness that emerges from discriminatory interests (including interests of God).
It doesn’t seem like it at first, but compatibilism isn’t a big jump from Open Theism.
This is evinced by the fact that our vessels are neighborly enough for “trading”!
Of course, the hope is that Open brethren will eventually jump ship and board the U. S. S. Compatibilism, which is an amazing ship, and which would love a bigger crew to battle (in a friendly way) common theological foes.
Let’s tackle the snags within each of the above 3 contributions.
… In reverse order!
If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever you please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).
Problem 1.1: The Incoherence of Folk Responsibility
Notice “selectively apply folk responsibility.” That “selectively” is important: Folk responsibility is a logical wildcard.
Logical wildcards are hard to directly address because their power is in their ghostly incoherence, vagueness, and inconsistency.
There are two ways to battle these ghosts:
- Demand definition. (This is rhetorically weak because the ghosts will just fly away.)
- Show how the ghosts are yielding logical contradictions and/or algorithmic inconsistencies. (This is more rhetorically effective.)
The latter takes place in the following article: “Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible.” There, you’ll see definitively how folk responsibility is leveraged inconsistently to “clean God’s hands.”
Problem 1.2: The Triviality & “Raah” of Deterministic Processes
This applies only to the subset of Open Theists who admit that some processes are indeed deterministic (or, would be unless effected by a “libertarian free agent”).
One such process might be the molding of costal cliffs. After millennia of water against rock, each coastal cliff is indescribably unique. So, did God micromanage each cliff face around the world?
A common, and (I think) proper, answer is, “No. There’s a difference between the micromanaged results of deterministic processes and the corollaries thereof. The former has teleology; the latter is just ‘byproduct.'”
Sweet! That’s a patch borrowed from compatibilism. And it works pretty well with coastal cliffs.
But what about tsunamis against cities? Or Pompeii?
At this fork in the road, the subset might jury-rig with radical novelty. For example, one could posit that libertarian-free demons are driving every natural disaster and accident.
Or rather, if they please, they’re invited to borrow another patch from our compatibilistic ship: Not only can there be byproduct trivialities, but there can also be byproduct “raah,” like wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, lava flows, meteoroids, lightning, blizzards, famines, floods, plagues, etc.
Some of these may have ancillary consequences — the more ancillary the better — but we need not ascribe to them “total teleology,” frantically searching for folks like Hindus or gay people or pervasive demons or “Christians-from-wrong-denominations” to blame.
It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
Problem 2.1: Analysis Nags
When we look up at the starry sky, it appears as if all of the stars are the same distance away from us. But when we use observational instruments other than our “eyes & guts,” we see that this is false; they’re at all sorts of different distances.
Our “eyes & guts” tell us that we’re quite spontaneous. But other observational instruments keep telling us that we aren’t. We act according to who we are, and who we are is a function of what makes us tick.
Now, as a Christian, I have a faith-premise in some supernatural stuff. It comes with the territory. But supernaturalism is often used as a shoehorn toward arbitrary conclusions. And one way it protects this maneuver is through “gapping.”
By defining a treasure in an ambiguous or indiscernible way, there’s no way to disprove its existence. It establishes a “bunker,” “sandbag,” or “motte” — a “gap.”
Atheists accuse believers of positing a “God of the Gaps” all the time, and — to a point — there’s some validity to this indictment, especially because some believers recklessly plaster supernaturalism onto everything.
But we have faith in “He Who Is Unseen”; Paul tells us that unlike the readily tangible and powerless idols, God is powerful and wants to be sought, though he is not far from any of us. In other words, there is purpose in God’s veil of subtlety.
Here, though, folks take shelter in a “spontaneous will of the gaps,” and there is no such teleology explaining it.
No matter what analysis or observations we make, “something-or-other” can always live in the “something-or-other zone” (it’s no coincidence that libertarian free will lacks a coherent, positive definition; it is a “something-or-other”).
Problem 2.2: Coherent Remedial Response is Ruined by Spontaneity
When a child is spoiled, whom do we blame?
We don’t apply “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the child’s bad behavior.
But nor do we excuse the child.
Rather, we assign responsibility to every cofactor, focusing especially on those cofactors with the capacity to recognize a problem and the power to change catalyzing circumstances.
In short, we focus our attention on the parents and other environmental cofactors.
But the dynamism of responsibility (which entails a rejection of folk responsibility) is predicated on the fact that our decisions are influenced, molded, and knitted by prior causes.
