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Theological Defenses of Hell: Freewill theism

posted by Scot McKnight

GregMacd.jpgThe problems for hell are the issues of justice (hell can’t fit the crime of sin by finite beings) and the issue of joy (the saved can’t be eternally blissful knowing loved ones are suffering in hell). Gregory Macdonald’s book The Evangelical Universalist  next describes how some theologians have responded to these problems, and he examines both Calvinism and free will theism — in the forms of open theism and Molinism. Today’s post focuses on the freewill defense of hell, and “Macdonald” thinks this freewill theory actually leads toward universalism.

As with others in this series, I am trying to present the author’s view and not trying to show where and how I might disagree. I sketch, we discuss.
The major issue here is that God’s will is not always done. God’s will is that all humans freely choose to accept Christ. God loves all humans and desires all humans to make that choice, but God will not and does not force salvation on humans. God wants them to choose freely. If people reject Christ and choose hell, it is their choice. Hell, therefore, is not God’s problem but the human problem.
Big question that will emerge in the post today: Is there choice after deathDo you think the God of love and grace and mercy would sustain that mercy toward those who have rejected Christ after death? At issue here is this question: What kind of God is necessary to believe in an eternal hell?
One way freewill theists defend hell is with what is called “open theism,” but this view is not treated extensively in the book. A few comments. Open theism operates with the view that God’s creation was a risk because God does not completely know what will happen. This is sometimes called “risky providence” (24) and part of the risk is humans choosing hell. Human freedom mucks things up. “Macdonald,” or Robin Parry, argues against open theists because God’s risk would be too great if he knew how awful the consequences would be — the majority not choosing Christ. In general, the open theist sees life in this world with God being the Skilled chessplayer who can beat the novice.

Next Parry moves to Molinism, a way of explaining both God’s sovereignty and human libertarian freedom. God, in this view, created a world in which a maximum number of humans would choose Christ.  Parry’s main argument is simply that if Molinism is true then God, being omnipotent, can actualize the logically possible world in which all people freely choose (in a libertarian sense) to be saved. This allows for libertarian freedom and universal salvation. But, if it is suggested that such a possible world might not be possible for God to actualize then Parry’s fall-back argument is that a loving God would prefer to cause sinners who continued to resist him to freely choose him (in a compatibilist sense of ‘freely choose’) than to send them to Hell for eternity. In other words, libertarian freedom is good but it is not the most important thing in the universe.
This stuff gets complex so here’s another way of putting it: 
God prefers a World (W) in which any people who do not accept salvation in Christ freely (in a libertarian sense) will nevertheless accept it freely (in a compatibilist sense)
to a World (W2) in which those who do not accept salvation in Christ freely (in a libertarian sense) are condemned to hell for eternity (27).
That is, God is more like the first than the second sent of conditions. Further, God would more likely provoke faith than let humans choose hell for eternity. As I understand Parry, hell is a condition God uses to provoke faith.
Thomas Talbott, a Christian universalist, argues that no human being can make a fully informed decision and reject the gospel. Hell, then, might be the place many come to a fully informed decision and, in Parry’s view, one must maintain the possibility that hell will be emptied by choice.
Next, Robin Parry argues “for” universalism in the Bible … next week….


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Willie B.

posted December 24, 2009 at 12:48 am


one more very important question could be added to these concerning Macdonald’s freewill theism and hell.
Does God do everything that he can in order to bring a person to faith in Christ??? Does God use all of his resources, his divine resources, His omni-resourcefulness, to bring about a person to faith. If not, why not?
It seems to me that God does not need to override a person’s free will if He really desires their salvation. He would still be capable of achieving his goals of saving them through other means.
-and about post=mortem opportunities for salvation-does the arbitrariness of the time of death count as an argument for such a position?



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Steve Bird

posted December 24, 2009 at 3:59 am


Interesting related discussion from St Paul’s theological centre.



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Sean

posted December 24, 2009 at 4:16 am


If God used all the resources available to Him in order to bring a person to faith in Christ, it would (possibly) be coercive, and thus contrary to God’s nature.
At stake in this discussion is not only God’s desire, but God’s character and how he treats those created in his image, with dignity.



