Theology: April 2008 Archives

The Bible study group that I attend has been studying Exodus, and we're nearing the end of the plagues. I've been thinking anew about Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. People holding to a libertarian view of freedom like to point out that Pharaoh hardens his own heart before the first time it says God hardens it. It isn't a simple progression. Sometimes his heart is simply hardened in the passive, and I don't think there's a neat order to it. The passive formulation occurs in what I believe is even the first instance (Exodus 7:21), and that occurs three times in ch.7 before 8:21, where Pharaoh is first said to harden his own heart. But it is true that Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart before God is said to harden it.

On the other hand, compatibilists about freedom and predetermination notice that God predicted long before the encounter even happens, when Moses hadn't even returned to Egypt, that he would harden Pharaoh's heart and that Pharaoh wouldn't let him go. (Exodus 4:21) This may not require a compatibilist view, but there's one view that I think doesn't fit well at all with this whole sequence, and that's open theism.

First, God predicted that Pharaoh would not to let them go. He even predicted that he would harden Pharaoh's heart. He told Moses to ask for a three days' journey to sacrifice and return. But he promised to Moses that Pharaoh wouldn't let them go and that it would lead to their permanent freedom from Egypt. What needed to happen for God's prediction to come true? Pharaoh needed to resist Moses, something open theism doesn't allow God to predict. Yet God had predicted it, and it was at least in part dependent on Pharaoh's hardening of his own heart.

As libertarians like to point out, God hardens Pharaoh's heart only later in the series of plagues. God nevertheless predicts that he'll do it to Pharaoh before Pharaoh even hardens his own heart. There's only one way I can make sense of this is open theism is true, and that's that Pharaoh is one unusual exception of someone who simply isn't free. In order to predict that Pharaoh would refuse to let them go, God must have forced him to do what he did. Why, then, does Pharaoh harden his own heart before God hardens it?

Open theists often go the Exodus narrative because of Moses' interaction with God after the golden calf incident, saying that the classical view of divine foreknowledge doesn't fit well with the plain sense of that text and others like it (although there are problems even with that claim). But it seems to me that open theists are the ones that have a problem with the plain meaning of this narrative.

Obligatory Grace

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One potentially bad argument for the need for infinite punishment comes from John F Walvoord, in Four Views on Hell. On page 27 he says "While on the one hand [God] bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace."

Now it is possible that he means that without the grace offered, God has no choice but to inflict the punishment that has already accrued. I'm fine with that. But it is also possible that he means that the infinite punishment is punishment for spurning the grace itself. (The context does nothing to make it clear which he means.)

If it is the latter, that's horrible. Grace isn't exactly a free gift from God if the failure to accept it is punishable by hell, is it? In what moral system is it obligatory to accept grace?

Infinite harm

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One thing every traditionalist agrees upon is that those in hell deserve infinite punishment. The standard reason given is that those in hell have sinned against an infinite God, therefore their crime is infinite.

(Other reasons are certainly possible. Another somewhat commonly given reason is that those in hell will continue sinning for all eternity, thus meriting infinite punishment. It seems a little injust to me to give someone an infinite punishment because of the infinite crimes they will commit in the future, but that's why I don't use that argument.)

But back to the matter at hand, the standard argument is that the crime is infinite because it is committed against a God who is infinite. Now this is all fine and good in a feudal society, but it strikes me as a pretty weird argument in a Western democracy. We don't, in theory at least, punish a thief more harshly for robbing the president than robbing a beggar. Should we be?

Now, that's not to say that the Feudal system is wrong in which the severity of the crime is measured by the stature of the victim, but certainly the argument can't stand alone. You need to present the argument and then prove that the feudal system is right. So far, I've never seen a traditionalist do that.

So I think that the Feudal Justice argument is at least incomplete, if not wrong. But I agree that we've committed an infinite crime. How do I go about showing it without the Feudal argument?

I posit that we all have a part in crucifying Christ. Killing God is a pretty straightforward infinite harm in a way that is not so clear in other sins. How we are all involved requires a bit of speculation. I am forced to speculate that the Tree of Knowledge is symbolically connected to the Cross, and that the eating of the fruit is connected to killing Christ. Thus, in Adam, we've all killed Christ. It's a pretty big stretch. Most Christians will agree that we all have a part in killing Christ, as long as they don't think to hard about how they're involved.

At any rate, having committed the infinite harm of killing Christ, we deserve infinite punishment. How do you guys go about showing we deserve infinite punishment?

One of Annihilationism's better arguments is that there are several biblical images that portray the final state as one of complete harmony: God has reconciled all thing to himself, he rules over all, etc. Hell must ulimately be empty then, otherwise there are people who are not in complete harmony with God.

The standard counterargument against it is the lake of fire into which are thrown the Anti-Christ, the beast, and death who will suffer for ever and ever. When confronted with this, annihilationists generally point out that there are no people suffering for ever and ever, just these other things (usually taken to be systemic sin structures). When it is pointed out that people are indeed thrown into this lake of fire, they point out that it was intended for the Anti-Christ et al. and not for people. So though it may torture those things forever, it may easily consume a person (the same way that a punihsment designed for an adult might kill a small child).

