Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Damned Sinners Addendum

My God's Final Victory co-author, John Kronen, has been pushing me a bit on my arguments in this "Damned Sinners" series. Specifically, he's been stressing that there's an idea embraced by supralapsarian Calvinists (not by infralapsarian ones) that I don't seem to take seriously enough in these posts. And he's suggested that it's this failure to take that idea seriously that might've led someone like Steve Hays to think that the Problem of Damned Sinners could be so quickly dispensed with.

I think John has a point. You see, on supralapsarian Calvinism the ultimate purpose of creation is to display God's majesty, which is found both in God's merciful love and in His justice. But this theology assumes that God cannot fully display both together (an assumption that I think wreaks havoc on some of the most important and profound understandings of the Atonement, by the way, but I won't get into that here). To fully display both and thus achieve the full purpose of creation, the creation must be such that there are appropriate beings on which to manifest the glory of His justice--"vessels of wrath"--and others on which to manifest His merciful love--"vessels of mercy."

It follows from this that the supralapsarian God couldn't fully achieve the purpose of creation without the existence of vessels of wrath to serve as proper objects of the divine displeasure. And so, the existence of sin and sinners is taken to be required in order for God to put His majesty on full display. In other words, the supralapsarian Calvinist believes that God wants there to be sinners--and actually designed His creation so that there would be--because in their absence He'd only be able to display half of what is so majestically wonderful about Him.

If this is right, then what I say about sin and divine retribution in this series of posts is incomplete. It's not simply the case that divine justice neutralizes the negative value of sin (althought that's part of it). And it's not simply the case that sin justly repudiated by God is "as good" as no sin at all. Rather, on this theology a world without sin would be worse than a world with sin--at least so long as in the latter, all the sinners end up writhing in eternal anguish for the sinfulness that God guaranteed they'd possess in order to be able to justly punish them for all eternity and thus display His justice.

Or, put another way, this theology takes it that the act of neutralizing the negative value of sin with a punitive response produces a meta-level good (the display of divine justice) that wouldn't have otherwise existed. On this theology, the problem of explaining why there is so much wickedness in a world created by a morally perfect God is answered as follows: God wants wicked people to be there, because only then can His justice be fully put on display through His smiting of them.

And so, on this view, God really is like the government that would rather have the murder rate spiral out of control, so long as every murderer is justly punished, than have a society without murder. On this theology, God positively wills sin as a means of displaying His justice, and as such does not want a world without sin. On this theology, the existence of that which is fundamentally opposed to God is better than its nonexistence, so long as it's properly punished. On this theology, sin simply isn't as thoroughly bad as other theologies (including my Lutheran one) take it to be.

But here's the thing: this theology strikes me as so morally awful that the thought that there are people out there who really embrace it at a fundamental level (not just playing pious lip service to it out of communal allegiance) makes me spiritually nauseous. I think that if I could get myself to really believe that deep down anyone wholeheartedly embraced this idea, I'd be pushed in the direction of a species of supralapsarian Calvinism in which God created supralapsarian Calvinists so as to have vessels of wrath on which he could heap his just outrage against people who harbor such awful convictions.

I'm kidding of course. I'd remain a universalist even if I could be convinced that anyone wholeheartedly embraced supralapsarian Calvinism. Really. My point is that since my aversion to this theology is so potent, part of me doesn't believe that there are people who honestly think it's right; and so I find myself developing my arguments as if there were no such people--and this means that some of what I say may end up begging the question in relation to anyone who really does embrace this theology deep down.

Reviewing my previous posts in this series, it seems clear to me that I did not ever take very seriously the following idea: Murder punished is better than no murder at all because the former not only fully erases the negative value of murder but in the process of doing so manifests the meta-level good of justice-having-been-done. And hence, God deliberately acts to ensure that there are murderers (and other kinds of sinners).

I never took this idea seriously, and hence never show how my arguments bear on it. But this idea is one that some Calvinists explicitly endorse. As such, my arguments don't seriously and explicitly engage with an idea that at least some Calvinists explicitly endorse.

