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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Pure Religion" is Messy

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”  James 1:27 KJV

So what does it mean to be “unspotted from the world”?

On the one hand, we read that pure religion is to visit the fatherless and widows.  That seems rather straight forward.  It means to look after the most vulnerable.  It is not an instruction to “care” from a great distance and with the best of intentions.  It is not an invitation to join a cause.  It is to visit the fatherless and widows.  And not to visit them in their neatness and tidiness.  It isn’t to behold their purity and loveliness.  It isn’t so that they can do something for me.  It is to visit them in their affliction.

Pure religion is to enter into the messiness.

I don’t believe that the 2nd part (the part about staying “unspotted”) is contrary to the 1st part (visiting the most vulnerable).  They are one and the same thing.  So I can’t read this and think that keeping myself unspotted from the world is the same thing as keeping my distance from that which is messy.  The unspotted are those who visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.  This is the pure religion of the Kingdom of God that is not of this “world”.  Or to flip things around, the “spotted” are those who don’t visit the afflicted.

The righteous Pharisee keeps himself “unspotted from the world” according to the ways of the world:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week: I give a tenth of everything I get.  (Luke 18: 10-12 NET)

This is holiness-as-separateness. 

The Pharisee is spotted.

But Jesus is God with us.  His holiness is not like that.  His is a holiness that draws him into the mess, not away from it.  Jesus is the pure religion that is unspotted from the world.

The holiness of “the world” is the type of holiness that draws one away from the mess and the pain.  The holiness of Jesus, the holiness that characterizes “true religion”, draws him into the mess and the pain.  His holiness is not diminished.  Rather, in his self-giving love, it is made manifest.  It is enhanced.

True, we are not Jesus.  So this is not to minimize the complexity of life or our own fragility.  This is not a naive or arrogant self-righteousness that sees itself as the pure gift to all that is less.  In the waiting-for-all-to-be-set-right, that end that we long for but do not know, to follow Jesus is to follow him into the fray.  It is to get a little messy.  Or at least a recognition ultimate well-being is not tied to the avoidance of messiness.  Not only because this law of love that is the holiness of Jesus that is the holiness of God beckons us, but because of the metaphysical truth that “no man is an island”.  Fates are intertwined.  

Because I’m not separate from some abstract messiness that is “out there”.  Not really.

Our destiny, mine and yours, is the eternal Kingdom of God.  In the faith of this Kingdom lies a "pure religion" that is not of this world.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Paradox or Contradiction? Which is which?

Contradiction.  Paradox.

I see these two terms a lot, usually in arguments over the legitimacy of some controversial conclusion.  Despite the evidence, an apparent logical consistency, or appearances to the contrary, something is asserted to be true.  When it is pointed out that the evidence does not support that conclusion, supporters of the conclusion will generally call the equation a “paradox” while detractors will call it a “contradiction”.  And the conversation can go no further.   

It got me thinking, how DO we actually define these words?  How do we determine whether something is a paradox or a contradiction?

-a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory
-a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth
-a statement that seems to contradict itself but may nonetheless be true: the paradox that standing is more tiring that walking

-a combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another
-a difference in two or more statements, ideas, stories, etc. that makes it impossible for both or all of them to be true
-someone or something with qualities or features that seem to conflict with one another <a loving father as well as a ruthless killer, the gangster is a living contradiction>
-a statement or phrase whose parts contradict each other <a round square is a contradiction in terms>

This doesn’t clear it up at all.  It just highlights the whole dilemma all over again.  Both “paradox” and “contradiction” acknowledge that a given conclusion doesn’t make sense in light of the evidence.  A paradox says it is true.  A contradiction says it isn’t.  The word choice, then, is based on the preference of the speaker. 

So when is a conclusion wrong, and when is it right and it’s our own harmonization of the evidence that is lacking?  Forget the purely mathematical for a moment.

