Jerry Walls: The Irrationality of Hell

If damnation is a matter of self-exclusion from the kingdom of Christ rather than retributive punishment for unrepented sins, and if we are truly given optimal grace to choose the joy of heaven over the misery of hell, why would anyone choose hell? The burden of providing a convincing answer to this question drives Jerry Walls’s reflections on eternal perdition in his book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.

Early in the first chapter on heaven, Walls quotes the great English preacher John Wesley:

Do you not still wander to and fro, seeking rest, but finding none? Pursuing happiness, but never overtaking it? And who can blame you for pursuing it? It is the very end of your being. The great Creator made nothing to be miserable, but every creature to be happy in its kind. (p. 21)

Every human being desires happiness, strives for happiness, and cannot help but want to be happy. Eternal communion with the Holy Trinity is the fulfillment of this fundamental desire, yet if the doctrine of eternal perdition is true, some, many, or even most human beings will definitively choose separation from God rather than the supreme happiness that is his infinite life. How can this be? Does it make sense?

Walls turns to fellow philosopher Thomas Talbott as his principal dialogue partner. As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy may recall, Talbott believes that the claim that a fully informed person might rationally choose eternal misery over eternal happiness is incoherent (see “Rational Freedom” and “Rejecting the Good“). We can easily imagine people choosing lesser goods in the mistaken belief that these goods will bring them true and lasting happiness. People do it every day. But eventually reality must disprove all such mistaken beliefs and shatter all illusions. Nothing less than the Supreme Good for which we were made can satisfy our deepest needs and desires, whereas rejection of this Good can only bring us inanition and torment. How can the damned avoid finding themselves with the prodigal son in the pigpen, overwhelmed with regret for their past foolishness? Regret may not yet be genuine repentance, but it may be a start toward it. Walls summarizes Talbott’s position as follows:

The heart of [Talbott’s] case is that there simply is no intelligible motive for anyone to choose eternal hell. So the idea that persons might freely choose to remain in hell forever is utterly incoherent. It makes no sense at all if carefully examined.

Now this does not mean that we cannot choose evil in the short run, for obviously we can. But Talbott thinks there is a fundamental difference between choosing evil in the short run and doing so forever. We can choose evil in the short run under the illusion that it will make us happy. The prodigal son in Jesus’s parable, for instance, might serve as an example of this. He enjoyed his sinful lifestyle for a while.

However, the inevitable result of choosing evil is that it will make us miserable. The illusion that sin can make us happy will eventually be shattered, as it was for the prodigal son when he found himself broke and alone, feeding the pigs. Everyone will eventually realize it is better back home with our heavenly Father and will return to him, just as the prodigal returned to the welcoming arms of his father. (pp. 76-77)

Walls agrees with the general principle that sin produces misery, though his agreement is perhaps clearer in his earlier book Hell:

To begin, one of my fundamental convictions is that the suffering of hell is the natural consequence of living a life of sin rather than arbitrarily chosen punishment. In other words, the misery of hell is not so much a penalty imposed by God to make the sinner pay for his sin, as it is a necessary outcome of living a sinful life. … God could not make rational creatures such as ourselves in such a way that they would not need him for their fulfillment and happiness. Perhaps God could make creatures similar to us who would be capable of happiness without him. But if there could be such creatures, the level of happiness they could achieve would be far below what we are capable of. We are created in the very image of God, and as such, we have the capacity to enjoy supreme creaturely happiness through a relationship to him. Since we have such a nature, it is impossible, in the strictest sense of the word, for us to know our true happiness apart from God. (p. 150)

That we are able to sacrifice the future for immediate pleasures or mistake lesser goods for our supreme good is a consequence of our present finite existence. But imagine, if you will, being placed in a situation in which all ambiguities are stripped away and one is provided full disclosure of final reality. Only then might it be said that a fully informed decision for one’s eschatological destiny would be possible. One would know what one was purchasing and thus be able to commit oneself to it wholeheartedly and irrevocably, without regret, without second thoughts or second guesses, without buyers’ remorse. “What this means,” explains Walls, “is that there is a profound difference between choosing heaven as an eternal destiny and choosing hell. It makes perfect sense that one could choose heaven and remain happy in that choice in the long run. Those who choose heaven never regret it. By contrast, it makes no sense that anyone could choose hell without coming to regret it at some point” (HHP, p. 77).

