Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hellfire and damnation

One of the questions a religious believer will sometimes get from a non-believer is this: why would a loving God send people to eternal torment? Why is there a Hell? Wouldn't it be kinder to have people simply stop existing than to torture them for all eternity?

Sometimes these questions get mixed up with others: for instance, an atheist recently asked me if it was true that the Catholic Church says everyone who's not a baptized Catholic is automatically going to Hell. Luckily, the Catechism explains this teaching quite fairly; I recommend a careful reading of this entire section from 811 to 870, but the specifics are spelled out in 846 and 847, as follows:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.337

Of course, as the Catechism continues, none of that means that the Church's mandate to evangelize the world is in any way diminished. It just means that faith is the kind of gift that has to be accepted with understanding of the mind and heart and freedom of the will--and that when faith is rejected despite understanding of the mind and heart and freedom of the will, the consequences to the soul may indeed be dire.

And so the Church has always taught that a place of eternal separation from God which we call Hell does indeed exist; she does not teach that it would be better for people to cease to exist given that our immortal souls are an intrinsic part of us; and she also does not teach that God sends people to Hell--rather, Hell is a free, if terrible, choice of individual souls who, knowing that God is and discerning how He wishes to be followed, worshiped, and loved, choose freely and willingly to reject Him forever, through the actions of their lives and up to and including at the moment of their deaths.

One of the many discussions that take place concerning Hell is: is Hell rather crowded, as Dante envisioned it? Is it rather empty, as Origen and others speculated? Can we guess, from the names of the historically infamous, who might be there?

The truth is, all of those speculations are rather profitless, and the third may even be spiritually dangerous. We must, as Catholics, believe that Hell exists (where else would the fallen angels be, in a metaphysical sense, than the Hell that is eternal separation from the God whom they knowingly and freely rejected?) and that people are free to choose to remain so steeped in their own freely-chosen sins and rejection of God that they may choose Hell as well. But the thought of Hell should never be grounds for smugness; none of us is guaranteed Heaven, either, and we should be begging God daily for mercy for all sinners, chief of whom is our own self.

This, unfortunately, brings me to a realization: there are Christians, and even some Catholics I've encountered, who seem to exhibit an unholy glee (if you'll excuse the expression) when they talk about Hell, and the sinners who they think are going to end up there (not themselves, of course, but practically everyone else they know). It is almost as though they think of Hell as the ultimate revenge--theirs, not God's, even if they won't admit it--to be enacted upon anyone who has disagreed with them or caused them pain or embarrassment in their lives. Some of them will speak of the eternal destiny of whole groups of people who don't belong to their particular Christian sect (and Catholics are sometimes among those eternally predestined for hellfire and damnation) with a kind of placid shrug, a glinting eye, or a grin wholly at odds with the serious nature of what it is they are talking about. "Sure, the Smiths are a nice family. Too bad they don't belong to the First Saved United Church of Christian Fellowship of Third Street. It's just too sad to think of them all burning in Hell, isn't it? Pass the mashed potatoes, please."

But while that last bit may be an exaggeration, it's true that in talking about Hell many of us Christians have the unfortunate tendency to sound more like an alarmist spinster aunt warning of the evils of television or rock music than like concerned brothers and sisters trying to warn our dear ones on the road to perdition that they are headed in the wrong direction, that the bridge is out up ahead, and that we hope they'll at least consider putting on the brakes long enough to inspect the situation for themselves before deciding they never believed in the right direction, the bridge, the gorge, or the volcano below in the first place. It's like the old joke about the pastor who delivered the following homily, in three sentences: 1. Millions of people may be going to Hell. 2. Far too many of you sitting here in the congregation today don't give a damn about that. 3. In fact, most of you are more upset that your pastor just said "damn" in church than you are about the millions of people who may be going to Hell.

(Which would, of course, be an awesome homily to hear--but I digress.)

Our response to the Church's teaching about Hell should be to try to live our lives in accordance with God's holy will, to avoid sin and especially to root out those habits and tendencies of serious sin which might place an insurmountable barrier between us and God, and to pray for and trust in His Divine Mercy without either giving into despair on the one extreme, or presumption on the other. If we want to help lead others in the direction we hope we are going, we will do so much better by trying to become heavenly creatures ourselves than by telling them in detail why they are hellish ones--and, of course, by making their eternal salvation a priority in our prayers, and begging God to shower them with even greater oceans of His holy mercy than those we hope will wash away our own sinfulness.


me said...

