Monday, January 23, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part II: Can the Negative Value of Sin be Erased by Eternal Damnation?

This post picks up where the previous post left off. You may want to look at Damned Sinners, Part I, before turning to this follow-up.

In this post, I want to consider Steve Hays’ response to what I’m calling The Problem of Damned Sinners. The problem, in brief, is this: Some theologies (e.g. traditional  Calvinist ones) hold that God damns some sinners as a just punishment for sin, thereby repudiating sin clearly and forcefully. But by damning some persons as a punishment for sin, God is responding to the “affront” of sin by guaranteeing that this affront continue for eternity. But how is that supposed to repudiate sin? How can you repudiate something by guaranteeing that it never stop?

In a nutshell, Steve responds to this problem by denying that, on Calvinist theology, there is any meaningful sense in which sin as such is “intolerable” to God. What is intolerable is sin unrepudiated, sin for which just punishment has not been meted out. In other words, he takes it that the main challenge I’m raising in the Problem of Damned Sinners is this: By tolerating the never-ending sinfulness of the damned, the Calvinist God “tolerates the intolerable.” He then responds by saying that never-ending sinfulness as such isn’t intolerable, so long as it is fittingly punished.

But here, Steve is both misconstruing the main force of the Problem of Damned Sinners and, in responding to the misconstrued argument, relying on a premise I find highly implausible.

Before making these points, I should stress something that my co-author, John Kronen, wants emphasized. The argument I presented first on Randal’s blog and then in the previous post—which I’ve dubbed “The Problem of Damned Sinners”—is adapted from an argument in God’s Final Victory and brought to bear on certain Calvinist claims. But it is not identical to that argument. In our book, the argument John and I develop is not premised on God’s finding sin intolerable, but on the premise that God would never will sin. We argue that by permanently casting the damned away from the only thing that can save them from their own sinfulness, God does end up willing sin. In the book, we consider and respond to a host of objections to this argument--both to the claim that God would never will sin and to the claim that God would be doing exactly that were He to impose eternal alienation as a punishment.

In other words, as formulated in our book, the argument doesn’t even rely on the premise that Steve attacks. As such, Steve's rebuttal is irrelevant to the argument formulated in our book. That said, it may at least seem as if it is relevant to my formulation of the argument. In either formulation, however, the main focus of the argument is on whether imposing eternal damnation as a response to sin makes sense—whether this is a coherent “response” to sin, given what sin is to God (namely, something fundamentally opposed to God’s nature).

Even formulated in the terms I've used here and on Randal’s post, the argument isn’t reducible to the claim that, on Calvinist and similar theologies, God tolerates the intolerable. Rather, the focus is on the coherence of damnation as a response to sin. In terms of the tolerable and the intolerable, we might say that what the argument challenges is the idea that eternal damnation can make sin tolerable. In short, it doesn't quite capture my argument to say that sin is intolerable even if repudiated with just punishment. Rather, the argument is that you can’t properly repudiate sin with a response that guarantees its continuation.

Think of it this way. Even if Steve holds that punished sin is tolerable in a way that unpunished sin is not, to make sense of this position he has to hold that sin as such has a negative value that needs to be “erased” (if you will) through appropriate punishment. Thus, sin as such is bad, and what just punishment does is somehow “balance the scales” that have been set off kilter by sin. Steve himself uses this language of scale-balancing, which makes sense only on the assumption that sin in its own right throws things off balance.

In short, Steve and other Calvinists would be disingenuous if they claimed that, on Calvinist theology, sin weren’t deeply offensive in itself. Its profound negative value is what generates the demand for justice, the need to make things right.

Put another way, in order to hold that eternal damnation makes things right, you first have to hold that sin “makes things wrong.”

In short, Steve has to hold that sin has significant negative value. In fact, if sin is going to warrant endless punishment, that negative value would have to be very grave indeed. In fact, traditional Calvinists follow Anselm in explicitly embracing the view that sin is *infinitely* grave insofar as it affronts God’s infinite majesty. Sin—moral wickedness—is that in the created order which is most contrary to God, the gravest “turning away” of the creation from its creator.

