Free Will Theodicies of Hell

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.

Every free will theodicy of hell (and, for that matter, every free will defense of it as well) rests upon an incompatibilist (or so-called libertarian) understanding of human freedom. C. S. Lewis, one of the earliest proponents of such a theodicy, thus wrote: “In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of … defeat. … I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”1 The basic idea, then, is that God created us as free moral agents and that not even omnipotence can causally determine, either directly or indirectly through secondary causes, our free choices.

The Logical Limits of Free Choice

But why, according to Lewis, should the creation of “beings with free will” imply even the possibility of someone both freely locking “the doors of hell” from the inside, on the one hand, and freely keeping them locked forever, on the other? The first question to ask here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. If there are no such limits, then the idea of free choice is indistinguishable from that of sheer chance or utter randomness; and if there are such limits, then we must consider whether Lewis’ imagined choice of someone both experiencing hell and continuing to lock “the doors of hell” from the inside lies inside or outside of these limits. Any consideration of the latter issue, moreover, requires a much more complete analysis of moral freedom than the mere assertion of incompatibilism. For it is hardly enough merely to specify a single necessary condition of moral freedom—namely that a choice is free in the relevant sense only if it is not causally determined by factors outside the choosing agent’s control—and then simply to leave it at that, as if there were no other necessary conditions of free choice. Not just any uncaused event, after all, or just any agent caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice for which the choosing agent is morally responsible. At the very least, moral freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality—including, for example, 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. 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.

Suppose, by way of illustration, that a schizophrenic young man should kill his loving mother, believing her to be a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother; and suppose further that he does so in a context in which he categorically could have chosen otherwise (in part, perhaps, because he worries about possible retaliation from other sinister space aliens). Why should such an irrational choice, even if not causally determined, be any more compatible with genuine moral freedom than a rigorous determinism would be? Either our deluded beliefs—including our self-deceptions, if you will—are correctable when we repeatedly encounter overwhelming evidence against them, or we are simply not rational enough to qualify as free moral agents.

Perhaps the issue of self-deception deserves special mention here, because my delightful colleague Jerry Walls appeals to it in support of his own understanding of hell. In one place he seems to imply—and I agree with this most emphatically—that barely “a hair’s breadth” of difference exists between my universalism, on the one hand, and his own free will theodicy of hell, on the other.2 And as I have reflected on this hair’s breadth of difference, it all seems to boil down to the issue of self-deception—a concept that I do not pretend to understand with any degree of clarity. But whatever its correct analysis, the very existence of self-deception surely implies some degree of preexistent ignorance and irrationality, even if not to a degree that would eliminate all freedom and moral responsibility. Under what conditions, then, does such preexistent ignorance and irrationality remain compatible with a genuine moral freedom? Like any other form of delusion, self-deception is compatible with moral freedom, I would suggest, only when it is not utterly and completely pathological—that is, only when the agent retains the minimal degree of rationality that genuine moral freedom requires and only when the self-deception thus remains in principle correctable. If, for example, I should deceive myself into believing that I have the skill to ski down a treacherous slope and should remain rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent, then a fall and a broken leg (or perhaps a series of falls on repeated occasions) would sooner or later shatter that illusion to pieces.

And similarly for those who deceive themselves into thinking that separation from every implicit experience of God would be more desirable than union with him: until such persons actually experience a true separation from God, they may have no idea what they are really choosing. For as Lewis himself once put it, “union with” the divine “Nature is bliss and separation from it [an objective] horror” and this is also, he rightly declared, precisely where “Heaven and Hell come in.”3 Now Walls argues persuasively, I believe, for the possibility that someone who consistently chooses the wrong path—someone so mired in sin as to become totally self-absorbed—may simply be in no position to appreciate fully, or even at all, the bliss of union with God. So if we agree on that, just where does our “hair’s breadth of difference” finally come to rest? Right here, perhaps. Whereas I hold it to be logically impossible that someone who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent should both experience the horror of separation from God—in the outer darkness, say, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth—and continue to regard such a state as more desirable than finally submitting to God, Walls disagrees; he thinks it at least possible that some would continue forever to prefer such a state, however horrific it may be, as more desirable than finally submitting to God.