How can this be reconciled with having a “free will”?
The compatibilist solution is to say that there is a sort of free will in the gap of human understanding and an interest in formative self-guidance:
- If I don’t know what’s causing you to do choose something bad (let’s talk about only bad behavior for now), I call that your “free will.”
- If I know what’s causing you to do something bad, but can anticipate you coming to correction in your own time, I also call that your “free will.”
- If, however, I know what’s causing you to do something bad, and cannot anticipate a self-guided turn-around, then I do not call that your “free will”; rather, I call it a disease or defect or disorder. No longer can you be held exhaustively culpable for persisting in your bad behavior. And if I know how to cure you of your disease and can easily do so, then I bear culpability by omission until I help cure it (and can be blamed or credited for any delay, depending on the prospects and costs thereof).
This should be rather intuitive. But the idea of spontaneity allows us to insert “buck-stops-here culpability-breaks.”
And what does that do for us? It lets us excuse potential “surgeons” of their omissive culpability!
And certain eschatologies need this excuse, else they become theodicean problems.
We talked before how folk responsibility is used as a logical wildcard. It rears its head here, too. One minute, an Open Theist named Linda might claim that George can become rooted in his behavior and lose his spontaneity. The next, she’ll use George’s spontaneity to excuse the “Great Surgeon” of omissive culpability for George’s predicament.
The former claim and latter excuse are not at all consonant. Typically, Linda’s confusion comes from equivocating George’s past spontaneity (where culpability still lived with George) with “current spontaneity” (or lack thereof, such that current-George is inexorably enslaved to bad decisions of past-George and needs external help).
Problem 2.3: God’s Still Sovereign
I don’t mean to say that Open Theism denies God’s sovereignty. Many Open Theologies uphold God’s sovereignty with certain re-stipulations.
The issue is that even under Open Theism, God’s “wholly puppeteering will” follows from benign premises unless and until compatibilism is employed to erase the qualifier “wholly puppeteering” through forms.
We’ve talked before about these ingredients:
- God has the raw power to do anything (at least things that are logically possible); if there is a coherent challenge to be met, God could do it if he net-wanted to.
- God knows everything about the past and present.
- God is occasionally willing to intervene and influence to various degrees.
- God has done this before, sometimes gratuitously.
Within the first ingredient, the following is entailed:
- No matter what happens, God can functionally undo it, such that it would not “stick.” Even if he cannot rewind time, he can manipulate particles and memories to duplicate the function of rewinding time.
These ingredients yield the following 2 “question-answer” pairs:
- When would something happen and “stick”? When and only when letting-stick conforms to God’s net-wants.
- When would something be “undone”? When and only when that undoing conforms to God’s net-wants.
Notice the reductive, ultimate appeal that answers both questions?
Now, remember that reduction destroys meaning. The above chain of logic — and its reductive conclusion — feel horrible and nihilistic, even as they are inarguable (assuming we agree on the premises).
So, how do we “get out” of this? How do we come up for air?
Again, we have a little fork in the road, this time 4-pronged:
- We can “come up for air” by cupping hands over ears and reverting to non-analysis.
- We can “come up for air” by using logical wildcards (like folk responsibility and libertarian freedom) to bridge-break the logic.
- We can “come up for air” by denying the premises. A subset of Open Theists, for example, has dabbled in denying God’s raw power. A weak God would not yield the sovereign conclusion; theodicy is solved by positing a God “wholly willing, but unable.”
- We can “come up for air” by plowing forward, blasting through the nihilism of reduction to capture our refined, meaningful forms.
The last is entailed by compatibilism.
One such discriminating interest is that between “directly affected stuff vs. stuff affected through distant indirection.” The forms that emerge from such an interest allow us to take a HUGE breath after ascending from the fish’s belly of reduction.
Some Open Theists sense this payoff!
Some will even package this interest-driven discrimination into a stipulative (“True Scotsman”) redefinition of sovereignty and/or power, e.g., “True power is that which subtly influences.”
(This is like to borrowing a patch from the compatibilistic ship but claiming it was in the other cargo hold all along.)
Problem 2.4: Its Theodicean Sword is Borrowed
It’s one thing to appeal to a permissive interest in indirection. But you have to further claim that this is part of a manifold interest set, in which there are two or more interests that are incommensurable.
That’s because we know that God isn’t just interested in indirection or permission or “allowing for free will” or what have you. We know that he’s also interested in beautiful stuff like “nonsuffering.”
Circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set (“CIWAMIS”), in other words, acts like a “from-God confounder” that tells us why we might have both a benevolent God and bad stuff in the world.
We get theodicean “oomph” from CIWAMIS.
But here’s the upshot: “God’s not knowing the future” and/or “libertarian free will” has no “oomph” without it!
In other words, “God’s not knowing the future” and “libertarian free will” both bragged about their theodicean “oomph,” but were just brandishing CIWAMIS’s sword, while claiming it was their smithery.
And CIWAMIS, as it turns out, lends its theodicean sword to all sorts of theologies, including compatibilistic theologies.
I want to point out that at this point, we’ve taken the wind out of Open Theism’s theodicean sails.
- Remove libertarian free will; replace with “compatibilistic free will” or “natural will” or something.
- Remove folk responsibility; replace with dynamic responsibility.
- Uphold God’s discriminating interest in “direct/indirect” influence.
- Uphold CIWAMIS.
Zero theodicean “oomph” is lost in the above cookie recipe. The cookies still taste great, perhaps even better, after we replace the raisins with chocolate chips.
It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
Problem 3.1: Face Value is Still Denied Selectively
We depend on anthropomorphic and/or hyperbolic interpretations anyway.
That’s because a face-value interpretation makes God not merely uncertain, but capricious and recklessly curiosity-driven. He wouldn’t just be imperfect at prediction — he’d have to be really, really terrible at it.
The “waiting to see” and “fickle” passages do not supply proof texts for those Open Theologies actually being proposed, which generally go out of their way to laud God’s exhaustive wisdom to guide history through subtle influences and maintain a stability of interests and firmness in purpose.
Often an Open Theologian will admit that Genesis 6 (for example) is being rather hyperbolic for whatever reason (to resonate with fickle man? to express CIWAMIS via athropomorphism? both?) when it talks about God regretting having made mankind… and beasts… and birds.
Problem 3.2: The Book of Job Lacks it
This would be a fallacious argument from silence, except that the Book of Job goes out of its way cover all sorts of theodicean proposals (most rebuked). It’s bizarre that it lacks any sort of libertarian excuse-making (i.e., “I didn’t do this to you; Satan did!”) if such a thing ought indeed be considered legitimate theodicy.
Job is rebuked (and repents) for claiming that God lacks justice and/or is distant and powerless.
The three stooges of Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are rebuked for claiming that Job’s predicament was a perfect divine expression of karmic justice, and that all lowly humans deserve unbridled suffering for their failing such a lofty God.
By contrast, Elihu, who (1) boasts perfect knowledge, (2) introduces the Storm of God, and (3) is never rebuked, weaves a theodicy of hope. He affirms God as super-powerful, completely wise, firm in purpose, despising nobody, and the ultimate teacher of mankind.
This is the theodicy that introduces the Storm, after which Job admits having failed to ascertain the grand plan “to wonderful for me to know.”
God’s superordinate responsibility (in a hierarchical stack) + a theodicy of corollary and ancillary function?
Such are the hull and sails of the U. S. S. Compatibilism.
Problem 3.3: That God is Worse
Josephus has a must-read account of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God’s purpose is explicated: To see what’ll happen! ‘I’m going to tell Abraham to do this horrifying thing and see what he does.’
Afterward, this God is genuinely surprised; ‘Wow, I’m shocked at how readily you did that!’
The hilarious part about Josephus’s account is that both Abraham and Isaac reason a prospective justification for God’s command, that is, they conclude that God — in his wisdom and foresight — knew that Isaac would otherwise undergo some horrible disease or murder or other “severity” if Isaac were not kindly slain now.
In other words, in the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and cosmic foresight.
The reason this is hilarious is because — in Josephus’s account — the God in which Abraham and Isaac believed is clearly better (in terms of benevolence) and wiser (in terms of foresight) than the “actual” God (presented by the omniscient narrator).
When we finish reading the story, and our own giggles fade to crickets, we come to the sobering realization that a God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity — instead of benevolent ancillary investment and/or corollaries to creative processes — is indeed “less good.”
The common response is an insistence that only this “less good” situation is fertile turf to garden “genuine love.” Seasoned compatibilists, however, have been trained by experience to spot “genuine/authentic/true/real” persuasive stipulations a mile away. This one is the product of “genuineness by association.”
“Open Theism helps with theodicy.”
- It relies on folk responsibility which is demonstrably bad.
- “Creation’s deterministic trivialities” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling leaves have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- “Creation’s deterministic raah” argumentum ad absurdum.