One concise way to put all of this is as follows: sin is intolerable.

Now part of what Steve wants to say is that this way of putting things is misleading, since what might be intolerable all by itself needn’t be intolerable when combined with something else. Sin may be intolerable without a scale-balancing retributive response; but with such a response, justice has been done and the situation as a whole isn’t intolerable.

Even if Steve is right about this, I don’t think it solves the fundamental issue at stake in the Problem of Damned Sinners. But before making that point, I want to explain why I think Steve isn't right about this. Take the case of murder. We find murder to be such an “intolerable” crime that, as a society, we respond to it with the strongest punishments we consider intrinsically permissible (life imprisonment or capital punishment). Is it adequate to say that murder unpunished is intolerable, but murder justly punished is just fine since the scales of justice have been balanced?

Think of it this way: Suppose the murder rate in a country of 1 billion people is enormous: say one million murders every year. Does this become a tolerable situation if every murderer is caught and subjected to proportional punishment, but the murders continue unabated at the same rate? Is that state of affairs “just as good” as a society in which no murders happen? When confronted with a horrific offense, is it enough for the offense to be justly punished or does the horrific nature of the offense also entail that it should stop happening?

Intuitively, it seems we should go with the latter. Doesn’t it? Given that murders occur, we might agree that proportionately punished murder is better than murder going unpunished. But far better that no murders occur at all. And what would we think about a government that thinks the wrongness of murder is communicated most clearly in just punishment—and so, in order to demonstrate how bad murder is, enacts policies that magnify the murder rate so as to have more murders to justly punish? Do you really repudiate murder if you make sure more murders happen so as to have more murders to repudiate? Or is repudiation what you do in response to something that you think shouldn’t happen at all?

Put simply, if some behavior is so bad as to call for serious punishment, that’s a reason to want the behavior to be reduced or eliminated. As such, it seems you've got a distorted theory of retributive justice if you think there’s nothing wrong with the murder rate spiraling out of control so long as every murder is justly punished. In fact, I'd be so bold as to insist that any retributive theory that calls for the punitive repudiation of an act would also have to regard the act's non-occurrence as preferable to its occurrence. And if so, there’s something amiss in Steve’s claim that, for God, there’s nothing intolerable with sin as such, but only with unrepudiated sin.

But despite the deep intuitive difficulties with Steve's claim, let’s grant it for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose that appropriate punishment can somehow fully erase the negative value of sin, such that the sin taken together with the appropriate punishment does not have a negative value. Even if sin taken in isolation is intolerable, justly punished sin isn’t an intolerable situation at all. This is the point on which Steve Hays rests his rebuttal.

But how is appropriate punishment supposed to achieve this “erasing” of sin’s infinite badness? John and I actually develop a theory of this in our book—a theory of “vindicatory justice” that follows the lead of the Lutheran Scholastics. But explaining that theory here would take us too far afield. For now, it’s enough to note that what is needed in order to erase something of enormous negative value is something of comparable positive value. But even that’s not enough. If I owe a hundred thousand dollars in credit card bills, and my neighbor Joe has a hundred thousand dollars in his bank account, the existence of his money doesn’t erase my debt. In order for my debt to be erased, Joe's money actually needs to be applied to my account. To get to zero, the positive sum has to be “added” to the comparable negative sum. Only then can the negative value be “erased.” Only then is the intolerable situation turned into a tolerable one.

(In fact, as John and I argue, it is Christ’s Atonement that is thought to do this vindicating work in theological traditions following Anselm—and one section of the book is devoted to making the case that if you take that view seriously, you can no longer argue that the demands of justice require eternal damnation…but that's a different argument which I won’t pursue here.)

The point I was making in my comment on Randal’s blog was simply this: It doesn’t make much sense to suppose that you can erase the negative value sin by acting so as to guarantee that it never stops happening. How do you erase the enormous negative value of sin by propagating it? It seems that you would then be magnifying the negative values that need to be erased, as opposed to erasing them.