I doubt that anyone has expressed my side of this disagreement more forcefully than George MacDonald did when he wrote:

For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him—making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man [or the person withdraws from God] as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end . . . with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing [including the faintest experience of love] to make life good, then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then … he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of hopeful pain. Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death.4

Note the expression “that region of hopeful pain.” MacDonald would have agreed with Walls that, on account of their many delusions and self-deceptions, those cast into the outer darkness are in no position to appreciate the bliss of union with God. He would clearly have accepted, in other words, the picture that Lewis painted in The Great Divorce, where the unrepentant who take a bus into the foothills of heaven find it an excruciatingly painful experience; indeed, Lewis probably got this very idea from MacDonald, whom he regarded as his own mentor. But there is also the following hair’s breadth of difference between Lewis and MacDonald, which mirrors the hair’s breadth of difference between Walls and me. Whereas MacDonald and I view a life apart from any implicit experience of God as so horrific that no one could continue freely choosing such a life forever, Lewis and Walls in effect view it as not quite that horrific. For insofar as God continues to shield sinners from the full horror of such separation and does so in order to safeguard their freedom to continue opting for it, the net result could only be a condition not quite as horrific as the tradition implies.

Observe also that, unlike a free will theodicy of hell, universalism requires no watering down of the New Testament imagery associated with Gehenna, the lake of fire, and the outer darkness. If the outer darkness, for example, represents the logical limit, short of annihilation, of possible separation from God; and if such separation is indeed an objective horror, as Lewis insisted, then that already explains why no one could both experience this objective horror and continue freely to embrace it forever. It also explains how God could shatter all of the illusions and self-deceptions that might make a life apart from God seem desirable and how he could do so without in any way interfering with our freedom to separate ourselves from him. For it is precisely when we exercise that very freedom and when God permits us to experience the very life we have confusedly chosen for ourselves that we begin to experience, and finally to discover, its horrific nature. Just as no one who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both shove an unprotected arm into a hot fire and retain the illusion that a hot fire causes sensations of intense pleasure, neither could such a person both experience the outer darkness and retain the illusion that some other imagined condition, such as submission to God, would be even worse than this.

As an illustration of the problem, consider the context in which John Milton’s Satan defiantly exclaims, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”5 From whence comes the myth, I would ask parenthetically, that someone other than God might reign in hell? This hardly comes from anything in the Bible itself. In any case, the context in which Satan expresses his defiance of God is clearly one in which he still remains able to comfort himself with the delusion that he “Can make a Heav’n of Hell,” with the delusion that in hell he is at least free (despite his bondage to destructive desires), and with the delusion that in hell he “may reign secure.”6 But what he imagines here is a far cry from the reality of the outer darkness, a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, with no one to rule and no physical environment even to experience.7 I mean, how much more ignorant and delusional can you get? It is a tribute to Milton’s art, however, that by Book IV Satan has already lost most of the illusions that made the “heroic” speech of Book I possible; and even though the more pitiful (and even human) character in Book IV never comes to the point of actual repentance, he nonetheless seems well on the road to it.8 And his final refusal to repent occurs in a context in which he is simply too irrational to qualify as a free moral agent. Listen to his words:

So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear,
Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good.

Satan calls forth His defeated Legions.jpg

It is as if a human being with a normal nervous system should shove his or her hand into a flaming hot fire and exclaim, “Excruciating pain and torment be thou my intense pleasure!” You can’t get any more irrational than that. Observe, finally, that traditionalists, who view hell as a form of divine retribution, have no need to reject anything I have said so far. For they do not view hell as a freely embraced condition in the first place; they view it instead as an externally imposed punishment, a supposedly just recompense for sins freely committed in the past. So they have no need for some further explanation of why a damned individual never exits hell, despite the unbearable misery that such an individual might experience there. It is simply not permitted.

A Modified Libertarian Account of Human Freedom

I myself am a convinced libertarian in this sense: like other libertarians, I hold that neither moral freedom nor moral responsibility (nor even independent rationality, I might add) could exist in a creation where, either directly or indirectly through secondary causes, God causally determines everything that happens in it. For if he did so determine everything that happens, then only one agent (capable of independent action) would exist, namely God himself.

So in that sense indeterminism has an essential role to play in any worthwhile creation. As free moral agents, we are not mere extensions of the physical universe, nor are our free actions the product of external sufficient causes, whether these should lie in the distant past before we were born or in eternity itself. That is the correct libertarian insight, and it seems to me utterly unlikely that any of our present actions are so determined, however determined some of them might be by more immediate beliefs, desires, and character traits. For we all emerge and start making choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception, where indeterminism could easily play a huge role in the choices (or quasi-choices) we make, in providing the necessary break from the past that moral freedom requires, and in allowing us to emerge as independent agents who interact with our environment, learn from experience, and make discoveries on our own.