Mia culpa. 

That said, I don't think my core argument is undermined by this oversight. Even if the existence of justly repudiated sin is taken to be better than no sin at all because it makes possible the meta-level good of manifesting God's justice, we still have to confront the intuitively implausible idea that an act which guarantees the propagation of sin succeeds in neutralizing sin's negative value. You can't get the meta-level good if the evil of sin isn't neutralized by the punitive response. And I just can't see how this punitive response is supposed to achieve such a result.

It seems pretty clear that (given Calvinist assumptions about grace being a necessary condition for overcoming sinfulness) being cast eternally from God's presence does guarantee that one persist eternally in a state of sin. The punishment for sin thus perpetuates sin, and this magnification of sinfulness in the universe is supposed to produce the meta-level good of manifesting God's just wrath against sin.


One answer I anticipate runs something along the following lines: "It's a mystery we can't understand, but we know it's true because of divine revelation in Scripture." But even if you grant a high view of Scripture according to which Paul's use of the "vessels of mercy/vessels of wrath" language (Romans 9:22) was God-inspired, it's an enormous challenge to holistically interpret such passages in light of other ones--such as, for example, all of Romans 11, which is following up on the same issue that motivates Paul to ask his hypothetical "vessels of wrath" question (Paul asks "What if" God operates in the way that the supralapsarian Calvinist insists God in fact operates).

In Romans 11, the "hardening" of Israel against God, and the concomitant divine repudiation, is described as a stage in a process aimed at saving both "the full number of the Gentiles" and "all Israel" (vs. 25-26). This chapter ends with the striking claim that "For God has bound over all men to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (vs. 32). This starts to sound as if, on Paul's view of things, each of us is both a vessel of wrath and a vessel of mercy, albeit at different stages in our moral and spiritual evolution--and it sounds as if serving as a vessel of wrath is always in the service of the ultimate goal of mercy being shown to all.

But, of course, at other points it doesn't sound as if he's saying this at all. Limiting ourselves to Paul's epistle to the Romans, sometimes Paul sounds like an outright and blatant universalist (e.g. Romans 5:18-19 and elsewhere); at other times he sounds as if this is merely a fervent hope and prayer (Romans 10:1). And at one point he asks a hypothetical question that, if treated as if it were a veiled assertion rather than a question, would support supralapsarian Calvinism.

The attempt to read the whole, to understand the parts in light of the whole, and to extract from such a complicated text a coherent theology that does justice to the whole given the apparent tensions and conflicts--that task isn't easy. And it seems to me that part of what Christians who pursue such a task need is to recognizing when a particular interpretive effort has, for example, implications that clash with the voice of conscience, or produces internal problems that raise concerns about consistency.

In other words, even given a very high view of Scripture there is an important place for philosophy in the assessment and development of doctrinal views--an important place for the pursuit of such philosophical tasks as tracing out the counterintuitive implications of a view, or calling into question its internal coherence, or determining what other plausible beliefs have to be rejected if one is to hold to a certain view.

But all such efforts are, of course, fallible and shaped by human prejudices. Which is why it is so important to engage in such efforts in thoughtful conversation with others who might not share our particular prejudices (although they'll have their own), who might know things we don't (and vice versa), and who might notice where our reasoning goes astray even as we notice where theirs does.

Philosophy done best is philosophy done in community. One reason I appreciate my co-author, John--and other philosophical interlocutors in my life, and the various thoughtful contributors to this blog--is because they help to provide me with this community of discourse.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oops, two typos. Take two:
    Hmm, I do not understand why any Christian would insist that God's glorious justice must mean that some sinners must suffer punishment literally forever with no chance of liberation. For example, some murderers have rejected God's offer of salvation and then accepted God's offer of salvation before dying, and any supralapsarian Calvinist would say that God's glory has been revealed in this salvation. So why cannot a murderer who never repents in this life eventually find salvation while suffering punishments in hell?

