Thursday, December 14, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (5): Restricting the Scope of God's Love

The Inconsistent Triad

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Return to Part 1
Back to Part 4


Let's now look at how Talbott addresses the Augustinian notion of God's "restricted love".

The Augustinian reasons as follows:
God's saving grace is irresistible in the end, and yet everlasting torment in hell will nonetheless be the terrible fate of some; therefore, God does not love all created persons equally and his (electing) love is thus limited in its scope.
In the end, it's fairly simple.  Grace is "irresistible" (proposition 2), yet everlasting separation is true (proposition 3).  Therefore, it must be the case that God does not love all people equally in the sense that God wills their salvation.

If a person is not saved it is because God doesn't want them to be saved.  His electing love, being irresistible, cannot and must not extend to them.  Period.

For some people this salvation equation is sheer theological fact.  "Mysterious" as to the reasons for God's "free" choice to save some and not others, but not mysterious in it's sheer necessity.  On the other hand, for those who either (1) come from a tradition that doesn't hold to the Augustinian version of "irresistible" grace or (2)come from a tradition that does view salvation through the lens of the Augustinian version of "irresistible" grace but didn't realize the necessity of this limited scope of God's salvific will, this is a scandalous assertion.  Shocking.  For some, heretical.

The assertion naturally leads to some important theological questions like:


God doesn't want all people to be "saved"?  

How and where do we see such an idea defended philosophically?  Biblically?  Theologically?

What about those parts of scripture that would seem to indicate that God does indeed want all to be "saved"?

1 Timothy 2:4 is one example of an isolated verse commonly used to affirm God's desire to save all people without exception:
who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (NRSV)
For a person who needs to restrict the scope of God's (electing) love and sees this verse as holding some sort of authority, this verse is a problem.  What can be done?  But here is how Augustine explains it :
"the word concerning concerning God, 'who will have all men to be saved,' does not mean that there is no one whose salvation he doth not will...but by 'all men' we are to understand the whole of mankind, in every single group into which it can be divided...For from which of these groups doth not God will that some men from every nation should be saved through his only-begotten Son our Lord."  (Enchiridion) 
So for Augustine, "all" must merely mean "all kinds" or "some" individuals from "every group".  This is the necessary exegetical move.  God simply cannot be said to will the salvation of all people (as defined in proposition 1) and maintain any Augustinian theological coherence as defined by the acceptance of propositions 2 & 3.  So any Bible verse that seems to say otherwise ("all" as meaning literally "all people") cannot really be doing so.  It must be shoved off to the side or dismantled.

The logic of it is not difficult to see.  Simple.

Now some proponents of the Augustinian view of "limited election"argue, quite simply, that God does not love the non-elect at all.  Others, like the contemporary philosopher Paul Helm don't argue that God doesn't "love" all people or that "love" is not of God's very essence.  Instead, Helm seems to dismantle the connection between God's love and God's salvific will.  Helm argues that God's loving nature or God's loving actions towards human beings do not necessitate that God's redemptive love extends equally to all people.  The argument goes, just as there are differences within the created order (male/female, etc), there can be differentiations with respect to God's redemptive purposes.  Essentially, God being love in God's essence and being loving towards God's creation does not mean that this love is necessarily and finally redemptive in nature.

Helm does not here seek to throw out the language of "love" but rather to rework it's semantic content to fit into an Augustinian framework by:
  1. creating a special category of "love" called "redemptive love" and arguing that the former does not necessarily entail the latter
  2. viewing divine love on a sort of sliding scale, the minimum level of which may be called "love" but doesn't include the will to save
Jeff Jordan takes a similar approach.  He argues that God's love need not be maximally extended for it to be love.  He finds the idea of "equal love" to be an impossibility because love is not defined by uniformity.  In other words, divine love need not be salvific in it's aims for it to be divine "love".