But why on earth would I claim that indeterminism plays an essential role in making God’s creation worthwhile? Does not indeterminism in the process of creaturely deliberation and choice, for example, introduce an element of chance or randomness, even irrationality, into it?9 And is not sheer chance or randomness no less incompatible with genuine free choice than determinism would be? Indeed, if free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, as more than a few have argued,10 then no room is left, it seems, for a coherent account of it. But there is, I believe, a way out of this particular quagmire, provided we come to appreciate one all-important point. Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as independent rational beings and therefore as free moral agents—the ambiguity, the ignorance, and the required indeterminism—are themselves obstacles to full freedom and moral responsibility; they are obstacles that God can gradually overcome only after we have emerged as embryonic moral agents and have begun to interact with our environment and to learn important lessons about the conditions of our own happiness.

As an illustration, consider simple ignorance. If we were created with a full and complete knowledge of God, that knowledge would not be a personal discovery at all. It would not be acquired through a complex learning process in which we formulate hypotheses, test them in our own experience, and then learn for ourselves over time why union with God is bliss and separation from him an objective horror; nor would it require a complex process in which we choose freely, experience the consequences of our choices, and then learn from these consequences why love and forgiveness are likewise better than selfishness and estrangement. Herein lies the truth, I believe, behind the freewill theist’s contention that our freedom in relation to God requires that we start out in a context where God remains hidden from us, at least for a season. But consider also how relative degrees of ignorance can severely restrict our freedom and, in that sense, can become an obstacle to a fully realized freedom. If I am ignorant of the fact that someone has laced the local water supply with LSD, then I have not freely chosen to ingest the LSD, however freely I may have chosen to drink the water. And similarly for the freewill theist’s understanding of divine hiddenness: insofar as the ambiguities, the ignorance, and the misperceptions in a given set of circumstances conceal God from us, or at least make unbelief a reasonable option, they also make committing ourselves to God in these circumstances more like a blind leap in the dark than a free choice for which we are morally responsible. So if anything, God’s hiddenness can render us less rather than more responsible for our failure to love the One whose true nature and very existence remain hidden from us.11

Now even as ignorance is both a condition of and an obstacle to our freedom in relation to God, so also is indeterminism. So the trick, I am suggesting, is to distinguish between the role that indeterminism plays in our emergence as free moral agents and the role it continues to play after we have become sufficiently rational to learn important moral lessons from the consequences of our undetermined choices. Put it this way: it is essential to our moral freedom that we begin making moral choices in a context where those choices are not fully determined by sufficient causes; for if they were so determined, they would most likely be determined by conditions external to the emerging agent. But it is also essential to our moral freedom that we should be rational enough to learn from our mistakes. So once we begin learning some relevant moral lessons—from our bad choices in particular—some of our freest choices may be those voluntary choices where, given our own rational judgment concerning the best course of action, the alternative is no longer even psychologically possible.

When our own powers of rational judgment enable us to assess a body of evidence reasonably and our own reasonable judgment concerning the best course of action determines that we act in one way rather than in another, freedom does not require the psychological possibility of acting otherwise. At the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther thus famously declared: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.”12 Whether one agrees with Luther’s stand or not makes no difference to the following all-important point. In no way do we have here the declaration of a man whose will was in bondage to something other than his own judgment concerning the best course of action, and it would be absurd, furthermore, to suggest that Luther lost his freedom at the very instant that, having become fully resolved to act in a certain way, it was no longer psychologically possible for him to reverse himself and to choose otherwise. We are freest, then, when our own reasonable judgments concerning the best course of action determine what we do; hence, Luther’s refusal to recant was arguably a paradigm of free action.

Freedom, Necessity, and the Right Kind of Compulsion

Consider now how C. S. Lewis, despite his commitment to a free will theodicy of hell, described his own conversion to Christianity:

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.13

As this quotation illustrates, Lewis described his freedom in relation to his own conversion very differently than he described the freedom of the lost in relation to their damnation. Consider how carefully he chose his own words in the context from which the above quotation is lifted. He observed first that “before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.”14 But lest he should be misunderstood, he immediately added the following clarification: “I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom ….”15 So here he appears to argue like a compatibilist, recognizing that the crucial choice in his conversion was voluntary but not free in the sense that he could have chosen otherwise. He even spoke as if God had compelled his voluntary submission and as if such compulsion is quite compatible with his having submitted freely.

