Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan

“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I know this declaration makes great drama; and I know that ever since Milton composed Paradise Lost we cannot but think of Lucifer’s fall from grace as anything but a prideful, almost heroic, assertion of personal autonomy. But Paradise Lost is fiction. In fact, we know very little from the biblical revelation about the nature of angelic beings or of their experiences and temptations, and we know even less about Lucifer’s motivations for rebelling against God. Angels are not human beings, and it would be a mistake for us to pretend that we understand them.

But what if a human being were to speak Lucifer’s words? Would they make sense to us? Yes, of course. We can well imagine Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Khan Noonien Singh choosing to rule in a kingdom of their own. We can imagine them doing so because not only do we know all too well the kinds of people who like to wield power but we know within ourselves the desire for power and autonomy.

But do the words really make sense? Let’s assume that our wannabe Satan is given a clear, unambiguous, and comprehensive vision of God’s infinite love and goodness and of the painful consequences of rebellion and alienation. He is then asked to make a definitive, irrevocable decision. Can we imagine a rational, psychologically healthy human being freely choosing eternal damnation? Thomas Talbott thinks we cannot, if we analyze this question sufficiently. We can certainly imagine someone making such a decision, but we cannot imagine him doing so freelyreasonably, soberly, judiciously.

In his various writings Talbott proposes several necessary conditions for rational freedom:

1) Rationality

The person must qualify as a rational agent. This includes possessing “an ability to learn from experience, an ability to discern reasons for acting, and a capacity for moral improvement” (“Universalism,” p. 452). Those who lack the minimum degree of rationality, such as small children, severely brain-damaged individuals, paranoid schizophrenics, and so forth, do not qualify as free moral agents and are thus incapable of making a rational and mature decision on a matter of such momentous significance.

2) Sufficient information

The person must be fully informed. He needs to know who his Creator is. He needs to know that his Creator genuinely wills his good and happiness. He needs to know that God created him for glorious and joyful communion in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. And he needs to know the consequences of separation from his Creator, that apart from him he will only experience unbearable misery, despair, and loneliness. In other words, he needs enough information to avoid buyer’s remorse.

3) Freedom from deception

Obviously we are not concerned here by any deception on God’s part. He speaks only truth and is the truth. But it is certainly possibly for human beings to be deceived by others or by themselves. “C’mon in, the water’s fine,” my best friend yells, inwardly delighting in the shock I am about to experience. “Go ahead, eat the apple,” the serpent whispers. “It won’t kill you.” Our rational freedom is diminished to the degree that we make choices under conditions of deception.

The most powerful and destructive deceptions are the ones we inculcate within ourselves. Let’s call them delusions. If I truly believe that I can fly like Superman, my decision to jump off the building is not free—I have acted under a delusion. If I believe that I contain within myself all meaning and power, then my decision to reject God and rule in hell is not free—I have acted under a delusion.

4) Freedom from exterior and interior compulsion

If a terrorist takes my family hostage and then instructs me to commit a crime, which I then proceed to do, is my action free? I think we would all agree that it is not. I will have acted under duress. If an evil scientist uses a new technology to take control of my body and compels me to steal a million dollars from the local bank, are my actions free? Of course not. The scientist causally determine my actions. I was but a helpless pawn.

Disordered desires and interior compulsions likewise diminish our freedom. I may recognize that continued drinking is destructive to my well-being, to the happiness of my family, and to my work performance; but given the addiction I may not have sufficient will-power to stop my drinking once and for all. My psychological and physical need for alcohol is too great.  Addictions and interior compulsions reduce and limit our personal liberty.

We now return to our wannabe Satan. Is it coherent to describe his rejection of God and the embrace of eternal perdition as a freely made decision?  What rational motive would he have to deliver himself into everlasting torment and misery?  Talbott elaborates:

Let us distinguish between two senses in which a person might reject God. If a person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does not rest upon ignorance or misinformation or deception of any kind, then let us say that the person has made a fully informed decision to reject God; but if the person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does rest upon ignorance or deception of some kind, then let us say that the person has made a less than fully informed decision to reject God. Now no one, I take it, would deny the possibility of someone’s making a less than fully informed decision to reject God; it happens all the time. … But what might qualify as a motive for someone’s making a fully informed decision to reject God? Once one has learned, perhaps through bitter experience, that evil is always destructive, always contrary to one’s own interest as well as to the interest of others, and once one sees clearly that God is the ultimate source of human happiness and that rebellion can bring only greater and greater misery into one’s own life as well as into the lives of others, an intelligible motive for such rebellion no longer seems even possible. The strongest conceivable motive would seem to exist, moreover, for uniting with God. So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then that person … would seem to display the kind of irrationality which is itself incompatible with free choice. …