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
- Jury-rig: “Demons do those things.”
- Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling boulders have libertarian openness.”
- Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
“Open Theism prevents the existential anxiety of the loss of origination.”
- Deeper analysis has been scoring slam dunks and three-pointers only for the following team: “We decide based on who we are, which is a function of that which makes us tick.”
- Obfuscate: “Gapping” maneuvers keep the game clock going. But a deliberately subtle God would preclude overt detection; there is no such teleological explanation for the “gapping” of libertarian free will.
- A coherent theology of remediation is selectively ruined by spontaneity. This is woefully useful because certain eschatologies need such selective ruination.
- God’s superordinate responsibility still pops from his classical attributes like toast from a toaster, even if he has no clue about the future.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- Obfuscate: Logical wildcards to bridge-break the logic.
- Jury-rig: Explore “weak God” theology.
- Patch: Borrow “direct/indirect” formation from compatibilism.
- Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
- It never had theodicean “oomph” anyway. The “oomph” was from “CIWAMIS”: circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set. Compatibilism can fence with the same sword (and is, in fact, more adept at it).
“Open Theism plays more nicely with Scripture.”
- Open Theologies actually being proposed leverage the same “anthropomorphic and/or hyperbole” interpretations as compatibilist Christians to handle certain passages that would otherwise have God being clueless or capricious.
- The Book of Job is theodicean. It has a libertarian defense readily available to it and avoids its use, preferring instead God’s superordinate responsibility. Neither Job, nor the three stooges, nor “perfect knowledge” Elihu, nor the Storm of God employ it.
- A “mad scientist” God is worse, as exemplified in the laughably upside-down account of Abraham & Isaac given to us by Josephus.
- Obfuscate: Persuasive stipulation of what “genuine love” requires. (An ancient maneuver that has always been non-cogent.)
If you’re an Open Theist, I hope this has at least piqued your curiosity in solutions pioneered by compatiblistic theology and perhaps fostered some prudent internal scrutiny.
In appealing to scrutiny, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit my own fallibility. But I nonetheless have conviction that compatibilism is the way to go. It’s a really, really, really great ship, resolute enough and flexible enough to navigate the waters of Scripture Sea.
In addition to the in-line hyperlinks in this post, check out the following:
Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest “bugs” in theology, which cascades down into conversation & contemplation bugs in soteriology, eschatology, metaphysics, and more.
This “bug” underpins much of what we’ve already talked about on this site over the past year or so.
First, let’s meet Apollos.
This is because Apollos is exclusively about reduction.
As soon as he found out that the blue rider and red horse were “both Play Doh,” he took a hammer to them and squished them into a hideous, formless mass.
His problem wasn’t that he looked deeper. And he wasn’t lying when he observed that both forms were, ultimately, “Play Doh.”
But he went too far in drawing a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion merely from observing shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
See the other guy in that last panel? That’s Amon.
The story’s not over. Let’s see what happened the next day.
This is because Amon is exclusively concerned with maintaining forms.
Here, the problem wasn’t that Amon wanted to protect Blue-Monkey-on-Red-Elephant. Of course he wanted to protect it! It is interesting and meaningful and beautiful!
Rather, the problem was that — like Apollos — he erroneously thought that a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion proceeds from any observation about shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.
This reasoning error prompted a loss-aversive overreaction against anyone making such an observation.
The inhumanly pallid faces of both Apollos and Amon represent the fact that both characters represent errors of reasoning (in specific, they are powered by the same is/ought non sequitur). These errors yield lifeless, bug-ridden theology, and Christianity has had a major problem with it for over 1800 years.
The Checkmark-Shaped Reaction
It’s true that as we practice reduction, a sort of “existential gravity” makes us feel as if we’re losing our forms.
This is because forms are where all meaning resides.
The situation looks a bit like this — for everything we care about:
This is the teaching of the Teacher, concluded “upright and true” in Ecclesiastes. “At the end of the day,” all prospects can be reduced to that which is ultimately empty of meaning — “hollow.” (Read more about Ecclesiastes and meaning here.)
In other words, by default we live in a “macroscopic” world where forms are common-sense and plain-to-see. We have all sorts of folk conclusions about the simplicity of the world, like that meaning is purely objective (has no interest-dependencies), that responsibility is “buck-stops-here,” and that we have spontaneity and multiple realizable futures (encapsulated in a feeling of libertarian free will).
