Saturday, October 03, 2009

Why I am not a universalist

Universalists interpret the Bible to mean that "eternal" punishment is just a long period of suffering for wicked people before they are converted and reconciled to God. My good friend Tom Talbott, professor of philosophy at Willamette University, thinks this. see this review of his book, which gives an account of how he argues.

I don't think his position is absurd. However, the direction of a sinful life is away from fellowship with God, and reversal of that direction that's got to be painful. You've got to swallow your pride and turn around. Because of that, I don't think we can deny the possibility of hell. If a person can sin once, they can keep sinning, and then God either has to reward evil, or punish it.

These discussions of hell make some valuable points.


Martin Gamble said...

Would you say that we could hope that everyone would be saved?

Gordon Knight said...

Painful reversals do happen, even in this finite limited life. God has resources we cannot even imagine, as well as resources we can imagine but are not exemplified for people now, not to mention infinite time.

Libertarian free will guarantees that All will not of necessity be saved. On the other hand, it is alsonot necessary that the Cubs will lose one game in the 2010 series, too. I will bet all I own on the cubs losing one game, and God is more powerful than the odds of the game of baseball.

"God has to either punish evil or reward it"

Why does God have to stop nudging people towards salvation? There may be punishment, but punishment for the sake of the punished, moving us foward.

Think prodigal son, writ large for the aeons.

Jim S. said...

You might want to check out The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment by Edward Fudge, who holds that hell is temporary. There's also Two Views of Hell a debate between Fudge and Robert Peterson (who holds the traditional view). I disagree with the universalist position, but it's worth reading. Both are available at

Victor Reppert said...

I don't see why you can't hope for the salvation of every person, though Satan would have to be a tough case.

Fr. John said...

This is an interesting debate between Talbott and Piper. I thought it was worth sharing:

unkle e said...

"I don't think we can deny the possibility of hell."

Of course Vic you haven't mentioned the middle possibility of "annihilationism", where (in essence) God gives each of us our choice. Those who love God, or who want to know him, find him (as Jesus promised); those who find the idea of God repugnant and believe death is the end of everything get exactly that. There are good reasons in the NT Greek to believe Jesus taught this view.

Steven said...

Maybe we can think of the whole issue in this way: hell, if it exists, is not punishment for sin at all, because Jesus took upon himself the punishment for sin due to every man, and thus God, being just, would not dish out double-justice. Hell, if it exists, is simply that place where creatures who did not want anything to do with God, who did not take advantage of the time that they had on earth to repent of their sins and so on, go and are separated from God. Not punished for sins, just separated.

Thus no one is damned and punished for sins, ultimately, but not everyone is saved (in a special sense) either.

I am not saying I believe this, because I don't, but this is a possibility and it is at least slightly attractive.

Rick Lannoye said...

What I find interesting is how the Universalists (while feeling they must accept every word of the gospels as we find them in the modern bible, just as Evangelicals do) have done a much better job than Evangelicals in understanding the actual teachings of Jesus, which make it impossible for him to have believed in (much less preached) that God intends to torture billions of people, for any length of time, much less for an eternity.

I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website:, but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

Jason Pratt said...

Some brief comments while passing through...

Victor: {{Universalists interpret the Bible to mean that "eternal" punishment is just a long period of suffering for wicked people before they are converted and reconciled to God.}}

That’s accurate in a way, but a number of us (including myself; plus Tom, and Robin Parry aka “Gregory MacDonald”, to some extent as well, though I don’t think they’re quite as gung-ho on this as I am) actually interpret “eonian” as an adjective referring back to God qualitatively. Pretty much every Christian theologian agrees that “life eonian” is qualitatively something much more than merely living forever and ever--a fate of the damned in any ongoing hopeless damnation theory, too! (Though not if annihilationism is true, of course.) But they aren’t described as having life eonian.

