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Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation

Noting that the Calvinist and the Universalist agree that God, being sovereign, can save anyone he wants to, Walls contends that both of these positions ultimately ‘slide into confusion when they try to reconcile their common assumption with human freedom’. He observes that the Westminster Confession, a classic exposition of Calvinist orthodoxy, clearly states that God ordains ‘whatsoever comes to pass’, but also seems to deny the obvious implication that human freedom and responsibility are thereby eliminated. An analysis ensues in which the ideas of ‘calling’, ‘effectual calling’, ‘enablement’ and ‘being made willing’ are probed, and of which the upshot is this: ‘Although the Westminster Confession seems to want it both ways, the only kind of freedom that can be maintained is of the compatibilist variety’. But Walls’ believes this kind of freedom is inadequate here. ‘If… persons are free only in the sense that they do what God has made them willing to do, then God could save all persons with their freedom intact’. Moreover, ‘God could also eliminate all evil’. The Westminster divines (apparently feeling the tension) sought to offer two grounds for why God will not elect some people: firstly, ‘for the glory of his sovereign power’ (in doing what He wills), and secondly, ‘for the praise of his glorious justice’ (in punishing sin). But, for Walls, this is just trying to have it both ways again. Regarding the first point, if God’s power is somehow a sufficient ground for damning some people, ‘justice is an irrelevant consideration’; God might as well demonstrate his power by creating a world of saints and damning the lot of them, or a world of gross sinners and glorifying all of them in heaven. And regarding the second, the idea of a just punishment ordinarily presupposes that the person involved could have refrained from wrongdoing, and that a common standard of judgement is applied to all people. Neither of these assumptions hold here. ‘When the claim that election show’s God’s justice is qualified… justice collapses into sovereign power’. This does not seem a very defensible position, and Walls respectfully suggests that the Westminster divines, on this point, unintentionally ‘fell into confusion’.

Turning now to Universalism, Walls consider the logical dilemma put forward by John Hick for this position: ‘the doctrine of hell has as its implied premise either that God does not desire to save all His human creatures, in which case He is only limitedly good, or that His purpose has finally failed in the case of some… of them, in which case He is only limitedly sovereign’. It has a lot in common with one of Mackie’s arguments against the existence of God. But whereas Mackie finds the evil in this present life incompatible with God’s existence, for Hick the problem lies with everlasting evil – he seeks to appeal to the free will defence to demonstrate the compatibility of present evil with the existence of a perfectly good, omnipotent God. However, according to Mackie, ‘if there is no logical impossibility in a man choosing the good on one, or on several, occasions, there is no logical impossibility in him choosing the good on every occasion’, so a world of free creatures who always choose what is right is a logical possibility that a good God would have availed Himself of. But the free will defence, thanks to Plantinga, is able to overcome this objection: ‘if persons are free in the libertarian sense, it is partly up to them which worlds God can create’, and thence ‘not all worlds which are [logically] possible for God to actualise are feasible for him’. But of course, this conclusion has a direct bearing on Hick’s argument for universalism: ‘if we are free either to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, then perhaps God, even though omnipotent, cannot save everyone’. Hick’s logical argument for universalism, then, fails to go through too. The problem with his position is further complicated by his belief that future free actions are unknowable in principle. It seems that ‘the most Hick can consistently claim’ is that if God is perfectly good and omnipotent, ‘then very probably all will be saved’ (though what divine goodness may or may not entail is the subject of Walls’ next chapter).

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: W. Simpson, PhD (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), is a physicist and writer with an interest in theology, currently engaged in scientific research in the middle-east.

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