In short, suppose we grant Steve Hays’ claim that the continued existence of sin is a tolerable situation to God so long as sin’s negative value is erased by God’s justly punishing it through eternal damnation. Even if we grant this, we still have to ask whether eternal damnation really could erase the (infinite) negative value of sin.

Steve Hays supposes that eternal damnation can do this. In our book, we consider more than one reason to be highly skeptical of such a supposition. The focus in these posts is on one of them.

Here’s the thing about eternal damnation: Its central feature is eternal exclusion from the beatific vision. Whatever other positive evils might be thought to accompany damnation, the heart of hell is that the damned are decisively cast out of God’s presence and cut off from God’s grace. But Calvinists (along with other Christians) hold that the only cure for sin is divine grace. Without grace, ongoing sinfulness is inevitable. On this theology, eternally withholding divine grace amounts to eternally withholding the necessary condition for not sinning…and as such guaranteeing that sin continue unabated. The essential feature of the state of damnation—exclusion from the grace of God—can thus be characterized as the act of making sure that a person’s sinful state never be overcome.

And so the conservative Calvinist view can be summed up as follows: Some sinners have the negative value of their sin neutralized by being deprived of what is necessary to stop sinning. God punishes sinners by doing the one thing that guarantees their sin never ends. And somehow, THIS is supposed to neutralize the negative value of sin, making an otherwise intolerable situation tolerable?

Let’s put this in terms of a metaphor (however imperfect all such metaphors inevitably are): For the Calvinist, if sin is the disease, then divine grace is the only cure. Without grace, the “disease” of sin will continue unabated. And this disease is taken to be so bad that it must be repudiated—by forever withholding the cure and making sure that the disease continue unabated.


Or to invoke an earlier metaphor, it sounds as if one is saying something like the following: If unpunished murder is intolerable, then of course we must erase its negative value with just punishment. So let’s punish murderers in such a way so as to guarantee that they continue to commit murder after murder eternally. Then the negative value of murder will be erased! Adding countless murders to the first one will eliminate the badness of the first one, bringing about a condition which is no longer bad!


Or to invoke yet another metaphor: Suppose someone owes a debt. How do you get rid of it? Suppose someone answered, “Make sure the debtor keeps wracking up more debt forever! THAT is sure to make the debt go away!”


Even if we don’t object to Steve’s claim that the negative value of sin, properly neutralized by divine punishment, ceases to be intolerable, the central concern at issue in the Problem of Damned Sinners remains. In some way, depriving sinners of the necessary condition for ceasing sin is supposed to do this work of neutralizing the negative value of their sins (even as it guarantees that the negative values requiring neutralization grow without bound).

Now maybe there is some way for the Calvinist to make sense of this. But it is a problem—a pretty big one. And I think the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Calvinist to resolve it. Otherwise, those of different theological persuasions have a right to be deeply skeptical. Simply asserting that, mysteriously, God depriving sinners of what they need in order to avoid sin somehow neutralizes sin’s negative value—well, that doesn’t cut it.


  1. You might be interested in Steve Hays' response here.

  2. Grant: Thanks for the heads up. Probably won't take a look at it until next week, since I've got too many other things to focus on for the remainder of this one.

  3. Hey Eric,

    I am enjoying this series of posts!

    My understanding of at least one form of Calvinism is that God actually wants sin to exist so that He can glorify Himself by demonstrating His justice on the reprobate.

    This makes logical sense to a Calvinist, because God must ultimately be responsible for all things, but of course God loses His goodness in the process. But the Calvinist then begins an obscurant arguing process that centers around divine command theory about how humans cannot really know what is good (and yet they can still call God "good" and have it mean something??)

    Anyway, this isn't your specific topic here, but it's a related line of reasoning that I have run across.

  4. And, of course, now I have through the rest of the series and I see you addressing this in the Addendum!

    Perhaps God willing sin to exist in order to display His justice could be good, but it seems to me that this would only be true if a true universal reconciliation should take place. Otherwise it smacks of a crass utilitarianism.