Far from illustrating a fully informed decision to reject God, then, Milton’s Satan in fact illustrates the essential role that ignorance, deception, and bondage to unhealthy desires must play in any intelligible decision to reject God. But ignorance, deception, and bondage to unhealthy desires are also obstacles to free choice of the relevant kind. If I am ignorant of, or deceived about, the true consequences of my choices, then I am in no position to embrace those consequences freely. Similarly, if I suffer from an illusion that conceals from me the true nature of God, or the true import of union with God, then I am again in no position to reject God freely. I may reject a caricature of God, or a false conception, but I could hardly reject the true God himself. Accordingly, the very conditions that render a less than fully informed decision to reject God intelligible also render it less than fully free; hence, God should be able to remove these conditions over time – remove the ignorance, the illusions, the bondage to unhealthy desires – without in any way interfering with human freedom. (The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 186-187)

“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”—as I said, it makes great drama. But does it make rational sense?

(Go to “The Secret of the Universalist Hope”)

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30 Responses to Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan

  1. It is easy to agree that it does not make rational sense. But the question that follows is, “So what?” Talbott seems to posit that what is important in creation is a collection of rational agents – in that sense he is more or less imagining the universe as a modern democracy imagines itself. His “rationality” is also restricted to a sort of modernist individual consumer vision. Thus, I would restate is questions: “Why would any reasonable shopper want to buy hell?”

    But this does not describe the world we live in. Our rationality is our logicity, not our shopping sense. How the logos of our being moves towards its proper end varies a great deal and I’m not sure that it is very well presented in the pure rational agent model.

    That said, the fallen angels remain a puzzle. What disordered desire would move someone (thing) towards chaos and non-being? Do the fallen angels represent a sort of existential entropy within creation? I know that if I think of them in such non-personal terms, they become more understandable. Perhaps “personal” is a term that cannot be applied to them, despite their ability to speak. If I ever run across Yannaras on the topic I suspect it would be interesting.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr Stephen, to your question, “So what?”: I think Talbott might say that his account of rational freedom is but a penultimate, preparatory step in his argument—namely, if every eternally decisive decision to reject God is irrational, then:

      (1) The Heavenly Father will not allow his children to be irreparably harmed by their irrational decisions, and

      (2) It cannot be impermissible for God to do what needs to be done to restore personal freedom.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      One more thing: given that human “freedom” is the most important justification invoked to justify eternal perdition, it’s imperative to analyze what freedom means and specify its conditions. Perhaps we are misusing the notion. Perhaps we don’t know what we are talking about. Perhaps we have not thought through the matter sufficiently.


    • AR says:

      Although the idea of “consumer culture” doesn’t ring as true for me as it does for you, Fr. Stephen, I do sympathize with your critique of this view. The idea of freedom as partly being a condition external to the person who is said to be free, and the account of its internal component as consisting in rationality, are just plain disappointing. The problem I see is a certain conceptual poverty. I’m still not familiar with the Orthodox views of volitionality you allude to, but even Jonathan Edwards has more resonant account of volition than this.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Alana, in defense of Talbott, please remember that he hasn’t attempted a full or dense account of volition, and I suspect that such an account is unnecessary for purposes of his argument. All he has to do is to zero in on a couple of the weaknesses of the libertarian account of freely-willed damnation.

        Given the limitations of his argument, does his it succeed? If not, why not?


        • AR says:

          Well, even without a dense explicit account of volition, a concept of volition is implicit in what he says. If I had to play devil’s advocate I would point out Jonathan Edward’s insistence that “free will” is redundant, since freedom is what it means to have a will, and having a will is what it means to be free. By this light, Talbott may be confusing freedom with power – with the ability to do what you will. When actually, the only thing that matters morally is what you will, and whether you do what you will when it IS in your power. In other words, acting irrationally may not be a sign of lacking freedom, but rather of one’s will overpowering one’s reason. The will then is the true inclination toward or against any object.


        • AR says:

          But I agree that many people are rejecting a false God, not the real God, because of misunderstanding. Again, this argument really presumes that the true inclination, and not the freedom to do what one wills, is what matters.


    • Tom Talbott says:

      Father Stephen wrote: “Talbott seems to posit that what is important in creation is a collection of rational agents – in that sense he is more or less imagining the universe as a modern democracy imagines itself.”

