Jerry Walls: Hell is a Hell of a Choice

“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.

(Go to the “Irrationality of Hell”)

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12 Responses to Jerry Walls: Hell is a Hell of a Choice

  1. 407kwac says:

    As well you should be (horrified)! This is what happens when theology comes from human reasoning from the statements (the “letter”) of Scripture rather than from a deep experiential encounter with Christ in his Church (“A theologian is one who prays …”). It appalls me that horror and grief are not the norm in response to this kind of thinking among so many professing Christians in this culture. No wonder so many are hostile to “Christian faith” in the West, since this is how God in his “grace” is presented.

    Karen

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  2. No Man's Land says:

    It seems to me that if man conditions his own forgiveness, then no one would ever be forgiven–how could we ever be sure our repentance was genuine or that we accepted God’s forgiveness or that we’ve done enough to merit it? Of course, an answer is only an answer for someone who is aware of the question, but the idea that I could do something that merits my own forgiveness seems contrary to divine forgiveness. God didn’t forgive me because of anything I did, even the act of asking for and wanting forgivenss. God forgave me even though I am sinner. And that says something quite a bit different. Indeed repentance does not beget forgiveness. It is the other way round, in fact, as anyone who has been forgiven can attest.

    In the way of postscript, I think I am echoing something Tillich said once, although I cannot remember where.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      May I play Devil’s advocate for a sec? While your point pertains to the question of assurance, does it apply to Walls’s argument that we cannot be forgiven, i.e., enter into a state of forgiveness, until we personally appropriate that forgiveness and begin to live lives of repentance and faith? How would you prefer to formulate the matter?

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      • No Man's Land says:

        Yes, I think it does. Forgiveness is not conditioned by us, so to be forgiven does constitute our being able to recognize or acknowledge that forgiveness. Of course, once we realize we are forgiven, which is intimated in our very existence I might add, we repent. So forgiveness precedes repentance. In other words, we don’t earn forgiveness by repenting or knowing that we are wretched sinners–indeed that seems a dangerous road–but in order to repent we have to know we are forgiven. In fact, I think the very act of asking for forgiveness is rooted in our being so overwhelmed by God’s unconditional forgiveness, knowing, as we do, that we are filthy rags not worthy of forgiveness and yet it is being given to us unconditionally, that we try to contribute something of value, something which makes us worthy of God’s forgiveness. And so we say, at the very least, we need to ask for forgiveness to get it, but that is not how it works. God forgives us, then, we repent.

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  3. young and rested says:

    What has puzzled me for a while is this persistent idea that God would limit Himself to doing just “enough to justify [His] condemnation” of non-believers. This idea makes God out to be always finding some loophole in our ideas of love and justice through which he can wiggle out of. He seems to ‘enjoy’ appearing hateful and unjust, but then maintains some sort of immunity to the labels through technicalities. I think it really all comes down to people attempting to reconcile what scripture (and I would argue, the voice of God whispering to us) teaches us about God being love and just, with what they believe is unquestionably taught in scripture about the nature/duration of hell.

    I personally believe that God will eventually blow the covers off of all of our highest conceptions of love and justice when He has reconciled the world to himself and become all in all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree. I find Tom Talbott’s treatment of love and justice in The Inescapable Love of God far more compelling than traditional treatments in which retribution ultimately trumps love.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your own thoughts, Fr. Kimel. What keeps me from being horrified, rather than only puzzled, about God’s eternal purpose to save much (most, I have argued) but not all of the human race is my sense of the great graciousness of God in saving any of us. Horror appears to proceed from the assumption that all human beings, despite their deliberate rebellion against God, have a right to be forgiven by God. That diminishes the undeservedness which is the essence of grace. None of God’s creatures, however sinful, is without much grace from God, who sends his rain on both the unrighteous and the righteous. That human society continues to function at all, when every one in it is a sinner, is the fruit of God’s grace, what Reformed theologians call “common grace.”

    Like you, I find universalism attractive, but my understanding of Scripture does not support it. I also grant that a commitment to libertarianism, which grounds the free will defense of God in the face of evil, including the evil of hell, is attractive, particularly in post-enlightenment western cultural contexts. Again, however, that does not accord with the biblical portrayal of God’s meticulous providence which is what I hear in my own reading of it.

    Compatibilism is not a position I’d choose if Scripture didn’t force it upon me, and I have expanded on this in a follow up post to the one to which you referred.

    We all see through a glass darkly and I look forward to the day when you and I will worship God together, in full agreement about the truth which we will then know so much more clearly than we do now.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Terrance, welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy and thank you for your gracious comment.

      You will not be surprised that I do not find persuasive your Augustinian position that the miracle of grace is demonstrated in the fact that God even deigns to save some, rather than none. If true, this would only demonstrate the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the Almighty and would thoroughly undermine the Christian confession that God is a trinitarian communion of love. At this point, as David B. Hart has argued in a recent lecture, all talk of God’s goodness and love is rendered equivocal.

