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Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation

Following further analysis of Hick’s universalism, which Walls finds ‘fraught with inconsistency and confusion’, a number of proposed amendments are offered to restore coherence – the first three by modifying its doctrine of freedom, the fourth by adopting middle knowledge and thereby preserving it. They are each interesting moves. However, Walls notes that, in all these cases, ‘the argument for universalism from God’s goodness and omnipotence derives whatever plausibility it has from implicit but controversial assumptions about the nature of perfect goodness’. As far as omnipotence goes, it seems clear enough that, if libertarian freedom is true, God might not be able to save everybody. ‘The real issue’, Walls contends, ‘is what is required for perfect goodness’.


4. Hell and Divine Goodness

In turning, at last, to the subject of divine goodness, Walls is careful to point out what is involved in the claim that God is perfectly good. Rejecting a merely metaphysical construal, Walls insists that God is also good in a moral or volitional (or ‘agent centred’) sense; God’s goodness is ‘displayed in extending love and mercy to all creation… God wants all people to accept salvation’. It is this sort of goodness that is at the heart of Christian devotion and makes the doctrine of hell so difficult. Having already concluded that ‘Calvinism is incompatible with any defensible account of God’s goodness’, Walls begins by considering whether Molinism might be compatible after all.

The problem Walls pinpoints with Molinism is that it seems to entail that at least some of those who are damned might have been saved if they had been created in different situations. The pivotal question is this: ‘does it make any sense to say that God does all he can to save all persons, short of destroying their freedom, if he allows some of them to be damned through unfavourable circumstances?’ Walls is reluctant to join John Wesley in appealing to divine mystery at this point ‘when God’s goodness is so severely challenged’. If we press the logic, ‘it seems reasonable to think that God might somehow eliminate the disadvantages’, and Walls suggests that he does so by exerting the ‘optimal amount of influence toward good’ that He can on a person, without destroying their freedom. Whilst this ‘optimal grace’ will vary from person to person (not all may need as much, what is helpful for one may adversely affect another), God’s grace is properly said to be ‘distributed equally if grace of optimal measure is given to all persons and all are given full opportunity to make a decisive response to it’. By a ‘decisive response’, Walls means ‘a settled response [or a rooted disposition] which is made by one fully informed of the Christian faith’. A decisive negative response is only intelligible in ‘the most favourable circumstances’, afforded by optimal grace, which is sufficient to overcome a negative disposition due to contingent factors or influences, but does not help anyone whose negative reaction is ‘shaped precisely by the persistent refusal of grace’. Walls contends that ‘unless one thinks there is some reason why God cannot make up for the disadvantages some have, it seems to follow from his perfect goodness that he will do so’. Possible reasons for why it may be beyond God’s power are considered, but Walls ultimately concludes that the problems with optimal grace ‘gain much of their force from the assumption that grace cannot extend beyond the boundary of this present life’ – an assumption that makes ‘the idea that grace is unevenly distributed… fairly compelling’, and one that Walls believes we must drop to avoid compromising God’s goodness.

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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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