But as soon as someone busts out a “microscope” — literally or proverbially — these folk ideas begin to break down, and we start to feel “existential gravity” just like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (probably Solomon) did:
There are 3 reactions we can have.
The first is Apollos’s reaction: Radical reduction into a “tomb,” “dungeon,” or “fish’s belly” of nihilism, denying formative truth.
The third is Solomon’s reaction: Remember that formative truth remains true, even while reductive truth is also true, although some forms need to be dropped, modified, or refined, like a faceted gem cut from rough rock.
This “check-marked shaped” journey ends in a declaration of compatibility: Formative truth is compatible with reductive truth, and their appearance of “disagreement” — their paradoxy — is because they proceed from different vantage points, i.e., “hetero-phroneo.”
(That, and the surface forms did contain a bit of false junk.)
Our quirky brains have trouble with heterophroneo; by default, they’re rather “monophroneo.”
And this yields the huge theology bug. It’s solvable, but only with hard work, and a refusal to be an Apollos or Amon (both of these characters are “Kochabs“).
“The dog and the dirty napkin” (we used this example before):
- Dogs and dirty napkins are 100% different.
- Actually, they’re 100% the same: They’re both mere collections of particles.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they’re both reducible to mere collections of particles, and we should avoid thinking that there’s some “magical” animating principle in dogs that makes them substantially distinct. But I don’t care much about that. I care about the fact that the former has feelings, thoughts, loyalty, and can play fetch, and is happy to greet me when I come home. The latter doesn’t have any of that stuff. And that’s where meaning lives.
“Altruism” (we also used this one before):
- Altruism and selfishness are 100% different.
- (“Psychological egoism”) Actually, they’re 100% the same. They’re both products of what eventually reduce to self-interests. For example, your desire to give to a certain charity reduces to something you care about. Even self-sacrifice is always in terms of what prospects you hope to achieve or principles you hope to exemplify.
- You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they are both so-reducible. But our dictionary still functions. There’s still a difference in form between generosity and stinginess. There’s still a difference in form between sacrifice and retention. There’s still a difference in form between love-driven behavior and gratuitous self-service. Those are the things I care about. That’s where meaning lives.
“Ecclesiastes” (a deeper look here):
- Objectives and objects are brimming with meaning.
- Actually, everything is ultimately empty and meaningless. Laughter is great, but what does it accomplish? Wealth seems awesome, but it never satisfies. Ambition is an envy-fueled treadmill. The ground on which we build children, projects, labor, and learning is hollow.
- (“Existentialism”) The search for ultimate meaning is futile — a chasing after the wind. This is an upright and true teaching. But it is also upright and true that laughter is great. Our journey should not yield nihilism, but a gem-like refinement toward what is really meaningful in life according to our interests, that is, food, drink, friends, family, finding satisfaction in our labor and projects, and fulfilling our “owes” to one another (social and moral obligations, including oaths to leaders and God) so that we avoid the “Collection Agent.” That’s where meaning lives. (Later, Christus Victor restores the shattered vessel, so that helps.)
“Freedom & Sovereignty” (many examples on this site; start here):
- We act with free will; we make real choices and can be held accountable.
- Actually, we are causal creatures and our thoughts & decisions are products of that which makes us “tick.” Rewinding far enough, we owe ourselves ultimately to external factors.
- (“Compatibilism”) You’re both right depending on the vantage point. I’m a caused, causal creature, and I make real choices all the time. I have interests, emotions, thoughts, a will, and all of these are genuine. I make mistakes and have successes and triumphs, all of which are products of who I am, and who I am is always changing (God willing, I can even change myself in a recursive way!). As such, I can be held truly accountable for my real choices, but we definitely need to jettison folk notions of responsibility.
The Sun Also Rises
Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”
But does it really do this?
The sun’s behavior used to be a big deal. The fact of sunsets/sunrises being mere perceptual phenomena from rotational motion — and the additional fact of the sun’s relative stagnancy compared to the Earth — so violated folk “surface forms” that many people became Amons and took up hammers.
When we take a microscope to the situation, we find that the sun isn’t actually traveling across the sky and “hurrying back.” The sun is millions of miles away, relatively still, while the Earth flies around it, rotating while it does so and illuminating a perpetually-changing hemisphere.
To some folks, this reduction destroys sunrises. And it does, sort of.
But look out the window!
See the fiery sky against the shadowy land?
See the clouds underlit with morning?
Look! The sky has been punctured with a knife of blinding light!
The sword of morning is slaying shadows right and left. The stone is rolling. The dungeon gate is opening. The fish’s maw is heaving.