Take the example of “a loving father as well as a ruthless killer, the gangster is a living contradiction”. 

A person might argue that this is a paradox, not a contradiction.  Both personas exist – the loving father and the ruthless killer.  That they seem contradictory does not seem to negate the sheer fact of their existence. 

A contradictory take on this individual would assert that one of these personas is not true.  For example, if the gangster is truly a loving father then he must not really be ruthless killer.  What do we mean by “ruthless” and “loving” after all?  These are not binary terms, and the thought experiment is thus based on categorical errors.

So who’s to say?

My point is this.  We often don’t know how or why we come to the conclusions that we come to.  Very often we find ourselves believing things and we aren’t sure exactly how or why we came to believe them.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a deliberative process, or that we are fully irrational.  It’s to say that there’s a lot that happens in our depths, below the levels of conscious choice. 

That's not to say that a we let any old thing go under the banner of "paradox".  It's just to say that we’re not just mathematical models running on as-yet undetermined computer code.

We are blurry and, despite the importance and appeal of "choice", maybe we are not determined by our own sheer will power and rationality.  

Our complexity demands humility.  

We ourselves are walking contradictions.  Or paradoxes.  Which is it again?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Single Disposition of God: Some Thoughts on Derek Rishmawy's Review of Brian Zahnd's "Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God"

Derek Rishmawy recently posted a long (in his own words, stupidly long) review of Brian Zahnd’s recently released Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

I think everybody who cares about the issues germane to Zahnd’s book should read Rishmawy's review.  The review is wide-ranging, direct, and articulate.  There’s a lot of food for thought.  Much to agree with.  But there is much that I disagree with and a lot that struck me as presumptive, condescending, and is itself a gross caricature.

Rishmawy gets to the meat of his critique right off the bat by addressing (what he labels as) a false dichotomy:

“God is wrath?  Or God is love?”  This dichotomy printed in bold on the back drives the argument of Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

True, Zahnd probably didn’t do himself any favors in the "dichotomy" area with that wording on the back cover.  (*** Correction, Brian did not write what's on the back cover....which makes more sense).  The thing is, I’m familiar enough with Zahnd’s work to know that his argument re: wrath is nuanced.  That’s why there’s a book.  As presented on the back cover, the “dichotomy” surrounding the usage of the word “wrath” has to do with the particular vision of divine wrath that’s exemplified by the infamous spider-dangling-over-the-fire analogy taken from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  It is that definition that provides the dichotomy. 

But regardless of the context or my own background knowledge, it should be readily apparent that Zahnd is not operating from a place of wrath-as-dichotomy…once wrath is properly defined. 

The evidence of this?  Three things in particular:

First, the back cover of the book itself poses this question: Is seeing God primarily as wrathful towards sinners true or biblical?

We have that word primarily.  It’s an important word.  What is being asked or alluded to with that word primarily?  Does God have parts?  Is God just a bigger and better version of humanity, subject to warring passions?  Do justice and mercy war with one another in the eternal mind of God?  I wrote about some of this last year when the hypothetical question of God being “primarily angry” was posed in my church.  The 1st post in that series is here.  Of particular relevance might be the 3rd post in the series which looks at protology and impassability (my own disclaimer of ignorance as to “defining” Trinity is here).   Rishmawy has similar thoughts – God does not change and is not comprised of competing or contradictory “parts”.

Secondly, Zahnd provides a definition of wrath early on in the book.  His vision of divine wrath is clearly not that wrath is not a thing, but that it has been wrongly understood.
But here I need to make something very clear: that God’s wrath is a biblical metaphor does not make the consequences of sin any less real or painful.  The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love.  When we live against the grain of love we suffer the shards of self-inflicted suffering.  This is the “wrath of God”. (p 18)
Third, Rishmawy himself spends ample time talking about Zahnd’s distinction between “passive wrath” and “active wrath”.  I thought Rishmawy had some great stuff to say in that section.  Lots to think about.  The thing is, you can’t really pile on Zahnd by saying that the wrath dichotomy “drives the argument” when the review itself spends a substantial amount of time critiquing Zahnd's definition of wrath, a definition that intentionally seeks to eliminate the dichotomy.  Can’t have it both ways.