But why would Lewis claim, quite rightly in my opinion, that his act of submitting to God was both compelled and freely chosen? The answer, I would suggest, requires a distinction between two kinds of compulsion: the right kind, which rests upon the idea of compelling evidence, and the wrong kind, which is not a matter of evidence at all. By “compelling evidence” I mean (roughly) evidence that both justifies a belief (given that one’s cognitive faculties are working properly) and removes one’s power on some occasion to reject the given belief. If a man should torture you in an effort to convert you to his religion, this would clearly exemplify the wrong kind of compulsion, the very kind that Lewis attributed to human wickedness. For however intolerable your suffering might be, this would in no way qualify as a good reason for believing that his religion is true; much less would it qualify as compelling evidence for its being true. Such compulsion might even provide you with a good reason to reject his religion, or at least his interpretation of it, even as it might also provide you with a good reason to pretend that you have been converted.

In contrast to such torture, which is clearly the wrong kind of compulsion, consider next an example of what I would regard as the right kind of compulsion. Given that you experience excruciating pain every time you come into direct contact with fire, you surely do have compelling evidence that fire burns and causes such pain. If repeated contact with fire did not compel the relevant belief in you, then you would simply be too irrational to qualify either as a rational agent or as a free moral agent. Freedom of belief, therefore, hardly requires the psychological ability to believe whatever you might fancy believing; nor does it require an element of randomness in the process by which you acquire your beliefs; nor does it require the power of a rational agent to reject utterly compelling evidence. It requires instead independent rational judgment and a minimal ability to follow the evidence where it properly leads. Similarly, our freedom in relation to God hardly requires that he never change our beliefs with a stunning revelation of a kind that Christians believe Paul received on the road to Damascus, or that he remain forever hidden from us, or that he never shatter our illusions and remove our ignorance with compelling evidence. Although true freedom in relation to God is definitely incompatible with his simply implanting certain beliefs in us and thereby bypassing our own reasoning powers, it in no way requires the power to reject God in every conceivable set of circumstances. It requires instead the power to follow our own independent judgment concerning where the evidence leads and concerning the best course of action in relation to the evidence. So provided that our own judgments in these matters are sufficiently reasonable and the accumulated evidence for them is sufficiently compelling, our freest actions my indeed occur in a context that removes the psychological possibility of acting otherwise. For such freedom, understood as the power of reason to exercise control over one’s own actions, in no way requires the power to deny oneself or to act against one’s own most reasonable judgments.16

So Lewis was right on target, I believe, when he insisted that his submission to God was the freest of all actions even though he felt utterly compelled to submit in the sense that no real alternative seemed open to him. For if, as we are supposing, an absolute separation from God entails separation from all loving relationships as well as from every other conceivable source of human happiness; and if, alternatively, union with him is bliss, then any rational agent whose life experiences provide compelling evidence for such realities would likewise freely submit to God even as Lewis did.


The principal challenge facing any proponent of a free will theodicy of hell is to set forth a coherent account of moral freedom, one that establishes the possibility of someone freely embracing an objective horror forever. And the principal challenge to a coherent account of moral freedom is the seemingly plausible argument that determinism and indeterminism are each incompatible with moral freedom. The best solution to this apparent paradox, I have suggested, is to acknowledge that indeterminism is both a necessary condition of our emergence as free moral agents distinct from God and an obstacle to full freedom and moral responsibility. Add to that the condition of minimal rationality and it seems impossible that anyone rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent would freely embrace an objective horror forever. So even if some become so mired in sin and rebellion that they cannot even experience the bliss of union with the divine nature, God nonetheless has a trump card to play that will guarantee their free submission to him in the end: he need only honor their own free choices and allow them to experience the very horror of separation from the divine nature that they have confusedly chosen for themselves.

(9 June 2016)


1 C. S. Lewis, Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, p. 127.

2 See “A Philosophical Critique of Talbott’s Universalism” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 105.

3 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955), p. 232.

4 “The Consuming fire” in Unspoken Sermons (Whitethorn, CA: Yohannesen, 2004), p. 31.

5 Paradise Lost, Book I, line 263.

6 See lines 251-261

7 When Paul quoted the poet Epimenides of Crete in order to make the point that “in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), this seems to imply, as I interpret it, that God is not only our moral and spiritual environment, but our physical environment as well. Even our experience of the physical order, therefore, is an implicit experience of God; hence, the relevant separation from God in the outer darkness would also exclude, I presume, even the experience of a physical environment.

