Friday, July 8, 2011

Mangling Me at The Jesus Creed...

Not literally...but Scot McKnight has another piece on universalism over at The Jesus Creed this week--this one about my argument that appears in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (edited by Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge). Unfortunately, McKnight misconstrues my arguments there in a significant way--perhaps influenced subconsciously by his desire to push the challenge he posed in relation to his earlier article on "Thomas Talbott's Gauntlet". His challenge, in effect, is this: What scriptural basis is there for thinking God would afford the unregenerate an ongoing opportunity to repent and seek salvation after death?

In effect, McKnight wants to argue that I am making a case for universalism that rests on the assumption that God would do exactly this. But that is not what I am doing in the essay. Rather, I am investigating the coherence of a particular approach to defending the doctrine of eternal damnation--an approach that appeals to the freedom of the creature, and to the idea that God's moral character inspires Him to respect that freedom, even if it leads to damnation. And freedom alone would inspire damnation only if it were possible for the creature to choose freely to remain forever alienated from God.

Freedom would explain eternal damnation only if a creature could either (a) freely choose to be alienated forever, or (b) forever freely choose to be alienated. Doing (a) involves making, at some point, a final and decisive choice for alienation. That is, the person decides at some particular moment, "I choose to be alienated from God FOREVER." Doing (b) involves, at every moment ad infinitum, making the choice to be alienated from God at that moment.

In my essay in the Universal Salvation? anthology, I don't devote much attention to the distinction between (a) and (b). On reflection, this may be a defect of that essay. But for various reasons--some of which can be extracted from the arguments I do lay out in that essay, I think (a) makes little sense. Whether I can freely choose at some moment to make a permanent commitment depends not merely on me at that moment, but on other things as well. If what I am presented with is a "limited time offer," then it clearly is true that the choice to reject the offer, if unreversed by the time the offer runs out, becomes a choice to forever reject the offer. If, by contrast, what I am presented with is a standing offer--one that just isn't ever revoked--then I can't really choose to forever reject the offer unless I follow course (b). While I might say to myself at some given time, "I reject this offer FOREVER," I remain free to change my mind precisely because the offer is a standing offer. So I can't really CHOOSE at some particular time to forever reject the offer when the offer has the form of a standing offer--because I remain forever free to change my mind given the nature of the offer, that is, given something outside my control (something that is, instead, a matter of the choices made by the one who extends the offer).

If--as liberal defenders of the doctrine of hell assume--we suppose that there is nothing in God that operates as an impediment to salvation, but that eternal damnation is wholly explained by the free choices of the creature, then we must, I think, take it that God's offer of salvation is a standing offer. If it is a limited-time offer, then at some point God withdraws the offer such that even if an unregenerate person later freely repents and earnestly seeks salvation, God withholds it. Here, it is not just the freedom of the creature that explains eternal damnation, but some active steps on the part of God. It is not merely the creature who rejects God, but God who, in effect, rejects the creature (at leat after the limited-time offer of salvation has expired).

So, the liberal doctrine of hell must suppose that the damned are those who follow course (b)--they forever reject God. My question in the essay that McKnight discusses is whether this is possible. My answer is that it is not. (John and I, in God's Final Victory, develop these arguments far more rigorously, but only after we tear apart the arguments which suppose that a God anything like the God of orthodox Christianity would ever decisively reject creatures). In any event, my conclusion in that essay is that the liberal doctrine of hell doesn't work. And this negative project does not depend on me illegitimately presupposing, without scriptural warrant, that God never withdraws His offer of salvation. Rather, I am simply asking whether, on the assumption that God never withdraws this offer (an assumption made by those who support the liberal doctrine), one can coherently defend the view that some are eternally damned by their own free choices. My answer is no.

