Talbott—Does God allow irreparable harm?

Paul’s grand vision of a total victory over sin and death … stands in luminous contrast to the Arminian picture of a defeated God. For though the Arminians insist, even as the universalists do, that God at least wills or desires the salvation of all sinners, they also hold that some sinners will defeat God’s will in this matter and defeat it forever. As C.S. Lewis once put it: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”1 So even though God himself never rejects anyone, at least not forever, he will nonetheless permit some of his loved ones to reject him forever, if that is what they should irrationally choose to do. In the case of the damned, at least, God grants ultimate sovereignty not to his own loving will, but to an utterly irrational human decision.

A distinction that I have drawn repeatedly … is between irreparable harm, on the one hand, and harm that can be repaired or canceled out at some future time, on the other. When we humans confront the possibility of serious and irreparable harm—that is, harm that no mere human can repair or cancel out at some future time—we feel quite justified in interfering with someone’s freedom to inflict such harm. We feel justified, first of all, in preventing one person from harming another irreparably; a loving father may thus report his own son to the police in an effort to prevent the son from committing murder. And we may feel justified, secondly, in preventing our loved ones from harming themselves irreparably as well; a loving father may thus physically overpower his teenage daughter in an effort to prevent her from committing suicide.

This does not mean, of course, that a loving God, whose goal is the reconciliation of the world, would prevent every suicide, every murder, or every atrocity in human history, however horrendous such evils may seem to us; it follows only that he would prevent every harm that not even omnipotence could repair at some future time, and neither suicide nor murder is necessarily an instance of that kind of harm. For God can resurrect the victims of murder and suicide just as easily as he can the victims of old age. So even if a loving God could sometimes permit murder, he could never permit one person to annihilate the soul of another or to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in another; and even if he could sometimes permit suicide, he could never permit his loved ones to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in themselves either. Just as loving parents are prepared to restrict the freedom of the children they love, so a loving God would restrict the freedom of the children he loves, at least in cases of truly irreparable harm. The only difference is that God deals with a much larger picture and a much longer time frame than that with which human parents are immediately concerned.

So the idea of irreparable harm—that is, of harm that not even omnipotence can repair—is critical, and Paul’s doctrine of unconditional election (along with the closely associated doctrine of predestination) is his doctrine that, despite the many atrocities in human history, God never permits truly irreparable harm to befall any of his loved ones.2 From the very beginning—that is, even “before the foundation of the world”—God built into his creation, so Paul insisted, a guarantee that his salvific will would triumph in the end. Accordingly, all of those whom God “foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30). Arminians typically argue that the predestination (or foreordination) of which Paul here spoke rests upon foreknowledge, where foreknowledge, as they interpret it, is a mere precognition or prevision of someone’s faith, or of someone’s decision to accept Christ, or of someone’s free choice of one kind or another.

But a two-fold objection to any such interpretation seems to me utterly decisive: First, the object of God’s foreknowledge in 8:29 is simply people, not their faith or their free choices, and second, Paul used the same word “foreknow” (“proegno”) when he wrote: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). And here Paul had in view not the faithful remnant whose proper choices, one might claim, God had already foreknown; instead, he had in view those unbelieving Israelites of his own day who had rejected Christ and whose hearts were still hard and impenitent. They were foreknown, in other words, despite their disobedience, and they remained objects of God’s electing love (“as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors”), not because they had made the right choices, but because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29).

To be foreknown in the relevant Pauline sense, then, is simply to be loved beforehand. All of those whom God has loved from the beginning—that is, all the descendants of Adam—are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. So not only did Paul hold that Jesus Christ achieved a complete victory over sin and death; he also held that there was never the slightest possibility that God would lose any of those loved ones whose salvation he had already foreordained even before the foundation of the world.3


1. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1944), p. 115.
2. If God draws the line at irreparable harm and therefore never permits such harm to befall his loved ones, then neither the unpardonable sin of which Jesus spoke, nor the sin of apostasy, as described in Hebrews 10, nor punishment in the age to come is an instance irreparable harm. I set forth my reasons for believing that the unpardonable sin and the sin of apostasy are both correctable, however unforgivable they may be, in The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 1999), pp. 98-101. And I set forth my reasons for denying that the punishment associated with the age to come is unending in Parry and Partridge, op. cit., pp. 43-47, 51n.20-n.30, 269-270n.33.
3. Quoted from “Universal Reconciliation and the Inclusive Nature of Election,” Chad Owen Brand (ed.), Perspectives on Election: Five Views, pp. 254-257.


The above was originally posted by Tom Talbott here.

Tom Talbott hiking

4 thoughts on “Talbott—Does God allow irreparable harm?

  1. Jean-Erik Mårtensson

    I am highly surprised of such a superficial Bible-knowledge as here. Paul has has to be interpreted according to the Apocalypse of John,
    Jean-Erik Mårtensson

    Like

      1. Jean-Erik Mårtensson

        The Apocalypse is written about 40 years after the letters of Paul, And apostle Johannes had absolutely certain read all the pauline letters and in his Apocalypse clearly interprete them in all important matters. Apostel Petrus confirms in his second letter that the great wisdom of Paul was wrongly understood.
        Jean-Erik Mårtensson

        Like

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