8 In Book IV an awakened conscience, so essential to moral freedom, leads Satan into despair (see line 83) and also leads him to acknowledge the extent to which “Pride and worse Ambition threw me down” (line 40). He even upbraids himself for being so stupid in “boasting I could subdue / th’ Omnipotent” (lines 86-87) and also acknowledges the extent of his own guilt: “Ah wherefore! He [God] deserv’d no such return / From me, whom he created what I was / in that bright eminence” (lines 42-45). A little later he then laments: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (lines 73-75). Because he has not yet lost his rationality altogether in the face of such misery, he even toys with the idea of repenting: “O then at last relent: Is there no place / Left for repentance, none for Pardon left?” (lines 79-80). But unfortunately, he still retains the illusion, which would itself easily be shattered in the outer darkness, that he can continue to rule over the legions of fallen angels in hell, perhaps even forever, and to receive worship and praise from them in return. That illusion together with the fear of being shamed in front of those he had deceived is simply too much for him to endure, and he thus finds himself unwilling to repent.

9 For an excellent argument to this effect, see Peter van Inwagen, ‘Free Will Remains a Mystery’, in Robert Kane, The Oxford Handbook on Free Will (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2001), pp. 158-177.

10 See, for example, Richard Double, The Non-reality of Free Will (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

11 For an excellent discussion of divine hiddenness and its implications, see the exchange between J.L. Schellenberg and Paul K. Moser in Chapter 2 of Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. VanArrogon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 30-58.

12 Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 282-83. Emphasis is mine

13 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 228-229

14 Ibid., p. 224.

15 Ibid.

16 Elsewhere I have thus proposed the following as a sufficient condition of a free action: “(SCF) S does A freely in [a set of circumstances] C if the following conditions obtain: (i) S is rational enough to make reasonable judgments concerning which of the available actions in C is, all things considered, the best thing to do in C, (ii) S in fact makes a reasonable judgment that A is, all things considered, the best thing to do in C, and (iii) S does A in C for the very reason that S reasonably believes it to be the best thing to do in C” [see “God, Freedom, and Human Agency,” 393]. For some similar sufficient conditions, see Mele, Free Will and Luck, 200–201. Common to all of Mele’s sufficient conditions, tweaked differently for different purposes, as well as to my own, is the idea that an agent acts freely when the agent acts “on the basis of a rationally formed deliberative judgment that it would be best to do A.”

* * *

Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University and author of the acclaimed book on the greater hope, The Inescapable Love of God.

This entry was posted in Eschatology, Philosophical Theology, Thomas Talbott. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Free Will Theodicies of Hell

  1. I will argue so much as to say that the damned should they exist do not probably “will” to die in a state of mortal sin, in other words they do not will to die at all, death is forced on them! they had little choice in the matter and simply died in a state of mortal sin. Of course they chose to sin mortally then again so do most of us… the only difference is that by Gods grace a lot of us will hopefully have the good fortune of dying in a state of grace as opposed to a state of continued sinning. St Augustine argued that it is ultimately a choice of God as to which state we die in, he said it is a great mystery as to why god does not ensure why all souls will not die at the best of times so to speak, his view is a chilling one but arguably the most rational one at the moment even if it does not comfort those who hope for all to be saved.


    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Oliver,

      Lest some here may have missed it, I make essentially the same point in my original essay that you have made in your comment. I thus wrote:

      “Observe, finally, that traditionalists, who view hell as a form of divine retribution, have no need to reject anything I have said so far. For they do not view hell as a freely embraced condition in the first place; they view it instead as an externally imposed punishment, a supposedly just recompense for sins freely committed in the past. So they have no need for some further explanation of why a damned individual never exits hell, despite the unbearable misery that such an individual might experience there. It is simply not permitted.”

      Bear in mind, however, that the subject of my essay was free will theodicies of hell of a kind that C. S. Lewis defended; it was not the Augustinian understanding of limited election. As for my reaction to the latter, which I believe to be riddled with logical impossibilities and the product of a wildly implausible biblical exegesis, you will need to look elsewhere. For starters, see my note entitled “Limited Election: Are Christians Morally Obligation to Reject It? which is available at the following URL:

      Posted by Tom Talbott Sr on Monday, November 7, 2016

      See also my entry entitled “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is available at the following URL:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. malcolmsnotes says:

    Dr. Talbott’s take on the issue of free will is interesting. He’s probably the only one I’ve read who tries to incorporate both libertarian free will and compatibilism into a single framework. But this is to his advantage, I believe, since experience makes it very hard for us to doubt either phenomenon. Who has not felt *both* that, on some occasion, he could have acted otherwise and, on other occasions, that he could not have, and that both kinds of choices are free choices? I don’t know how to fit such things into a unified picture of man and God’s providence. How the contingent and the necessary fit into God’s relation to the world is something I cannot comprehend. I feel so many difficulties on so many sides I just throw my hands up. But I like Talbott’s attempt here.