  3. Hi Eric

    I imagine you have addressed this in your book, but what is the model of free will you use that allows the idea of sin to make sense in the first place? How do you escape the apparent problem of our decisions either being the product of our environment (which would make the creator of the environment responsible?) or containing a random component (for which we could hardly be held responsible either)?

    I understand why a community might embrace a construction of free will and responsibility for pragmatic reasons, indeed I think it's a very good idea, but the notion of sin requires something more than this, doesn't it?


  4. Bernard--The nature of freedom and its relation to the concept of sin or moral wickedness is very difficult. We do in fact devote two chapters of God's Final Victory to exploring the doctrine of hell in relation to alternative conceptions of free will.

    In fact, because free will is such a vexing issue, we don't adopt a single conception of it but rather trace out what we take to be the implications of alternative conceptions.

    Summarizing that work in relation to the concept of sin is too big a project for a blog comment (and for the five minutes I have available at the moment), but I may try to do something along these lines in the future.

  5. Bernard asks a great question, one that my personal approach is an appeal to mystery--I shrug my shoulders and say "I dunno". But when I think these kinds of things it seems to me that if we are merely dancing to a tune played by our genetics and/or our experiences then our "choices" are not morally significant. Since my deepest intuitions tell me our choices ARE morally significant, I conclude we are NOT just dancing to a tune played by our genetics and/or experiences. Both of those determine the menu of possible choices we face (eg. if my excessive urge to eat pizza is determined genetically, I am more tempted than most to swipe a slice from your table next to mine at Pizza Hut) but I conclude that beyond that nature/nurture legacy there is a "me" that can choose things. This spiritual "me" might well have a nature, but "I" am not a victim of that nature--I *am* that nature.

    Now how this fits into the universalism question, well that's long story:-)

  6. Hi Keith

    I agree. If we can't find a way past the determined/random conundrum, then we are forced to either deny free will, or accept it's just a mystery. Privilege, as you say, our deepest instincts over our reason.

    The problem I have with the second approach only emerges if we then want to call out some other group for their own appeal to intuition on a related matter. So, perhaps Eric is right to argue the notion of eternal damnation contains a logical flaw, but if the very notion of sin upon which the discussion is based also requires us to ignore an unresolved logical problem, mightn't there be a danger then of holding others to a standard which we don't apply to ourselves?

    This is a version of the new atheist objection to liberal theology, I suppose, which says that as soon as one privileges one's own intuition over the intuition of others (which seems to me to be the basic difference between fallibilism and agnosticism) it provides credibility to those whose intuitions we find abhorrent (some of the less palatable versions of fundamentalism, for example).

    Not sure about this, and hence I'm eager to hear the counter arguments.


  7. hi Bernard: I am not sure I *have* a counter argument, exactly. The bottom line here is a subject we have discussed before: how should we treat our basic intuitions. We have been through this discussion before I know, but *I* claim we have no choice *but* trust our basic intuitions. Or maybe it's more that we necessarily *do* trust our basic intuitions. That's my claim. To an arguer who said "but unless you believe your intuitions are better than your neighbor who disagrees with you, you *ought* to remain agnostic about the deliverances of your basic intuitions", I would have to say, you accept the main premise of that argument *because* it fits with your basic intuitions.

    I agree that my intuitionism (is that a real word? :-) raises the question of how to adjudicate between competing intuitions. I have no answer to that question, I guess I don't worry that much about being *able* to come to agreement with my friends who disagree with me. I might agree that I am more likely to be right about things that all of us agree on than about other things, but in those areas where there is no such agreement, I don't see a good reason to just ignore what seems true to me. It seems to me that humility only demands that I recognize I could be wrong and that therefore I should be respectful to the people who think differently, that I consider what they think. But at the end of this process, at the foundation of it all, lies our intuition. Or so it seems to me. If I cannot trust my intuition it seems to me I cannot trust any deliverance of my mind, no matter how uncontroversial--in fact I couldn't even trust my sense of what is or isn't controversial.