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Gregory MacDonald

posted December 24, 2009 at 5:49 am


Sean (comment 3),
may I ask you whether you think that death is the cut-off point for ‘choosing God’? What might God’s character suggest about this question?
Robin



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JoanieD

posted December 24, 2009 at 7:54 am


I would like to think that there is a choice after death. I am halfway through Robin’s book so I don’t yet know how he deals with that issue. Yet, Christian tradition has it that when Jesus died, he descended into hell and freed the God-fearing, God-loving people who were there. (Or was it ALL the people?) If that is so, than that would indicate that the “status” of the people who died at that time was not permanent and was capable of change. But I suppose some would say that we do not know that is what happened when Jesus died. The Bible DOES tell us, though, that many people who had died came to life and walked among the living. I wish we knew more about that and more about whether they remembered anything about being dead!
Jesus asked the Father to forgive the people who were killing him because they didn’t know what they were doing. I propose that NONE of us really know what we are doing and therefore Jesus would ask that the Father forgive us as well. It is HUMANS who feel that some people should not be forgiven (think Hilter, Stalin, etc.)and I can understand that feeling. When I hear about children being abused, especially by clergy, I think there has to be a special place in hell for people like that! But God understands so much more than we do. The people that commit these heinous sins and crimes have to be miserably lacking in the knowledge and awareness of the presence of God. They are to be pitied. If there is a part of me that can have a bit of pity for them, can I not imagine that God has pity towards and mercy for them? It does seem as if they would have to experience some pain upon their death as the full realization of how they behaved is fully revealed to them. But, God being love, perhaps in the very end, even these people are included within the embrace of God. If we all end up with resurrection bodies and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven and all is renewed, then it may be that people who did such heinous things will somehow not be as “blessed” as those who did God’s will more completely while in our first bodies. I don’t know. I guess I won’t know until I am on that other side of life.
Pray for me and for all of us that we will know and do God’s will here and now.



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Andrew Arndt

posted December 24, 2009 at 8:59 am


To answer this question: “What kind of God is necessary to believe in an eternal hell?” I might say, probably not the God who “searches for his lost sheep UNTIL he finds them.” And to echo Will Willimon’s sentiment (who was also echoing Barth) on the subject, I’m not a universalist, but it seems that God may be. We simply don’t know how long “until” is.
But on the issue of “free will” and what constitutes that “freedom”, I know that as a parent, part of my job is to use my wit and wisdom crack through the stubbornness of my kids, molding their desires so that rather than freely desiring the bad they freely desire the good. Their “freedom” is not surrendered. Rather, it is shaped and, in a sense, gifted to them. My kids of course sometimes persist in the stubbornness, but I’m convinced that if I were wiser and wittier, I could crack through and shape that will towards what is good. Seems to me that an infinitely wise and infinitely loving God would find a way “in” to the will that is closed off from him, even if it took “forever”.



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Helen

posted December 24, 2009 at 9:52 am


I can’t see how a fully informed person would choose against God, since God is love. In fact God doesn’t have to be all that great if the other choice is eternal conscious torment.
So all God has to do is give a person enough information to make an informed choice.
Or if this is a spiritual issue, all he has to do spiritually enlighten them so that they are not limited to a choice based on lack of spiritual enlightenment.
I don’t understand the dignity argument at all. What’s dignified about being in eternal conscious torment? No-one in pain that is significant enough is able to preserve their dignity.



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Jacob

posted December 24, 2009 at 10:10 am


I really appreciate the attempt to put so much of one’s philosophical energy into making God a totally loving being regarding the hell issue. Too bad both compatibilism and molinism are incoherent. That’s why I go open-theism. But there are open theist ways of making sense out of the hell issue, I think. One could go with annihilationism, or a theory of hell which is not unified (i.e. God deals with people on their own terms and perhaps annihilates some, keeps some in hell for a while and then sends them to heaven, etc), or bite the bullet of having God eventually force people in hell to go to heaven.