      You write: Compatibilism is not a position I’d choose if Scripture didn’t force it upon me.” But Scripture did not force such an interpretation upon you, as evidenced by the innovatory nature of the Augustinian construal of absolute predestination and limited atonement. The universalist hope enjoys much earlier precedence, preceding Origen (see Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis). For almost five centuries centuries Christian believers did not read the Bible as plainly teaching the novelty of absolute predestination and therefore knew nothing about compatibilism. And Eastern Christians have always rejected the Augustinian reading of the Bible.

      But interpretation of Scripture is a complex, difficult matter. Why is it that we interpret the Bible as we do? Dale Tuggy and Kermit Zarley are convinced that the Bible forced a unitarian interpretation of divinity upon them. I am shocked by the number of evangelicals who are questioning the classical doctrine of the Holy Trinity—all in the name of the Bible.

      I do not believe that exponents of the greater hope can claim that Scripture clearly, patently, incontestably compels a universalist reading. Since the sixth century most Christians have thought otherwise. Yet I believe that the gospel of the resurrection ultimately leads us to such a reading.

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  5. Mike H says:

    My goodness.

    The more I chew on the variety of theological perspectives that eschatology coaxes out into the open, the less I feel like I can give any substantive meaning to words like “grace”, “unconditional”, “love”, “freedom”, “good”.

    I get lost in the different “types” of grace that have popped up – minimal, maximal, optimal, sufficient, enabling, efficacious, universal, common, and on and on. All trying to ease the tension between the supposed omnipotent goodness and loving-kindness of God and the reality of suffering / the threat of ultimate eschatological tragedy.

    So on the one hand, Thiessen’s self-declared view of God’s “meticulous sovereignty” seems to leave no room for grace at all (the way that I understand it). There’s no real grace, no real distinction between God’s passive or active will, only the infinite abyss of an all powerful divine “will willing itself” (DB Hart). How is grace “grace” if it’s purpose is to “justly condemn” with no intent to bring salvation? The mystery may be “why” but not “what” – God could achieve it, but ultimately does not intend good for a great many of his own creatures. Simple and straight forward. I’d rather dispose of the language of grace all together than squeeze it into this box. Moreover, what makes it so horrific isn’t soft, sentimental, secular modern western culture (as if the horror is a new phenomenon), but rather the language of the Christian faith itself.

    On the other hand, there’s Walls view of “optimal grace”. It seems to me that “optimal grace” is ultimately sufficient only to provide the opportunity for self-determination. In a very real ultimate sense, in the place of self that determines my own eschatological destiny, I’m completely and utterly alone. There might be something more than “optimal grace” – “maximal grace” maybe? – but the very concept of grace has been set up from the start in a way that “maximal grace” is fundamentally opposed to human freedom and so is sort of off limits – actually “dehumanizing” (if I’m understanding the argument correctly). And so all that grace can do is provide the opportunity for an irrevocable “free” choice and then watch as the clock ticks down.

    I think I’m holding out for something else.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mike, I am in full agreement with your comments.

      As a preacher I note that if either Tiessen’s Calvinist monergism or Wall’s Arminian synergism is the final word, the preacher is restricted to the language of conditional promise. The Calvinist cannot speak unconditional promise, because he does not whom of his audience belongs to the elect, and the Arminian cannot speak unconditional promise because, as you note, we are all left alone to determine our eschatological destiny. Hence all the preacher can do is exhort and encourage and threaten … and exhort some more.

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  6. John says:

    I have a small observation that I would like to share with Fr Aidan and the readers. It is somewhat connected with the debate on universalism, and thus I hope you will be patient enough to read something remotely connected with the topic (since I presume you may be a little tired with the topic, as it has been tirelessly discussed on this blog).

    I wanted to make this observation because I have searched both in writings of St. Isaac and George McDonald’s sermon “The Consuming Fire”, and also have searched among the many, many comments on your blog, and no one seems to mention this little beautiful gem of a thought. My observation might be very obvious, and if someone before me made the connection then I am truly humbled in my ignorance and am sorry for being redundant.

    I must admit that I have found true beauty in St Isaac’s approach to the topic of Gehenna. To use Hilarion Alfeyev’s reading: “According to Isaac, all those who have fallen away from God will eventually return to Him because of the temporary and short torment in Gehenna that is prepared for them in order that they purify themselves through the fire of suffering and repentance.” Those acquainted with writings of St Isaac will know very well that “the fire of suffering” is in actuality the love of God which burns through the soul to purge sin. The fire of Gehenna is the fire of God’s love and this fire is the medium through which we repent.

    I would like to follow George Mcdonald’s admonision that the fire symboism should be unfolded and not feared (“But we shall find that this very revelation of fire is itself, in a higher sense, true to the mind of the rejoicing saint as to the mind of the trembling sinner. For the former sees farther
    into the meaning of the fire, and knows better what it will do to him. It is a symbol which
    needed not to be superseded, only unfolded.”).