Our reduction “destroyed” the sunrise.
And yet, the sun also rises.
(In this article, we’ll talk about the Fall in flatly literal language, even though I go with Origen’s perspective on the origins account, where some degree of folk symbolism obfuscates the underlying history.)
A while ago we talked about the Big Three Sovereignties: Three Christian approaches, broadly, to the soteriological and theodicean nitty-gritty of God and human freedom.
One of those broad approaches was the “Libertarian Free Will” approach. This is the wide path taken by most who believers in Christ: Numerous Evangelicals (both progressive and conservative), many Mainline Protestants (particularly Arminians), the vast majority of Orthodox and Catholics, and fans of things like Molinism and Open Theism / “Open Future.”
Libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition, but each attempt goes about positing a world — or nature of human choice — wherein causal backtracing is “cut off” at the point of human decision.
Remember that “power” of libertarian free will as we make a slight diversion.
“Responsibility” is the identification of cofactors that contributed to something happening. This identification is in service of predicting, changing, encouraging, or fixing similar cofactors in the future.
This is what has made such a vital tool, for both individuals (regret, retrospect, self-teaching) and societies (punishment, reward), for both basic survival and for the rise of civilization.
But a weird thing happened, and continues to happen.
The process of ascribing responsibility became naturally simplified into something that mostly “did the job” of the above sense of responsibility, but was a bit easier to articulate and packed a bigger “punch.”
This was the idea of “causal buck-stops-here responsibility.” We can nickname this “folk responsibility,” as pretty much everybody slides into it “by default” and has to crawl and claw their way back out.
The “algorithm” works like this:
- Select an event that satisfies (+) or fails to satisfy (-) interests.
- Backtrace through the event’s causes. Stop backtracing when you arrive at any willful agents.
- Populate an array with each found willful agent.
- Divide responsibility — credit (+) or blame (-) as defined by your interests against that event-in-question — among those in the array.
That’s “folk responsibility,” and it’s the by-default view of responsibility, even such that it is popularly considered “what responsibility is.”
The above algorithm, of course, has a problem with a God exhaustively sovereign over a world that “runs on” cause-and-effect.
That’s because even the actions of willful agents are events with backtraceable causes. With God in the mix, he becomes the root cause of everything that happens (albeit most of it through indirection).
So, we have a problem:
What do we do?
See Romans 9:19. Our antagonist is saying, “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Enter Libertarian Free Will
Remember the “power” of libertarian free will: “Causal backtracing is ‘cut off‘ at the point of human decision.”
It doesn’t matter that libertarian free will lacks a coherent definition; not even advocates therefor can agree on one.
All definition attempts are plays at coming up with something that has the “power” above.
That’s what it’s all about, like a centuries-old theological Hokey Pokey.
It is a maneuver designed to protect folk responsibility — to prevent it from becoming absurd under classical theism and a world of cause-and-effect — because folk responsibility is taken for granted as true.
- Diseases? No problem; backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- Natural disasters? Hah! Backtrace them to Adam’s decision in the Garden, then cut off.
- God creating those he foreknows will go to endless hell? Big deal. Backtrace their doom to their own decisions (their sins and obstinacy), then cut off. A man damns himself. God’s hands are clean.
Nice job, team. The Problems have been solved!
So, What’s the Problem?
Unfortunately, the problem with folk responsibility was always that it broke down under the load of various test cases.
Like a 16th-century schooner ferrying too many barrels of sugar.
Scripture’s pretty clear that Adam was deceived. Not only did Satan deceive Adam, but Satan deceived the whole world. Satan is responsible. And yet, Adam is still held responsible for his (and, by inheritance, our) expulsion from the Garden of Grace.
How does that work under folk responsibility?
It doesn’t. It violates the algorithm (and for good reason!).
We (that is, the majority of believers) choose to arbitrarily ignore the backtrace-stopping at Adam and keep going, while simultaneously adding Adam to the array of culpable agents.
Furthermore, we (again, the majority of believers) arbitrarily say God “catches” only the “leftovers”; when it comes to unsavory stuff, we never add him to the array unless everybody else is “disqualified” for culpability.
For example, Romans 8 tells us that creation was subject to frustration — disease, natural disasters, thorns, etc. — as a choice of he who cursed it, that is, God. While the curse was indeed a response to human folly, God chose to respond in the way he did.