I have noticed a priest implying hell might await those who disagree or cause trouble for 'the Lord's anointed.'

Although this is scriptural, I don't think it should be used by any anointed soul to defend behaviours that harm others, such as prejudice or mockery of souls who have different beliefs to them.

I would hate to be in their shoes on that great and terrible day.... (Oh no! Now I'm doing it aswell!).

Erin Manning said...

It's so tempting, isn't it, Shadowlands?

I think I know when I've crossed the line when the thought of someone being in Hell gives me a vague satisfaction instead of driving me to my knees to beg God on that soul's behalf. It's hardest with mass-murderers and people like that--but I try anyway. I fail, but I try.

Erin Manning said...

...should be "beg God for mercy on that soul's behalf..."

me said...

Red said:

"I fail, but I try."

That sounds like good footwork to me. Footwork is all that's required of us,remember?

The outcomes are the Lord's department.
Ask David ( the one who slew Goliath)!

We are allowed to trip up aswell. Seventy times seven in a day!

And people wonder why one would embrace Christianity?

What's not to love?

Bob the Ape said...

If I want to see my enemies burning in Hell, I may be obliged with a front-row seat...

Kimberly Margosein said...

I can't get past the concept of Hell as eternal punishment for what are obviously finite sins. I'll take Buddhism, where their version of Hell is regarded as a learning experience.

Geoff G. said...

Kimberly Margosein brings up an important point: I understand the purpose of Hell and even understand God's sorrow if we should choose to place ourselves there. It's the eternal quality that is so hard to square with the idea of an omnipotent, loving God. This is particularly true in light of parables like the Prodigal Son.

Let's make an analogy with raising children. Very often, the mere threat of punishment is insufficient to correct bad behavior. Yet using the reasoning here, once a child crosses the line and requires the threatened punishment to be carried out, there should be no redemption or forgiveness.

John E. said...

Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

I don't know that to be true.

I know that a lot of people claim it to be true, but a lot of people claim that a lot of other things are true.

Hell is a free, if terrible, choice of individual souls who, knowing that God is and discerning how He wishes to be followed, worshiped, and loved, choose freely and willingly to reject Him forever, through the actions of their lives and up to and including at the moment of their deaths.

I don't know that God is or how He wishes to be followed, worshiped, or loved, if indeed He does wish any of that.

I'm not rejecting God - I'm saying that I'm not aware of His existence in the way the Red claims He exists.

Hector said...

Geoff G.,

But what if some of the lost refuse to ever repent or be corrected? Even if we postulate that the sufferings of hell can be medicinal and corrective, suppose some people refuse to ever be corrected?

St. John describes people who respond to divine punishment (in this life) by becoming even more hardened in their wickedness:

"And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds." (Revelation 16:10-11).

Why is it so hard to imagine that some people might refuse to repent or be corrected in the afterlife as well?

I don't believe that anyone will suffer eternally without freely choosing it- continually. But it's quite possible that some people may choose it, continually, into eternity.

Geoff G. said...


But what if some of the lost refuse to ever repent or be corrected?

"Ever" is a very long time.

I don't believe that anyone will suffer eternally without freely choosing it- continually.

And that I can accept. But that's not what either Red or Catholic doctrine say.

Anonymous said...

Then, Kimberly, why don't you go hang out on Buddhist blogs? Or are you just hanging around waiting for the next gay topic?

Anonymous said...

Do you think God reads this blog?

Would that be a good thing?

Unlike any of us, of course, He can read the hearts behind the comments.

What do you suppose He finds there?

Oh...and does He automatically appoint an attorney for the defense? Just to be fair?

Kimberly Margosein said...

@ John E- There are any number of religions with multiple flavors therein, most claiming to be mutually exclusive. Ms Manning's hypothesis seems to be, once a person hears of Roman Catholic doctrine, and does not convert by death, that's the ballgame. By This Logic- Gandhi, Martin Luther King, etc are in Hell. This is the God that commanded a man to slit his own son's throat, who condems a man to death for eating shrimp scampi, etc. This is a god who's agents burned thousands at the stake, and abused physically, mentally, and sexually the most vulnerable of their flock. I reject such a god as monstrous and inhuman.