Ultimately, Rishmawy doesn’t believe there’s truly a wrath dichotomy.  Zahnd doesn’t believe there’s a dichotomy.  And I don’t believe there’s a dichotomy.

So where is the disagreement? 

Well, in many ways it’s a matter of semantics.  What do we mean by these words “wrath” and “love”?  What is “justice”?  How do they relate to one another?  That is where the differences lie.  And those differences are significant.

Ultimately, Rishmawy’s review isn’t as much a “review” of the book as it is a defense of retributive wrath as occasioned by Zahnd's book.  Retributive wrath is very, very important to Rishmawy, and to lose that understanding of wrath is to lose everything – it is to censor and ignore the Bible, it is to misrepresent Jesus, it is to distort the Gospel, it is to portray God as indifferent to evil, and it is to lose the faith. 

It’s very, very important here to note that a retributive understanding of wrath does not automatically make one a sadist.

No doubt that there are various visions of divine wrath – those eschatological visions in which the saved delight in the misery and everlasting conscious torment of the damned – that are so twisted as to be thoroughly incompatible with the Gospel.  Full stop.  Delight in the misery of another is not a virtue but a defect, and does not reflect the perfection of God.  But while such extreme examples are far from being fringe and are important to acknowledge, a substantive discussion demands that we not linger on them for too long.  It is possible to proceed in good faith while leaving important discussions about the variety of ways that our understanding of divine wrath and “justice” influence our world for another time.  So let’s do that as best we can.

Zahnd’s book covers a variety of interconnected topics – the Bible, atonement, hell, etc.  I’m not going to dive into any of those issues specifically.  They are important, for sure.  Here, I simply want to state how I see the love/wrath relationship differing between the two lines of thinking exemplified by Zahnd and Rishmawy and to examine them in the light of “justice”.

To do that, however, we need a basic shared definition of love.  This should be achievable because the differences between Zahnd and Rishmawy lie more in the nature of wrath and the relationship between wrath and love than in the definition of love.  So for these purposes, lets define love as follows:

To love is to will the good of the other – to be devoted to, patiently work towards, and encourage the flourishing of the other.  It is to give one’s best to the other, being rooted in a deep affection.  It is to live with the loveliness, beauty, and worth of the other in view, always and forever.

This definition isn’t imposed on God from without, Hallmark card kitsch projected onto God because I happen to think God should be “nice”.  No.  Is this a comprehensive definition?  Of course not.  Full of analogy and anthropomorphisms?  Probably.  (I mean, what does it really mean for an eternal God to be “patient”?)  Is the definition overly simplified?  Sure.  But is it sufficient to identify the difference in the love/wrath relationship between these two approaches?  Hopefully.

Now, how does Rishmawy connect love and wrath?
Let me put it this way: Is God love?  Yes.  Is true love righteous?  Well, yes.  Is it not righteous to promote good and oppose evil?  To stand against evil?  To even hate evil?  Yes.  I mean, that’s what Paul tells us to do (Rom. 12:9).  So if God is the sort of love that is righteous love, will his love not include a white-hot opposition to evil?  Yes.  Well, there you go.  The love that God is involves God’s inherent, innate opposition to, hatred of, and will to oppose sin because the love that is the life of the Triune God is a love which is righteous.”
To Rishmawy, a God without retribution is a God of passive indifference.  It is a God who lacks justice and righteousness.  Righteousness is synonymous with retribution because “white-hot opposition” is conceived only in terms of retribution. 

This deserves careful consideration.  This is where the differences between restorative justice and retributive justice become quite apparent.