Walls states Talbott’s position accurately, but having read a fair bit of Talbott myself, I feel that something of its full force is missing. What does it mean to be fully informed? Surely it’s not just a matter of watching a power point presentation on the pros and cons of salvation versus damnation. It can be nothing less than coming to understand that what God wills for me is what I truly will for myself. Talbott puts it this way:

Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of the “stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God. (The Inescapable Love of God [2nd ed.], p. 172; emphasis added)

If I do not understand that the good I will for myself is identical to the good God wills for me, then I cannot be said to be fully informed. A crucial piece of information is missing. I remain in a state of ignorance and self-deception. And here, I tentatively propose, lies the crucial difference between the two philosophers. There seem to be two different understandings of human freedom at work: the freedom of beatitude (Talbott) and the freedom of indifference (Walls). The former owes its lineage within Christian theology to St Gregory of Nyssa, St Augustine, and St Thomas Aquinas; the latter to John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. The former speaks of freedom as grounded in humanity’s divinely-given inclination and desire for the Good; the latter speaks of freedom as autonomous self-determination (see Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics; also “Universalist Hope“). I am not suggesting that either philosopher clearly fits into one category or the other—as we have seen, Walls acknowledges the role of happiness in our relationship to God—yet I think something like this may be at work.

(Go to “Is Hell a Place You’d Ever Want to Visit?”)

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25 Responses to Jerry Walls: The Irrationality of Hell

  1. Fascinating–but this reader cries out for further illumination from you on the lineage of the freedom for beatitude and freedom of indifference! Don’t just leave us hanging! What are the odds we can get a series of posts on the topic…okay, okay, I know, I’ll just go further into debt to Amazon and spring for The Sources of Christian Ethics…but still….


  2. There is a lot of confusion and equivocating regarding “freedom” and “free will” among universalists and traditionalists in particular. Having exchanged with Talbott a few times, and having read several of his writings, I do feel he fails to realize one essential aspect of free will – whatever else it means, it does not mean being unilaterally determined by what the intellect perceives as good. I think Talbott (as well as Aquinas, and some of the other thinkers you mentioned) simply equate “will” with “desire” and assume (perhaps without realizing it) that the movement of the will follows immediately and inescapably from the perception of the intellect. But if this is the case, there really is no such thing as “free” – that is, undetermined – will, for the will is moved necessarily by what the intellect sees as good. In other words, understanding the will in this way is equivalent to determinism and compatibilism, and sin becomes, not a “wrong” but a “miscalculation.” But if we consider, for a moment, that our spiritual selves are not mechanistically trapped in the natural world such that our wills are engaged in a strict and necessary cause-effect nexus with our intellects or “brains”, we can begin to distinguish more clearly a different (Arminian) notion of freedom. For one, holding this (that our wills are not determined by our intellect) gives us a way of explaining how it is we do not always do what we “know” to be the “right” thing. It also gives us a way of showing how sin that requires forgiveness (rather than miscalculation that needs correction) is possible (for how is it even POSSIBLE on the other view?). So I think Walls (who follows Lewis closely) would say that our “free will” is not to be understood in strict, materialistic cause-effect terms. We have, however hard it is to mentally picture, the ability to go against our intellect or moral light. In other words, I think he would say there is no need for us to concede a picture of free will which requires a strict Naturalistic understanding of will and desire.


  3. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s difficult how a traditionalist would respond to Talbott’s question regarding how God could allow us to exercise our freedom in such a way that is ultimately against our best interest. What we “want” or “desire”, since it is not strictly determined by sources outside our being, nor by what our intellect perceives as good, is somewhat shaped and molded by our free movement of will. This is why Walls and Lewis and traditionalists can actually DENOUNCE or CONDEMN various desires (like pride). Our desires, as Lewis said, do not all come from our animal nature. Some are entirely spiritual. That means they some come, somehow, from our free will (note the ancients seemed to think free will meant far more than “conscious choice”). Pride, greed, envy, hate, etc. are not “things happening to us” or inside our physical organism like hunger, drowsiness, etc. They are things we DO and part of what we are on a much deeper level of will and freedom.