Erin Manning said...

Kimberly, I never said that all a person has to do is *hear* Roman Catholic doctrine--and, in fact, the Church doesn't say that either. But what if you meet God at the end of your life, and He tells you Himself that the Catholic Church is the Church He founded as the ordinary means of salvation for all human beings? If you still rejected Him as "monstrous and inhuman," He isn't going to force you to spend eternity in His company.

Erin Manning said...

Geoff, I think the way to consider this is to ponder the fall of the angels. Pure spirits, unclouded in intellect, not tempted by desires of the flesh or by the opinions of others, they still chose, freely, eternal separation from God.

We are not angels. Our sins are sometimes mitigated by such things as habit, lack of freedom, and so on. But C.S. Lewis often describes our moral choices as slowly turning us into either heavenly or hellish creatures--and I think that's not so hard to understand.

As for the "forever" aspect--we are used to being body and spirit, and interacting in a material and time-bound world. For a time after our deaths, we will only be spirits, and we know that time will cease to be of great importance. Since we will be living in a continuous "now," it's not hard to believe that having formed our souls either to say "yes" or "no" to God by our life's moral choices, we will continue that "yes" or that "no" throughout every moment of the endless "now" of eternity.

Hector said...

Re: But that's not what either Red or Catholic doctrine say.

Maybe not. I know that there's a long tradition in the Orthodox East of holding out some hope for repentance after death, though, and that's where I would position myself. I don't think someone who (for whatever reason) has never had the opportunity to become a Christian, will be denied that opportunity after they die. Having said that, I think it's quite likely there are some people who might be given an infinite number of opportunities, and turn them down- for ever.

Erin Manning said...

Anonymous at 5:03, what you don't realize is that in this last trial, we are our own prosecuting attorney, and the defense attorney is Jesus Christ Himself. Defense exhibit a will be His own wounds suffered for us; exhibit b will be every time we gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcome to the stranger, etc. After that--the whole court of Heaven will arise to plead for us, if necessary.

But we stand as the defendant and the prosecution--and if we refuse to let go of our sins at that late hour, can we then blame God for our eternal destiny?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

A lot of the comments seem to be veering sharply away from what Erin actually said, to spout for the umpteenth time what each individual has always reflexively said when "hell" is discussed. There have, as well, been some thoughtful responses.

In general, I don't believe in hell. I do, however, find Erin's presentation almost convincing. In particular, I have no problem with a post-empirical universe in which those who have separated themselves from God, and continue to do so, suffer separation from God. Leave out the lurid imagery of a lake of fire and all that, it makes some sense.

I note in relation to Geoff G. and Hector's comments, that IF the punishment is imposed to ultimately REFORM the errant child, then there must be some hope of redemption to the individuals suffering the punishment, ergo, even after death.

What I could quibble about is the meaning of "those who through no fault of their own" do not know and accept the Roman variant of Christianity as "Christ and his Church." There was a time when Spanish law routinely burned to death any captured sailor from a British ship, on the ground that they must have been Catholic once, and therefore, being now Protestant, were apostates. (Sort of like Christian converts in Afghanistan being sentenced to death).

Arguably, those who have been informed that the canon SAYS that the Roman church IS the one true faith, and decline to believe it, are therefore at fault. OR, as I think Erin means to say, it could mean, only those who knowingly ACCEPT that the RC church IS the one true faith, and STILL reject it, are doomed to hell.

But frankly, I don't think God much cares which institutional religion a given individual embraces, or even whether an individual acknowledges God's existence. Other open doors include "inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," and "he has shown you, oh man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

There is also the option outlined by C.S. Lewis, when Screwtape bewails how monstrously unfair "The Enemy" is, in accepting humans who BELIEVED they were doing good, even when they were, unwittingly, in the service of evil.

Charlotte said...

I'm not one who wants only to hear preaching to the choir and then only discuss these matters with the choir.

But when you say the conversation of drifting off, I second that. I am beginning to tire of the same group of people here incessantly arguing with Erin about God. I'm not sure what the point is anymore.