Notice Rishmawy's list of crimes and criminals.  Slavery.  ISIS.  Oppression of the poor by the rich.  Militarism.  Etc.  It is a sobering list and it could be much, much longer.  Such things warrant God's "wrath".  We hope for God's "judgment" on such things.  

But did you notice what is missing from this retributive version of justice?

The restoration of the victim.

Having provided their witness to evil, the victims themselves play no further part in the definition or fulfillment of justice.  So long as the sinner is punished, “justice” as "white-hot opposition" has been accomplished.  
While retributive justice is focused on the punishment of the offender, restorative justice is first and foremost focused on the victim.  Within a framework of retributive justice, the focus is on offenders getting what they deserve.  Within a framework of restorative justice, the focus is on putting right what has gone wrong. (The Little Book of Restorative Justice)
Back to Rishmawy's quote.  Let's look at his by way of two contrasting citations from Mark Driscoll and George MacDonald.

Compare Mark Driscoll from his infamous “Got Hates You” sermon:
“Some of you, God hates you.  Some of you, God is sick of you.  God is frustrated with you.  God is wearied by you.  God has suffered long enough with you.  He doesn’t think you’re cute.  He doesn’t think it’s funny.  He doesn’t think your excuse is meritous.  He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too.  God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”
“For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected--not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring. There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”
“He is against sin: in so far as, and while, they and sin are one, he is against them--against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus he is altogether and always for them.”
For Driscoll (as with Jonathan Edwards), “God hates you” is rationalized and justified by God’s love.  That is, God is vindicated as “righteous” in his hate because he is a God of love. 

For MacDonald, God’s opposition is likewise grounded in love.  God’s being “against you” is, paradoxically, God for you.  

Do you see the difference?  Each of these represents a “white-hot” divine righteousness, but they differ in fundamental ways.  

What does the "white-hot righteousness" of God look like, and what is it's ultimate purpose?  This is the form of the "wrath" dichotomy that needs to be addressed. 

Let’s go back to that definition of love.  If a person were to stop doing the things that constitute “love” – stop encouraging the flourishing of the other, lose patience, give up, only see the failures of the other, etc. – we wouldn’t continue to call it love.  We wouldn’t say that it’s a “different kind of love”.  We wouldn’t say that love, if it is to be a truly righteous love, requires that a person effectively stop loving another should the situation call for it.  This is abstract nonsense.  No, we’d just say that the person no longer loved the former beloved.

While we must be careful to protect the analogous nature of language when it comes to describing the being of God, we cannot allow language to become equivocal.

As John Stuart Mill said:
“To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology that God may possibly not be good?”
Or in the words of David Bentley Hart:
“When we use words like “good”, “just”, “love” to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.  And, again, the contagion of this equivocity consumes theology entirely.”
We cannot allow the word "love" to become so equivocal.  Rishmawy and Zahnd would certainly agree on this.

Where they differ, I think, can be best summed up in the following sentence from Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God:
The revelation that God's single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love."  (18)
It's a point that Zahnd brings up again and again.  An axiom.  God's single disposition.

The entirety of what I've attempted to say is wrapped up in those three words.

Human sin does not thwart God's single disposition of unconditional love, for God is perfectly free.  Words like "justice" and "wrath" simply cannot be understood apart from that single disposition.  For a Calvinist like Rishmawy (who I assume holds to something akin to double predestination, or who at least believes that the damned are damned, in the end, because God simply does not will their salvation) this particular singular disposition is incoherent.  Perhaps he understands a singular disposition in terms of "God willing his own glory" or something similar.  Those are word games and dark theological necessities to which I reply:
"The glory of God is man fully alive." -Irenaeous
God's wrath can only be understood in light of God's single disposition.  And through all ages, God's singular disposition cannot be extracted from God's glory as man fully alive.