  3. brian says:

    Well, folks don’t ask to be born either, but so what, hey? Curious if one could articulate with some relative clarity how Augustine’s view is “arguably the most rational one at the moment.” Invoking mystery is equivocal, is it not? No one will argue that God surpasses finite human understanding, but on the other hand, if our analogical purchase on terms like good, loving, faithful, etc. are not limited, yet genuine in regards to our knowledge of God, then we are not actually left with meaningful revelation. If we mean by mystery that God exceeds (but does not contradict) our limited understanding of the Good, for instance, then one can legitimately pose the question of which understanding of soteriology, eschatology, etc. is most fitting for the God announced in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Further, one might probe the various metaphysical views of freedom. In Orthodox teaching, the equivocations of a gnomic (libertarian) will are ultimately contextualized by a natural will that can only be fulfilled in the Good. Modern libertarian notions of freedom as bare, spontaneous choice lack the understanding still available in Aquinas, for instance, whereby the will is given guidance by the intellect which perceives the Good. A choice that is not aimed at the Good is not really a rational choice.

    One might also pose the kind of questions that David Hart does in his fine essay, “God, Creation, and Evil.” I won’t recapitulate the argument. It can’t be done justice in a pithy summary. Nonetheless, one is left wondering about the implications of creatio ex nihilo and what squares — and what does not — with the God who does not need creation, who creates freely and who aims at the good of the Creation (for that is the nature of agapeic gifting.) Would a God with no compulsion to create risk some or any of that creation for the benefit of an elect remnant? Would the eternally suffering (or, if you prefer, a finally annihilated damned) not amount to the necessary price that allowed the Creation in the first place? Would eschatological victory in the end not require the “venturing” of those potentially or “predestined” to fail to reach loving union with God? As Hart puts it: “what would the mystery of God becoming man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends?”

    The refusal of the universalist understanding may be “chilling, but rational” or it may be “human, all too human,” following a path of supposed reason incompatible with a “theo-logic” manifest by TriUne God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • St Augustine was I am sure just as perplexed about the ultimate destiny being Hell for some people as most of us here are. He could not offer an explanation as to why God ensures some people are saved despite their previous sinful lifestyles and others are condemned because their sinful lifestyle was continuing at the time of death. He said that we know that we cannot know why god draws some but not others only that it is the decision of God that he has to make to make eternity as good as possible for the elect. There is no rational answer as to why some are saved and others are not, I wish there was but I for the time being have to stick with the views of all the church teachers through history.


      • In church teaching we accept that God did not have to die for everyone, only for the elect, I think what is the problem is when we have verses in scripture that refer to Christ “dying for all” or that “all may be saved” they are as we know referring only to Christ dying for all the elect or rather those fortunate enough to be in a state of grace at the moment of death. We hear from teachers across history that the damnation of people actually is essential for God to bring about his final perfect plan after the day of judgement, should we make it to heaven we will understand fully why the damnation of certain people was inevitable and why they made the choices they did at their moment of death(even though they probably did not will to die in that mortal state(exceptions being Judas for example, they still happened to die in it.


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          In case you hadn’t noticed the “church teaching” that God only died for the elect is accepted only by a particular flavour of Calvinist, and is neither the historical teaching of the church nor the view of most Christians.
          Likewise we do not “know” that “all” only means the elect: this is a reinterpretation of the Bible contrary to what it actually says to support a particular theological position which a great many Christians, including the author of the above essay and the host of this blog, completely reject.


          • What I meant was that only the elect would benefit eternally from the crucifixion of Christ, that is a fact in Church history that only the elect would benefit forever from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. While Christ died for all only those who have managed to keep themselves out of sin at the time of death are going to enjoy his presence forever. Why Christ cannot ensure that everyone has a good death I cannot know, this is what all the great teachers such as Julian of Norwich and Thomas Aquinas confirmed they could not know.