Turmarion said...

I've had only sporadic web access the last couple of weeks, so I've missed a few threads. I'm back, and the timing is interesting, since this is the very topic I always wanted Red to address when the hellfire and damnation stuff came up on previous posts.

Red is certainly right about the sheer gleefulness of all too many believers in regard to Hell. Some may recall the months-long brouhaha in First Things and New Oxford Review when Dale Vree of the latter took issue with Fr. Neuhaus's statement in one of his books implying universal salvation. Fr. Neuhaus consistently said he was speaking only of the hope and possibility for this. Mr. Vree seemed to take strong issue even with that.

In a similar vein, Hans Urs von Balthasar, author of the provocative Dare We Hope all Men Be Saved? and a favorite theologian of the Late Pope John Paul II, in a later edition of his book, commented sadly on how so much of the disagreement with his position was not based on theology but on a seeming zeal of some to see as many burn as possible. Truly, a sad commentary on many believers.

Aside from "the Church says so", I've yet to hear any logical argument as to why damned humans--or even damned angels, for that matter--could never "change their minds". There's talk of being "confirmed in that state", but that's not an argument. I can't pin down the reference right now, but I think some of the early Eastern Fathers prayed for the conversion of the Devil and demons in general at times.

Pure spirits, unclouded in intellect, not tempted by desires of the flesh or by the opinions of others, [the devils] still chose, freely, eternal separation from God.

And as Mortimer Adler astutely pointed out in The Angels and Us, this seems completely impossible to explain--it is truly a mystery. Jeffry Burton Russell also discusses this at times in his monumental four-volume series on the Devil and concepts of evil.

It seems to me that one of two things is true. Either God knows ahead of time and for all eternity that free-willed beings He intends to create will fall, for whatever inscrutable reason; or, as so-called "open theologians" would have it, even He doesn't truly know with certainty the reactions of truly free creatures ahead of time (to use temporal terms).

I'm afraid of running out of space, so I apologize for breaking this post in two.

Turmarion said...

OK--if God knew ahead of time that some angels and humans would rebel and be irredeemable, then it seems that in some way He's responsible for having so created them. On the other hand, if He didn't know, then that seems it was a design flaw which one assumes He'd try to correct by giving the damned a second (or maybe even third, fourth, etc.) chance. After a brief flirtation with open theology a decade or so ago, I rejected it, so I'd tend to hold to the first paradigm, which I also think is stronger in arguing for the possibility of universal reconciliation (apocatastasis).

Another way to put it: Red rightly points out that "forever" is not an unending series of moments, but an eternal Now. But look at what that entails--God, in the eternal Now, creates beings that, from His perspective, are always and irremediably damned in that Now, and necessarily had to be. Is this the way we want to see God?

Also, Red points out, rightly in my view, that there is still the meeting with God at the end of life, even for those who rejected Him. However, disturbingly, though the Church excommunicated the infamous Father Feeney, whose interpretation of extra ecclesiam insisted that no one not baptized a Catholic, even other Christians, could be saved, when reconciled to the Church, was not made to recant his views. One of the offshoots of his organization, the St. Benedict Center, is still in good standing with the Church without having been forced to recant Feeneyism, either.

Now I go along more with Red on this--few post-Vatican II Catholics hold to the Feeneyist view--but there are obviously those in the Church that have no problem with it, given the evidence. I find that disturbing.

Hector: I know that there's a long tradition in the Orthodox East of holding out some hope for repentance after death, though, and that's where I would position myself.

Ditto. The Alexandrian tradition in the early Church had a strong tendency towards this view, and some even suggested the possibility of the ultimate reconciliation of even the Devil himself. Personally, I see no logical reason to rule this out.

Red: If we want to help lead others in the direction we hope we are going, we will do so much better by trying to become heavenly creatures ourselves than by telling them in detail why they are hellish ones....

Exactly! Glad to here you say that! This was my exact point on many of the gay-themed posts a few months back. Maybe I'm just tone-deaf, but it seemed as if you were doing just this--ranting about the hellish choices of gay people rather than showing love, compassion, and leading by example.