But here, we do not add God to the array, nor do we stop the backtracing, even as God is ostensibly a “freely willing agent!” Instead, we let the responsibility trickle back to the Adam/Satan combo from earlier, which itself violated our algorithm.
You can make the Adam/Satan “share” or “hierarchical stack” for the Fall. And you can make the God-to-(Adam/Satan) “pass through” for the agonizing thorniness of the Curse. But you cannot do both and have a consistent view of responsibility.
We make these arbitrary exceptions because even as we assert folk responsibility, our reasoning tells us that responsibility doesn’t really work like that: We know that responsibility can be mitigated, transferred, shared, and stacked hierarchically, with potential for blame and credit to vary along that stack, depending on prospective intent (benevolence or malevolence), recklessness, negligence, and a host of other moral factors.
In other words, we’re almost all infected by cognitive dissonance on this issue.
- We know folk responsibility isn’t really valid,
- but that’s the definition of responsibility we assert,
- and furthermore assert that it is valid.
The Disease’s Power
Unless laboriously rooted-out and recognized, cognitive dissonance is extraordinarily powerful in rhetoric.
That’s because it acts like a wildcard: An Ace when the round is called high-hand, a Deuce when the round is called low-hand.
And thus it is used — very convincingly to even very intelligent people — in an intricate, special-pleading dance to keep God’s hands 100% clean.
As logical dealers, we need to firmly say, “No wilds.”
(And the point of this post is that above “laborious rooting-out” and “recognition.”)
Folk responsibility should not be protected. It sucks.
The Other Avenue
Instead of the “Protected/Compromised” avenue from before, we ought to do the following:
We then assign credit and blame (and even amoral ascription!) according to the moral teleology mentioned before, precluding the absurdum that “God suddenly becomes a sinner,” and adopt compatibilism, precluding the absurdum that “we suddenly become robots.” We rightly reject such conclusions as Kochab’s Errors, subsisting on an incomplete, only-partial rejection of folk responsibility.
Further, we appeal to a manifold interest set of God to:
- Find meaningful the discrimination between primary and secondary causation. (More reading.)
- Explain, at least in theory, why things are messy at all, i.e., why God would choose the thorny response. Which he did. On purpose! (More reading.)
Remember our antagonist from Romans 9:19? “Who then can be blamed? For who can resist his will?”
Romans chs. 9 through 11 have a “national,” not an “individual” thesis.
But Paul’s response wasn’t, “You misunderstand! We individuals can resist his will.”
Rather, Paul’s response was a reiteration of God’s superordinate responsibility as a potter who makes vessels of both honorable (Gr. timen) and dishonorable (Gr. atimien) use; wine jugs and chamber pots (v. 21).
Indeed, Paul’s chapter 9 thesis is predicated on nations being like individuals, employed — sometimes despite themselves — for an ultimate chapter 11 ending.
But even though Paul did this, he proved his dynamic view of responsibility later on, in his second letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:20-22).
Here, he used the very same juxtaposition — of honorable implements and dishonorable implements, wine jugs and chamber pots — and emphasized the subordinate responsibility “we vessels” have to determine our own timen/atimien status!
This doesn’t work under the definition of responsibility that sucks.
The Bible’s “heterophroneo handling” of responsibility is absolutely vital.
The following chart gives an overview of the cyclic “free will debate” in the form of an adventure game. The Blue character is a compatibilist, arguing for the compatibility of human choice and responsibility with determinism, against the Green character.
Notice how the lynchpin moment happens at “responsibility for choices,” ending in a boring acceptance of compatibilism, a stubborn refusal to refine language, or a re-engagement in the cycle ad infinitum.
The following video features several thought experiments to help articulate why folk responsibility is bad, and how we, when we use our noodles, intuit responses according to dynamic responsibility instead.
Note that none of this is “Calvinism.” Many Calvinists are Christian determinists and compatibilists, but Christian determinism does not entail Calvinism, which has a number of eccentricities, especially in how it struggles with the prospect of endless hell.
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.
Here’s a free truth we have by virtue of classical logic:
- All self-contradictory claims are necessarily false.
This is very useful, and (of course) very intuitive. If Harriet says I’ve got the job, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, we know that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct,” is a false claim.
If you’re like me, however, your brain did something funny upon reading the above sentence.
If you’re like me, the first thing you did — upon reading that brazen declaration of the claim being false — was re-read the premise and excitedly explore if there was a strange way that Harriet and Bernard might both be correct.
For example, it may be that the hiring team is definitely going to give me the job. So in a sense, Harriet is correct; the job is headed my way. But since I don’t yet have it officially, Bernard is correct when he says I don’t have it.