    So I think Walls and traditionalists could respond to Talbott and say that the type of response that free creatures are required to make to reach perfection is a) a FREE response, which therefore entails b) that the epistemic situation of the will is not such that it COMPELS or necessitates a movement towards the good. In other words, free will requires the ability to objectively and actually desire and move away from something other than the objective source of one’s ultimate happiness (God). For consider, if this isn’t the case, then our movement towards that good (i.e. God), is not really free but compelled and determined.


    • tgbelt says:


      I’m might be misunderstanding you, but I’m suspicious of separating ‘will’ and ‘intellect’ as you suggest. Free choice is, after all, ‘rational’, and I’m not sure how you get that if you suppose the will is exercise independent of reason.

      I may be that we do what we ‘know’ to be wrong not because the will is independent of what we ‘know’ but because the mode of ‘knowing’ in this case is incomplete. If our ‘knowing’ falls along a continuum of (others will sigh when I say this ‘cause I’ve repeated the phrase so often) ‘epistemic distance’. We may know or perceive the good enough to make us responsibly empowered to say ‘yes’ but also not so completely (not so defined by the vision of the good) as to render us incapable of rationally saying ‘no’. If the epistemic distance is infinite, we know and perceive nothing of the good; we’re absolutely ignorant. If epistemic distance is zero, we are utterly defined by our perception of the good and cannot rationally do evil. But there’s no reason to suppose epistemic distance cannot be greater than zero but less than infinite, so that we are equally able and rational either to reject the good (which could only mean to justify as good something which is not truly good, given our mixed perceptions) or to embrace it.

      I suggest that the sort of free will necessary to responsible human becoming toward our final ‘freedom’ in Christ is precisely a context in which (a) enough truth is perceivable to make both choosing rightly and choosing wrongly rationally possible, and (b) we become what we choose so that the more we choose rightly and possess ourselves in the vision of Christ the more we perceive the beauty and goodness of this and thus the more ‘formed’ we become. Eventually epistemic distance collapses and we are utterly defined by the beatific vision. You might say that libertarian will gives way to compatibilistc will.

      My issue as this pertains to universalism is that it seems at times some wish to suppose God can by divine fiat collapse epistemic distance to zero by simply overwhelming a person with truth so that they are left no ‘rational’ option but to choose God. I’m uncomfortable with that—not because I see libertarian freedom as an ultimate good that God respects, but because I believe that on a fundamental level (within a context in which epistemic distance is sufficient to empower our ‘yes’ without overwhelming the mind and rendering our ‘no’ irrational) such choice is simply the metaphysical price tag for getting created, finite wills finally free. We must choose our way into the good, into a perspective on the good in which epistemic distance is eventually collapsed to zero, yes, but only as the fruit of a ‘willing’ that could have done otherwise but chose not to (as opposed, say, to overwhelming the reason with the light of truth it had no participation in by choice and which left it no choice but to say ‘yes’ to God). In other words, one ‘sees’ by ‘choosing’, or perhaps more accurately, one ‘sees more’ by ‘choosing rightly given the little which one sees’. The vision that finally frees one permanently is the consummate vision of choices that increasingly define and shaped one.



      • Tom,

        Reading over your post I’m not sure where we disagree! It seems to me that what you’re saying about Epistemic Distance is the same thing I’m saying regarding “the will not being determined by the intellect”.

        Confusion I think arises when we call moral choices of the will “irrational”, for that slips in a more intellect driven, almost mathematical image that doesn’t fully capture the epistemic predicament human beings are really in.

        I agree with you about how God can’t just overwhelm us with truth by fiat such that our wills necessarily move towards him, for THAT sort of movement is just the kind he doesn’t want, and is why he gave us freedom in the first place. And it seems to me it’s precisely this point that Walls and traditionalists like Lewis can use to support their position and skepticism regarding universalism. As the will “builds itself” it slowly becomes more and more fixed in its state, or, as you say “compatibilist”. And the sad reality may be (it seems to me) that some may in fact paint themselves into a corner of Hell.

        But again, I’m not sure we are in that much disagreement! Or have I missed your point entirely?