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dopderbeck

posted December 24, 2009 at 10:25 am


The argument as it’s presented here assumes that World (W) is a possible world. Why? The evidence seems to be that World (W) is not a possible world. We live now in a world of compatibilist free will, and in this world some people (e.g., Hitler) choose to be thoroughly evil.
BTW — “libertarian” free will is a red herring. There is no such thing as libertarian free will in any real universe. We are always constrained in our choices — by history, genetics, biology, circumstances, the choices of others, and so on. If there is such a thing as “free will,” it must only be compatibilist free will.



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dopderbeck

posted December 24, 2009 at 10:27 am


Jacob (#8) — I think the critique of open theism is correct: you end up with a God who negligently unleashes a world in which great evil could result that He ultimately can’t control or justify.



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BrianH

posted December 24, 2009 at 10:43 am


I’ve been following this discussion with great interest. Although I would describe myself as being in more of the free-will theist camp, I’ve got a few questions that I’ve been wrestling with:
First – though I take comfort from the passage about Jesus’ proclaiming to the spirits in prison (interesting choice of term there), and think that the position that there is choice after death has definite strong points, does that diminish the importance of what we do in this life? Not just in the hyper-Calvinist “why bother evangelizing if God has already chosen who’s in and who’s out”, but in the sense of God’s purpose in creation itself, and for the span of this life.
Second – and apologies if this is slightly off the two questions posed, though I think it is relevant in light of the discussion of free will: have we made too much of certain ideas of ‘choice’? What of those human beings whose developmental limitations mean that they will not (in this lifetime) be able to “choose” to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior in the way that many Evangelicals describe it (understand the proclamation, repent, etc.) If we believe that God is good and just, then it does not seem too far out of bounds to believe that God will do right by all who have not had the opportunity to make a genuine choice as we would define it in this lifetime. (and yes, the paradox from my first question remains…)



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Joey

posted December 24, 2009 at 10:44 am


Jacob and dopderbeck,
“the open theist sees life in this world with God being the Skilled chessplayer who can beat the novice.”
Though this is true in a generalization sort of way, it isn’t exactly what an Open Theist sees. They (well some schools of OT) believe that God is perfectly creative, omnipresent, and that He knows His children perfectly so he is a bit more informed than any chess player could ever be. His will is still accomplished He just isn’t predetermining how, rather He is working with His creation in perfect love – more like a dance than an obstacle coarse.
I’m not an Open Theist (mostly because I don’t know what I am) but I’m not sure that this critique is without holes. I think that because of things like God’s sovereignty and omniscience and omnipresence He is well aware of the risk and in order for there to be a truly loving relationship between He and His creation (which there must be or it isn’t “love”) he takes that “risk” – though because He is God it isn’t particularly risky. Just my thoughts.



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John W Frye

posted December 24, 2009 at 11:10 am


I still trip over Perry’s opening comment about justice–the eternal punishment does not fit the finite crime of sin. There is a dimension or aspect of human beings that co-mingles with the Eternal. To deny this is to deny any *relationship* with God whatsoever. Who are we to pronounce that this aspect/dimension can also sin and thus incur eternal consequences of *just* punishment. We not simply talking about the 80 pound weakling who wants to play line-backer for the New Orlean Saints as if human finiteness is not capable of intersecting with and participating in eternity. Thus, hell, is the consequence of unrepentant sin.



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John W Frye

posted December 24, 2009 at 11:12 am


Oops! The comment #13 should read “Who we are to pronounce…CANNOT sin…” It also should read as a question.



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Helen

posted December 24, 2009 at 12:24 pm


Jacob (8): or bite the bullet of having God eventually force people in hell to go to heaven.
I wonder how God would force them to leave hell…hmmm, maybe with torture?



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John Lunt

posted December 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm


It seems to me this discussion is academic. Can humans who are finite truly know “justice” the way that God does. Are we told not to lean on our own understanding. Aren’t we further told that his thoughts and ways are above our thoughts and ways.
I have yet to hear a convincing argument that hell is not eternal. I believe the weight of the scriptures certainly leans there and to say it doesn’t requires some theological gymnastics.
You assume that there is no way to have joy in heaven knowing that loved ones are suffering in hell. I will say that I too have a hard time with this, but I also know that God does nothing unjust and we will see his incredible justice, his incredible love, and his eternal goodness and that will overwhelm everything else.