  4. Ed says:

    Unfortunately, for all his greatness, St. Augustine’s interpretation of St. Paul is completely misguided. Even in his own day, there were many Fathers who disagreed with his predestinarianism. It was an innovation at the time and remains so. The Catholic Church never fully accepted this view and, I think one can say that it is firmly rejected in the CCC. The idea of the “elect” in sacred scripture has nothing to do with God’s choosing of a small number to save while rejecting the rest. Rather, the elect are chosen precisely in order to bring all mankind to salvation. Read DBH’s take on Romans:

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jeff says:

    It’s a bit unclear in places, take Kvanvig s criticism of Talbots on page 80-82 on the problem of hell, dealing with affective and cognitive states, deception, ignorance , etc and in Kane’s significance of free will book , on how indeterminism , moral and ultimate responsibility are intertwined and character forming


    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Jeff,

      In case you or anyone else might be interested, I have a pretty thorough response to Robert Kane in a chapter entitled “Grace, Character Formation, and Predestination unto Glory,” which appears in Joel Buenting (ed.), The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology (see especially pp. 9-13); and in The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed., I also respond to Kvanvig’s critique (see pp. 178-180). But if you want to discuss any specific point that these critics raise, I would be happy to do so here.

      Beyond that, I will say only that I know of no proponent of a free will theodicy of hell who has provided a sufficiently complete analysis of so-called libertarian freedom or who has explored adequately the limits of possible freedom.

      Thanks for raising your concerns.


      • Jeff says:

        Thank you, I will read up on it


        • Jeff says:

          Tom, I think Kane is saying that Indeterminism is consistent with agency when it is an ingredient in a larger goal or teleological process, we are responsible for choices, they’re not a blind leap


          • Jeff says:

            the Grace , Formation article agrees with moral and immoral SFW’s “And so, moral responsibility is not just a matter of doing the right thing here and now, but also of character-making over time—of building virtuous and vicious dispositions through one’s own efforts, choices, and actions “


  6. Thomas says:

    I worked for a few years representing children that were abused or neglected, and was in contact with people who were deeply enmeshed in sin–domestic violence, drug addictions, various sexual deviances. There certainly does seem to be a correlation between the depth of sinful conduct and the personal havoc it causes.

    However, while people in these sorts of circumstances realize their suffering, part of the damage that sin does is to warp one’s judgement and generate increasingly elaborate webs of self deception. Some people hit “rock bottom” and choose to find a way out. Others end up dead. Most continue their trajectory, more or less.

    My experience leads me to believe that it is not impossible at all for one to enter a self-reinforcing cycle that leads further into darkness. The optimistic view that one eventually comes around, it seems to me, does not capture the actual dynamic that so often takes hold in the course of deeply sinful conduct. Indeed, if anything, the more misery sin involves, the more deeply it seems to distort one’s ability to understand and willingness to change.

    The law of large numbers to me indicates, not that all will be saved given a long enough time, but that some will be lost given the observable effects of sin and the concrete psychological dynamic. I am hopeful for the salvation of all, but much less optimistic that we have the power to resolve the question, or the power turn ourselves toward the light. Fortunately, (I hope) it is not we who make the difference.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      As I see it, the only way that the law of large numbers would work towards the assurance of at least some souls being eternally lost would be if people can indeed reach a point where they become irreformable. So long as there is no “point of no return” then over an infinite duration of time it would be vanishingly unlikely that any would persist in their delusions against God’s loving advances. Kronen and Reitan make that argument in their book God’s Final Victory.Our experience in life cannot demonstrate the existence of such a state, even in principle, since we can only observe finite happenings. But even if we are to grant that it is possible for humans to freely enter an unbreakable cycle of self-deception, then we need to account for why God would allow this to occur. Dr. Talbott has argued that Love could not stand to let the beloved cause themselves irreparable harm and that interfering with personal freedom in such a case is not only morally licit, but requisite.

      What are your thoughts on this?


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        The way I see it all of humanity entered an unbreakable cycle of self-deception and the Gospel is the Good News that redeems all of humanity. But I don’t see the Gospel and redemption as interference, but rather as an eventual coming to our senses, by Christ’s healing of our human nature breaking the unbreakable cycle, enables this.recognizing the good for the Good.

        Placement of hope and optimism in ourselves, in measures of repentance, etc., make a mockery of the Gospel IMO.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          I agree, and I should have been more careful with how I worded my comment. I believe that left to our own devices we would be hopelessly mired in self-deception, but thankfully there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s presence. What to us is unbreakable is not unbreakable full stop. God is more than up to the task.