  4. Tom Talbott says:

    Malcolmsnotes wrote:

    Having exchanged with Talbott a few times, and having read several of his writings, I do feel he fails to realize one essential aspect of free will – whatever else it means, it does not mean being unilaterally determined by what the intellect perceives as good. I think Talbott (as well as Aquinas, and some of the other thinkers you mentioned) simply equate “will” with “desire” and assume (perhaps without realizing it) that the movement of the will follows immediately and inescapably from the perception of the intellect.

    Because I do not recognize your penname, I’m not sure who you are or when we have interacted in the past. But in any event, I fully agree that free will “whatever else it means … does not mean being unilaterally determined by what the intellect perceives as good.” So why, I’m wondering, do you claim that I fail to realize the very thing I would insist upon myself? Could you perhaps provide some quotation or something I have said that would put me in the camp of Aquinas in this regard?

    One of my main objections to a free will theodicy of hell, by the way, is that to date no proponent of such a theodicy has provided a sufficiently complete analysis of free will. Here is how I put it in my entry on universalism for the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology:

    Free will theists 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 agent caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice of the relevant kind.

    Observe also the following asymmetry. A cogent argument against a free will theodicy of hell would not require a complete analysis of free will; it would require only that one successfully identify a single necessary condition of freedom that is inconsistent with someone freely embracing an eternal separation from God. But a cogent argument for even the possibility of someone freely embracing an eternal separation from God would indeed require a complete analysis of free will; it would require that one examine all the necessary conditions of freedom in order to make sure that none of them is inconsistent with certain imagined choices (that result in an eternal separation from God). So if you want to defend a free will theodicy of hell yourself—and I’m not saying you do—then you will need, I think, a much more complete analysis of human freedom than any proponent of such a theodicy has given to date.

    Anyway, thanks for the interaction. If anyone is interested in my own understanding of free will, I try to clarify it in the second edition of The Inescapable Love of God, Chapter 12, which is new to the second edition.



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Tom. At the conclusion of my article I suggest that you and Jerry may be working from two different understandings of human freedom. Do you think the suggestion has merit?


      • Tom Talbott says:

        Yes, Father Kimel, I think the distinction you draw has considerable merit, although I might apply it in a slightly different way. I think the “freedom for beatitude,” as you call it, accurately reflects St. Paul’s understanding of freedom and the “freedom of indifference” (or the power of contrary choice) accurately reflects at least one standard libertarian conception.

        As you also point out, however, neither Walls nor I will fit perfectly, perhaps, into either category. For my own part, I am prepared to work with any clearly specified conception of freedom and will insist only that it be applied consistently. I thus begin with the standard libertarian conception according to which freedom just is the power of contrary choice, and I then try to show why freedom, so understood, is indeed essential to the process whereby God teaches us the lessons we need to learn and eventually reconciles the entire human race to himself. But after making these points, I also note that “the concept of libertarian freedom, insofar as it requires the power of contrary choice, nonetheless seems to me an artificial philosophical construction, one that in some contexts at least seems inconsistent with our ordinary paradigms of free action” (ILG, p. 198). So I then try to articulate a less artificial conception, one that incorporates, I think, your own “freedom for beatitude.” But the issue here, as I say in my own discussion, may be “more verbal (or more a matter of arbitrary stipulation) than substantial. For libertarian philosophers are, of course, free to stipulate any meaning they please for their own use of the term ‘freedom,’ and this should cause no confusion so long as they clearly distinguish their own use of the term from more ordinary paradigms of free action” (p. 199).

        Be all of that as it may, thanks for you very insightful Original Post.



  5. Dr. Talbott,

    Thanks for the exchange. I’m not at all trying to misrepresent your views. I’m simply stating the overall impression I get from thinking of your theology of freedom, interaction with God, and Heaven/Hell as a whole.

    I perhaps could have identified the difficulty I find with your theories more clearly this way. The traditionalists like Lewis and Walls view union with God (or “going to heaven”) a process that necessarily requires a movement of the will which is undetermined by God. As Lewis says somewhere, it’s not that God won’t forgive us or let us in to heaven unless we freely repent, but rather free repentance, faith, and good works are just a description of what drawing close to God is. And this type of freedom (which disintegrates whenever moved by the pressure of divine necessity is present) is, as the other Tom stated, the “metaphysical price tag” of creating free creatures.