  8. Hi Keith

    it is interesting, isn't it? I'm not sure the agnostic needs to make an intuitive claim about what is and isn't true. Their only claim is that there doesn't appear to be any way of distinguishing between true and untrue statements without appealing to intuition. I don't make that as an intuitive claim. Rather it's claim about all the examples I'm aware of, and I'm entirely open to the counter-example.

    From there it's a matter of taste. Do you want a vision of truth so badly that you are prepared to downgrade the intuitions of others, or not? For me, that's unspeakably arrogant. For others it's apparently fine. Each to their own.

    I still think a problem emerges if the application of reason becomes inconsistent, and within the context of this post I'm wondering out loud if the free will/sin problem isn't a case in point. If we must in some sense do a logical sideways shuffle in order to establish sin as a reasonable concept, aren't we then bound to accept similar shuffles from those who want to establish eternal damnation as equally reasonable?

    Of course I say this believing the random/determined dilemma in free will remains unresolved. Again, open to the counter arguments.


  9. Eric,

    Thanks for this series of posts. I think the dogma of hell is the most harmful error in the current state of theology, and I appreciate what John and you are doing in trying to demonstrate why. I understand that this dogma is today very strong both in the popular and in the official sense, and I suppose your task may appear to be daunting, but here is a good thought: Since God is truth, and since God has created us with the innate capacity to perceive truth, this battle for truth will be won in the end. So, no matter the short or medium term response to your efforts, you are doing God’s work.

    The idea that God has created supralapsarian Calvinists in order to prove them right on their own skin made me laugh. But there may be some truth in the idea that people will experience what they expect to experience. Here, very roughly, is what I mean: I hold that creation is a continuous emanation from God, but also that in freedom creation is also to a small degree an emanation from us. In a non-trivial sense we are co-creators of our own personal condition. The quality of our experience of life is then influenced by our own use of freedom; the world in which we live is in part of our own creation. On this view then an atheist creates the godless reality in which she experiences living, a theist creates the god-filled reality in which she experiences living, and the self-transcending all-forgiving theist creates the universalist reality in which she experiences living.

    [continues bellow]

  10. [continues from above]

    Which leads me to a point I think I disagree with you, namely about the ontology of sin. I understand you hold that sin is some kind of affront against God, a thing that has a negative value in itself. But on theism the metaphysically ultimate is the person of God, and thus what intrinsically exists and may thus have intrinsic value are persons. God loves and therefore “sees” persons - sins and even good deeds are dust. Now a necessary property of persons is the freedom to will, and that freedom can be exercised in good or evil ways. The evil ways are those that go counter the grain of reality (i.e. counter the character of God) and thus injure the doer’s soul and move her away from how God is. Sin does not have an intrinsically negative value; rather it is because it injures the person’s soul that it may be said that a sin has a negative value. If I am right in this then much of the talk about sin confuses the ontological horse and cart. It is not that sin is bad and therefore God “punishes” the doer, rather it is because sin injures the doer that sin has a negative value. It is misleading to think that God punishes or rewards people. Rather it is the intrinsic personal freedom entailed in theistic reality that allows creatures to move closer or further to God, a dynamic which we qualify as “reward” or “punishment”, or as “joy” or “suffering”. Metaphysically then the debate between the dogma of hell and universalism, is really about the dynamics of freedom. Sophisticated hellists hold that some people will move so far away from God that they will by their own choice remain eternally separated from God. Universalists hold that God’s love is so strong that it will in the end illuminate and warm even the hardest heart. Or, in esthetic terms, that no person no matter how blind will resist falling in love with God’s beauty.

    You speak of what may balance the negative value of sin. On the above understanding the question becomes about what can balance the negative value of an injured soul. In Greek soul is called “psyche” and a modern word which signifies a good deed is “psychiko” – or “what mends the soul”. There is an unofficial but pragmatically useful moral teaching which says that when you have sinned instead of punishing yourself with remorse you should instead use your energy for doing a “psychiko”, a good deed which will mend the injury to your soul.