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Father. I am wondering, however, whether something I have written leads you to the conclusion that I have just quoted above. If so, could you perhaps let me know what it is? My own interest in the concept of rationality, or perhaps I should say the minimal degree of rationality that freedom requires, arises from a desire to discover a plausible understanding of freedom itself. Long ago I concluded that too many philosophers employ the term “free will,” or even the term “libertarian freedom,” as a kind of jargon trap word, without any clear idea of what they are talking about.

      Here is the problem, as I see it. Free will theists, as I like to call them, have too often allowed free choice to figure into their abstract calculations no differently than an utterly random event or chance occurrence would. Relying upon a seriously incomplete analysis of freedom, they have typically proceeded as if there are no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. They have typically specified a single necessary condition of moral freedom, namely that a choice is free in the libertarian sense only if it is not causally determined, and they have then seemed content to leave it at that—as if there were no other necessary conditions of free choice, which there surely are. For not just any uncaused event or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice of the relevant kind. At the very least, moral freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality on the part of the choosing agent, including an ability to learn from experience, an ability to discern reasons for acting, and a capacity for moral improvement. With good reason, therefore, do we exclude small children, the severely brain damaged, paranoid schizophrenics, and even dogs from the class of free moral agents. For however causally undetermined some of their behavior might be, they all lack some part of the rationality required to qualify as free moral agents.

      So if you believe, as I suspect you do (though I have no way of knowing for sure), that God created us as free moral agents, would you not also agree that he likewise created us with a minimal degree of rationality as well? And would you not agree, furthermore, that a fully informed decision to reject God would fall well below that minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires?

      Thanks again for your contribution.



  2. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan: 2) Sufficient information. The person must be fully informed.

    Tom: Just a (repeated, sorry) thought. Sufficient is just that—sufficient. It need not be “fully” informed to the exclusion of all relevant ignorance. Perhaps freedom here (of the self-determining sort, with respect to good/evil, that is, with respect to how we move toward or away from conformity to our ‘logos’) requires sufficient information AND sufficient ignorance, viz., sufficient epistemic distance. If the ignorance is too great, responsibly free choice for God can’t be made. TomT’s made that point well. But if all possibility of false meaning-making is removed, wouldn’t that result in as constrained an outcome as the sort TomT objects to? Arguably so. In my view, the ‘manner of choice’ becomes ‘part of the outcome’ God desires (part of the ‘person’ we become is achieved in freely conforming ourselves to our ‘logos’). Is there an epistemic distance which is ‘natural’ (because God-given) and necessary to conforming to our ‘logos’? Would seem so. My guess is this is what brought about angelic rebellion as well, assuming they’re rational.


  3. Brian says:

    In term of satan choosing the kingdom of heaven: didn’t he have perfect freedom before he fell and still chose a path away from God? Is it possible for him sometime in the ages of ages to choose God since he in perfect freedom rejected him. Man on the other hand could be argued never had freedom and given that opportunity would choose God.


  4. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the traditional motivations for Satan as wanting to be greater than God because he must have known in the angelic state that nothing was greater than God. So I’ve been thinking about that other Jewish (and Islamic) notion, adopted by Christians, too, that Satan fell because of Adam’s creation as a son of God to which he refused to venerate – of humanity’s election and its destiny in Christ (creature of clay over creature of fire). Another rabbinic story adds an additional twist that Lucifer and his followers see the future and knows humanity will disobey, protesting against God on the grounds of justice with God replying on the grounds of mercy that He will remain with the human project despite what they do. In both of these cases, Satan becomes almost like one of those doomsday devices in Star Trek which Captain Kirk destroys by giving it an illogical proposition – one that shows the illogic of divine love versus perceived divine justice. In both cases, however, this resulted from perhaps Lucifer’s erroneous contemplation of himself and the perfection of the angelic nature. If that is the case, then perhaps his decision – and God’s judgment – could be seen a great trial, one created by Lucifer through which he might learn (or might never learn). Can something start as a delusion and then become a “free” choice when refusing to accept divine love?


    • AR says:

      That’s interesting – the idea that mankind is the “issue” around which the fall of Satan revolves. I also am perplexed by the traditional version, which after all is based on pretty iffy scriptural evidence. I think it would make even more sense to me if the event in Eden were not only the fall of man, but if it were simultaneously the fall of Lucifer. I can’t really accept the idea that God allowed an evil creature into the garden of the innocent just to test them. It may be that “subtlety” is the state prior to an angelic fall (and many human falls, too) – the impossible sophistication that deadens true Reason. In that case, the serpent was saying something completely accurate to Eve, but it involved subtleties that she tripped over, that led her astray. The moment she sinned, the serpent sinned, too – by being the cause of her sin.