    But the problem a traditionalist would have with your view, it seems to me, is that there is no reason WHY God would grant us this kind of freedom. If he can in fact ultimately determine our wills, why doesn’t he from the get go?

    As far as freedom’s connection with theodicy, I think the issue has a slightly different slant. The question there is “why does God permit evil”, to which, again, I think the traditionalists have the advantage, for they can say that all the evil in creation is itself (again) the metaphysical price tag for drawing all free souls to God (however that works out in detail.) But in the case of universalism, ones left wondering why God doesn’t simply override peoples wills and save them (and all others) from all the suffering?


  6. Tom Talbott says:

    Malcolmsnotes wrote: “But the problem a traditionalist would have with your view, it seems to me, is that there is no reason WHY God would grant us this kind of freedom. If he can in fact ultimately determine our wills, why doesn’t he from the get go?”

    Once again, I must ask why you attribute to me the view that God “can in fact ultimately determine our [free] wills.” Where have I ever endorsed such a view as that? Since I do not now have time to repeat all of my arguments in Chapter 12, I’ll simply reproduce a brief passage from the Preface to the Second Edition:

    I in no way endorse the view that God himself causally determines every event that occurs, whether it be the change of state of a radium atom, a dog’s leaping this way rather than that while romping in the yard, or the rational choice of an independent free agent. For as I now argue more fully in Chapter 12, God has no need to control our individual choices in order to checkmate each of us in the end; he need only permit us to experience the very condition of separation that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves. So even though we are indeed free to resist God’s grace for a season, perhaps even for a substantial period of time, that very resistance will at some point produce an irresistible means of grace; hence, no one, I argue, is free to resist that grace forever (see Chapter 12 for the details).

    As for why God does not simply start us all out as perfected saints, thereby avoiding the tragedy of moral evil altogether, or why he grants us an indeterministic kind of freedom in the first place, I suggest in Chapter 10 that no possible alternative in these matters may exist. I thus wrote:

    It is easy enough, I suppose, to imagine an omnipotent being instantaneously creating a self-aware, language using, fully rational, and morally mature person capable of independent action, but I, for one, see no reason to think this possible at all. Are we to suppose that God could have created independent rational agents, or have brought them into being from the abyss, so to speak, without having to satisfy any metaphysically necessary conditions at all of their coming into being? How could God possibly create someone distinct from himself without separating the created person from himself and without, therefore, bringing about an initial separation to be overcome? By “an initial separation to be overcome,” which is admittedly somewhat vague, I mean to imply, among other things, a severance from God’s direct causal control on the metaphysical level and an experience of frustrated desire and frustrated will—the sort of thing that naturally leads to a sense of estrangement and alienation—on the psychological level. If these should be metaphysically necessary conditions of a person’s creation, then perhaps God had no choice, if he wanted to create any persons at all, but to permit their embryonic minds to emerge and to begin functioning on their own in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, misperception, and even a good deal of indeterminism.

    I think I could also show, by the way, that C. S. Lewis agreed with me in this matter. But in any case, if God wants to save us without simply imposing himself on us, without interfering with our own freedom, and without bypassing our own reasoning powers, he can do so, I argue, by permitting us, first, to choose freely in the ambiguous circumstances in which we first emerge, and second, to experience the very condition of separation that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves. I try to explain how this works in two sections of Chapter 12, one entitled “The Essential Role of Free Will in Universal Reconciliation” and one entitled “God’s Respect for Human Freedom.”

    Anyway, my friend, I fully appreciate that you were “not at all trying to misrepresent” my views. But as I’m sure you can also appreciate, an “overall impression,” particularly when divorced from the specific claims that an author actually makes, can be very misleading indeed.

    Thanks for your latest reply.



