“Universalism for Open Theists”
August 30, 2006 — 12:17

Author: Kevin Timpe  Category: Free Will Hell Open Theism  Comments: 11

In a new issue of Religious Studies, Gordon Knight has an interesting article on universalism and open theism that many PBers may be interested in (“Universalism for Open Theists,” 42 (2006):213-223).
Here is the central thrust of his argument:

I will argue that belief in the openness of God makes a hard case even worse. Furthermore, while this problem is perhaps most vivid in the case of open theism, it also can be generalized for all theists who accept a non-Molinist account of foreknowledge and who accept a libertarian conception of freedom of the will. On the other hand, this very same commitment to liberatarian freedom also precludes non-Molinists from accepting the sort of necessary universalism recently advocated by Talbott. The solution, I will argue, lies in adopting a version of contingent universalism that is able to avoid the moral problems of the [traditional] doctrine of hell while at the same time not doing violence to the strong conception of libertarian freedom to which open theists (among others) are committed (214).

A few comments below the fold.


There are number of things that I like about the article.

  • the opening paragraph vividly portrays the objection to the traditional doctrine of hell
  • Knight includes what I think is a good critique of Talbott’s view
  • Knight writes “much discussion of hell in the literature takes it for granted that hell is a kind of complete separation from God. But I find this notion of separation utterly unclear…. It is hard to see how anyone could be truly separated from God” (219). I’m not sure if Knight is right about the literature, but I think he is right about the problems with the assumption he discusses. As a pastor friend of mine often says, “Try to get out of relationship with God. [Pause] See, it didn’t work.”

But there are a number of things about the article that I have a problem with:

  • Knight argues that “to limit the possibility of salvation to the earthly timespan presents us with an image of an arbitrary, fickle deity who saves or damns by the luck of the draw. Indeed this sort of conception of salvation bears an eerie resemblance to the view of the theological determinist to which open theists are opposed. An open theist must, therefore, allow for the possibiliutty of post-mortem salvation” (215). It seems to me that the argument in this quotation commits a number of fallacies (or, to be a bit more charitable, the argument has a number of missing premises–premises that I’m pretty sure will end up being false).
  • Knight writes that “given the openness of God, God can never know when a person has been given optimal grace” (216). I don’t have my copy of Walls’ Hell: The Logic of Damnation, to which Knight is referring here, with me, but from what I remember about how Walls defines ‘optimal grace’, I don’t see the incompatibility of this with the open theists’ view of God’s knowledge.
  • Knight seems to think that a few pages is sufficient to refute the traditional doctrine of hell, without engaging the defenses of such a doctrine. (I happen to think that it should be required that anyone writing on the traditional view of hell needs to read Stump’s fabulous article “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’ Moral Theory and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16 (1986): 181-196.)

Technorati Tags: open theism, universalism, libertarian, conception, freedom, liberatarian, vivid, religious studies, moral problems, furthermore, openness, contingent, thrust, belief, gordon, lies, hell

Technorati Tags: open theism, universalism, libertarian, conception, freedom, liberatarian, vivid, religious studies, moral problems, furthermore, openness, contingent, thrust, belief, gordon, lies, hell

Comments:
  • Matthew

    Now I’m going to have to hike over to the library to read the actual article. I’m curious as to how the problem can be generalized for the simple foreknowledge viw.
    Being precluded “from accepting the sort of necessary universalism recently advocated by Talbott” doesn’t seem like a high cost to pay. Actually it seems like no cost at all…

    August 31, 2006 — 11:48
  • Kevin

    Matthew,
    You may be a bit disappointed about the first of your comments, as he moves very quick here and it isn’t clear to me that there aren’t a number of possible lines of response.
    I love you comment about the cost associated with Talbott’s view. Quite funny.
    And since you mademe laugh, I’ll email you a PDF of the article to save you the hike over to the library.

    August 31, 2006 — 19:34
  • Kevin,
    Thanks for posting on this; I read this paper in the summer when (I believe) you linked to it in the DeRose/Universalism threads. I just took at look at it again to see what you’re getting at in the first bullet point of your list of problems with the piece.
    It seems to me that Knight’s point here is entirely right, except for perhaps the ‘luck of the draw’ comment. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this point for a while – why should God limit one’s chances at repenting to one’s time on earth? The picture that I get from many of the Arminian stripe is that (1) God desires all to be saved and (2) it is ‘too late’ to repent after death and (3) it grieves God that any should thus perish. Well, why should it be too late? Why should God impose such a deadline, especially in view of the fact that many might be willing to repent if he’d offer them the chance, thus satisfying his desire that they be saved? God’s imposing the deadline would be frustrating his supposedly deepest desires. The deadline seems to imply that the salvation of all is not his aim, contrary to (1).
    So, all in all, given that God “has the salvation of all as one of his chief priorities”, as Knight says, it seems odd to suppose that God would make death the cut-off, if it is otherwise possible that persons be saved after death. Without a principled reason why death should be the cut off, then God’s decision here seems arbitrary.
    But there are lots of things I’m probably overlooking (like one of the above-mentioned principled reasons), so can you say more about what you find objectionable in Knight’s point here?
    Last, I’ll for sure take a look at the Stump piece. Thanks!

