Friday, January 20, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part I: An Argument Adapted from GOD'S FINAL VICTORY, and Two Responses

A month ago I commented on a post on Randal Rauser’s blog entitled “Does God hate those he does not save?” The post was a brief, critical engagement with traditional Calvinist theology. Here is what I wrote in my comment:

Here is, for me, the big problem: God’s preordaining some sinners for reprobation is supposed to reflect God’s justice, which tempers His mercy and love (or the other way around?). The idea is that sin is such an intolerable affront to God’s holiness and majesty that divine justice demands that it be repudiated. And so God casts some sinners away forever as a display of His just wrath against sin, even as he elects others for salvation to display His mercy and benevolence.

The problem is this: In casting sinners away from His presence, He casts them away from the only thing that (according to the very theology underlying this theory) can overcome sin. Thus, God guarantees that this intolerable affront to His majesty continues eternally in the souls of the damned. In short, the view essentially amounts to this: sin is so terrible that God decisively acts to guarantee that this intolerable thing continue in all its intolerability forever and ever. “What you’re doing is so inconceivably unacceptable that I am going to make absolutely sure that there is no way for you to ever stop doing it!”

And making sure that this intolerable affront to His holiness never stops is supposed to be God’s justifying reason for not electing all, and so for truncating the scope of his benevolence? Is that a coherent understanding of divine justice?

I think a variant of this problem obtains not only for Calvinists, but for any adherents to that understanding of hell according to which the God-justifying purpose for damnation is to justly punish sin. It is not a problem for those understandings of hell that are more like C.S. Lewis’s, in which damnation is a regrettable outcome of divine respect for the free choices of rational creatures.

But if I go on, I’ll end up summarizing John’s and my entire book in a blog comment, and then no one will buy it even when it comes out in the affordable paperback version…
In brief, the problem I was posing was this: According to traditional Calvinist theology, damnation is supposed to be a just punishment for sin that somehow repudiates and so sets right the affront of sin. But whatever else damnation involves, it is essentially characterized by being cut of from God and His grace. Calvinist theology teaches that divine grace is utterly necessary to overcome our disposition to sin. And so, by damning some sinners, God guarantees that they keep being sinners for all eternity.

So: Sin is so terrible that it demands an extreme response to repudiate it. And the extreme response that supposedly repudiates sin is nothing other than an act ensuring that sin persist unabated for eternity. But can you really erase the stain of sin by an act that guarantees that sin never end? Isn’t that kind of like trying to remove an ink stain on your coat by putting your coat under a hose that eternally pours ink all over it?

Let me call this, for ease of reference, “The Problem of Damned Sinners.” It’s adapted from an argument that appears in the first part of Chapter 6 of John's and my recent book, God’s Final Victory. This particular line of argument originated with my co-author, John Kronen, as he was studying with care the writings of the Protestant Scholastics. Of course, as with all parts of the book, the final formulation and development of the argument was a collaborative effort…and as my adaptation of the argument to specifically target a conservative Calvinist position indicates, I’m a fan of it. I not only think the argument makes a significant point, but I think the problem it raises for traditional Calvinist theology (and similar theologies) may be one of the most serious that defendes of such theology need to overcome.

Shortly after posting my comment on Randal’s blog, Randal suggested a line of challenge in a follow-up question, and a reader of Randal’s blog, Steve Hays, posted a response at Triablogue under the heading “Sloppy philosophers.”

At the time, I ignored both responses. Let me stress that this isn’t because further comment might compromise the marketability of God’s Final Victory. The closing sentence of my comment might have left that impression—and, in fact, both Randal and Steve, in their responses, seemed to take that remark seriously. Randal says, “Feel free not to respond to my comment if it will compromise further the marketability of your book,” while Steve derisively says, “I’d like to thank Reitan for sparing us the need to read his book. Given the quality of his summarized argument, it would be poor stewardship of time and money to invest in the book.”

In fact, the closing remark was a bit of a self-deprecating joke. I seem to find myself incapable of being especially concise in blog posts…or even in blog comments (the current post is no exception—in fact, it’s getting so long that I’m breaking it up into a series of three posts!). My natural inclination, it seems, is to write articles and books.

Part of the reason for this inclination is that, even given my propensity for long-windedness in blog-writing, blog-appropriate summaries of arguments cannot be as clear and precise as what can be laid out in a book, cannot be as complete in anticipating and responding to objections, and cannot be coordinated with all the other relevant arguments that should be addressed in a comprehensive book-length treatment of a subject as substantial, say, as the doctrine of hell. The advantage of blogging is that, however inadequately, it can get the ideas and arguments out to more readers.