My defense of this answer turns on some principles about the conditions under which a choice can be legitimately called free. McKnight takes these principles to identify the conditions under which God can be justified in damning someone--that is, conditions under which God can justifiably reject creatures forever. But in making this move, McKnight is considering a very different approach to justifying eternal hell--not the one I am considering in the Universal Salvation? essay. And in asking whether there is a scriptural basis for thinking creatures might freely turn to God after death and so be saved, McKnight is not merely asking whether there is any scriptural basis for the assumption that some universalists rely on to make their case for the salvation of all. He is also asking whether there is a scriptural basis for the assumption made by those who embrace the liberal doctrine of hell.

Now, with respect to this question that so concerns McKnight, I would argue that he is illegitimately restricting the scope of what counts as a "scriptural basis." My view is that, given a fairly orthodox understanding of God's character as developed by the Christian tradition through its earnest engagement with Scripture, we have prima facie (fancy philosophy talk for "presumptively") good reason to suppose God would never decisively reject His creatures. And from this it seems to follow that if a creature turned to God after death, they would be welcomed into the bosom of God as surely as if that choice were made before death. And so, if I (and John Kronen, and others like us) are right about what Scripture teaches concerning God's nature and His attitude towards His creatures, there is a scriptural case for the view that salvation remains possible after death even if no isolated scriptural passage says this.

Are there any considerations that might overcome this prima facie scriptural case? Many have been offered. John and I consider the most important of them in our book and find all of them unconvincing.

(On a more amusing note, I offered a fairly brief--for me--correction of McKnight's misunderstanding of my argument in a comment on his post--and the discussion in the comments section continued as if I hadn't said anything. The very first comment after my correction offered an interpretation of what "Reitan" is presuming that might have been forgivable had I not already piped in, but...well, let's just say that I often get the sense that interpreters of dead scholars are often grateful that those scholars aren't around, and would ignore them if they were.)


  1. It sounds as though you assume that salvation is a one-way ratchet, and once "saved", a person would never chose to go back to the other state, or perhaps be allowed to. Is that true, and isn't this a total loss of freedom, which might not seem like such a great deal?

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  3. Just thought you might be interested in a fellow blogger with similar interests (who writes exceedingly well, in my opinion).


  4. This whole argument (on both sides) requires the postulate of an automatic or naturally immortal soul - do you have a prolegomenon which addresses and refutes the possibility that immortality is not our right by material birth but requires an immaterial birth - i.e. must be acquired by actual relationship with an eternal reality - God?

    Because if an honest attempt at relation with the eternal God is a pre-requisite for immortality, the choice would have to come before the dissolution of the material mind of the choice-maker.

    This is called conditional immortality, and it has been held by enough good minds to deserve consideration I think.

    Your need to bend over backward to be 'fair' to the atheist is commendable, but in the conditional scenario there is no eternal sufferiing, the atheist simply 'gets' exactly what he/she expects - nothing, non-existence (death).

    Eric R., your thoughts?

  5. Burk: It iIS an explicit premise of one of our arguments that, once saved, a person would not choose alienation from God.

    This is not, however, a mere assumption. In fact, on the view of freedom that we argue fits best with a broadly Christian worldview, and given the Christian view of salvation (immediate experiential relationship with the ultimate good from which all other goods flow, and full understanding that one is thus related) we argue that no truly free creature would ever freely choose to abandon this relational state. In other words: no, confirmation in blessedness is not, within a Christian philosophical framework, incompatible with freedom, but is rather what a free creature would choose.

    And keep in mind, Burk, that this argument (and the new book as a whole) is dialectical in Aristotle's sense: it adopts a framework of premises likely to be accepted by the target audience in order to show what is and isn't consistent with that framework, what follows from allegiance to it, etc. In other words, we are not here making the case for the Christian worldview but rather speaking to those who accept that worldview and arguing that a certain common belief held within that framework is not a good fit.

  6. John,

    For a number of interconnected reasons, I don't think the view you sketch out here is a good fit with the Christian worldview, although it might fit well within certain other spiritual/religious frameworks of thinking. But explaining why would take more time than I have at the moment. But it seems like a good topic for a future blog post.

  7. Eric--I know Stephen and his blog, and I agree that he writes very well. Hadn't seen the recent piece you link to, but got a chance to look at it this morning. It's nicely done.