      Scriptural support for this view would be the fact that the serpent, along with Adam and Eve, recieves a curse pronouncement from God immediately after the event. Some kind of crippling, some restriction of movement to the earthly realm, is the result of his corruption of mankind.


  5. Nathan Duffy says:

    One of the many problems with the argument is that the infirmity we suffer which results in our blindness re: the dire consequences of our actions, and hence keeps us from acting rightly, soberly, reasonably etc. is always *itself* a self-inflicted and blameworthy infirmity. It isn’t caused by any exterior agent or set of conditions, but is a voluntary turning away from the good. What is then described here is a further descent away from true autonomy and freedom, resulting in a progressively darkened nous. But this movement is ultimately rooted in the will of the individual.

    Looking at the prototype and inaguration of sin is instructive. It was impelled by a deceiver, sure, but Adam was fully informed as to his situation. He knew who God is, he knew what He commanded, and he knew that not-God was telling him something contrary to what God told him, and he did it anyway, because he was truly free (being made in the image and likeness of God). Which, in turn, results in the corruption and distortion of the likeness, and which is restored in Christ, for those who freely acknowledge their infirmity, repent of their being the sole cause of it, and act turn to Christ in faith so as to be healed of it.

    At any rate, purely speculative-philosophical investigation of the question — which this seems to be, given the utter absence of appeal to Scripture or Tradition — will always be fruitless. When we look to what has been revealed on the matter in the Gospel and in the Fathers, the murk of the waters is dispersed fully.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Nathan, for a succint statement of the traditional Orthodox defense of eternal perdition. Dr Talbott addresses some of your arguments in his essay “Freedom, Damnation, and the Power to Sin with Impunity.” If you haven’t read it yet, I commend it to you.

      Your critical claim: “the infirmity we suffer which results in our blindness re: the dire consequences of our actions, and hence keeps us from acting rightly, soberly, reasonably etc. is always *itself* a self-inflicted and blameworthy infirmity. It isn’t caused by any exterior agent or set of conditions, but is a voluntary turning away from the good.”

      I certainly agree with you that the sinful actions that pervert our hearts and cause us to become hardened against God are freely chosen, if by that we mean that the person voluntarily chooses and determines them. They are not caused by anything or anyone else. The person is thus morally responsible for them. Not even St Augustine would disagree. But there is more to be said, I think. A couple of brief thoughts.

      First, I believe that a free action is always motivated. I choose to do something for a reason, or complex of reasons. This is not to deny that a person might do something thoughtlessly, perhaps out of bad habit or because he is drunk (under the influence) or whatever; but such motiveless actions are by definition arbitrary or random, not free, actions: they do not rise from the self-determining center of the human person. I think Talbott would agree with this.

      Second, when a person chooses to act sinfully, he never directly chooses evil, which is pure nothingness and therefore is not an object of human intention. We always choose a good. What makes an action sinful is the choice of a lesser good at the expense of a greater good–the greatest Good, of course, being God himself. I mention this because I think it is often forgotten when we talk about an individual completely rejecting God. I do not know if Talbott would agree with this.

      Third, it is important for us to distinguish between the sin we choose and the consequence of the sin we do not intend. I seriously doubt that the person who becomes addicted to cocaine ever chooses his addiction; rather, he chooses to snort the drug because of the high it gives him. The consequence of emotional and physical addiction simply sneaks up on him. Is the person responsible for becoming addicted? Yes, I think so. Did he freely choose the state of addiction? I doubt it. This distinction is important when discussing the free-will defense of hell and brings us back to the question of the conditions of personal freedom.

      At the conclusion of your comment you raise the spectre of philosophy versus theology. Given that Talbott is a philosopher, I don’t think that the fact that he chooses to think about the question of damnation in rigorous philosophical argument should be held against him. Personally, I find the clarity that he brings to this subject refreshing. But if you want to see how he handles biblical exegesis, for example, I suggest you take a look at his book The Inescapable Love of God (the 2nd edition is due out within the next 12 months or so). Needless to say, if one is convinced that either the Bible or the Church dogmatically teaches Hell and eternal damnation, then no argument, whether theological, biblical, or philosophical, will be convincing.


    • Tom Talbott says:

      Nathan Duffy wrote:

      Looking at the prototype and inauguration of sin is instructive. It was impelled by a deceiver, sure, but Adam was fully informed as to his situation. He knew who God is, he knew what He commanded, and he knew that not-God was telling him something contrary to what God told him, and he did it anyway, because he was truly free (being made in the image and likeness of God).