A lot of foundational things to work through here.  Personally, I'd prefer to see the language of "love" thrown out all together than see it's semantic content be reduced to a rubble of Augustinian equivocation.  Preference aside, the implications of going down this path are, I think, stunning and disastrous.

For me, the questions that arise out of this section are:
  1. When does "all" mean "all"?
  2. What is the connection between who God is and what God does?
  3. We may very well be dealing with definitions of "love" that are are semantically different.  So what do we mean by the word "love"?  
  4. Does God being "loving" entail that God wills the ultimate good of the object(s) of his love?  Or can "love" will something less (and far worse) that the ultimate good of the beloved and still be called "love"?
  5. What are the protological (in-the-beginning) implications of a limited love?


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (4): Postulating a Final and Irreversible Division within the Human Race

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Back to part 3


You may notice that proposition (3) is fairly unspecific:
Some humans will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever. 
This is by design.  It could mean a lot of different things.
  • Hell as a realm where the wicked receive retribution in the form of everlasting torment.
  •  A place of "spiritual torment" experienced as despair and anger, etc.
  • Annihilation (cease to exist).
  • A self-created hell sustained by rejecting God (the "doors locked on the inside" per C.S. Lewis)
  • A realm in which God will try to make people as "comfortable" as possible.
  • The experience of God's love as wrath.
  • Etc.
Any of these viewpoints accept (3) as true.  All represent a form of a final and irrevocable division in humanity - a division between those who are reconciled to God and those who are not.  No doubt there could be more.

But let us put aside the nature or experience of this "separation" or "non-reconciliation" for the moment and instead ask the following question:
If there is to be such a final and irreversible division within the human race, just what accounts for it?
Recall Talbott's Inconsistent Triad:

There are two very different explanations for this final division.
For Augustinians, the explanation lies in the mystery of God's freedom to extend his love and mercy to a limited elect and to withhold it from the rest of humanity. 
For the Augustinian, God owes humanity nothing and is perfectly free to give grace to whom he chooses and withhold it from whom he chooses.  Talbott references Calvin's interpretation of Romans 9.  Jacob is taken into grace.  Esau is hated.  And this outside of ANYTHING that either of these two individuals had done, good or bad.  God, in his sovereignty, does not want to save Esau.  Period.  (We'll come back to this view of God's "freedom" later on).

In contrast to the Augustinian view, we have (what Talbott calls) the Arminian view.
According to the Arminians, the explanation lies in our human free choices.  Thanks to God's grace, we ultimately determine our own destiny in heaven or hell.
Arminians hold that God offers his grace to all, but that people freely reject it thus securing their separation.  God would save all and is not willing that any should perish, but the effectiveness of grace requires a certain "acceptance".  God can't just "override free-will", which would be "unloving".

Given the staunch disagreement as to the reasons for this "final and irreversible division", it shouldn't be surprising that each side critiques the framework, intelligibility, and implications of the other.

Arminians portray the Augustinian view as inherently unjust, even monstrous.  They point towards the scripture verses that posit God's universal salvific will and love.

Augustinians critique the Arminian explanation as contradicting St. Paul's clear teaching that salvation is wholly a matter of grace.  Even an "acceptance" of grace constitutes a sort of earning.
If the ultimate difference between the saved and the lost lies in their superior free choices that the saved have made during their earthly lives, then why shouldn't they take credit for this difference or even boast about it?  Why shouldn't they say: "Well, at least I'm not as bad as those miserable people in hell who were so stupid as to have freely rejected the grace that God offers to all." 
Nor could a sovereign God fail to reconcile the chosen objects of his love.  Such a defeat is inconceivable.

While the theology and terminology contained in these two very different approaches requires elaboration, both are compelling.

As such, a universalist would agree with their critiques of one other, arguing that the problem lies in their prior and largely unquestioned commitment to the acceptance of proposition (3).