    • Tom,

      Thanks for the reply. Let me see if I can elaborate my point further. Where the traditionalist has the advantage is that they have a good reason why God has granted freedom to creatures. He can say – God gave freedom because it provides something otherwise not metaphysically possible: a process of becoming that is truly from the creature itself. The end state of that becoming (beatitude and perfection) can only be attained through the “correct” or “right” exercise of their freedom. But it seems to me on Universalism, the correctness, if you will, of the exercise of freedom is really not essential to our creaturely becoming. For there comes a point, evidently, where God “check mates” each person and “gives” him or her a good will. It’s as if God wants us to do good on our own, but if we don’t, he will eventually metaphysically remove our ability to do wrong anymore and “do it himself”. But from the traditionalist view, this is exactly what he cannot do, for the type of creatures he made – that is, the type he wants – simply disappear insofar as they’re moved in this way.

      So the traditionalist can say *why* God ever leaves it up to us, so to speak, whereas I fail to see why he would not always intervene on the universalist view. If, in other words, us doing it ourselves is not essential to our creaturely sanctification, then why is it in the picture at all? It seems God could step in in each and every scenario in which suffering or evil result from poor exercises of freedom.

      Now, one huge point that needs to be made (which I’ve written about on my blog page a lot) is that I don’t think “free will” equates to pure conscious or volitional choice. I think it goes much deeper than that and that the self that exists in absolute reality is very different from our perceptions of it in our own minds. Closely connected to this point is the fact that our psychological experiences of freedom and necessity – our feelings of “I cannot but do this” or “I don’t have to do that” – are not necessarily reflective of our freedom in the metaphysical respect. In other words just because we FEEL we cannot but love, say, our spouse does not therefore mean we have been determined by God to love them. I don’t believe (nor do I think Lewid did) that “love is a choice”, for it certainly isn’t, on many occasions, CONSCIOUSLY chosen at all. But I do think the valuable kind of love (the kind that keeps us from being automatons) comes from a separate, independent, undetermined will. I simply think much more is going on “under the surface” of our consciousness that is undetermined but nevertheless coming FROM our free selves, and that feelings of compulsion do not necessarily mean we’ve been determinately moved by God to have the particular states of will that we have in those moments.


      • brian says:


        I don’t think there is any doubt about the insufficiency of the rational ego to explain the person. It is not self-evident to me that the deliberative clarity of the ego should comprehend freedom or that deep, ontological yearning should be ruled contrary to rational freedom (I am not sure, really, what you believe on this point. You seem ambiguous to me.) I really think it is a mistake to posit God’s actions and ours as if they are on the same metaphysical level and that therefore if something is “determinately moved by God” it therefore constitutes an abridgement of creaturely freedom.


        • Brian,

          Based on what you say here, I’m not sure where or if we really disagree! Certainly I don’t think God’s actions and ours are “metaphysically equal.” We all exist, after all, only because he has first given us the power to. We are receptacles that would be empty but for his pouring of himself into us. But at the same time I also believe he has given us more than just the power to receive. He has given us the power to “give back”. He has limited his omnipotence to give us room to be. Any person who really believes in freedom, though, already believes in what I’m saying, so perhaps I’m being slightly repetitive. But it seemed appropriate to elaborate a little more on what I meant.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “Where the traditionalist has the advantage is that they have a good reason why God has granted freedom to creatures. He can say – God gave freedom because it provides something otherwise not metaphysically possible: a process of becoming that is truly from the creature itself.”

        Malcolm, I agree and disagree. I agree that human freedom is truly freedom and that the acts of the human being are truly free; but I disagree that these acts are not also simultaneously of God. The divine act of creation must not be thought as if God provides the stage upon which human beings then do their thing. That is deism. At every moment God confers upon us existence, and that necessarily includes our free acts, as paradoxical and mysterious as that sounds.

        But after reading a few articles of your blog, I suspect you already know this. 😉


        • Thanks for taking the time to look over my ramblings!

          I certainly agree with you that the divine act of creation is metaphysically “deeper” than anything we can grasp by a mere spatial image in our minds. You being a MacDonald fan I’m sure you’ve heard him say that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and I would agree. But I have to disagree with you on one point – or at least press you for clarity – namely, that our acts are “simultaneously of God.” Now of course we couldn’t act unless God first empowered us, just like a tree would never grow unless a seed was first planted in the ground. But to say the planting is the SAME THING AS the growing seems to me confused. After all, if there is absolutely no distinction between our acts and God’s – if we are sort of pantheistic extensions of him or if we experience no real causal agency which is separate from his – how do we explain sin and evil?


