Tag: Arminianism

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

Parry—Free Will & Annihilationism

Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.

Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.

If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1

"Savaoph, God the Father" by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Savaoph, God the Father” by Viktor Vasnetsov

Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”

In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:

It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2

It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.


1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . .  Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk
2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/

Above is the ninth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.