      This strikes me, Nathan, as an excellent statement of how St. Augustine understood the first human sin. But St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons between roughly 177 and 202 A.D., gave a very different account, and I contrast these two different accounts towards the end of a paper entitled “Why Christians Should Not Be Determinists: Reflections on the Origin of Human Sin” (Faith and Philosophy vol. 25, 2008). That paper is also available on my personal website at the following URL:


      Here are a couple of paragraphs from that paper:

      As Irenaeus understood it, Adam’s initial sin arose in the first place for just this reason: Like every other child, he first emerged and began making choices in a morally immature state. Iranaeus even went so far as to suggest that, when compared to the guardians of this world, namely the angels, Adam had a distinct disadvantage. For whereas the angels “were in their full development,” Adam “was a little one; … he was a child and had need to grow so as to come to his full perfection.” The serpent, Irenaeus declared, thus had little trouble in deceiving him: “the man was a little one, and his discretion still undeveloped, wherefore also he was easily misled by the deceiver” (my emphasis). As Irenaeus understood the first human sin, then, it was virtually an inevitable consequence of the unperfected condition in which our first parents initially emerged and started making choices. They may have started out as innocently as any other child—“their thoughts were innocent and childlike”—but, like every other child, they made their first moral choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception, a context in which their judgment was already clouded and they had no clear idea of what they were doing. Their decision to eat the forbidden fruit, in other words, was no more a perfectly free choice, however causally undetermined it may have been, than the disobedient choices of a typical two year old are perfectly free.

      Observe also how well this understanding of the first human sin comports with both the actual story of Adam and Eve, as recorded in Genesis, and the New Testament commentary on it. So far as I can tell, not one word in the Christian Scriptures implies that our first parents were any less disposed to act in misguided and self-centered ways than their merely human descendants are; nor does anything there imply that someone not already in a “fallen” (or, more accurately, an unperfected) condition might nonetheless succumb to temptation and sin. Were not Adam and Eve subject to the same ambiguities, the same ignorance, and even the same delusions to which the rest of us are subject as well? Like the rest of us who enter this earthly life as newborn babies, they came into being with no clear understanding of good and evil. So what could it possibly mean, I would ask, to say that someone with no clear understanding of good and evil was nonetheless created morally upright? And what might it mean to say that such a person had a clear understanding of who God is, or to declare, as the Canons of Dort do, that Adam had “a true and saving knowledge of his Creator”? In the Genesis account, Adam and Eve certainly knew that some authority (a kind of parental figure, if you will) had commanded them not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden; but like the children they were in all but appearance, they also confronted this command without any understanding of why they were required to obey it or why the command had been issued in the first place. It is as if God had simply told them, as loving parents sometimes do with immature children and in an effort to protect them from danger: “You must obey this command because I said so!” And like the children they were in all but appearance, their eyes were opened to their own imperfections or sinful propensities (the symbol for which in the story is their nakedness) only after their emerging wills had already mired them in an act of disobedience. It therefore seems to me quite plausible for a Christian to think of this story not as an account of how human beings came to acquire a “sinful nature” in the first place, but rather as an account of how our first parents’ natural propensity to “miss the mark” originally manifested itself in the context of ambiguity and illusion in which they first emerged.

      I realize, of course, that the Irenaean account of the first human sin is very different from what many Christians have encountered in Sunday school, though it accords perfectly with a common Jewish understanding. But if we set aside all theological and philosophical preconceptions, is there anything, I would ask, in the text itself that would exclude the Irenaean account? For my own part, I cannot think of anything.

      Thanks for your contribution.



  6. AR says:

    Talbott seems to indicate that no one on Earth is fully free (I definitely agree) and that, therefore, the choice we make in this life can’t really be the true final choice of the person. (Not necessarily true.)

    How free do we have to be in order for our choice to represent our genuine inclinations? More properly, is it we or is it God who depends upon our earthly choices to manifest our true inclination? If it is us only – if God can read our true inclination without needing to read it by the light of our earthly choices – then the issue of whether we are free enough to be responsible for our choice is moot. A person may not know his own true choice.

    Moreover, the implication that full freedom is the only condition under which Hell could be experienced is not something I can agree with. There are views of Hell which do not require a free-will defense.