  7. brian says:

    I confess, I find the notion asserted by malcolmsnotes above that somehow the equation of the Good with the intelligible equals mechanistic determinism somewhat puzzling. But as I am largely formed by the Thomist tradition, it may be I am not really represented in this dialogue. In any event, intellect in my view is always synergistic, not the product of an isolated monad who decides neutrally between options. It seems to me that malcolmsnotes understanding of what he calls the tradition imports a modern, libertarian notion of truth into his epistemology. In this regards, I surmise there may be something correct in Father Kimel’s sense that Walls is generally working with a “freedom of indifference.”

    I wrote a long thing that Father Kimel has posted the first few portions of (Searching for Our Human Face) in which I attempt to tackle some of these questions. I can only assert what I try to develop more at length there: I think the person is different from the modern individual and the willing of the person is different from what we typically think of as free volition. I think some modern objections are a result of a misidentification of the former with the latter (the latter is not properly entertained.) Further, there is no way for freedom to avoid nihilist arbitrariness apart from a root in a prior givenness that the modern sense of autonomy abjures as an infringement on liberty.

    This givenness, I believe, involves a unique vocation that makes up the singularity of the person.
    The person’s volition as person is always already determined towards that teleology — this is where the freedom of beatitude or freedom as metaphysical perfection would differ from modern notions that might see this as producing a determination that precludes freedom.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, I thought you might like this David B. Hart quote: “To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”


  8. Tom Talbott says:

    Hello again, malcolmsnotes:

    Even as a universalist, I assume that God never violates our unique personalities, never bypasses (or overrides) our own reasoning processes, never interferes with our freedom to separate ourselves from him, and never simply imposes a good will upon us. And yet, despite my previous protestations, you consistently attribute the opposite view to me and to universalists in general. So why, I wonder, do you suppose that, according to universalism, God himself sometimes interferes with the freedom of sinners to separate themselves from him? According to C. S. Lewis, “union with” the divine “Nature is bliss and separation from it [an objective] horror.” But if that is true, then why suppose it even possible that someone who actually experiences such an objective horror would nonetheless freely embrace it forever? What sort of freedom would that be?

    Concerning the issue of freedom, you wrote: “Where the traditionalist has the advantage is that they have a good reason why God has granted freedom to creatures. He can say – God gave freedom because it provides something otherwise not metaphysically possible: a process of becoming that is truly from the creature itself.”

    I have three problems with that statement. First, I think a much deeper reason exists for the relevant freedom that we humans have: namely, that such freedom is essential to our very existence as moral and rational beings. Second, until you give a sufficiently complete account of freedom, as you understand it, I have no clear idea of what it means to say in your sense that “God has granted freedom to creatures.” By a “sufficiently complete account,” I mean something more than the statement that a “FREE response” to God cannot be compelled or determined (though Lewis himself states in one place that it can be compelled). For such a statement will not suffice to distinguish a free response to God from any other uncaused event, such as the change of state of a radium atom. So are there, as you see it, any other necessary conditions of freedom that would distinguish a free choice from sheer chance or a random selection between alternatives? Would you agree with me, for example, that freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality, including an ability to discern normal reasons for acting, to draw reasonable inferences from experience, and to learn important lessons from the consequences of one’s own actions?

    Third, until you give some account of the “process of becoming,” as you call it—until you give some account, that is, of how one’s past free choices influence (or even determine) one’s present character and therefore one’s present (and future) choices—I have no idea what it might even mean to say that this “process of becoming … is truly from the creature itself.” Part of the problem here, as I see it, is that our free choices too often have unexpected consequences in our own lives, and a pattern of bad choices can sometimes be more effective in undermining a bad character than a pattern of good choices may be. I give several examples of this sort of thing in a chapter entitled “Grace, Character Formation, and Predestination unto Glory” (published in Joel Buenting (ed.) The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, 2010). I also make available on my website a typescript copy of this chapter at the following URL, if anyone might be interested in it:

    See especially the section entitled “Free Choice and Character Formation,” where I take up, among other things, Robert Kane’s idea of a “self-forming action.”