This is only one brief and rather obvious reason to consider “eonian” as being something other and more than a temporal quantitative adjective; there are a number of other reasons. Two advantages to interpreting that adjective qualitatively along the line of ‘from the essence of God’, though, are that, first, we don’t have to flip back and forth between “eonian” meaning a really long time (quantitatively) and “eonian” meaning never-ending (each of which meanings have strong examples worth keeping for use of that word in the scriptures); and second, it doesn’t really salt the scales in favor of universalism--not on the face of it anyway. (As just noted, even non-universalist theologians don’t usually think “eonian life” only means life that never stops.)

It does kick the question of universalism back to the level of God’s essential characteristics and intentions; but neither universalism nor non-universalism should be proposed in violation of those anyway.

{{Because of that, I don't think we can deny the possibility of hell.}}

Obviously, any universalist who affirms the reality of hell (hades, gehenna or both), isn’t denying the possibility of hell. But you probably meant we can’t deny the possibility of a never-ending hell.

And from a metaphysical perspective, many of us don’t. (I don’t, Tom doesn’t, Robin/”Gregory” doesn’t, for example.) This isn’t the same as affirming God will sooner or later just give up acting to lead those sinners to repentance, though.

What we do sometimes affirm, is that God has revealed His eventual total success at this in the scriptures, in various places and in various ways. (I currently do, though I was very wary about doing so until I had studied the matter sufficiently enough to conclude so; Tom and Robin, on the other hand, don’t go quite as far, only that the language sure seems suggestive of that revealed result.)

This doesn’t require denying other revelations on the topic, though, such as that Satan (and at least two other persons) won’t be repenting for at least eons of the eons. As you say, a tough case. {g}

Gordon Knight: {{Libertarian free will guarantees that All will not of necessity be saved.}}

I’m iffy about appealing to “libertarian” free will, as that’s sometimes conceptualized in a fashion putting the creature’s freedom on an ontological par with God (if inadvertently so). But within that qualification, I would agree, with an emphasis on the phrase “of necessity”. A future success revealed ahead of time is not (necessarily! {g}) the same sort of claim as that everyone shall by virtue of necessary principle be saved.

{{Think prodigal son, writ large for the aeons.}}

That’s a good analogy, though the parable as structured leaves out some important elements. (But that would be true in comparison with any fully systematic exegetic.)


Steven said...

I don't know if your argument from the gospels is very convincing.

The one text that I would consider universalism because of is Romans 5:19.

Jason Pratt said...

Unk: I think any Arminian proponent of Eternal Conscious Torment could still affirm that God gives each of us our choice; we don’t have an option to live free of the consequences of our choices in any case (even if we choose to wish we could. {wry g})

Consequently, annihilationism isn’t a middle possibility between traditional damnation and universalism in that sense. Indeed, someone who affirmed the Calvinistic notion that God never even intended to save some sinners from sin (and so Who certainly has never even provided them any ability of having any choice to repent at all), could still consider the end result to be annihilation eventually.

Annihilationism agrees with universalism against never-ending torment, but agrees with ECT against any continuing hope for some sinners. It isn’t so much a middle position, as one of three triangle point options. Nothing wrong with being a triangle point option, but it isn’t the same as a moderate or inclusive position between two exclusive options.

Steven: if the sinners aren’t ontologically separated from God, then God has to be continuing to act to keep them in existence; and it would be hard to construe that as being something other than punishment for their sins, so long as there was some inconvenience for them (no matter how light or heavy) as a consequence of their refusal to repent and God’s insistence on keeping them in existence in that state of inconvenience.

If the sinners are ontologically separated from God, then either they’re annihilated (by God’s active choice, not incidentally), or they now exist dependent ontologically on something other than God for their existence (themselves, Satan, a non-theistic Nature, whatever). The former obviously still counts as punishment by God; the latter still counts if their transferrence to that state is dependent on God from the outset (and if it’s inconvenient to them at all), but would be a denial of any kind of supernaturalistic theism. Not a problem if supernaturalistic theism isn’t true, of course; but impossible if supernaturalistic theism is true.

So it’s probably a good idea you don’t believe it, actually. {g} (Unless you think supernaturalistic theism isn’t true. But then the debate goes back to more fundamental theological issues.)