    Fr. Kimel, you’ve represented Lewis as defending a free-will Hell, but I don’t think that was really his idea. I think he experimented with several ideas of Hell, but mostly was saying that Hell is a natural consequence of the laws of the spiritual or moral world – in which God only interferes when asked. “God’s justice” then is somewhat euphamistic for “the way God created the world, expressed negatively when people transgress reality.” Thus going to Hell is akin to falling when one jumps off a building (or is thrown.) No free-will necessary; it just has to happen.

    There are other idea-Hells, too. For one, there’s the Hell that is simply the state of the soul at death, experienced without the interpreting mechanisms of the body. This is the painful illness or condition left in the spiritual body once sin has passed through and done its work, leaving the person suffering.

    More darkly, there is the Hell that is the condition of being the devil’s prey. This is represented by Screwtape Letters, and by most of the medieval Hell visions, so that it’s quite venerable, if deeply repugnant. In this view, the person was barely complicit in his or her own damnation, but that can’t be helped – it’s not a decision of God or of man, but a direct action of the devil. A person’s pious actions could have saved them, but freedom was not involved in damning them.

    There’s the Hell in which the flames are one’s sins themselves, burning on and on in the shape of desires which can no longer be fulfilled because the body is gone, and thus causing suffering. This appears both in The Great Divorce and in medieaval Hell visions. Sin does this, just like fire burns; you don’t have to know ahead of time that it’s going to in order to experience it.

    And there’s the Hell in which the flames are God’s presence, experienced through the unnatural prism of one’s sinfulness. (The River of Fire.) In this view, only the body veils us from God, temporarily, as a form of “long-suffering” on God’s part. But this can’t continue forever; the opportunity to do evil must end at some point. When the veil is removed, God’s presence is what is left.

    Then there’s the Hell in which the flames are one’s sins as experienced in God’s presence, torturing the person with the inaccessibility of what he has rejected. (St. Isaac’s “scourge of Love.”) Will people in St. Isaac’s Hell write love poems to The Unattainable?

    There’s the “Magnetic” Hell which one is tragically attracted to, through a deep desire or character flaw. This is the Hell of fate; a Christian could hardly take it seriously but other religions feature it prominently.

    There is also the Hell of having become one’s sins, when the human part has died off. Referenced (as a possibility?) in The Last Battle. In this view, freedom was once present in some degree, but it was misused and now it has disappeared – the damned person is damned precisely because he has no more freedom left, since he squandered it in activities that actually destroyed freedom. Again, you don’t have to know it’s happening – it just has to happen.

    None of these Hells, as far as I can tell, require a free-will defense in order for them to occurr – only the “divine punishment” version does.


    • Tom Talbott says:

      AR wrote: “None of these [described] Hells, as far as I can tell, require a free-will defense in order for them to occur – only the “divine punishment” version does.”

      I think you make some extremely important points, AR, along the way to your conclusion that I quote above. I also agree with you that many conceptions of hell, most notably John Calvin’s own conception, not only do not require a free will defense; they are in fact incompatible with any such defense. Still, you might want to rethink your suggestion that “only the ‘divine punishment’ version” of hell requires such a defense. For most contemporary proponents of a free will defense also reject altogether the punishment model of hell and substitute for it some other model. Jonathan Kvanvig, for example, explicitly rejects such a model (see Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, Oxford University Press), and so does Jerry Walls (see Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, University of Notre Dame Press).

      The basic idea of these philosophers is that hell is a freely embraced condition rather than, as the Augustinians and the Calvinists suppose, an externally imposed punishment. According to the latter view, hell may indeed be punishment for sins freely committed during an earthly lifetime, but it is not itself a freely chosen consequence. Many who end up there do not even expect to do so. Hence, there is no mystery on this view why, once consigned to hell, people stay there; they have no further choice in the matter.

      But the former view is, I contend, simply incoherent. For no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly experience absolute separation from God—in the outer darkness, for example—and continue to regard this as a more desirable state than the bliss of union with God. So how could anyone both experience the outer darkness and and freely choose to stay there—sort of like a soul suspended alone in nothingness, without even a physical order to experience? Can we coherently imagine someone freely embracing a condition in which “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is its most prominent feature?

      I put this merely as a question. Thanks for some important observations.



      • AR says:

        Hi, Tom, thanks for replying to my comment! Your view makes a lot more sense in summary than in excerpt, and is closely reasoned. I think my comment about the retributive Hell needing a free-will defense was kind of incoherent, but it came from my perception that those putting forward a free-will defense are reacting to the retributive Hell – that at some level they are still talking about the same Hell, but they have developed a different explanation for why it happens. In my experience, ordinary people rush to say “But this is what you chose!” when meting out punishment, or when talking about God meting out punishment.

        But, I see that the two represent different published views.