    August 31, 2006 — 22:23
  • Kevin

    Patrick,
    Did I already post on this? My memory must be worse than I thought!
    An admittedly too quick answer to your question (I will try to say more later if pressed, but need to get some writing done). Both you and Knight reject the truth of your (2) “it is ‘too late’ to repent after death” for reasons dealing with the goodness of God. I affirm (2), but I don’t see that it need conflict with your (1) and (3). More specifically, what if what makes (2) true is not something about God (such as He stops offering salvation to individual X) but rather something about individual X (such as, his freely formed character is such that he is no longer capable of accepting God’s offer)?
    Of course, this is just a quick sketch and many details remain to be fleshed out, but I think that this shows there is conceptual space for one to affirm (1), (2) and (3). I’m currently working on a paper with another PB contributor exploring some of these issues from the other side of things (namely, whether the redeemed in heaven can subsequently fall), but I think that the same general picture will work for both heaven and hell.

    September 1, 2006 — 13:27
  • Patrick Todd

    Hi Kevin,
    I guess I’ll press! 🙂 Feel free to respond (or not) whenever you get the chance.
    You say, “More specifically, what if what makes (2) true is not something about God (such as He stops offering salvation to individual X) but rather something about individual X (such as, his freely formed character is such that he is no longer capable of accepting God’s offer)?”
    Right now, I think that (2), if true, would have to be true for something like the reasons you give (e.g. the individual is no longer capable of receiving salvation due to character formation, etc.) The problem is that I can’t see any good reason (2) would be true for these reasons. Just to be clear, (2) is supposed to say that it is too late for *anyone* to repent after death. If (2) is true for the reason you give, wouldn’t that (at least) require a defense of the claim that (4) all persons who have died without saving faith are such that their characters were sufficiently hardened so as to render them permanently incapable of receiving God’s grace?
    (4) seems obviously false to me. There are, of course, thousands and thousands of people who have died at young ages (and, let’s suppose, past any ‘age of accountability’). Are we really to think that all such persons had so hardened their characters that nothing, nothing at all, could ever bring them around to receiving God’s grace? But (as Knight points out) we have countless examples of *extremely* hardened persons in this life giving in to God’s grace and repenting, and clearly not everyone who has died is extremely hardened in this way. Moreover, we’ve got countless examples of people quite willingly and happily accepting God’s grace the very first time such an offer is made; I see no good reason to think that many people who’ve died aren’t of this sort. Last, lots of people in this life receive God’s grace in unideal conditions (e.g., bad preaching, mean people in the church, persecution, whatever). If so many people accept God’s grace in these conditions, isn’t it odd to think that *no one* who has ever died (or will die) would in much better conditions that God could provide post-mortem?
    If (2) is true, I can’t (yet!) see how it could be made true besides by some decision of God’s to no longer offer salvation. And, you’re right, for reasons concerning God’s love/goodness, I don’t see why he’d want to do this.

    September 1, 2006 — 14:46
  • The OSU and ND football games aren’t on yet and my wife is napping and thus is temporarily unable to scold me for ‘working’ on a holiday weekend–so some thoughts.
    Patrick, first it seems to me like you are sliding too quickly from the debate over the truth of universalism (hell is empty/hell is not empty) to the inclusivism/exclusivism debate. These two issues intersect, but I think largely orthoganal to each other. The denial of universalism doesn’t entail that, for example, only those who explicitly embrace the Christian faith will be saved and avoid hell. So it seems to me that (4) is beside the point when discussing whether or not the goodness of God leads only to universalism and not to eternal damnation for some. I’m not saying that the inclusivism/exclusivism issue doesn’t matter, but it does seem to be a different issue.
    Maybe you want to build into (2) a claim about all persons (your most recent post suggests this)–you’re welcome to do that. But that’s not what I was embracing. All I was trying to do is show that there is a way that the truth of (2) is consistent with (1), (3) and the goodness of God. And I don’t think that anything you say in your latest post shows that there is a necessary inconsistency here.