Rick: to be fair, Jesus’ response (both parts of it) probably isn’t original to the Lucan text, although they do have fairly wide circulation. (Yet not nearly as widespread as the remark making a direct comparison with Elijah in verse 54, which also nevertheless probably isn’t original to the text--though I expect the setting is in fact supposed to be along the western edge of the Galilean/Samarian border, near Mt. Carmel.)

Jesus rebuking them for their suggestion, however, is virtually certain to be original to the text. Just not the actual words of His reply.

Rick: {{True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death}}

Um... I make a point of keeping track of such things; and, frankly, I can’t recall any such probable textual adulterations. His remarks on Gehenna and Hades per se, as well as on punishment (and being Himself the punisher), are pretty textually solid.

Still, you’re welcome to provide some examples. {s!}


Steven said...

How does it follow at all from the fact that God sustains men who have decided not to accept God's forgiveness, and live lives worthy of the gospel, in some "distant place" removed from wherever heaven is, that therefore he is punishing them for their sins?

He's not punishing them at all. Imagine a place where completely depraved people are no longer restrained by God and allowed to express the various evils of their hearts forever. God keeps them in existence, surely, but does not bother them, does not restrain them, and so on. He puts them on one world and those who were saved in another world. He's not punishing anyone there, but they sure are creating hell for themselves.

That is one possible look on it.


The vain belief in man's free will demands a hell.

However there is another option.

Jason Pratt said...

JRP: {{it would be hard to construe that as being something other than punishment for their sins, so long as there was some inconvenience for them (no matter how light or heavy) as a consequence of their refusal to repent and [as a consequence of] God’s insistence on keeping them in existence in that state of inconvenience.}}

Steve: {{How does it follow at all from the fact that God sustains men who have decided not to accept God's forgiveness, and live lives worthy of the gospel, in some "distant place" removed from wherever heaven is, that therefore he is punishing them for their sins?}}

It wouldn’t follow at all, of course, so long as that “distant place removed from wherever heaven is” is a place with only conveniences for them and no inconveniences, i.e. so long as it’s heaven. Duh. {wry g}

It would, however, follow if the factor I mentioned more than once, is reckoned into the account: are they being inconvenienced as a consequence of both their insistence on sinning and God’s insistence on keeping them in existence in that state of inconvenience?

For example, are they being inconvenienced by being put by God and kept in existence by God, in a place where they are causing each other to suffer hellishly due to their insistence on sinning? Then why is this not considered punishment by God (and obviously an ongoing punishment, too), for their sins? It’s definitely an inconvenience; it’s definitely being done to them by God as some kind of consequence to their sins; we consider such a consequence punishment in human society, even when it’s only temporary.

And they are being restrained by God--otherwise they would be allowed to do things like rape, seduce and otherwise abuse innocent (or relatively innocent) creatures who don’t have sufficient power to resist them, just like they used to be able to do. God can create an illusion of that, of course--though why the Righteous One would forever cater to their perversions like that is beyond my ability to imagine--but even that is still a restriction from allowing them to dictate terms of reality to Him (even if they can’t themselves be Him, which at least some of them are going to want, too.)

This is aside from observing that the virtually unanimous scriptural testimony is that God is personally and responsibly active in punishing evildoers, including in hades and/or gehenna, whether hopefully or hopelessly; and it’s aside from observing that at the end of RevJohn, at least, the impenitent wicked are not sequestered off in some pocket dimension cut off from contact with “heaven”: they cannot enter the New Jerusalem while still being sinners, but God makes provision for their redemption, and not only exhorts them to repent and be redeemed by Him but expects the Church to continue joining Him in this evangelization, too.


Unfortunately, none of us are free to believe that option. {g} Or, maybe we are; but then, so much for that option.


Steven said...

If you want to call that punishment, that's fine and dandy; go ahead. It doesn't seem like punishment to me.

Jason Pratt said...

{{It doesn't seem like punishment to me.}}

Because...? I've addressed each element of your example already, I think. Which part did I overlook?

Alternately, what would seem like punishment to you, in principle, by contrast to your example?


Robert said...

Jack wrote:

"The vain belief in man's free will demands a hell."