Finally, I'd note something pointed out in the course of the First Things/NOR debate. The decade prayer Our Lady of Fátima asked us to pray is of course "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy." As was pointed out, if there are any souls in Hell, this prayer asks for something logically impossible, like praying for two plus two to equal five. Lex orandi lex credendi--so implicitly, at least, there is direct Divine warrant for at least the possibility of universalism.

John E said...

But when you say the conversation of drifting off, I second that. I am beginning to tire of the same group of people here incessantly arguing with Erin about God. I'm not sure what the point is anymore.

You would rather we argue with her about cottage cheese?

She posts about God - we argue with her about God.

It's what we do - some of us here have been arguing with Erin for years now - and now Charlotte comes and says she is getting tired of it?

Oy Vey! Show a little respect why don't you? When you've been arguing as long as we have, then maybe you've got reason to be tired.

Turmarion said...

It would be interesting to see what an argument over cottage cheese would look like.... ;)

John E said...

Well I do believe that cottage cheese does NOT make for a fine breakfast.

Erin Manning said...

It would look like this:

1. I would admit to liking cottage cheese, but not loving it--that is, it's the kind of food I enjoy occasionally but there's something about it, probably texture, that keeps me from wanting to eat it regularly.

2. A commenter would say that he/she "agrees" with me that cottage cheese is awful.

3. A commenter would loudly disagree with me for saying that cottage cheese is awful, and would solemnly inform me that it is wonderful.

4. I would try to clarify that I didn't think it was awful.

5. Another commenter would comment on food/texture issues generally.

6. Another commenter would insist that anyone who has texture issues with food is probably ignoring some deep psychological problem and should be analyzed.

7. Another commenter would wax poetic about how cottage cheese is nature's perfect food.

8. The commenter who said earlier that it was awful would return to argue.

9. A random anonymous troll from PETA would show up and say that cottage cheese was cow rape.

10. Tempers would flare.

11. Someone would link cottage cheese to a good, healthy diet.

12. Someone else would link cottage cheese to weight gain and hormone issues.

13. Someone would use the "cow rape" person's comment as an occasion on which to bash the Church by bringing up the Scandal.

14. A new commenter would say that cottage cheese is only good if eaten with fresh fruit.

15. The "food texture" person would scorn the idea that fresh fruit could be improved, rather than ruined, by a scoop of cottage cheese.

16. A new commenter would argue that it is a waste of time to eat cottage cheese when Greek yogurt is clearly a better choice.

17. Someone would claim that only Middle Eastern people really like yogurt, which makes it un-American to eat it.

18. The PETA troll would come back to tell us all that yogurt is also cow rape...

...and by comment 30 we'd be talking about religion, politics, or both.


John E said...

Ah...good times, good times...

Anonymous said...

Re: cottage cheese. Put me down for comments #11 and #14 on Erin's list.

Secondly, John E., cc actually makes a delightful breakfast (but only with fresh fruit, as per #14).

Now, back to religion, I have to say in all earnestness that the hell thing truly confuses me more than cottage cheese does.


me said...

Cottage cheese and small pineapple chunks. In fact, make that tiny pineapple chunks, (but big enough to define them square shaped, if seen under a microscope) folded into cottage cheese, not mixed mind you, but folded. One may serve this best on a couple of Ryvitas. D'ya get Ryvitas in America? I can't remember seeing them, when I there.

I'm a complete trad whn it comes to cottage cheese. I would the

Hector said...


That's interesting that you flirted with open theism before rejecting it- it's starting to seem more and more convincing to. A choice that is foreknown in advance seems like it isn't truly free, at least to me. (I know the stock reply is that God is outside of time, so 'in advance' is meaningless, but that's just almst impossible for me to conceive of.)

What are some good treatments of open theism, either arguing for or against? And what were the arguments that influenced you, for or against open theism?

Geoff G. said...

Red, at 5:57

I like the description of eternity. It's a difficult proposition for us limited creatures to wrap our heads around, but think you put it quite succinctly.

But C.S. Lewis often describes our moral choices as slowly turning us into either heavenly or hellish creatures--and I think that's not so hard to understand.

Hmm. I'm not too sure I agree with this, at least not for everyone. The fact of the matter is that people are pretty complex creatures, that are constantly shifting and evolving their motivations and actions in ways that seldom resemble a consistent slide from bad to worse to terrible (though perhaps it does work the other way around...I don't know).