Monday, October 2, 2017

When 'Law and Order' is Intended to Create Mass Incarceration

Today I started reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

I'm not sure what to say about it quite yet.  Her erudition is impressive.  The way that she comprehends the American narrative against the backdrop of white supremacy and the racial caste system are....well...that's just it.  I feel like I've been slapped in the face.  There's a dark history that undergirds civilization.  Not just "civilization" in the abstract.  Not some people far away.  It's embedded in the history in which my own story has emerged.  It's in the American narrative.

I can't unsee that.  You can't really go back after reading this book.  And I'm only in chapter 1.

I mean, I generally knew how slavery came about, it's economic foundations, what Jim Crow laws were, what Reconstruction was, the 13th and 14th amendments, etc.  But I didn't really know.  I still don't, but I know more now than I did 2 hours ago.

I'm sort of reeling right now, and just wanted to jot down some thoughts while they're fresh in my mind.

Particularly important is this passage on page 31:
"The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution had abolished slavery, but allowed one major exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime."
This statement is given flesh and blood in light of the Black Codes written into Southern law in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

I'd never heard of them before.  Think of them as a precursor to Jim Crow.  Basically, the South wanted to keep slavery but they couldn't outright have slavery - not in the same form anyways.  So the South sought to establish a system that resembled slavery through the passage of certain laws called the Black Codes.

Closely related to (or perhaps a particular form of) these black codes were "convict laws".  While Alexander notes that convict laws were "rarely seen as part of the black codes, that is a mistake."

Convict laws were put in place to handle "convicted black law breakers."

Who were these law breakers?

After the war ended and slaves were granted their freedom, many simply walked away from their plantations.  Having nowhere meaningful to go and no means to get there, some simply roamed the highways.  Fears of an insurrection dominated the Southern imagination, not to mention that local economies would collapse without that slave labor.

Never mind all that.  What laws did they break?

Here's where it gets really crazy.
"Nine Southern states adopted vagrancy laws - which essentially made it a criminal offense not to work and were applied selectively to blacks - and eight of those states enacted convict laws allowing for the hiring-out of county prisoners to planation owners and private companies.  Prisoners were forced to work for little or no pay.  One vagrancy act specifically provided that "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year.  Those found with no lawful employment were deemed vagrants and convicted." (p 27)
Basically, if these freed slaves weren't working (I wonder where they could get jobs), they were deemed criminals.  Create laws, and then convict the law breakers.  What right has the federal government to intrude upon the sovereignty of the State to set constitutionally consistent laws that were good for their citizens (that's sarcasm)?  Law and order.  In any case, these former slaves were prosecuted and locked up - mass incarceration style.  Local plantations came to agreements to put these "criminals" to good social use.  The result?  The "criminals" ended up back on plantations, working for little or no pay, paying off their "debt to society".

It's staggering to me.

"Law and order" led to mass incarceration which was the means by which newly gained civil rights were denied and white Southern control was maintained.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

God-Talk Underneath the Firmament

I don’t doubt that the ancients believed in a firmament, a solid dome that covered a flat earth.. 

To the ancients, the stars were either attached to this firmament or were holes in which the light of heaven could poke through.  The Genesis flood was the result of the temporary but determined removal of the firmament – a withdrawal of this solid fixture that separated the primordial waters of chaos and made space for the brooding spirit of God to create.

And on and on.

Again, the ancients clearly believed in a firmament.  I don’t think that people who now say that the ancients believed that there was a firmament above are slandering them.  They aren’t making it up.  They aren’t taking something literally that was intended by the ancients to be taken as metaphor.

The firmament is referenced in the Bible and elsewhere.  It is assumed.  Ancient God-talk assumes it.  
Here’s the thing. 

There is no firmament.  It doesn’t exist.

But the Bible says it does.  The ancients believed that.  I'm not making that up.

There used to be a part of me that really thought that modern scholarship was being sort of presumptive.  Like, we really don’t know what they believed.  Our modern scientific categories didn’t really exist then.  We’re separated by time and culture, and we can’t say for sure what was happening in the brains of the ancients.  Perhaps it was all meant to be poetic.