Jack what do you mean by this statement?



Robert, A sovereign God takes all responsibility. I believe with the Atonement God said to man, you can blame me for your plight and I suffer your plight with you.

Surely that blame turns to blessing when all is said and done, eh?


Jason Pratt said...


I agree that God takes (and insists upon!) authoritative responsibility; and so suffers our plight with us. But this does not abrogate subordinate responsibility; much less does it justify subordinate irresponsibility. If God's children were only puppets without even derivative free will (thus without their own, though derivative, responsibility for their actions), there would be no need (much less any point) to God suffering our plight with us. (Or instead of us. Or even at all.)

Relatedly, while the scriptures (OT and NT both) occasionally have things to say about God's own authoritative responsibility in regard to sin and tragedy, the scriptures (OT and NT both) also have vast oceanloads of things to say about the personal responsibility of sinners for their actions. (Even literally 'oceanloads' in a way. {g} The oceans are a common metaphor for the prison of rebel spirits, in OT and NT scripture both.)

I strenuously disrecommend omitting either factor in one's theology, whether systematic (exegesis from scripture) or metaphysic (logical analysis of principles).



God's foreknowledge destroys the notion that we have freewill. Either He KNOWS, or He DOESN'T -

pick one, Jason Pratt ;-)

Jason Pratt said...

No problem. I reject the heresy of God being only part of the natural order of things and so constrained to either having only fore-knowledge (seeing ahead linearly from where He happens to be at the moment on the timeline) or else having no real omniscience.

True, if I was a Mormon (for example) I might have to pick one of your options. But since I'm a supernaturalistic theist instead, then I reject both of them, while calling "false dilemma".

God acts in ontological transcendence to Nature, in order for Nature to even keep existing at all; consequently He also (immanently) has direct and active knowledge of all actual (and I suppose all hypothetical) states of existence within the natural system. He simply sees us doing whatever we do at every point in space-time, and is already acting in relation to all of this at every point in space-time; consequently, there is no problem with Him acting at time x in regard to what He sees happening at time x+1--His action being a whole integration with the spatio-temporal system 'in the first place' (ontologically speaking).

The real problem of free will or not, has nothing to do with a linear temporal dilemma (if supernaturalistic theism is true. Of course, if you don't agree supernat-theism is true, then we have more fundamentally metaphysical disagreements before we even get to the question of omniscience in relation to the possibility of derivative free will.)

The real problem of derivative free will involves the continuing action of God in sustaining the reality of a derivative system at every point of that system's space-time. Which ends up being a debate between the truth of privative aseity (God simply existing statically uncaused) and positive aseity (God existing self-caused.) Without going into all the technicals involved, this ends up being a debate between the truth of a merely monotheistic supernaturalistic theism, and at least binitarian theism (God self-begetting, God self-begotten), where the self-sacrificial action of God for the sake of the continuing existence of an interpersonal unity is intrinsically essential to the very existence of God (and thus all subordinate reality, too.)

The overly-short way to put it, is that if orthodox Christian theism is true, then God sacrifices Himself in order for not-God entities to exist, and that would include entities of derivative free will: children of God, made in His image. In fact the whole point to creating a not-God system of reality at all would be to extend the reality of interpersonal union: "that love may increase", in Christian parlance, "and that of the increase of His kingdom there would never be an ending." God wouldn't have to necessarily create, but if He does create then this will be the goal, in accordance with His own intrinsic and necessary self-characteristics.

All of which is working at the metaphysics somewhat backward, though. In a logical analysis to a conclusion, the presumption of human free will (even if only derivatively so) comes first. The moment you expect me to treat you as a rational entity making an argument, I can either accept that you are and so treat you coherently that way; or reject that you are (in which case there is no point trying to actually reason anything with you).

Once that's on the board, the question is: what metaphysical world-view (or worldviews) doesn't contradict the presumption necessary for real argument?

Free will is acknowledged (if only tacitly) to be real first; or else there is no rational discussion between us. Period.

So, should I treat you as a real person (with at least derivative free will)? Or not?