In any event, the argument in question is featured in one part of one chapter of God's Final Victory. There’s really no way I could do justice to all the work John and I put into that book in a blog comment, and I really doubt that what I say in the blogosphere will negatively impact sales. (The price of the book does that well enough all on its own.) In short, I have absolutely no objections to addressing questions and criticisms relating to my books in blog-format—although, again, anything I say here will be more comprehensively treated in the book.

So, why did I ignored Randal’s thoughtful response and Steve’s…response? Well, the day after they were posted, my mother came to visit for the holidays…and promptly fell, breaking both arms (three fractures total, two of them pretty serious).

And so, with real life intruding on my blogging life, I had more important things to attend to. It happens more often than you'd think!

But now, at last, I find my attention turned back towards this topic. And so, without further ado, here are the concerns raised about The Problem of Damned Sinners. The first, thoughtfully and respectfully posed by Randal, runs as follows:

Your comment assumes that those who go to hell continue to sin there. Of course that is one common view which is suggested by the reference to “gnashing of teeth” (e.g. in Acts 7 the Pharisees gnash their teeth in rage at Stephen). But the doctrine of hell doesn’t require that we view the final state of the lost as consisting of ongoing active rebellion.

While there is some advantage in claiming that the reprobated get to a point where they no longer sin (perhaps they are inert, maximally remorseful but not repentant creatures), this view raises more sharply the morality of hell as eternal conscious torment.
The heart of Steve’s response (with intrusive numbering, ad hominem attacks, and self-congratulatory chest-thumping deleted so as to focus in on what may actually have philosophical merit) runs as follows:

As for Reitan’s argument (such as it is), he tries to contrive an artificial dilemma by casting the issue in terms of tolerance. As he frames it, the Calvinist God tolerates the intolerable. Hence, Reformed theism is self-contradictory.

But he’s burning a straw man. In Calvinism, “sin” is not “intolerable” to God. “Sinners” are not intolerable to God.

What’s “intolerable” (if you wish to put it that way, which may not be the best way to put it) isn’t sin, but injustice. Isn’t sin, but allowing sin to go unpunished. What’s “unacceptable” isn’t the existence of sinners, but justice denied. Sooner or later, the scales of justice must be righted.

It not a question of “overcoming” sin, but exposing sin for what it is, then meting out a suitable punishment. That, in turn, reveals the moral character of evil–for the punishment fits the crime.
I want to consider Steve’s criticism first, since what I have to say may set some groundwork for more efficiently addressing Randal’s (to my mind more interesting and challenging) question. But because this post is already as long as it is, a consideration of Steve’s response will have to wait. So, look forward to “Damned Sinners, Part II,” coming soon to a blog near you (probably Monday, since I rarely blog on weekends).


  1. I'm sorry that this isn't strictly on topic because I think this a good post but is your book out yet? I'm really looking forward to reading it.

  2. GOD'S FINAL VICTORY has been published, but at present is only available in the hardcover, which is priced for library sales. An electronic version may be available eventually, and the paperback should be out, I think, by September. I'll make an announcement on this blog when I hear that other, more affordable editions are available.

  3. Steve Hays is a nasty, mean-spirited person who loves to argue. Why bother?

  4. Anonymous--As a philosopher, I strive to distinguish between the argument and the person making it (not always successfully). Not everything in Steve Hays' post had the form of an argument (much was simply name-calling of various sorts), but what I quote in the post offers reasons to reject my original critique, and so does have the form of an argument.

    I don't think these reasons are compelling, since they are rooted in a misconstrual of what is most central to my critique, but it seems to me that he may not be the only one who could misconstrue the argument in the way that he does. And as such his remarks provide an occasion for clarifying and deepening my original remarks in ways that might be helpful.

    That is very different from trying to have a productive discussion WITH him. The latter may be hard to achieve (which I suspect is true given the snippets of evidence available to me). But it doesn't follow that some of what he says cannot serve, at least sometimes, as a helpful foil against which others might deepen their understanding of a subject.

    That said, an ongoing exchange with someone who's bent on "winning" the debate by any rhetorical means at their disposal isn't helpful to anyone, and I try to avoid such exchanges.

  5. Eric,

    I'm just working through your posts now. (It's been a busy week.) As for my quip about book marketability, that was written tongue-in-cheek.

  6. "As for my quip about book marketability, that was written tongue-in-cheek."

    I'm starting to understand more and more why my wife insists on using emoticons. ;)