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (3): Three Primary Eschatological Views & The Inconsistent Triad (One More Time)

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Back to part 2


Before looking at each of the three primary eschatological views in greater detail, let’s look once more at the Inconsistent Triad with the aid of a diagram:

A few notes:

  • The 3 primary eschatological views are placed on the length of the triangle that connects the two points (the propositions) that each view accepts.  The 3rd point represents the proposition that is rejected.
  • The proposition labels (Sovereignty, Unconditional Love, Everlasting Separation) are obviously not without ambiguity, and each of the 3 primary eschatological views may argue that their “rejection” of the label is either inaccurate or subject to clarification.  The meaning of these terms is, of course, very much a part of the essay.  In any case, I think that these 1-2 word descriptions are helpful.
  • When considering the word “separation” in proposition 3, bear in mind Talbott’s definition of salvation as reconciliation, or “even a kind of union”.  “Separation” need not be geographical, but is rather a “disunion” or “estrangement”.

Talbott summarizes:
"Augustinians (named after St. Augustine of Hippo) believe strongly in both the sovereignty of God’s will (proposition 2) and the reality of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3), they finally reject the idea that God’s unconditional (or electing) love extends to all humans equally (proposition 1)."
"The Arminians (named after Jacob Arminius for his opposition to the Augustinian understanding of limited election) believe in both God’s equal love for all (proposition 1) and the reality of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3), they finally reject the idea that God’s desire to win over all will by fully satisfied (proposition 2)." 
"Christian universalists believe in both God’s equal love for all (proposition 1) and the ultimate triumph of his loving will (proposition 2), they finally reject altogether the idea of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3)."

Consider, once again, just how different these 3 views are.

Talbott concludes the Three Primary Eschatological Views section with a penetrating question:
“Which system of theology best preserves the praiseworthy character and the glory of the divine nature?”
Does this question make you squirm a little bit?  Does it make you uneasy?

Given the possible variety of things that might constitute "praiseworthy character", perhaps you find it hopelessly subjective.  You may be tempted to argue that a particular view is objectively "right" thereby dismissing the questions of "praiseworthy character" and "glory" as subjective and twisted by "modern sentimentality".  Or perhaps you sense a certain tension between divine attributes (like justice and mercy).  Or perhaps you view God's "goodness" and man's "goodness" as completely different.

Despite these (or a great many other) protests, it is a paradigm shaping question.  It requires humility.  And yet we must ask and answer as best we know how.  We have moved to precarious territory if we argue that the truth does not "preserve the praiseworthy character of God" or conflate goodness with sheer power.  Always keep this question in mind as we move forward, because it is the deeper question to which all the philosophical language and precision points.  We shall see how the various eschatological views address the question as we proceed.

We'll now move into the meat of the essay.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“God isn’t here yet. Why can’t I see him?” (A 4 year old asks)

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

My 4 year old daughter uttered these words a few nights ago.

She lacks the vocabulary to describe it in these terms, but it was the first time I've heard her speak of God's perceived absence in a way that was inextricable linked with anxiety.

The days and nights leading up to Halloween provided new and imaginative ways for her to be scared.  TV shows (especially the kids shows), commercials, decorations, store displays – all of it seeped into her mind.  It’s made our bedtime routine a little tricky….and quite long.  She’s scared, and it can take her awhile to settle down.

Her primary nemesis is “Birthday Man”.  Birthday Man has sharp teeth and he eats your birthday cake.  He comes at night.  Possibly from her closet. 

I mean, it’s cute in a way.  This is about the scariest thing that her 4 year old mind can come up with. 

The thing is, this genuinely terrifies her.  Forget about the birthday cake part.  Think of a man with sharp teeth who shows up at night, emerging from your closet.  I can see why it scares her.