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Helen

posted December 24, 2009 at 6:58 pm


John, your comments remind me: I don’t see how people could be happy in heaven knowing loved ones are in hell; but even more, I can’t see how God can be happy with many people in conscious torment in hell. I can’t see how to reconcile that with “God is love”.



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J. Random

posted December 25, 2009 at 2:02 am


John Frye:
“There is a dimension or aspect of human beings that co-mingles with the Eternal… Thus, hell, is the consequence of unrepentant sin.”
So why can’t, say, 80 finite yet eternally-co-mingled years of sinning be justly punished by, say, 80 finite yet eternally-co-mingled years of hell? In the same way a finite lifetime justifies an eternal punishment, an eternal crime could be addressed within finite punishment. If ‘co-mingling’ can work, it can work both ways.



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Your Name

posted December 25, 2009 at 8:52 am


I thought that 80 years of sinning was already justly punished by however many hours on the cross and 3 days in the grave? Why go through all the mental gymnastics on this? why not just assume that when Jesus said “it is finished” that all sin for all mankind was fully taken care of? That would indeed by good news.



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John W Frye

posted December 25, 2009 at 11:50 am


I think comments like “God can’t be happy knowing that people are eternally suffering in hell” is a simply a projection of how we as humans might feel. Arguing from the lesser (human happiness) to the greater (what makes God “happy”) is silly.



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Helen

posted December 27, 2009 at 9:19 am


John (20): Arguing from the lesser (human happiness) to the greater (what makes God “happy”) is silly.
John, when you read about Jesus in the gospels would you say he had human emotions? Is Jesus God?
If so then isn’t denying God has human emotions more silly than believing he has them?



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JAMES FLETCHER

posted April 9, 2011 at 10:25 am


FIRST,IF THERE WAS NOT A HELL,YOU WOULD HAVE TO CREATE ONE FOR THE NEROS,HITLERS,AND JESSY JAMESES OF THIS WORLD BECAUSE OF A SENSE OF JUSTICE AND MORALITY WE ALL POSSES TO SOME EXTENT. SAY WE ALL DID COLLECTIVELY MAKE IT INTO HEAVEN. WHAT WOULD THAT DO TO THE QUALITY OF LIFE IN HEAVEN WITH ALLTHE EVIL THAT MANKIND UNLEASHES ON EACH OTHER. SECONDLY JESUS WEPT. WHAT GREATER ATTESETATION TO HIS HUMANITY. THIRDLY,I AM WHAT WOULD TERM A FUTURIST. THIS FURTHERS MY BELIEF IN PREDESTINATION,LIMITED ATONEMENT,GODS TOTAL CONTROL OVER ALL HISTORY. I BASE THIS ALL AS WELL AS HIS OMNISCIENCE IN ALL THINGS AND TO THR TRUEST SENSE OF THE WORD,ON THE BOOK OF REVELATION. I BELIEVE ALL OF HISTORY IS ALREADY WRITTEN AHEAD OF TIME AND COMPLETE DOWN TO THE LAST DETAIL. THERE IS A FUTURE YOU AND A FUTURE ME ALREADY IN ETERNITY.ONE MUST THINK BEYOND THE TIME LINE TO PERCEIVE THE TRUTH.FREE WILL IS A PLEASANT ILLUSION GIVEN SO THAT ONE FEELS IN CONTROL OVER THEIR DESTINY.FREE WILL WOULD CONFLICT WITH GOD BEING IN TOTAL CONTROL OVER ALL THINGS.READ REVELATION AND LET GOD BE GOD.WHO HAS BEEN HIS CONCELLOR AND WHO CAN SAY TO HIM,WHAT DOEST THOU?HE IS GOD ALL BY HIMSELF.,AND BESIDES THE THERE ARE NO OTHER GODS.TO GOD BE THE GLORY.



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