“Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). It’s a stunning statement. If taken in its literal force, as it most certainly was by the preachers and theologians of the early Church, it requires an equally stunning revision of the monotheism of Israel. Ultimately it requires, as Jerry Walls notes, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity:
Before there was a world or angels or any other created beings over which God ruled as King or Sovereign Lord, God was a Father who had a Son. And the Father and Son and Holy Spirit existed before all worlds in a relationship of perfect love and joyful delight in each other. God did not need a world to love in order for it to be true that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Rather, the fact that “God is love” is an eternal, fundamental reality. (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 26)
In his inner being, God is love, and he would be love even if had not made the world, even if he never “become” Creator. Love is the “original, primordial reality” (p. 70). All things flow from this love and will be consummated in love.
This confession of the Holy Trinity raises a critical question for anyone who reflects deeply on the Last Things: How can there be hell? Walls gives the only possible answer: “Hell is possible precisely because God is love” (p. 70).
Walls thus announces that he will be defending in Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory what is often called a free-will or choice model of eternal damnation, in contrast to the retributive punishment model that long dominated Western Christian eschatology (see Jonathan Kvanvig, “Heaven and Hell“). Walls does not say much about the punishment model in his book, presumably because he judges it patently incompatible with the trinitarian confession of the nature of God. I judge this to be an unfortunate omission. The belief that divine justice demands eternal damnation not only enjoys wide support in the theological tradition, but it still retains a firm grip on the popular imagination. Dante’s Inferno may no longer be mandatory reading for literature majors, but Hollywood certainly has not forgotten its terrifying vision. And sermons urging the threat of everlasting torment can still be heard from Christian pulpits around the world.
At the heart of the free-will defense of hell is the conviction that every human being is given by God the freedom to decisively and irrevocably reject God. “If a man loves me, he will keep my word,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:23-24). Walls comments:
Again, what I want to emphasize here is our free choice in this matter. Notice the conditional statement: if we love Jesus and obey his teaching, he and the Father will make their home with us!
Recall from chapter 1 that the crowning feature of heaven is that God will live with us in intimate fellowship. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them” (Rev. 21:3). The text from John teaches us that we can experience this in a preliminary fashion even in this life. But notice: for God to live with us, we must love and obey him. Love and obedience are closely connected, but obedience is not simply a matter of rote performance. The obedience God wants from us is an obedience that flows out of genuine love.
And this is what brings into focus the staggering reality that hell is possible precisely because God is love. For what this text also brings to light is that some may choose not to love Jesus or obey his teaching. As astounding as this is to contemplate, some human beings may refuse the gift of perfect love. They may choose not to welcome God into their lives. They may choose to reject the trinitarian God of eternal love, the Creator of the universe who gave his Son in order to give us eternal life with him.
This is what makes the connection with hell obvious. Any who choose not to love God and invite him into their lives have chosen to exclude themselves from heaven by that very choice. Remember, heaven is the ultimate experience of “God with us.” (pp. 72-73)
God loves every sinner and will do everything in his power to secure their salvation, short of overriding their divinely-given freedom. Walls call this “optimal grace.” God sincerely and genuinely desires the salvation of all and will overcome all obstacles that might inhibit a person from giving a free and wholehearted response to the call of the gospel. By the action of the Spirit, he will put every sinner in a position to embrace, or incomprehensibly reject, his love and forgiveness. But God will not force himself upon unwilling subjects. “God loves us and desires our love in return,” writes Walls. “True love can be invited, elicited, and won, but it cannot be coerced, programmed, or simply demanded” (p. 73)
We should not think of grace, moreover, as some kind of invariable, homogeneous power. Salvific grace is specific to each person, as Walls explains in his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation:
What I am suggesting is that if God desires to save all persons, he will give to each person whatever is the optimal measure of grace for that person.
This measure of grace should not be conceived as a static uniform given. Rather, it will differ in some respects from one individual person to another. What represents measure N for Jones may completely overwhelm Smith in such a way that his freedom is destroyed. Moreover, what is effective in influencing Smith toward good may only make Jones more resistant. So the even distribution of grace does not in any way entail treating all persons in just the same way. It means doing what is best for each individual to elicit, if possible, a positive response from him.
Another way of making this point is to say that God need not give everyone the maximal amount of grace which he can give without abrogating freedom. Some persons may respond to a lesser portion of grace. These persons need only to receive the minimally sufficient amount of grace, which would be that level of grace which would effectively dispose them to receive salvation. For these persons, the effective level of grace may fall far short of the level at which their freedom would be overridden. (pp. 88-89)
No matter the circumstances and conditions of life, God will provide whatever is necessary to make it possible for a person to freely say yay or nay to the divine offer of salvation. God’s love, therefore, may be understood as unconditional, but the sinner still must accept this love by faith and repentance:
It is important to understand that we are not forgiven unconditionally. To be sure, God loves us unconditionally, and he unconditionally offers us the gift of forgiveness purchased by the blood of Christ. We do not need to do anything as a condition for God to offer his forgiveness to us. However, we are not actually forgiven unless we repent and accept the offer of forgiveness. (HHP, p. 151)
One cannot accept forgiveness unless one is willing to acknowledge the wrong one has done. This acknowledgement necessarily includes confession of guilt, contrition, conversion, obedience. The father of the parable forgave his prodigal son the moment his son abandoned him, but the son first had to return home before he could experience his father’s forgiveness and reenter the sonship he had lost. There is no other way into the life of Christ. God has unlocked the prison door, but we must walk through the door into the light of freedom and grace. Walls thus advocates an understanding of grace that may be described as synergistic.
Given his confession of the universality of the divine love, Walls firmly rejects all Augustinian construals that limit grace to a select group of humanity. Christ has died for all. Walls also rejects the distinction between efficient and sufficient grace, as articulated by Calvinists and neo-scholastics. He references one Calvinist theologian in particular—Terrence Tiessen. In his book Who Can be Saved? Tiessen argues that while “God gives everyone sufficient grace to enable them to believe in him … he only draws and persuades effectively the elect” (p. 239). Tiessen surveys synergist models of grace and distinguishes them from his monergist proposal:
In those synergist models, the grace does not suffice for salvation without the additional cooperative work of the people who receive it. In my monergist model, the grace suffices for salvation only when further divine grace is supplied, to make the enablement efficacious. Nevertheless, I too have been asked how I can call a grace sufficient when it is never, in any instance, sufficient to bring a person to salvation. I have wondered whether it might be better to call the universal grace of which I am speaking an enabling grace, in distinction from efficacious grace. At this point, however, I suggest that we maintain the term sufficient because there is an important sense in which this grace is indeed, sufficient, even though it does not suffice for salvation. Its sufficiency lies particularly in its being enough to justify God’s condemnation. Through this enablement by the Spirit, which all people experience at least once in their lifetime, they could respond to the revelation accompanied by the enabling grace if they would do so. (pp. 241-242; also see Tiessen’s recent blog response to Walls)
Grace that is insufficient for justification but sufficient to justify divine reprobation? Walls remarks that non-Calvinists will likely find this formulation of grace puzzling. I am not puzzled, I am horrified.