If not, be sure to let me know, so I won't waste time discussing things with what amounts to a Furbee.


This comment has been removed by the author.

Jason, you make God effect instead of cause.

The belief in "free will" is born of a carnal desire, adding man's part to his salvation thus negating grace. It is all God as man is made vain, futile and frustrated.(Rom 8:20)

Of course the "free will" belief is part of the pre-ordained fall each man must share and experience, before graceful rest occurs.


God is both cause and effect ever lifting creation into higher realms of Himself. What a wondrous God, that reconciles all to Himself and raises it even higher through the experience.

Far from the terroristic and torturous despot some paint Him to be.

Jason Pratt said...

Jack: {{Jason, you make God effect instead of cause.}}

I'm a little fuzzy about where in all my talk about God actively causing effects, I ever presented God as being an effect instead of a cause. Even when I pointed out the connections of positive aseity to orthodox trinitarian theism, I specifically called God self-causing. What part of self-causing involves God not being a cause?!--or what part of anything I wrote involves God being an effect of anything other than His own causation!?

(Notably you didn't bother to quote me anywhere as an example.)

By the way, at least one part of Romans 8 must also be born of St. Paul's "carnal desire" "adding man's part to his salvation and thus negating grace", since even in Rom 8 (not to say elsewhere in Romans, not to say elsewhere in his other epistles) Paul affirms the personal responsibility of sinners, both in sin and in penitent cooperation with God: those who act in accord with the flesh set their minds on the flesh; those who act in accord with the Spirit set their minds on the Spirit. The mind set on the flesh is not subjecting itself to the law of God, and indeed is not even able to do so; the Spirit enables us to subject ourselves to the Spirit.

True, most of Rom 8 is talking only about God's side of the relationship, which Paul always makes the priority in any case. But even parts of Rom 8 involve the personal responsibility of the derivative man. That responsibility can never trump God's authoritative responsibility (even in our sin; where sin exceeds, grace hyper-exceeds, for not as the sin is the grace, as Paul writes elsewhere.) But that responsibility still exists.

Meanwhile, you forgot to mention whether I am supposed to treat you as though you (or maybe only 'you') actually have free will or not. Please be clear, so I will know whether there is any point trying to talk with 'you' or not. I wouldn't want to sin by treating a mere spambot illusion of a person as actually being a child of God, beloved by God. (Or, if it isn't a sin to treat a human animal as though he is really a person instead of only a biological puppet, at least it's a waste of the time that has been given to me that I could be spending elsewhere, hopefully serving God, loving actual persons as the Father and Son and Holy Spirit all repeatedly command us to in scripture, treating them fairly and justly, etc.)



Jason writes, "the mind set on the flesh is not subjecting itself to the law of God, and indeed is not even able to do so; the Spirit enables us to subject ourselves to the Spirit."

Well there you go. Out of your own mouth, Jason.

Lord willing, we're gonna get you yet, to see how your theology makes ruin of His grace-full atonement. The carnal man created in vanity ever thinks his efforts are necessary in the saving of himself.

One day you will recognize Christ as the Sabbath and you will rest from your efforts. This phenomenon is called surrender and only One has the ability to do so. Christ's garden experience accomplished this. And we were in Christ at that moment, when Our precious Saviour uttered "not My will but Thine be done."
And guess what we can take these words of Christ all the way back before the foundations for the Lamb was slain then, when God sacrificed Himself. This is Agape, and God, "All In All" and how few know it.

"...out of Him and through Him and into Him is the all: to Him be the glory into the eons! Amen!" (Romans 11:36, CLT)

God bears the ultimate responsibility for all men and all their deeds (Rom. 11:32; I Cor. 11:12).

"For who has resisted His will?" (Rom 19:9)

"For it is GOD who works in you both to WILL and to DO of His good pleasure." (Php 2:13)

Bless you my friend. When God opens the veil for you to see His absolute sovereignty as the "ALL in ALL" then you will see it. Such are the ways of the Sovereign God, who is both ONE and ALL.


Jason Pratt said...