I'd suggest that there seems to be some innate tendency in a lot of people that leads them to behave in pretty reprehensible ways when they're younger and to reconsider that path (or at least mellow) as they age, and I'd moreover suggest that that tendency exists independently of religion. I'm sure that few of us, either looking back on our own lives or looking at the lives of our kids, would argue that teenagers aren't some pretty genuinely awful creatures :)

Meanwhile, as I grow older, I find I've become a bit more contemplative and just the eensiest bit more likely to act in ways that (in general) most Christians, including Lewis, would describe as "good," despite involvement in any denomination at all (aside from a brief flirtation with a return to Catholicism ten years ago). But surely, if we look at many of the things I have done over my adult life, if we are to credit Lewis's interpretation of human nature, the (by a Christian definition) outlandishly hellish things I have done ought to be leading me further in that direction, rather than what I actually observe.

And I don't think I'm the only one. Lots of people (although by no means everyone), seem to come to regret lavishing so much attention on one or the other of the deadly sins, and seem to arrive at that conclusion quite independently of religion. Perhaps religion is a useful shortcut to arriving at that happy place (I rather suspect that it is), but it doesn't seem the only way.

Geoff G. said...


I am beginning to tire of the same group of people here incessantly arguing with Erin about God. I'm not sure what the point is anymore.

I come here because I do not enjoy the certainty of my beliefs. I must constantly wrestle with them, with myself, with others, with God. I do know that if I did understand these things with certainty, then I'd get fed up too, so I sympathize with what you're saying.

But still, I'll ask your forbearance while I catch up with you, and simply ask you to understand and accept that I am truly trying to engage on questions here that I don't have answers to. I do do my best to be as open as I can be to people who are a little further along the track than I am.

John E said...

Well Elizabeth, per point 16, I would argue that yogurt is superior to cottage cheese, although I do not insist on Greek yogurt. Dannon is sufficient for me.

Turmarion said...

Hector, have a look at this book. It's a good start.

To explain the whole process would be way beyond the scope here, but in brief, I was a relatively new convert after a long search through most religions and philosophies, and personalism vis-à-vis God was very important to me. At that time I thought that I had to "feel" God's presence in my life, having been influenced by Charismatic Catholics, and I went through a phase in which I was extremely depressed and distraught at not feeling how I thought I should in relationship to God during prayer and the Sacraments. I thought at the time that open theology defended God's personalism against the cold and abstract "God of the philosophers". I thought it helped with the issue of free will, too, but, looking back, I don't think free will was my main concern.

Later, after more turbulence and some smoothing out, I got my head together and realized that it's not (mostly) about how you "feel", and so personalism was less important. When I was able to get past thinking about how I was supposed to feel, I actually improved in viewing God personally. Since the issue no longer loomed as large, open theology was less important. Also, I read this article, originally published in First Things, which made me reassess things.

Finally, I realized that there are problems in many views of open theologians. One of their characteristic slogans is if the philosophers say one thing about God and the Bible says another, then go with the Bible, even if it seems counter-intuitive. Thus, e.g., whereas theologians have long said that God does not "change His mind" since He's unchanging, the Bible often speaks as if He does just that. Likewise, Scripture often indicates that God doesn't know what an individual or nation is going to do. Thus, open theologians base some of their ideas on this kind of preference for Scripture.

Unfortunately, by the same mode of reading, God would appear to have a physical body, to have--ahem--rather turbulent emotions, to have ordered massive slaughter of innocents on numerous occasions, and so on. I realized that the open theologians weren't coming to ideas about God from Scripture (exegesis) but starting from how they thought He ought to be and reading that back in to the Bible (eisegesis). For reasons also way beyond the scope here, I've come to think (perhaps contra the "spirit of Vatican II") that maybe our Protestant brethren are too Bible-oriented, and that maybe we've become a bit too much so as well. It's not a coincidence that open theology has mainly been a Protestant concern, not having gained much attention in Catholicism.