So bedtime has been a little rough.  We check her closet.  We’ve said prayers with her and for her.  We make fun of birthday man, arguing that he can’t have teeth because all of that cake would have rotted them and they’d fall out (we get to plug the benefits of brushing your teeth here).  We’ve convinced her that her blanket makes her invisible which seems to have worked the best.  She crawls deep underneath her blanket, just a few inches of her face exposed.  Just enough to breathe.  Again, somewhat cute.  But imagine being so scared that you wanted to be invisible.  I can relate.  It makes me sad that she’s experiencing this fear.

She wants the fear to go away before my wife or I leave the room.  God is supposed to be nice.  God is supposed to always be watching and protecting.  When we leave God should stay with her.

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

Where is God?  Why can't I see him?  Are you seeing something that I'm not?  Is something wrong with me?

I wonder if any of those questions darted around in her mind.

All I said was, “I don’t know”.

I was really hoping that, as a parent, I would have good answers for questions like these.  Answers that would be age-appropriate but also honest and true.  Answers that would grow and expand as she grew.  But I didn’t.  And I don’t.  A few days to process this hasn’t made much of a difference.

I’ve tried to think through it theologically, but basically everything that I think up seems like a way to explain away her dilemma.  Answers seems empty.  It’d basically be: Don’t expect God to be here or to “see him’ in any way that resembles what you mean by the words “see him”.  It becomes a game of words.  Redefine them until you can use them.

Sometimes the best “answers” just cloak our pain and disappointment.  I want to be truthful.  I don’t want her faith-world to be a fiction, a house of cards.

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

She’s asking about God’s absence.  I must speak to her.  I must start somewhere.

How do you answer this question for a 4 year old?  (Or for a 37 year old for that matter)?!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Trumpism and the Friend-Enemy Distinction

Sure, I was interested in the particular systematic and/or philosophical reasons for climate change denial within Trumpism.  More than that though, I was interested in hearing his take on “historical consciousness” and Trump.  To what is the administration referring with the tagline “Make America Great Again”?  To what historical moment and/or narrative do they point?

Early in the article, the author argues for an awareness of the philosophy and ideologies undergirding Trumpism.  Buried beneath an avalanche of Tweets, he argues, is a set of philosophical convictions that must be acknowledged and understood.  To do nothing more than ridicule Trumpism is “mistaken and self-defeating” and “a signal of our own intellectual weakness.”

Truth be told, I don’t get this “substance below the surface” sentiment from Trump.  I don't think there's anything there.  But I do get it from, say, Steve Bannon.  He’s a dangerously smart guy.  Listen to this interview on The Daily

But back to the article.  I got to this part:
According to Schmitt, a political community arises when its members coalesce around some aspect of their common existence. On this basis, they distinguish between their “friends” and “enemies,” the latter of whom they are ultimately prepared to fight and kill to defend their way of life.
A political community, that is, is created through an animating sense of common identity and existential threat—indeed, that’s how “the political” as a fundamental sphere of human value comes into being, and how it provides the cultural foundation of sovereignty and the state for a community of equals. 
Schmitt believes that this pugilistic view of politics rings true as a conceptual matter, but he also regards drawing the friend-enemy distinction as a quasi-theological duty and part of what it means to be fully human
Without the friend-enemy distinction, he argues, political life would vanish, and without it something essential to humanity would vanish, too—human existence would be reduced to mere private hedonism. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia—a link highlighted by Bannon’s discussion of the traditionalist underpinnings of Eurasianism in his 2014 remarks to a gathering of the Human Dignity Institute. 
One could equally express the Schmittian worldview in more theologically positive terms, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, as a politics based on love. For Schmitt, the political is founded on the essential mutual regard of community members for what they share beneath their surface-level differences. That recognition justifies the state’s demand that citizens be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in its name, and for Schmitt it forms the philosophical precondition of law itself. 
(bold italics mine)
It’s goes like this.  A political community requires a common identity to exist, something that it’s members share beneath their surface-level differences.  Absolutely fundamental to this identity is the friend-enemy distinction.  To lose this distinction is to lose something essential to human existence.  In what way?  The friend-enemy distinction and the conflict that inevitably follows is necessary both to create the construct of “sovereignty” and to avoid private hedonism.  Conflict is woven into the very fabric of existence.  There must be an in-group and there must be an out-group.  This is in no small part because the friend-enemy distinction provides an “other” by which and to which the community can point to an existential threat.  This existential threat, this shared fear, provides no small portion of the purposes for which the community exists.  The existential threat strengthens the belonging.  Without the friend-enemy distinction, something essential to humanity would vanish.  