{{Well there you go. Out of your own mouth, Jason.}}

More like, out of St. Paul's mouth; but you forgot to put that in context with the other verse I quoted out of St. Paul's mouth.

I keep both contexts in mind. Whereas, clearly when you quote verses you only bother to keep in mind one part of the relationship while ignoring the other.

Admittedly, you're keeping in mind the most important part (such as when you quote "For it is GOD who works in you both to WILL and to DO of His good pleasure.") But that doesn't excuse ignoring the other part as if it doesn't exist (such as when you forget to mention that Phil 2:13 connects back to Phil 2:12, where Paul begins that statement by saying "with fear and trembling you be effecting your own salvation".

Neither Paul, nor any other Biblical author, nor Jesus by report, thought that acknowledging (and even sometimes outright stressing) the personal responsibility of the sinner "made ruin of God's grace-full atonement". And neither do I. That's because we also keep in mind the authoritative priority of God (as stressed by Paul in that second part of his statement--the part you quoted). But we can do that while not ignoring the derivative responsibility of the human person, too.

Or, put another way: if God Almighty is not a carnal man created in vanity when He appeals to carnal men to do the right thing and repent of their sins and cooperate personally with Him, as part of a fall that God Almighty Himself had to go through before realizing that man has no free will (and thus no contribution to man's salvation at all), thereby voiding His own grace-full atonement with us; then there's at least a possibility that I'm not doing the wrong thing by recognizing and acknowledging, with God, the derivative ethical responsibility of mankind, both in sin and in repentance, under God (including under God's own authoritative responsibility even for the sin of men and angels--which, if you knew me better, you would know that I also affirm).

Love is a mutually self-sacrificial cooperation of persons, John, even when one of those persons has vastly more authority in the relationship, and even when He first loves us. The distinction of responsible persons isn't rebellion; the rebellion of persons is rebellion. Without multiple persons there couldn't even be love.

(Which, incidentally, is why Orthodox Jews think that in order for God to love at all, He had to first create other persons, like for example Israel. Orthodox Christians understand that God's love was already and eternally fully self-sufficient. His creation of derivative persons was and is even more gracious than they, as mere monotheists, can conceive.)



, out your own salvation with fear and trembling. v.12

.... the word “fear” can also mean “strong emotion relating to reverence”. Combined with the word “trembling” which was said to mean “trembling with JOY”.

That is to say, that we can walk out our salvation with strong feelings of JOY and REVERENCE so much so as to cause us to TREMBLE with HAPPINESS.

The reason for such a strong reaction is because our salvation is not dependant on our self motivated efforts, rather “for it is God who is working in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” v13. As such, we are told, “because of this do ye also rejoice and joy with me.” v18

With this view of the verse there is the feeling of REJOICING AND JOY in respect to our salvation.
As opposed to the feeling of ANXIETY and QUAKING IN APPREHENSION in respect to our salvation. The doctrines of the terroristic hellfire God carry with them, many a negative emotion. After the spurious "eternal torment" doctrine dies, the hard negative emotions will follow also.

With rejoicing and joy,

Jason Pratt said...

John: {{That is to say, that we can walk out our salvation with strong feelings of JOY and REVERENCE so much so as to cause us to TREMBLE with HAPPINESS.}}

I don't disagree; but you've rather missed the salient point for why I quoted that verse. The "fear and trembling" part wasn't why I quoted it. The "work out your own salvation" part, was why I quoted it.

Not incidentally, this was also the part that I meant you were ignoring in your application of (only) the second half of that relationship. My comment wasn't about "fear and trembling" at all. It was about ignoring the personal responsibility of the sinner in repentance and salvation: a personal responsibility acknowledged and even occasionally stressed by practically all Biblical authors, up to and including Jesus by report.

{looking for a discussion on "work out your own salvation" and its meaning in your post} {not finding it} {not surprised}



mdgantt said...

I believe that everyone is going to heaven (; also see The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven: However, I do not believe that "eternal punishment" as it's described in the post. Rather, I believe the term refers to the judgments of God which are in the earth. In other words, hell is a present life, not an afterlife, reality. I hope you will read and consider.