    September 2, 2006 — 15:10
  • Hi Kevin,
    I think college football is really going to impact my weekend productivity! ND gave me a scare there for a while.
    I was indeed presupposing something like exclusivism in my posts, i.e. the view that (6) one is saved only if one repents and accepts God’s grace (made available through Christ). Knight does this as well, it seems, since he talks only of one’s becoming saved once one has accepted God’s grace, so I thought it was being taken for granted. Also, such a view I thought was implicit in your saying, “More specifically, what if what makes (2) true is not something about God (such as He stops offering salvation to individual X) but rather something about individual X (such as, his freely formed character is such that he is no longer capable of accepting God’s offer)?” But you’re right, exclusivism and universalism are related but separate issues.
    So maybe we can now get clear on the issue. I had meant (2) to be a universal claim about all persons originally, but let’s make it clear: (2*) it is too late for anyone to repent and accept God’s grace after death. Can the OT affirm the goodness of God, (1), (2*), and also (6)? Knight argues ‘no’, and I’m strongly inclined to agree with him, though you take issue with his argument in your first bullet point. I’m curious as to what you find problematic in his argument, or his line of thought more generally.
    You may be right, though, that the OT wouldn’t have a problem here if instead of (2*) we’ve got (2**): it is too late for some people to repent after death — which is all you read my (2) to commit to, it looks like. (2**) could perhaps be made true by character hardening considerations, though it is implausible to think that (2*) could be made true in such a way.
    Though it looks like Knight would object to (2**) as well. He says, “Nor would it do to say that while people have free will, a person may freely choose to create a character for themselves that, in effect, precludes the possibility of salvation. Such a statement amounts to the claim that we can choose not to be free. But if freedom is really an essential part of the human condition, it surely is the one thing we cannot give up. A more natural understanding of the facts is to suppose that while it is difficult for a person to escape from persistent, habitual character traits, it is by no means impossible. Indeed our experience seems to show that such a radical turnaround is something that can occur even in this life, sometimes fairly quickly.” Hence, God can’t know it is ‘too late’ for anyone to accept his grace, and hence wouldn’t stop offering anyone grace.

    September 4, 2006 — 13:38
  • Kevin Timpe

    I have no interest defending (2*) here and now, and for a number of reasons. The most important of these, for purposes of the present conversation, is that (2**), which I think is true, is sufficient, if even possibly true, to show that the traditional view of hell isn’t logically incompatible with the conjunction of the goodness of God and (1) and (3) from above. I take it that this also shows that the proponent of the traditional view need not be committed to “an image of an arbitrary, fickle deity who saves or damns by the luck of the draw,” as suggested by Knight. Your further comment about the implausibility of (2*) will depend much more on issues of inclusivism/exclusivism than the traditional view of hell per se.

    September 5, 2006 — 18:37
  • Sounds good, Kevin. You mentioned that you’re working on a paper in this area with another Prosblogion contributor; I’d be interested in taking a look at it sometime if you’d be up for it.
    For my own part, what I find most problematic about Knight’s view is how to reconcile it with Scripture (and the tradition more broadly, but especially Scripture). On the one hand, he’d have a hard time making use of the passages that DeRose and Talbott oftentimes cite in support of universalism, e.g. Romans 5, since such passages, according to universalists, teach that all individuals *will* be saved. Knight can only affirm that all individuals *might* be saved. Of course, he thinks it is extraordinarily unlikely that anyone would continue in his rejection of God for eternity, but that’s a possibility, so we’ve got the issue of how Scripture could say unequivocally that all will be saved if things might not turn out like this. On the other hand, he still has to deal with all of the texts non-universalists cite on behalf of the reality and eternality of hell, since (on his view) it could just as well turn out that hell is one day empty. So, either way, someone taking this view has *lots* of explaining to do. And if he can’t appropriate the more robust universalist passages cited by DeRose/Talbott, then I doubt he’d have nearly enough warrant for re-interpreting the ‘eternal hell’ passages in a (contingent) universalist light.
    Seeing as the question of what Scripture teaches regularly befuddles me, this is what I’m most bothered about.

    September 7, 2006 — 15:31
  • The idea that God will or might save everyone presupposes that these will have the power and the will to turn from unbelief and trust in Christ. But scripture clearly teaches that God controls the very will. He bends the will of the elect, and he hardens the will of those not preordained to be saved. This is not something that I rejoice in, but it is what is clearly stated in many places. The elect can rejoice in their own calling, but they cannot rejoice in the lost, and indeed may have loved ones who could be counted among the lost.

    January 5, 2007 — 16:13
  • Kevin

    Gary,
    Are you claiming that the only view compatible with Scripture is a form of theological determinism?

    January 6, 2007 — 13:09