But no, I don’t think that anymore.  They believed in a firmament.  

And there isn’t one.

If I had come across that fact 10 or even 5 years go, it might have really shaken me.  The term is new for me, but my default religious upbringing was concordist.  That is, the Bible could be read in such a way that it was scientifically accurate.  It had to be or else it would all crumble.  Not in a revisionist sense, but in a historical critical sense in which the original writers (whoever they were) couldn’t have believed in a firmament.  In that view, the Bible can’t really reference a firmament.  Not really.

But they did.  Clearly.  And they were absolutely 100% wrong about that.

A few years ago this would been hugely problematic to me.  This would have been something to either ignore or explain away.  It could only destroy faith.  But now, I find this refreshing and liberating.  It plays a positive role in the life of faith.  God-talk can only take place in the context of language.  And language is cultural.  We must use the language that we have, and our words can only be used in reference to reality as we perceive it.  But we don’t perceive rightly. 

We don’t perceive rightly.

But we can still speak of God, and I don’t think God is mad about that.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Middle Knowledge, Transworld Damnation, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The 2nd Edition of Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist includes several new appendices, one of which addresses the issue of so-called “middle knowledge” as argued by William Lane Craig exhaustively (but not exclusively) in “No Other Name”: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on theExclusivity of Salvation Through Christ.

At its root, middle knowledge is an attempt to reconcile the issues of 1)divine omniscience and foreknowledge, 2)the love of God, and 3)human freedom. 

None of these, of course, have self-evident meanings.  They all require significant clarification and nuance, a project which Parry seeks to undertake in his book and which Craig seeks to elucidate in his own work.  I am under no illusion that I could improve upon either project or that I have anything to add to the logic of Parry’s arguments.  My intent here isn’t to pick apart Craig’s Molinist logic, but simply to acknowledge it’s ramifications.  I’d like to take a closer look at two particular aspects of middle knowledge: 1) Transworld damnation and 2) a utilitarian eschatological perspective in which the bliss of the blessed is weighed against the misery of the damned.


First of all, what do I mean by the two particular aspects of middle knowledge that I identified earlier – transworld damnation and a utilitarian eschatological ethic?

Craig’s argument for transworld damnation is presented as point #9 in Parry’s appendix:

God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between the saved and the unsaved, and those who are unsaved suffer from transworld damnation.

What exactly is transworld damnation?

Middle knowledge is closely tied to the idea of ‘possible worlds’, which is basically a grappling with the implications of both human freedom and divine providence.  To be frank, I have little sympathy for the hypothesizing that goes into the idea of “possible worlds’.  From a practical standpoint, however, it’s hard not to grapple with the impact of time and place upon who we are and who we become.  Who has not considered the possibility that they might be a different person if they had been born to different parents, or in a different time or place, or if this or that had or had not happened?

Relevant to the matter at hand we might ask “Why did I accept Christ while another did not?”  Leave aside the evangelical idea of “accepting Jesus” if you find it distracting or unhelpful (as I do) and substitute something else.  You might ask, why did I “join the church”?  Whatever the form of the question and whatever the associated answer, that answer will be inseparable from the people and events in our own history.  Who would we be without these particular people and circumstances?   We cannot know.

What if things had been different?  What if I had been born to a pagan moon worshipping family 3,000 years ago?  And that boy had been born in my place?  Assuming the possibility of final perdition as Craig does, how might our eschatological destinies be different?  We cannot know.

Within the theory of middle knowledge and possible worlds, God knows.  That’s not because God overrides our brains and makes his chosen people think certain thoughts or perform certain actions that qualify as “saving faith.  The omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God calls and woos in a providential way that leads to a free choice.  Essentially, God knows what we’ll need to freely choose to “accept him” and providentially chooses to create the world in which that happens.  Again, I find the language of “acceptance” and “choosing a world” to be problematic, but set that aside as best you can.