This is very useful lens through which to view Trumpism.

We see the campaigning on hatred and fear of the immigrant and the Muslim.  It explains the twitter tirades, the stunning amount of blatant lies, the minimization of the state department, and the policy-of-withdrawal.  The only possible “peace” in such a worldview is an absence of immediate military conflict that comes through endless preparation for war, a peace brokered by highly militarized nations equipped to wipe each other out hundreds of times over.  Aspects of what is referred to as “globalism” threaten the entire meaning making apparatus, not just for tangible economic reasons but because we have no “other” to provide the existential threat, the shared fear, that promises to unify.  Because if we are truly all in this together, the ultimacy and necessity of the friend-enemy distinction is a lie. 

The identity of a group comes primarily from “us” not being “them”.  Whoever they are.

It’s at this point that I realized that this is not just a Trumpism thing.  This is a human thing.  Trumpism may assume a particular way of defining the enemy – nationally (which is inevitably cultural/racial) -  but it’s become apparent to me that human society revolves around the need for an enemy to serve as a scapegoat.  Uniting around a shared victim brings "peace".  The thought of Rene Girard (filtered through others) has illuminated this for me.

The friend-enemy distinction leads to and is reinforced by contempt for the enemy.

This is not a new thing.  Again, Girard illuminates the scapegoat mechanism present and revealed in the Gospels.

We see that the hatred of Jesus temporarily dissolves the animosity between Pilate and Herod:
Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.  Then, dressing him in elegant clothes, Herod sent him back to Pilate.  That very day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other, for prior to this they had been enemies.
--Luke 23-11-12
Or for a less appropriate, more contemporary, and more comical take, here is Jay Mohr on “similar hates”.

I'm increasingly recognizing that Trumpism can't be so easily dismissed just because of the actions & character of the man who heads it.  Trumpism is certainly a cult of personality but it is also more.  That's why it's dangerous.  It plays to the worst in us.

More than anything, it makes me want to explore the ways in which my Christian faith and the Gospel of Jesus counters and critiques this narrative and might visibly offer an alternative to the existential threat narrative that characterizes the friend-enemy framework so prevalent in our time.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (2): Three Primary Eschatological Views & The Inconsistent Triad

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Back to Part 1


We need a bit more background before we can move into the substance of the three primary eschatological viewpoints.

It's worth mentioning at this point, I think, this this essay is concerned with heaven/hell as eschatological finalities, not merely as metaphors for present existence.

Some may find such a clarification to be needless, it being so obvious as to go unsaid.  We hear "eschatological" as meaning "future".  And of course we are dealing with heaven and hell as future realities.  Of course it's about the afterlife.  What else would it mean?

Others may be opposed to this characterization.  There is much scholarship to suggest that references to "judgment" and "hell" (rather "gehenna" or "sheol/hades" since the word "hell" is a translation) or that too much focus on "heaven" is somehow fundamentally opposed to a very earthy resurrection, and posits an escape from the world rather than existence in a restored one.  The argument goes, then, that heaven/hell entirely miss the point of how these terms would have originally functioned, and that the eschatological component should (at the very least) be minimized.  While I'm somewhat sympathetic to aspects of this, the truth is that in no way do such views eliminate the question of eschatological finality all together.  It is not either/or.

Think of it this way.  There are roughly 8 billion people on the planet today.  Estimates are that there have been 107 billion people who've lived throughout human history.  That means that 99 billion people have lived and died.  From a Christian perspective then, the terminology of heaven/hell is not being used simply to refer to the demythologized experience of those alive on planet earth at this current moment in time, but also to all those people who have come and gone before us.