Now, each part of that parry is fine by itself. But together it doesn't work at all. By conceding that the lake of fire punishes the Anti-Christ et al for all eternity, annihilationists can no longer claim the Complete Harmony argument, since the Anti-Christ et al are hardly in harmony in the final state.

Weirdly, I've only read one paper that calls the annihilationists on this count. Everyone else seems to let them get away with it. I have yet another compromise position that I use to wiggle my way out, but I've yet to see a good annihilationist defense of this point.

Traditionalists typically just assert that hell is harmonious with heaven, even if we don't understand how. All actual explanations of how this is so have seemed pretty weak to me.

How do you guys deal with the Complete Harmony argument?

Avoiding the plain meaning

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One of the traditionalist's strongest arguments is that annihilationists don't accept the plain meaning of words like "eternal" or "everlasting". And they're right. While some of the alternative readings of those verses are plausible, some are really stretching it--unacceptabily so in my opinion.

What really amuses me is that the annihilationists come back and make exactly the same argument against the traditionalists--that they don't accept the plain meaning of words like "destruction" and "perish". And they're right too. The traditionalist who demands the plain meaning of "eternal" will go out of their way to use an alternative meaning of "destroyed" and not notice at all that they're using a double-standard. Along the same vein, the annihilationist who demands a plain reading of "perish" has no problem using an odd meaning for "everlasting".


One of the reasons that I've settled on my position is that I think the plain meaning of all those words is right. Which implies that both positions are right. So I had to find a way to make both positions compatible with each other.

(wink here again. Just so you know.)

Traditionalists typically advance two arguments about suffering against annihilationists: 1) We merit infinite suffering (I'll probably deal with this point in a different post), and 2) People suffer differing levels of punishment in hell.

Point (1) is intended to prove that you can't have annihilationism since you can't suffer an infinitie amount without infinite time (again, I disagree, but that's for a different post). Point (2) is intended to show that annihilationism is false since there is only one result--annihilation without differentiation, and that contradicts the different levels of punishment shown in the Bible. (This point only works on annihilationists who believe that there is no period of suffereing before annihilation. It falls completely flat against those who do.)

Traditionalists run into trouble if they try to hold both (1) and (2). Basically, there are no real levels of punishment in infinite suffering. You might argue that person A's suffering is 5x more intense than person B's suffering. But when you multiply by infinity, it is exactly the same. 2 x infinity = 5 x infinity = 100 x infinity = infinity x infinity. So to argue that there are levels of punishment in infinite suffereing is to not understand infinity very well.

There are two defenses that I can see against the contradiction: 1) Cardinality. There really are some infinities that are larger than others. You could argue that Person A's suffering lasts for duration Aleph naught, while Person B's suffering lasts for Aleph prime. This strikes me as a distinction without a difference, but I suppose it would be technically true. 2) You could argue that suffering is qualitatively different at different levels--a pain that is quantitatively 5x worse is even worse in some uncountable way as well--it is a qualitatively worse pain.

I have never seen either argument made. Has anyone else?

The Annihilationism Debate

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(Note: this is wink writing this, not Jeremy. I know I haven't written a post in forever, so I'm warning you up front who I am.)

I'm currently writing (or more accurately, procrastinating from writing) a five page paper. The assignment is to take an issue about which Evangelicals might disagree, lay out both positions, and show why you take the position you do.

My plan is to discuss Hell: Annihilationism vs Eternal Conscious Suffering, and then conclude with an edited version of this post.

As is my habit, I've done far too much research for a short paper, and therefore have too much to say. Since I can't cram it all into the paper, some of it is going to come out here. Sorry.

The first thing I noticed about the debate was how shoddy it is, especially from the traditionalist side. Now, I think both sides have strong arguments and a few of the principals involved are terrific. But the average (mode) argument is pathetic.

Probably the most frustrating argument was when traditionalist would "refute" annihilationism by listing off a long string of verses that discuss hell. They would conclude that:
1) hell exists
2) annihilationism is therefore wrong
3) therefore, hell = eternal conscious suffering.
Now, while they do a pretty good job of proving (1), they don't do a thing to prove (2). It is as if (2) is a logical consequence of (1). Which it isn't.

Annihilationists don't dispute the existence of hell--they dispute the nature of hell. The argument above might work against most versions of Universalism, but it doesn't prove a thing against annihilationism.

The other majorly annoying thing about the average (mode) traditionalist argument was the assumption that annihilationists all gave up on inerrency. While that is certainly true of some, their assumption that you can't make a biblical argument for annihilationism was pretty maddening.

Really, the only traditionalist arguments that I found to be solid were the ones that were directly refuting John Stott. The rest were largely not worth reading. So if you want to read up on the subject, make sure that "John Stott" is one of your keywords or you may just end up pulling your hair out in frustration.


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