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Saturday, May 21, 2011


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Thank you for the stimulating post. I am very much inclined to accept your conclusion, that we are in ourselves in some respect impotent to merit eternal life, but I have problems with your argument.

You write that "the punishment must fit the crime" but surely this can be taken to imply that we can merit sempiternal punishment as much as it can be taken to imply that we cannot. For a sin against God offends against the infinite dignity of God, and an offence is graver in proportion to the dignity of the offended. Therefore, since only what is infinite is proportionate to what is infinite, a sin against God is in some respect infinitely grave. But punishment ought to be proportionate to the gravity of the act it punishes, wherefore a sin against God merits a punishment infinite in some respect. But sempiternal damnation is such a punishment. Therefore, sempiternal damnation for a sin against God is justified. That's a rather rough draft, but I don't think it contains any irremovable fallacies or too-wide gaps.

So, I'm left in a quandary: reject my argument, deny your conclusion about meriting eternal life, or find some point of disanalogy between an everlasting Hell and an everlasting Heaven.

Paul Manata recently sketched an argument that the proportionality objection isn't necessarily true. http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-universalism-gets-everyone-out-of.html

preliminary note: I am lapsed Christian. The question of everlasting punishment was one I dealt with early in my life, and I still find my early answer compelling. I could only benefit from your wisdom and commentary - readers as well as blog authors.

The New Testament seems to avoid the question of justice - and rightly so. Union with God is not a reward for good things done, but a process which culminates with the releasing of all sin from the soul. As C.S. Lewis put it:

"All the rabbit in us is to disappear-the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy."

Since we have free will, such a purging cannot happen without fully letting go of sin - without fully embracing God through Christ, as the Christian would say.

And, on my reading of the new testament, Gehenna is a place of everlasting separation from God through the "second-death." The specific scriptures elude me now, but I always thought that it strongly suggested, not eternal punishment, but eternal death. The person wails, gnashes his teeth, and then is no more.

It seems to me that this discussion sees us having crawled way out on a speculative limb and perhaps needing to hitch our way back a bit. I’m thinking specifically about the need to have a more precise understanding than I have of the thesis that the punishment should fit the crime and the reward fit the good deed without slipping into some simple version of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Then too there seems to be a need for a more developed understanding of the relationship between justice and mercy (whether human or divine); while I’m at it, it seems we need a more nuanced understanding than I have of forgiveness (whether human or divine).

(Am I right that, though English has the one-syllable, one-word expressions “sin” and “crime,” it has no corresponding one-syllable, one-word expressions for the contraries of sin and crime? If so, why? "Good deed" seems somehow lacking.)

Perhaps the Beatific Vision is not a reward, strictly speaking, but rather the fulfillment of human nature. If this is the case, there is no injustice in even infants, who have done neither good nor bad, receiving the Vision.

This was the answer of Gregory of Nyssa to a similarly posed question. Gregory argues that the Beatific Vision is a reward in an improper sense, analogous to how we see a man is 'rewarded' with good eyesight, simply for taking his eye-medicine. (This allows him to reconcile his position with the Gospels, and other places where the afterlife is spoken of as a reward.)

Gregory's *On the Premature Death of Infants*, where he explains his position, can be found below.



That's a plausible response. I suppose it comes down to what makes a crime like murder wrong. Is it wrong because it violates a divine command ("Thou shalt not kill") or it wrong because killing is wrong in itself whether or not God commands it. If the former, then your case has some plausibility: to disobey God is to offend a being of infinite dignity. If the latter, then the wrongness consists not in offending God bu in violating a moral ought. We are in the vicinity of the Euthyphro Paradox.

How could a supposedly impassible God be offended by what measly creatures do? That's another puzzle. But even if God can be offended, how can sempiternal ( a better term than my 'eternal') punishment be just? My moral intuitions tell me that it cannot be just. We human beings are confused, ignorant, pushed hither and thither by our passions, etc. Perhaps if we had the lucidity of a Lucifer we could be held totally responsible. But our wretchedness is a mitigating factor.

These remarks are quick and disjointed, but perhaps you see what I'm driving at.

Thanks for the comment.