The eschatological question does not ignore the present.  But neither is it only about the present moment.

It is a cosmic question, one that transcends space and time.

Bottom line, if you prefer different terms to heaven and hell, then by all means use them.  If you don't care much for the scholarly historical-critical side of things, don't sweat it.  The important issue is not the precise terminology that is used (as we shall see).

Now about this word "salvation".  When we talk about "salvation" then, we're talking about something ontological, something that relates to the nature of what it is to be human.

Talbott states that:
"The Christian interpretation of this human condition thus postulates an initial estrangement from God, and the Christian religion then offers a prescription for how we can be saved from such estrangement."
And also that:
"the highest possible good for created persons (true blessedness, if you will) requires that they enter into a proper relationship (or even a kind of union) with their Creator."
Essential to the connotation of "salvation" is that of divine estrangement and the experience that something is not right.  Something is less than complete.  We live our lives "in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception".  We "repeatedly misconstrue our own interests and pursue them in misguided ways."  We are both perpetrators and victims of our own and others choices, but are also subject to "such non-moral evils as natural disasters, sickness, and especially physical death itself."

Something is wrong.  If there is disagreement on this point there is very little need to read any further other than to satisfy an intellectual curiosity about a supposed "Christian" solution to a problem that doesn't exist, a human condition that is really no "condition" at all.

However we conceive of this salvation - as a place, an experience, a state of mind, here or there, then or now - we are here focused on how various Christian thinkers across the centuries have addressed the issue of the extent to which this salvation will be experienced by human beings as a finality.  

But leave aside those particulars of the nature of "salvation", "heaven" and "hell" for a moment.   Let's organize the ways of thinking about this against the backdrop of 3 inconsistent propositions.


Here Talbott introduces the Inconsistent Triad - 3 statements that cannot all be true:
(1) All humans are equal objects of God's unconditional love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him. 
(2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.    
(3) Some humans will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever. 
Or to make things more succinct:

(1) God wants to "save" everyone.

(2) God has the ability to "save" all that he wants to "save".

(3) Some will be forever separated from God, the nature of that separation notwithstanding (eternal conscious torment, annihilation, etc.)

Thus we are then left with three primary eschatological views.  Talbott labels these as (1)Augustinian, (2)Arminian and (3)Universalist.  We could, of course, label these three primary views differently and/or place other traditions under these headers.

Generally speaking:

Augustinians accept (2) & (3), but reject (1).  Augustinians believe that God could save everyone, but doesn't want to do so.
Arminians accept (1) & (3), but reject (2).  Arminians believe that God wants to save everyone but doesn't have the power to do so.
Universalists accept (1) & (2), but reject (3).  Believers in universal reconciliation believe that God has the power to save everyone and also wants to do so.

To put it into a single sentence, God is either able to able to save all but doesn't want to, wants to but can't, or is both able to and wants to.

As we shall see, it really is that simple.  Complex arguments appear more simple against the backdrop of the Inconsistent Triad.

We'll dig into the Inconsistent Triad more in the next post.  It's a very important piece in understanding the method and flow of the essay.

In the meantime, consider the triad and the implications of the three views.  Are the three statements truly incompatible?  Which are you intimately familiar with?  Have you thought about heaven/hell within this framework?  

continue to part 3

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (1): Introduction

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.


First off, a few things that worth mentioning before getting into the meat of the essay itself.

This is an entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

That's right.  Philosophy.

To some degree, be prepared to read philosophy and to think philosophically.  You don't need to be a PhD to read it (PhD = doctor of philosophy by the way).  But while lucid and concise, it is not a particularly fast or easy read.  This essay as characterized by careful and precise logic, an inconsistent triad, a "rejection hypothesis", a theoretical person characterized as a rather impersonal "sinner S", etc.