        Let’s see… it seems to me that one element of the process of making a free choice would be an analysis of available options. I can conceive of someone freely choosing an existence of darkness and pain… not as immediately desirable, but as the more preferable option. If we assume that to this soul God is intolerable rather than delightful, and the misery of Hell is tolerable by comparison because it’s the habitual and conditioned state of the soul, that does seem like a possibility to me. This assumes, however, that volition is not bound to follow objective reasoned conclusions (if such a thing even exists) but rather follows something such as inner likeness or inner similarity. In other words, when we see something in front of us, we are inclined to it and approve of it if it shares to a large degree some likeness with what we are, or if it somehow represents our inner character. Thus we flow out toward it, our choice conditioned mainly by our character – which is ourself – therefore we are free.

        Does this state qualify as internal compulsion in your view? It also seems possible that freedom occurs, not as a stable condition, but as a punctuated condition that ocurs at a moment of vision, or sanity – when one catches a glimpse of the nature of reality. To assent to that vision is to increase in being and make way for further incidents of freedom; to dissent is to decrease in being and to further limit opportunities for freedom. So, the person who chooses Hell might be reduced to an ontological setting that involves a basal level of possible freedom-incidents where he is repeatedly presented with the same vision of reality, and continually dissents to it. Or, the punctuated condition might have become a stable condition with the removal of the body’s divided moments, but still have been reduced to a single, simple continuous vision and a single continuous dissenting choice.

        To be honest, I haven’t come to any conclusions about Hell yet, though I think it’s courageous and useful that you have done so. I keep looking for something that satisfies me conceptually. I need a way to beleive that at some level of understanding, Hell does not really exist, that it has no place in the kingdom of God. I think that must be true. So my problems are as much hermeneutical as philosophical. And, since I don’t usually spend my days doing this kind of thing, I don’t make much progress.

        All the best!


        • Tom Talbott says:

          Thanks AR. As you continue to think through the issue of human freedom, you continue to make perceptive points. One such point concerns the effect of past free choices on one’s present character and therefore on one’s future choices. I address such issues in a book-chapter entitled “Grace, Character Formation, and Predestination unto Glory” (and most relevantly in a section entitled “Free Choice and Character Formation”).

          It could get embarrassing if I keep referring here to my own work, but a typescript copy of the relevant chapter is again available on my personal website at the following URL:


          And perhaps I can put off embarrassment for a while by reminding myself that my own thinking about Milton’s Satan is our current topic and that I have also written, however incoherently, about many of the related issues being discussed here.



          • AR says:

            Sometimes it’s easier than re-stating what you’ve already said elsewhere. 🙂 Thanks again for the conversation.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, please do not be embarrassed about citing your articles in which you address the questions and arguments that we raise. I for one am grateful. I am even more grateful that you have joined us in conversation here on EO.


  7. seraphim says:

    This is an issue I have given a lot of thought to and it has been the major obstacle keeping me from being baptized. I cannot make sense of how an angelic being can reject God, and I cannot understand how a person could reject God having a sufficient knowledge of the consequences that would follow from such a rejection. I cannot make sense of damnation in any other form than a state of purgation. Eternal punishment doesn’t serve any purpose and nobody in their right mind is going to choose it. It is also silly to claim that all of the things that hinder our decisionmaking are of our own choosing. We are conditioned to make decisions by external entities from before we can even comprehend what we are doing, and certain habitual actions form which can turn into ailments.

    Perhaps this is why people choose Calvinism. It makes sense of why certain people will be damned- because God wills it to be so.


  8. tgbelt says:

    Was just reading (critical) comments DBHart makes re: voluntarism and the modern concept of freedom as “pure spontaneity of will.” So just to clarify my concern and comments, by ‘freedom’ (or ‘free will’ or ‘libertarian free will’) I don’t mean anything like a pure spontaneity of will. Whatever exercise (free, responsible, whatever) of the will we enjoy, it’s always contextualized by the constraints of created nature—embodiment, ignorance, habit, socialization, etc. Pure freedom from everything—even nature, isn’t conceivable.


  9. Drew says:

    This piece by Dr. Beck has stuck with me ever since I read it.

    “If our affections are disordered there is no way we can “choose our way” toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can’t just abandon us to our choices. God can’t just step back and say, “I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom.” That’s a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn’t about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?”