  8. Prof. Reitan - a separate post would be excellent, but I don't mean to encourage you to roll out a long unilateral defense of universalism against conditionalism - I hope you will at least take note of bits of writing by Revs. Isaac Watts, Edmund Law, or Francis Blackburne (all 18th century), and of Archbishop Richard Whately and Rev. Edward White (19th).

    I mention these names only because conditionalism is too often given short shrift as an isolated view of late American sects like the Adventists and the Witnesses - although those two groups did benefit by the appeal of the view in the eyes of those who saw as many moral and logical problems with universalism as with eternal Hells.

  9. Eric,

    As you know I agree with universalism, indeed I believe that understanding universalism is central to understanding theism – for somebody who does not see the truth of universalism fails to understand something fundamental about the nature of God, namely the kind of love God is.

    Nevertheless I would like here to suggest that the idea (a) that some people may at some point freely choose to be alienated for ever has more merit than you allow in your post. Actually there is perhaps little difference between (a) and (b) in the sense that some people may at some point make a free choice that would make it metaphysically impossible for them to later freely accept God’s standing offer of atonement.

    I’d like to start by pointing out that what we are, what kind of persons we are, is not fixed but is a dynamic thing. Loving, having trust in God, and in general doing what Christ asks of us, sanctifies us, and thus transforms our very being into becoming more like Christ. It is plausible to think that at some point that process of transformation brings us to a state of sanctification where it is not anymore metaphysically possible that we shall fall. We shall be caught in God’s orbit as it were. That experiential state may be called “being in heaven”. While completely free to sin, it will be metaphysically impossible for us to sin – in the same way that even though I am now completely free to choose to drive my face through the computer monitor in front of me, it is in fact impossible that I will choose to do so.

    Now, conversely, to hate, to be distrustful of God or even to despise God, and in general doing the opposite of what Christ asks of us, debases us, and thus transforms our very being into becoming less like Christ. In such a state sinning becomes more natural, and thus more probable. It is plausible to think that at some point that process of transformation brings us to a state of depravity where it becomes metaphysically impossible to repent, to change our mind and look back to God. We shall have escaped God’s attractive force as it were. That experiential state may be called “being in hell”, i.e. being in a state of permanent alienation from God.

    [continued bellow]

  10. [continued from above]

    If the symmetric story above holds, then the non-universalist will be right to claim that people enter and remain in hell because of their free choice. The (a)-type choice they made was to systematically put so much distance between themselves and Christ that they made it metaphysically impossible for themselves to ever freely choose to leave hell. They have become natural (and in that sense contented) hell inhabitants. Hell is hellish only from the point of view of the saved; for its inhabitants it’s the natural environment that accords with their nature. I understand this is the general view that C. S. Lewis and Richard Swinburne expound.

    I think that the above story is not far from the truth. It describes the human condition fairly well, and also upholds justice, respect of one’s freedom, and personal responsibility for one’s lot. According to this story, those who arrive in heaven do so after having traveled a long path knowing exactly what they are doing to themselves. And the same goes for those who arrive in hell. I nevertheless think that the story above is not true, because I take it God chooses to go beyond justice and respect, because God’s love is lavish and wasteful and overflows all limits, including those of reason. God’s incarnation and sacrifice in Jesus tells us, among many other things, one thing in particular: That God’s love will not stop at anything and will keep looking for the one last lost sheep, and for the one last lost coin. It’s not only that God’s offer of salvation is a standing offer, but that God, like an unrequited lover, will keep trying to charm and win over the last of His/Her children until they are all in His/Her bosom. If God incarnated once (for all we know) in our world, God will incarnate a thousand times in hell if there are people in there. (I don’t consider God’s incarnation to be an event in history, but an act of creation.) For all human condition is sustained by God, so it’s not like that for God the unrighteous are further away than the righteous. Indeed God’s love for the unrighteous is even brighter, because it is less deserved. Like a good shepherd, or like a good master, God has an easy and friendly relationship with those creatures that remain close to Him/Her, but God’s attention and work and longing is for those who are lost.