    One final point in this context, which I think is both important and beautiful. A good deed, i.e. love made visible, has not only the power to mend one’s own soul, but also to mend the injury in others. Since we are all God’s creatures, we are not metaphysically separate beings but are all connected through the universal bonds of love. If one person self-transcendingly loves and thus moves closer to God, that person causes all other persons to move a little closer to God too. In this sense love works like the gravitational force. Thus hellism is not only false but incoherent, for there is no such thing as an individual salvation. In that all of creation is united with God will anybody be united with God. The perfection of God entails that only perfect atonement is possible.

  11. Just a few comments: First, Calvinists appear to embrace a compatibilist understanding of freedom according to which a choice being free is take to it being entirely compatible with being determined.

    So, they resolve the puzzle of free will by biting the bullet and embracing determinism. Their conception of sin is rooted in this determinism. I share the intuition that a robust notion of sin that could underwrite a theory of damnation requires some concept of freedom that doesn't reduce choices to either determined events or random ones. As such, I intuitively find the combination of the Calvinist view of human choice and their embrace of damnation for those determined to be sinful very unattractive (to say the least).

    But I don't want to rest my case on that intuition alone. And one way to critically assess a belief system unlike your own without just begging the question against it ("It's mistaken because it conflicts with key elements of my belief system"), is to step within this alternative belief system and explore its internal consistency.

    Doing that is hard, because it is hard to fully dispell the influence of your own convictions, which can slip covertly into the critical analysis. When it comes to the notion of retributive punishment, I'm personally very conflicted. But it is clear that advocates of a traditional view of hell, including Calvinists, endorse the idea that punishment proportionate to an offense is a fitting response, and may even be in some sense required. So, working within that belief system, I look for the most plausible way of working out a theory of retributive punishment--and then see if, on that theory, the doctrine of eternal damnation can be made sense of.

    The result? I have failed to make sense of it. One thing Bernard wonders about is whether, in the face of the difficulty of making sense of this belief system, its advocate can simply appeal to mystery-and whether we have any grounds for complaining about such an appeal if, for example, we appeal to mystery in the face of the challenges of making sense of human freedom.

    On this issue, I think we can distinguish between different kinds of appeals to mystery, and different contexts within which such appeals are made. My own sense is that sometimes appeals to mystery are appropriate and sometimes they're not--and that it is possible to articulate and justify in something more than an intuitive way the difference between the cases. But making the case for that goes beyond what I can do right now.

  12. Hi Eric: I share your intuition about the moral incongruity of applying everlasting torment as a punishment for a compatiblist free choice, this is one of the reasons it seems to me that the arguments Calvinists make against Arminians helps bolster the case for universalism. But I'm not sure about how one could possibly discern when an appeal to mystery is an inappropriate response to an argument. Apologizing for the abstraction here, but consider the argument:

    1. A is true
    2. if A is true then B is true
    3. Therefore B is true.

    Suppose a person is really convinced that B is in fact false, even after carefully and respectfully considering what his disagreeing friend has to say the topic. Logically he cannot consistently hold that (1) and (2) are true but (3) is false--he must reject (1) (2) or he must accept (3). What if he still feels convinced, but he has no good response to his disagreeing friend's argument in favor of (1) and (2)? It seems to me the best he can offer is "I don't know everything". Wouldn't it be wrong in an epistemic sense for him to choose (1) and (2) over (3) just because he couldn't respond to a debating partner?

    In the case of damnation, maybe he is convinced that the Bible is the inerrant word of God & that it clearly teaches that some people are forever lost. Logically that person has to conclude that EITHER A is false or the if/then inference is wrong.

  13. Keith,

    This is nicely stated. I have several thoughts on appeals to mystery as solutions to problems--especially in relation to matters of faith. Unfortunately, don't have time to develp them right at the moment, between a spike in work and extracurricular time commitments. Definitely worth exploring more fully soon, though.

    Note to self: When you get more time, devote a post to appeals to mystery, attempting to develop some thoughts about when they are "reasonable" and when not.