Finally, I've always had a strong streak of Platonism in me, and I have more or less decided that it's a red herring to deride the "God of the philosophers" as a "cold, unfeeling" God to whom we can't relate. I firmly believe that's a false dilemma. Regarding free will, I'm of the mind that in a sense our minds and wills partake, in a sense, of the Divine Will. Since God is sovereignly free, we are truly free insofar as we participate in His freedom. Something like the idea of the relationship of the individual atman to the Atman, but not as emanationist.

Hope that's useful. I may expand this for Alexandria or my own blog in the near future--it made me think carefully about some things I hadn't so thought about at the time, and it might be interesting to explore it more.

Turmarion said...

Oh, John--I prefer yogurt, too. ;) You know, ricotta, the Italian version of cottage cheese, isn't even considered a "cheese" by Italians. What about cc? Is it really cheese? And remember--blessed be the cheesemakers.... ;)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I don't like cottage cheese at all for any purpose, because of the texture AND the taste, EXCEPT, I really love the Tassajara recipe for cottage cheese onion dill bread, and appreciate that the tiniest size available at the grocery store is just right for the recipe.

Our different tastes in cottage cheese can be mutually respected with a bit of humor and humorous overkill. After all you put in your mouth what tastes good to you, I put in my mouth what tastes good to me.

Why can't we just do that with religious differences as well? One reason is that many religions began with commands to go evangelize the whole world, so when everybody doesn't gratefully accept The Truth, the swords come out. Another is that, well, this is God we're talking about, and its not up for humans to revise what God has done.

But that leaves out that we are all HUMANS trying to understand God. Some of us think He tastes like cottage cheese, some of us think He tastes like fresh sliced bell pepper (my staple vegetable).

Hector touches on (and rejects) one of my favorite clarifications from C.S. Lewis, which is great fun to recite to Calvinists addicted to predestination:

The human patient "takes Time for an ultimate reality. He supposes that the Enemy [this is Screwtape talking about God again] like himself, sees some things as present, remembers others as past, and anticipates others as future; or even if he believes that the Enemy does not see things that way, yet, in his heart of hearts, he regards this as a peculiarity of the Enemy's mode of perception... the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it."

Hector said...


Well, no doubt the open theologians are to some extent doing eisegesis- reading conclusions that make sense to them into the Bible. The problem is that so are you, and so am I. We all do it, whether the conclusions we are trying to find Biblical support for come from tradition, from history, from reason, from intuition, or from personal experience. This goes for Catholics who seek to find support for the Immaculate Conception, for the Orthodox who seek to find support for their practices, for modern gay friendly theologians, and for evangelicals who strive to find support for their frankly rather wacky doctrines about the Rapture, as much as it goes for the open theists. (N.B.: I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I'm saying we all do it in some sense or another.)

I've never thought of open theists as being 'overly Bible-oriented' in their way of thinking, on the contrary I've thought of open theism as being more of a liberal thing, as opposed to an evangelical thing. I think that people come to believe in open theism for other reasons (because it's the strongest possible protection for free will, because it gives God the characteristics of personalism, and because it seems less cold and abstract), and then look for biblical support for your conclusions- to that extent, you're quite right. Where I disagree with you is that I'm very sympathetic to those three inclinations, and for the same reason I'm sympathetic towards open theism.

It may be true that God is outside of time (though that raises the question of how God the Father can be simultaneously outside of time while God the Son enters time with the Incarnation), and that would, in a sense, solve the problem of free will vs. predestination. On the other hand, I have no way of knowing or even conceiving what it means for a being to be outside time, and for that very reason I don't have any grounds to make judgments about whether I believe it or not, except that orthodox tradition says so. Tradition might be right, but I'm more comfortable resting free will on the unassailable ground of open theism.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I don't like yogurt either. But I do like swiss cheese.

The Bible reads as if God didn't know what was going to happen because it was addressed to people who lived within a created universe, of which time is the fourth dimension. Indeed, we cannot conceive of what it looks like to God, because we are inside that created universe. That's why I don't pay much attention to doctrines and dogmas about the nature of the Godhead. It is beyond human understanding, period.

In his own way, God did not know what a given person was going to do, because that person had free will, and God watched watches will watch the entire panorama of human history from his vantage point, unbounded by time. What is that like? Ask me after we're both dead, if we indeed have a conscious existence on that plane to discuss the matter. For now, we haven't a clue.