So if you have some religiously conditioned aversion to philosophy (it being the presumptuous and self-glorifying "wisdom of men") you'll have to (at the very least) lay that aside.  The fact is that, whether knowingly or unknowingly, any type of theological thinking involves philosophy.  Every thinking person is engaging philosophy at some level.  This includes me and you.  To think otherwise is simply naive.

But make no mistake about it, this essay is thoroughly grounded in the Christian tradition and engages with many of the most influential thinkers in the history of Christian thought, both modern and ancient.  C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Calvin, Arminius, Jonathan Edwards, Anselm, George MacDonald, Jerry Walls, William Lane Craig - they're all here, along with a host of contemporary philosophers of various theological persuasions.  The goal is to represent the various streams of thought at their strongest and/or most commonly held forms, not to find silly straw-man arguments to dismantle.  The eastern branch of the Christian tradition is largely absent, however, which is unfortunate.

With it's philosophical tone and focus, the intent and form are not the same as one written for a biblical or theological journal.  You won't find extensive biblical references or a wide array of unexplained proof texts.  You won't find discussions about "biblical inerrancy" or arguments over the precise nature of the authority of the sacred texts of Christianity.  You won't find much discussion on church tradition or authority.

Given that the essay occurs in the context of the Christian thought, it was a little surprising that you find very little mention of Christ throughout the essay.  There is very little mention of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.  There is no atonement theology here.  No argument over the mechanics of precisely how salvation "works".

How can this be?!

Truth be told, I'm not scandalized by it.  Not in the least.  As this is an essay in a philosophical journal, it is concerned primarily with the particular ways that different traditions conceive of heaven and hell.  "Fair enough", you may say, "but are philosophy and theology in competition with one another?"

Indeed, in the end I don't think that they are.

But while I think that any talk of a Christian doctrine of heaven/hell must include the person of Jesus Christ and the narrative of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection (rather than individual proof texts that are used as "data"), it's not quite so easy as that.  The indisputable fact is that the variety of issues inherent in the eschatological thinking that is the subject of this essay can't be dismissed by hand-waving and appeals to various authorities or tradition or even to Christ Himself, because the various Christian eschatological views ALL do this in various ways.  The elucidation of that truth has been, for me, eye opening.

In a paragraph that pretty well summarizes the essay, Talbott says:
"When we turn to the theological and philosophical literature in the Christian tradition, we encounter, as we would in any of the other great religious traditions as well, a bewildering variety of different (and often inconsistent) theological views.  The views about hell in particular include very different conceptions of divine love, divine justice, and divine grace, very different ideas about free will and its role (if any) in determining a person's ultimate destiny, very different understandings of moral evil and the purpose of punishment, and very different views about the nature of moral responsibility and the possibility of inherited guilt."
While I'd expect that anyone reading an essay on "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" may have some idea of the issues at hand and the variety of views that exist, the depth and profundity of these differences can be a bit shocking.  It was and is for me.  In a sense, you may even come to think that people aren't simply arguing abstract theology, but that they're talking about "different Gods" in terms of the one God's purposes, nature, salvific will, etc.

Any way you see it, Talbott's project is to take this variety and to carefully and precisely distill it.  Strip it down into it's simplest form, and from there we might more closely understand and examine the issues at hand, and how we might better understand the way that the these issues affect the way that we see the nature of the Christian Gospel, and the human condition.  The fruit of the project isn't as abstract as the moniker of "philosophy" might lead a person to believe.  It is intensely practical and immanent to those of who are inclined to this topic - the very types that are willing to read this essay.

As I'll write about in the next post, Talbott does this by breaking down this "bewildering variety of different (and often inconsistent views) theological views" into Three Primary Eschatological Views.  Talbott also introduces his Inconsistent Triad in this upcoming section, an immensely helpful way (and one to which I often return) to characterize these three primary views.

continue to part 2
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