    Incidentally, my wife and I are being invaded with extended family this week and, on top of that, I am also scheduled for jury duty, of all things. So please don’t interpret any delay in replying as a lack of interest on my part. I will definitely look forward to your response.



    • Tom Talbott says:

      It occurs to me that I should probably ‘fess up to one error, as I now see it, that appears in the chapter I recommend in the above post, and it is our own Tom Belt, by the way, who first persuaded me of this error in a previous discussion of ours on the Evangelical Universalist website. Towards the end of that recommended chapter, I speak of a trump card God can play by just providing us with an experience of his unsurpassable goodness. But I now think it may be logically possible that a free person might continue to reject God even in the presence of such an experience–particularly insofar as this person has not yet experienced the horror of a complete separation from God (in the outer darkness, for example). Accordingly, I have tried to undo this error in Chapter 12 of my book.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, it seems to me that the “logical error” concern only comes into play for certain construals of human personhood and freedom. It would not apply, for example, to Augustinian formulations of irresistible grace, grounded in the revelation of God’s absolute goodness and beauty.

        Speculation: Perhaps the experience of outer darkness may well be the consequence of God’s fiery self-revelation. Those who have decidedly chosen rejected God and thus lack the spiritual qualities necessary to the reception of his goodness and divinity, may experience the Infinite precisely as nothingness. What do you think?


    • Dr. Talbott,

      Thanks for thorough and well thought out reply. I do not have the time to spell out exactly my theory of free will, but the short answer is that I believe in the pre-temporal existence of the soul, and that this theory dissolves many of the difficulties which you very ably articulate in your essay above and in, especially, in the new sections of your Inescapable Love of God (which I have read in full more than once – and in parts several times). Essentially, my theory of creaturely becoming involves the temporal working out of a pre-temporal or eternal principle (which is our soul). My view is best summed up by a quote from Julius Muller:

      “Causative self-determination is not really possessed, unless not only the conduct, but the very nature itself, is somehow condition by original self-determination. And this is freedom. An essence of nature is free when, starting from a state of original indeterminateness, it attains determinateness by self-decision.”

      I think through certain philosophical arguments (as well as theological) we have good reason to believe that this soul (which is responsible for its own self-determination) exists beyond and logically “before” time.

      I know this sounds like a “plug” but I spent a few hours writing this post tonight in order to better answer your question more thoroughly from a GENERAL perspective, but also to give specific references to more thorough and detailed expositions of my views. My “general” response, then, can be found here, at the end of which are links to more specifics, if interested:

      Seeing as we both have some familiarity with Lewis, I feel it may pique your interest to hear that I think he, too, believed in pre-existence.


      • Tom Talbott says:

        Wow! I must confess that I never saw that unique metaphysical perspective coming. But thanks a million for the link. I read the recommended blog post and a smattering of other posts on your site as well. So I now understand where you are coming from a lot better now.

        For my own part, however, the fundamental question remains the same. How could an utterly irrational decision to embrace an objective horror, even if made by a pre-existent soul in eternity itself, possibly qualify as a free decision to reject God? Anyway, thanks again for the interaction.


        Liked by 1 person

        • Dr. Talbott,

          In answer to your question above, I’ve written the following post.

          On The Irrationality of the Will


          • Tom Talbott says:

            Oh dear, Malcolmsnotes. In your critique of me on your website, you wrote: “The most obvious point against this model [i.e. against the view I have defended] is that it doesn’t account for an unmistakable truth we experience on a daily basis: namely, that we do in fact act in ways contrary to what we know is best.” But how is this even relevant to anything I have written? Where have I even hinted that someone who meets the minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires will never knowingly choose less than the best?

            It seems to me, at any rate, that you have simply confused two very different claims: (a) the claim that someone who experiences the worst kind of objective horror and nonetheless continues to embrace that horror forever could never meet the minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires, and (b) the claim that someone who knowingly opts for less than the best on some specific occasion—in a moment of jealousy, for example—could never meet the minimal degree of rationality that moral freedom requires. But in no way does the first claim entail the second. So again I ask: why do you attribute to me the view that you criticize on your site?



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