Dr. Vallicella,

Concerning what makes murder wrong, I think a case can be made that it is evil independent of any Divine command, but that it is nevertheless evil because it constitutes an indirect offence against the Divine dignity. For murder is the deliberate killing of an innocent man, and an innocent man is in turn an unsullied image of God; therefore, murder is the deliberate killing of an unsullied image of God. But to deliberately kill something is to express contempt for it; therefore, murder expresses contempt for an unsullied image of God. What is rendered unto an image, however, insofar as the image is an image of its exemplar, is in some respect rendered likewise unto that exemplar, wherefore murder in some respect expresses contempt for God, which contempt offends against His dignity. Yet to offend against the Divine dignity is gravely evil, wherefore murder is also gravely evil, and so evil indeed because it constitutes an offence against God's dignity. The argument, again, could use some patching up, but I don't think it hopeless.

Regarding God's impassibility, since Divine impassibility and immutability only concern God's real properties, causing a mere Cambridge change in God needn't be outside the power of a creature. But being offended is plausibly taken to be a mere Cambridge property, for I could be guilty of offending against my father's dignity (by slandering, defaming, or calumniating him, say) while nevertheless making sure he never learned of it. So I think that it's plausible to maintain that we can offend against God's dignity, despite His impassibility.

I agree that the issue of mitigating passions, ignorance, human frailty, etc. is a serious one for those of us who would defend the justice of sempiternal damnation; however, it's difficult to say just how we should construe this mitigation. If my previous post's argument has any weight, it is reasonable to maintain that, abstracting from mitigating circumstances, offence against God's dignity merits somehow infinite punishment. How much, then, can our circumstances mitigate the crime and lessen its just response? Do they halve it? quarter it? fifth it? With any of the above, we still end up with an infinitely severe just penalty, and surely our mitigating circumstances do not eliminate culpability. These remarks aren't meant to be conclusive, just food for thought.

Heavens, this post turned out long! Ah, well, hopefully it was worth it.


The first argument fails to show that the offense against God is infinite and deserving of sempiternal punishment. And what about venial sins? They presumably offend God whose dignity is infinite -- so why don't they too deserve sempiternal punishment? How do you maintain the distinction between mortal and venial?

Your second argument is very clever. Is it original with you? I grant that you could offend against your father's dignity without his becoming aware of it, and that needn't induce any real change in him. But God, unlike your father, is omniscient. So if you commit an offense against God, then God cannot fail to become aware of it, and this becoming aware is a real change in the divine mental state -- which contradicts the divine impassibility.

Tentatively, I would distinguish mortal sins from venial sins by saying that, whereas mortal sins actually offend against God, in sinning venially we merely honour God inappropriately, merely incline ourselves towards offending Him, or the like. (I also deny that mortal and venial sins are both sinful in any univocal sense.)

The argument is, to my knowledge, original with me. Thank you for the compliment. I would respond by denying that God's omniscience is such that it requires a real relation from knowing God to known creature, by affirming that God accordingly does not, properly speaking, take any creature as an intentional object, and by inferring that the Divine omniscience need not require a change in creatures to correspond to a real change in God. (I fear that a discussion of these theses would take us too far afield, but I'm willing to defend them if you'd like.)

Well, you assume a sort of Christian conception (Hindu hell is not forever) but then you should engage with what the Christian doctrine has to say. Even your Stalin example is wrong in the detail. He must repent before death.

Punishment for the sins is meted out in purgatory for the repentant souls and that is finite.

The problem with unrepentant souls is not they did a lot of wickedness but they failed to relate to God. You could lead a very enlightened sensible life, never scaring a mouse or injuring an ant but if you were not baptized unto Christ, then you are eternally lost.

PS Isnt Euthyphro Paradox resolved by Divine Simplicity? If yes, you need to put it inside scare quotes.

Dr. V,

You started off the post with this: "Suppose God exists and there is an afterlife the quality of which depends on how one behaves here below." And your rejoinder to the objection by Hennessey was, "If that is the point, then I could respond by saying that the Beatific Vision is not a reward for good things we do here below, but the state intended for us all along. It is something like a birthright or an inheritance. One doesn't earn one's inheritance; it is a gift, not a reward." This seems to rule out the first claim.

However, yes, according to Christian theology, *we* post-lapsarian sinners cannot merit everlasting life, that's why I put this objection in terms of the Two Adams. In popular strains of Christian theology, Adam could have *merited* everlasting life, for him and all his posterity. He failed, and humanity was expelled from access to the tree of life. Since everlasting life with a Holy God requires perfection, and since no men are perfect, no men can earn everlasting life. So God sends the second Adam, Jesus. By his finite acts of passive and active obedience (doing what the first Adam failed to do), he merits eternal rewards for Himself and his people.

Thus, in Christianity (at least this respected interpretation of it), we are taught that either the first Adam could have merited eternal life by his finite acts, or if he failed, the second Adam could have merited eternal rewards, which he did.