The big question is, in a best possible world, why would God provide the things that one person needs to be “saved” but not provide them to another?  Are there some possible worlds in which I am saved and other possible worlds in which I am not?  Did God choose to actualize a possible world in which I am saved but my daughter is not, but he could have chosen a world in which we were both “saved”? 

Why?  How is that the best possible world, or in the language of the appendix the “optimal” world?

It seems quite cruel.

Cruelty aside, the assumptions of middle knowledge lead to the following conclusion: if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent and desires the salvation of every single human being, then God chooses to actualize the best possible world.  So either (1)the optimal world is one in which some people are saved while others are not but may have been had things been providentially different, or (2)there are people who would not “choose to be saved” in any world that God could create.  All possible worlds lead to damnation – transworld damnation.


Related to ‘transworld damnation’ is a utilitarian view of salvation in which the bliss of the saved is measured against the misery of the damned.

How so?

Craig asks:

“Is it not at least possible that such a world is less preferable to God than a world in which great multitudes come to experience His salvation and a few are damned because they freely reject Christ?”

In other words, is it not possible that we err in assuming that the misery of the damned cancels out the joy of the saved either in part or in full?  Perhaps 10 saved and 10 lost is less acceptable to God than 50 saved and 500 lost.  Perhaps the price of the salvation of 1 is worth the transworld damnation of 100.  Or 1,000. Who are we to say?!  How we could measure such things? 

The thing is, Craig’s hypothetical scenario of “a few” being damned does not represent his actual position.  He unambiguously states that “if we take Scripture seriously, we must admit that the vast majority of persons in the world are condemned and will be lost forever.”

Since the actualized world = the optimal world, he states that the “cost” of transworld damnation must be worth it.  He states:

“It is possible that the terrible price of filling heaven is also filling hell and that in any other possible world which was feasible for God the balance between saved and lost was worse. It is possible that had God actualized a world in which there are less persons in hell, there would also have been less persons in heaven. It is possible that in order to achieve this much blessedness, God was forced to accept this much loss.”

I don’t know whether the above quote represents a hypothetical possibility or if the language of “possibility” is designed to obscure what is truly meant to function as a theodicy of hell.  I believe that his thinking necessitates the latter (though Craig explicitly states otherwise), but in the end it doesn’t really matter. 

Staying within Craig’s framework, I think it safe to say that the above statement is and must be true of the optimal world.  Of the infinite number of worlds that God could have actualized, the optimal world is the one in which the vast majority of persons are condemned and lost forever

By what sort of measurement is this sort of world the optimal world?   We may not know the math, but it’s a purely utilitarian formula in which Optimal World = Bliss(Saved) – Misery (Damned). 

Regardless of whether this optimal world is conceived of by ration or in absolute terms of saved and lost, is God a utilitarian who counts units of pleasure?  Or a mathematician solving equations?  A mad scientist unconcerned with the leftover remnant of his experiment?


So take those two ideas – transworld damnation and utilitarian salvation – and just ponder them in the context of the parable ofthe prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32.

Ask yourself the following questions:  

Is transworld damnation compatible with this scene?
Is the heart of the father in the parable compatible with a God of transworld damnation?
What qualifiers do you have to add to the parable make it compatible?
After adding those qualifiers, what is really left? 

The son is always a son.  A lost son perhaps.  A dead son who comes alive.  But always a son. 

How can God actualize a world compatible with transworld damnation?  How can God weigh the salvation of the son against the son's damnation in an "optimal world"?

I don’t dismiss the philosophical questions or frameworks that define middle knowledge (or any theological perspective for that matter).  To be honest, I don’t think we can.  Reason is not the enemy of faith. 

But if the grammar of Christian faith is to have any substantive meaning at all, transworld damnation cannot be true. 
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