    • tgbelt says:

      I don’t know of any other way “toward God” except through choosing God, even in the context of extreme divine influence (take Paul’s Damascus road experience). If we can’t choose our way toward God, then we are irrevocably lost. But I don’t think one has to suppose the will is free in any absolute or unconstrained sense, or that it isn’t in fact damaged or wounded, or that it can achieve beatitude apart from divine grace, in order to suppose that it is free to accept or reject this grace. In an Orthodox sense (if I understand rightly), nature already is grace-infused. If we exist and have a will at all, we’re open to some level of grace as the very ground/act of our being. The question is, if we require grace (and we do), (a) Must we suppose grace to be absent from nature? and (b) Must we suppose grace to be overwhelming in the determining sense for it to be sufficient?


  10. SteveL says:

    I think it’s interesting to compare Milton’s Satan to the nonsensical babbling and gnawing of Satan in Dante’s Inferno. For Dante, evil loses its rationality as it habitually chooses to do evil. There is a point of no return for those who are aware of evil and its consequences and continue to choose it. I guess the point of contention is whether Satan would have known the consequences up front.


  11. Michael Bauman says:

    Given the mountain of Patristic and Scriptural assertions that Hell is real and that people will go there (where ever “there” is) it seems to be quite dangerous to play around with the idea that no one will eventually. It gives comfort of a sort, but it could easily be a false comfort, one of those delusions spoken of here.

    My priest gave a brief sermon on the topic recently using the text of the sheep and the goats in Matthew. His conclusion: “There will be a judgment and some won’t make the cut.”

    Given Jesus command to Peter not to worry about John and his journey, what salvific profit is it to try to ‘wrap out minds around’ these things. That is impossible anyway and, in some ways, the very attempt will result in some form of delusion.

    Our ‘choice’ such that it is, is to the same as Adam’s and Eve’s: obedience or rebellion. Self-emptying or false autonomy.

    I do not believe much in rationality as a good guide to salvation. It is too limited, to cold. Without balance it is quite destructive, just a too much sentimentality and emotion is. Love involves the whole person. Saints challenge all of our concepts of rationality, choice and even all we consider good and proper–because we control those, It can be an aide to a point, but only to a point.

    “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself”

    That is the Alpha and the Omega, the Law and the Prophets. That is what Satan fails to do, is perhaps what he is no longer capable of doing.

    Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    If I can ever say that prayer just once and really mean it in its fullness, I will realize the Kingdom. In my present state, I would probably go insane, but perhaps that is not all bad. Rationality can and does justify anything.

    I know three things: 1. Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God; 2. I am not; 3. Only by His mercy am I able to do anything even approaching good because my heart is cold and selfish.

    “We do pray for mercy, that same pray doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy”


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, may I suggest that the question is not whether hell is real or whether anyone goes there. The question is whether the state of perdition is eternal. It’s the difference between aidios and aionios.


  12. Edward De Vita says:

    I have a theological question for which I have never obtained a good answer. Perhaps someone here can give me one. It is common teaching in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplished the salvation of the world and destroyed sin and death. My question is a simple one. What do we mean by these words?Clearly, the majority of Christians do not take them literally for they believe that there are many who will not be saved and that sin and death will continue forever in hell. Whatever we think of the teaching of Origen, St. Gregory and St. Isaac, we can at least give them credit for taking these words to mean what they say. One thing that can be said for their view is that it takes seriously both the wrath of God’s judgment and the promise to destroy both sin and death. The traditional view of hell, on the other hand, while it takes seriously the former, does not seem to do justice to the latter. Indeed, one is left to wonder if it even takes seriously enough the whole idea of the wrath of God which, it seems to me, makes little sense apart from a desire on God’s part to eradicate sin altogether, not to keep it compartmentalized in some corner of the universe.
    Just so everyone knows, I write this as one who believes in an eternal hell, at the very least as a real possibility for each one of us.


  13. Chris K says:

    Who can say that the devil really had a “perfect knowledge” of God? Perhaps he was the best-created finite creature, and the angels came into being like Adam did–good, but not yet perfected. Perhaps it was the choice that determined the granting of the full & perfect knowledge, because complete union between rational beings requires consent, just as it does for us in our faith. If, seeing that he was the highest of all creatures, he took that to be the sign of his right to rule to his own benefit (pride), that would be an “empirical” way for him to fall. Or, if he were not the highest, but perhaps simply the angel set over earth and its vicinity, perhaps he saw his lowly status, and wished to increase it, or something like that, in whatever form that might take for the angels. Again, because this would have been a choice that he would have had to have made in a pre-theoria-vision state, it would not (and I argue, could not) be made with “perfect knowledge” of the infinite God. What do you think of that? I don’t have references handy, but I remember coming to something like this conclusion after studying various saints on the issue.


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