It’s important to recognize, however, that to make “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” true, we had to add extra qualifiers to make Harriet’s sense of “got the job” and Bernard’s sense of “got the job” different.
In doing so, we actually changed the premise to, “Harriet says I’ve got the job in one sense, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, but in a different sense.”
And, of course, it no longer necessarily follows that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” is a false claim.
Paradoxes vs. Contradictions
A paradox is a claim that appears to be contradictory on the surface, whether or not it actually entails a contradiction.
Paradoxes are useful for conveying non-contradictions because, by looking like a contradiction at first, they excite and engage the reader. They pique the reader’s curiosity.
This is due to stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is correlated with reward-interested contemplation, and which is extra active when dealing with spikes of uncertainty or surprise, especially in anticipation of prospective rewards. These rewards can be solid (like a donut), imagined (like a promised donut inside an actually-empty box), or psychological (like feelings of self-validation).
In other words, the brain activates “nitro,” trying extra hard to untangle what just occurred, and/or to refine strategic expectations and hold on to important data. And this “nitro” experience is almost always euphoric.
It’s a brain chemical trick, in a sense, and the Bible frequently takes advantage of it for greater resonance, just as so many songs employ rhyming and so many novels employ plot twists.
Because “All actual contradictions are false” is a “free truth” that we know for certain, it follows that if some paradox is true, it must not entail a contradiction. There must be some way to resolve it, even if humans cannot yet know that way.
Sometimes, we can think for a brief moment and see that, even on its face, the paradox in question is just wordplay using antonyms.
- For example, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a mere reversal of fortune; it’s not contradictory any more than saying, “He who is hired now shall be fired tomorrow.” Exchanges, like “You must give to receive,” are similarly obviously non-contradictory.
Sometimes, we can (like with the Harriet and Bernard example above) infer qualifiers that, when selectively applied, “split” a single term into two different terms.
- For instance, “When I am weak, then I am strong” is resolved through inference and context — “Ah! He’s saying, ‘When I am weak in myself, then I am strong in Christ.'”
Sometimes, we can resolve a paradox partially by the above method, but cannot “dig deeper” once we’ve reached the limit of human observation and divine revelation.
- The Trinitarian paradox — “both three and one” — is a good example. This would be contradictory, but we’re supposed to infer qualifiers that break the contradiction: “Three in persons, but one in essence.”
Do we know precisely what “persons” and “essence” are, in that sentence? Of course not; we’re dead-ended at grunting analogies at best.
But that’s okay. The paradox is resolved, even though we’re at the limits of explication.
Finally, we can resolve some of the most notorious paradoxes through philosophical deconstruction, especially through theological quietude: Refining terms that we erroneously thought were coherently defined, jettisoning unworkable garbage, and recognizing/accepting linguistic fuzziness and modality of communication.
Some examples of philosophical deconstruction through theological quietude:
- “God ‘changes moral rules’ while being himself unchanging” can be resolved by treating moral rules as functions that make references to, among other things, those being given the rules and of what they’re capable. Check out pivotal philosopher of language R. M. Hare’s “Angelic Ladder” figure for more about this.
- “God forbidding humans to do things he himself does” is similarly resolved through the “Angelic Ladder” (but is a bit more obvious, akin to having special rules for my dog that I don’t follow).
- “God willing evil come to pass while not willing that evil come to pass” is resolved by parsing the variety of senses of “willing” and “wanting” — just as we parsed the variety of senses of “got the job” in our earlier example. See “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’)“.
- “Human responsibility vs. sovereignty.” Paradoxes of sovereign (superordinate) ascription and subordinate ascription are resolved through the Bible’s heterophroneo.
The Doctrinal Refrigerator
While there are limits to human reason and the revelation we’ve been given, with most paradoxes of doctrine, I don’t think we should feel content “riding the dopamine wave” of perpetual tension — which many believers are prone to do — however exciting (and often very mystical-sounding) it might be to do so.
Like leftovers sitting in the back of the fridge, these things can breed and cultivate incoherent doctrine, especially since contradictions serve as powerful logical wildcards.
When you’re asked which of two contradictory doctrines is correct, it’s seldom the case that the answer is simply, “Yes!”
That’s a very cute, even mystical-sounding answer. But on many issues, a moldy answer.
We have the tools — in our noggins and in our Bibles — to explore and articulate the doctrines of our faith in a best, responsible attempt at coherence.