    McDonald’s sermon is beautiful and unpacks the symbolism aptly, but I cannot but notice that it misses one VERY important aspect of the fire, and this “other” aspect or “additional” element is also missing in St Isaacs writings on fire, as far as I know.

    So what is this element that I have been hinting at? Both St Isaac and Mcdonald stress that love of God brings about repentence, that the fire burns because the soul realises how much it has to repent. It is through repentence that we can return to the Father and fall into his loving embrace. Fire and repentence… And now, what is the symbol of repentence throughout the Old and New Testament? What other hing is recalled continously by both Samuel, Jeremiah and Job, David and Jesus (see: Matthew 11:21)?

    It is ash. The ash of grief, of sorrow, of pain. The ash of repenting for one’s sins.

    My observation is this: the fire of love brings about the ash of repentence.

    I have this image of a sinner walking out of Gehenna, covered all in ash, and the ash is the leftover of sin and death which was burned in God’s unconditional love, and the last step between being a sinner and becoming a child of God is the gesture of shaking off the ash from the white garment of one’s soul.

    I truly admire David for one thing – for his ability to humble himself, to repent, to mark himself with the ash of his transgression.

    Psalm 102 fits very well with the image I am trying to describe:

    “For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.

    My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.

    In my distress I groan aloud
    and am reduced to skin and bones.

    I am like a desert owl,
    like an owl among the ruins.

    I lie awake; I have become
    like a bird alone on a roof.

    All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who rail against me use my name as a curse.

    For I eat ashes as my food
    and mingle my drink with tears

    because of your great wrath,
    for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.

    My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.”

    Isn’t this a fitting vision of Gehenna? Unspeakable loneliness and the burning one feels in one’s heart – “My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food … For I eat ashes as my food”. The only thing left for me to feed on in Gehenna is my repentence. My repentence becomes my daily bread, as it is the only thing that sustains me in the great furnance of God’s love.

    Following St Isaac’s admonishion, the only word that brings a false tune to this image is the word “wrath”, for it is not God’s great wrath that makes us suffer in Gehenna, but his love, pure and unconditional, unspeakable and beautiful. We are humbled (“for you have taken me up and thrown me aside”) because God loves us truly and it is love, not wrath, that makes the sinner feed on ashes of repentence.

    When I read the psalm, I cannot help but cry at David’s self-imposed loneliness and separation, at his misunderstanding of the fire, at his miscomprehension of what is in fact burning his heart. In fact, his miscomprehended loneliness is MORE terrifying than the fire because it is not TRUE – it’s as if I would like to shout to David: “You are NOT alone for God is with you at this very moment, in your darkest hour in the depths of Gehenna. The more God loves you, the more he pursues you, and the more your heart will burn, David, for God loves you!”.
    Someone would surely add: “Repent David and feed on ashes, but also remember Samuel, for it is written: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8)”.

    It is quite striking for me that nowadays ash is virtually non present in most Christian denominations. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know ash appears as an “active” symbol of liturgy only in Catholicism during Ash Wednesday (I have no idea if there is something similar to Ash Wednesday in the Orthodox church). Ash Wednesday is also extremely pregnant with symbolism. Ash Wednesday opens the Lent, recalling of course Christ’s time spent on the desert (40 days), but here again the psalm comes to our mind – I am marked with ash on the first day of lent – “I forget to eat my food, For I eat ashes as my food…”. And in Catholic church the ash is made from palm branches. Palm branches – the symbol of victory, of our Lord’s sacrifice and ultimately the symbol of God’s love which burned death and sin.

    It is a pity that George MacDonald has not written a sermon entitled “The Consummation of Ashes” to accompany “The Consuming Fire”.

    As I’ve said at the beginning – sorry if what I’ve pointed out is glaringly obvious. I just wanted to be sure no one misses this beautiful (and isn’t it beautiful?) symbolism which can bring us one step closer to God and his love for us.

    As an additional note, it was always quite a mystery for me why at the moment of transfiguration Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Moses was most understandable for me, but Elijah… I knew he was a most great prophet, but I guess I still didn’t realise his importance until actually reading his Old Testament story, and then searching in NT for references to him, and I must admit that there are a lot.

    But what I want to bring to your mind, Fr Aidan and dear readers, is the simple fact that Elijah is well known to be a propeth closely connected with… fire. What is more, Elijah is closely connected with Jesus (hence his presence at the transfiguration). Some even thought that Jesus is Elijah, that Jesus is the propeth brining fire, and yet… this is what we find in the Gospel, in our Good News. Luke 9:51-56:

    “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,

    And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.

    And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.

    And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?

    But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.

    For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

    They did not receive him, and yet mercy and LOVE for them – for he came to save us and not destroy us. But it cannot be any other way since God is LOVE.

    Father Aidan, and all other readers – I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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