Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Heaven and Hell and Perfect Bliss

For some reason a lot of people have been discussing the doctrine of hell recently. It's worth noting in most of these discussions that, just as original sin is formally lack of original justice and materially concupiscence (craving for lesser goods) arising from such a lack, so hell is formally lack of contrition and materially penalty intrinsic or appropriate to such a lack. Everything else is either fully or partly symbolic, and no serious universalism is possible unless it accounts for universal contrition. (Most universalists don't even make an attempt at such an account, but a few -- like George MacDonald or Hans Urs von Balthasar -- do.)

In any case, most of the relevant arguments are old hat. However, I did recently come across a new one to me, at least in this particular form, which I thought nicely done, in a post by Fr. Kimel, in which he quotes Kronan & Reitan's version of an argument by Thomas Talbott:

1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.

2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.

3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).

4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.

5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).

6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.

7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).

As Fr. Kimel notes, (2) is the most controversial premise, and, although he provides some argument to motivate it, it is in fact fatally wrong: while it may be possible to provide a reasonably workable argument from divine love to universalism, one cannot possibly do it by way of the bliss of heaven. The particular complete joy that is intrinsic to heaven itself (which is all that can be meant by perfect bliss in (1)) consists of possession of God as universal and consummate good by love and understanding, or to look at it in the opposite direction, being energized by God as universal good in both understanding and will. It follows immediately and directly from such a union, and therefore cannot be affected by anything else, however important in other ways. Indeed, since by nature it flows directly from God in that union, it is not in the power of the blessed not to have it, regardless of anything else that may happen to them. Now, one can argue (as Fr. Kimel does) that God would in fact seek to please the blessed in secondary ways that presuppose this complete joy -- and there is reason for thinking this at least sometimes true -- but this turns what at first sight looks like a rigorous argument into a rather weak, merely probabilistic and limited one: as (2) then becomes only probable and all-things-considered, the conclusion can be only probable and all-things-considered. It is at best a default that can be defeated by contrary reasons. Thus the argument against hell ironically founders on its conception of heavenly bliss.

None of this, of course, determines matters one way or another, since one's doctrine of the afterlife should certainly not be based on such tenuous considerations; it's just a matter of an interesting argument that has an interesting flaw.


  1. Alvin Kimel3:38 PM

    Thank you, Brandon, for your insightful critique of K & R's argument. I do not know if you have refuted the argument, but you have raised a point to which K & R, and Talbott need to respond. FYI: I posted Part 2 earlier today:

  2. EHReitan10:06 AM

    Brandon: I appreciate your interest in John's and my work. I should note that we do respond to objections to the above argument in our book--including, at least implicitly, the oblection you sketch here. Also, I think this argument works better as a piece of a more systematic case of the sort John and I develop, as opposed to as a stand-alone argument. I wrote up a bit more in response to the objection on my blog today, in case you're interested:

  3. Alvin Kimel12:35 PM

    Brandon, Eric Reitan has responded to your critique over at his blog: FYI.

  4. Brendan Hodge6:39 PM

    "no serious universalism is possible unless it accounts for universal contrition."

    This point of yours strikes me as particularly key. As I think about it, most pleas (which often seems to be the form rather than actual arguments) for universalism presuppose that everyone obviously is contrite, at least when faced with the prospect of hell as an alternative, or else hold that it would be rather beastly of God to insist on such a thing as contrition anyway.

  5. branemrys7:00 PM

    Yes, I think this is right. Without universal contrition you don't really have a universalism; but actually finding an account of how universal contrition could come about is quite difficult, and the tendency does seem to be to treat it as the easy part that doesn't require much argument when it's actually the point on which the whole thing stands or falls. It's not actually difficult to argue that God's justice and mercy, or Christ's sacrificial satisfaction, are sufficient for everyone, although this is what everyone spends time arguing; the real problem is how one can establish that everyone will genuinely repent.


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