So we have an objection to everlasting hell within Christianity from Christian universalists that goes like this:

[P] Necessarily, it is unjust to "infinitely" Punish S for S's finite actions.

But if [P] is the case, then so is the thesis about Reward

[R] Necessarily, it is unjust to "infinitely" Reward S for S's finite actions.

I take it that the Two Adams rejoinder show ¬[R], which shows ¬[P]. Of course, one can deny these entrenched and well-pedigreed theological positions, but it seems odd that Christian universalism depends on something like that. However, I take it that the Two Adams thesis is *possibly* true, which still shows [P] and [R] to be false.


Thanks for the response. So your first point is that there is a tension between
1. The quality of the afterlife for a person depends on how the person behaves here below
2. The Beatific Vision (assuming this to be what heaven is) is a gift not a reward one could be said to deserve for having done such-and-such.

I don't see why (1) and (2) cannot both be true. It could be like this. There is more or less purgation in the afterlife to prepare souls for the BV or rather the VB (visio beata). But the VB is a gift, not sdomething one deserves.

You nicely express what I take to be the nub of Hennessey's objection:

>>[P] Necessarily, it is unjust to "infinitely" Punish S for S's finite actions.

But if [P] is the case, then so is the thesis about Reward

[R] Necessarily, it is unjust to "infinitely" Reward S for S's finite actions.<<

The solution I am suggesting, quite tentatively you understand, is that we stop thinking of the VB as a reward, as something deserved.

Why can't there be divine punishment without divine reward? Think of punishment along the lines of purgation or cleansing. We will all need cleansing to be able to appreciate the VB, but that is not to say that the VB is something we have earned.

Leo writes, >> I would respond by denying that God's omniscience is such that it requires a real relation from knowing God to known creature, by affirming that God accordingly does not, properly speaking, take any creature as an intentional object, . . .<<

How does this work in detail? The Bible portrays God as becoming apprised of this or that, e.g. that the Israelites are worshipping a golden calf. How does God know this if the antics of the Israelites are not intentional objects of the divine mind? And when the Bible portrays God as becomning angry, how could this jive with the divine impassibility?

I suspect problems like this are insoluble if one attempts as Aquinas does to combine a conception of God as Platonic-Plotinian metaphysical absolute with the God of the Bible.

Dr. V,

I took (1) and (2) to be in tension because you're saying (i) that the quality of "the afterlife" (is this diachronically considered, is it the quality of the whole considered as a whole?) for S depends on how S behaves "here below." But then (ii) you say that S can have a good quality afterlife (one consisting of the VB, call this afterlife-(ii)), but you also say (iii), that (ii) does not depend on how we behave here below, it is a gracious gift. Since afterlife-(ii) has a quality to it, doesn't it, per (i), "depend on" how S "behaves below?"

In response to [P], [R], and the Two Adams argument, you say:

"The solution I am suggesting, quite tentatively you understand, is that we stop thinking of the VB as a reward, as something deserved.

Why can't there be divine punishment without divine reward? Think of punishment along the lines of purgation or cleansing. We will all need cleansing to be able to appreciate the VB, but that is not to say that the VB is something we have earned."

And yes, I agree with you that *we* (us post-lapsarian sorry sinners) should not think that everlasting life in the New Heavens and Earth (or your VB) is something deserved by us. However, I'm suggesting that one sturdy strain within Christian theology says that it was merited, earned, deserved for us by the finite acts of the God-man acting in our stead, and he did indeed earn or deserve these eternal rewards. I also suggested that the pre-lapsarian state was like this, in that the first Adam could have earned everlasting life by his finite acts of obedience.

I have a couple verses that serve to pump these claims. One is Romans 5:18

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

and Matt. 10:

40 "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

Romans seems to indicate that a finite act has everlasting consequences, and Matt 10 seem to indicate that Jesus thought he earned rewards for his active and passive obedience, and those rewards are everlasting.

So, if this particular theological viewpoint is correct, then not-[R], and so not[P]. I'm not suggesting that a position unconstrained from this theological argument couldn't get around Hennessey's objection, but if it were grounded in this theological view point, or something like it were true, then that would show that not-[P]. Indeed, this theology at least seems possibly true, which undercuts [R] and so [P]. That is to say, it's not clear to me, at all, that [P] is true.


(1) and (2) seem to me to be consistent, despite what you say. Maybe later I can give this some more thought.


Alex Pruss wrote on Anselm on the magnitude of sin twice:

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