          Instead of “interfering with personal freedom” I ought to have said something more akin to “overriding our choice” or “blocking our course of action.” As you point out, and as Dr. Talbott says below, for God to compel us is not to eliminate our freedom but is in fact our liberation. The interference involved would be like stopping the axe that a mad man was swinging to cut off his own hand. What is being interfered with is the man’s insanity, not true freedom.

          Thanks for pointing this out. I still find myself using words like freedom too loosely and in senses that I no longer agree with. Old habits die hard I guess.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have to believe that no matter how deep the bottom gets, how incorrigible we become in our egotism and sin, God can find a way–and indeed has found a way on the Cross.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Although I may be more skeptical than you seem to be concerning our ability to determine by observation the deepest effects of sin upon the human heart, I see no reason to deny anything you have said here about these effects over a short seventy years or so of human life. You are right: “Some people hit ‘rock bottom’ and choose to find a way out. Others end up dead.” But then comes the afterlife. If the outer darkness, say, represents the logical limit, short of annihilation, of possible separation from God; and if it constitutes something like a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, without even a physical world to experience, I doubt that any of our earthly observations would even be relevant to how such an objective horror would affect a hardened sinner.

      In any case, I am no more optimistic than you are that “we have the power,” apart from the grace of God, to “turn ourselves toward the light.” When God employs the right kind of compulsion, as I have called it—the kind that Lewis described in his account of his own conversion—he is not leaving the sinner to his or her own devices, so to speak. But neither is he interfering with human freedom, given the analysis I have offered in my original essay. As Lewis himself put it, “His compulsion is our liberation.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly, there is always the absolute fact that even the worst sinners are not beyond redemption, that many terrible people through all history have repented before their deaths, if God can save the worst sinners does that in fact mean he can save all of us? I hope so!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thomas says:

        I certainly don’t have a good answer to the question, so I can only share my personal doubts and conclusions, recognizing that this is not a question I’ve considered to the extent you have. I’d like to be convinced, so I hope you do not take my objections as an unwillingness to follow the argument. For me, universal salvation is an object of hope; I have not been able to make it the subject of a conclusion.

        I agree that we have to preserve the freedom of human volition, and that this entails that God does not determine our acts of choice to one or another alternative. But I think to conclude that universal salvation is true involves so many suppositions about human psychology, the nature of the afterlife, the nature of time and eternity, etc. that it’s hard to feel that these could ever be pieced together. The question spans the empirical (especially with regard to psychology), the vaguest corners of the Christian imagination (what the afterlife might be like), and some of the most controverted points in speculative theology.

        Anyway, the central point of the essay I agree with. If suffering is a consequence of sin, it hardly violates our freedom if God leaves us to it, with the purpose of turning us to himself. But it seems to me that is hardly enough, since what makes the difference is ultimately our own realization of our predicament and decision to change. What is needed for the argument to work may be an appropriation of the Augustinian notion of irresistible grace.


        • Tom Talbott says:

          Thanks for your further reflections, Thomas. As I see it, your final sentence says it all. For the whole point of my modified account of libertarian freedom was to make room for the concept of irresistible grace, which seems to me a solidly biblical idea.


    • At a certain point– in the wake of reading Nietzsche and Biblical Criticism –I despaired utterly of my existence and hit a bottom of sorts (though it did not appear nearly so low on the outside as it felt on the inside). Unable to return to the evangelical faith of my youth, I found great solace in these words of Plotinus:

      “The soul of each of us is dispatched hither for the same reason: if the realm of sense is to be complete, it is necessary that it contain as many kinds of living beings as does the intelligible realm.” IV.8.1 (O’Brien 63)

      “In directing itself to what is lower than itself, [The Soul] orders, administers, and governs. . . . individual souls [also possess] a power over the realm of sense much in the way that sunshine, although attached to the sun above, does not deny its rays to what is below. If the souls remain in the intelligible realm with The Soul, they are beyond harm and share in the Soul’s governance. They are like kings who live with the high king and govern with him and, like him, do not come down from the palace.” IV.8.3,4 (O’Brien 65-66)

      “But there comes a stage at which they descend from the universal to become partial and self-centred; in a weary desire of standing apart they find their way, each to a place of its very own. . . .

      “This state long maintained, the soul is a deserter from the All; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weakened, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole, it nestles in one form of being; for this, it abandons all else, entering into and caring for only the one [form of being], for a thing buffeted about by a worldful of things: thus it has drifted away from the universal and, by an actual presence, it administers the particular; it is caught into contact now, and tends to the outer to which it has become present and into whose inner depths it henceforth sinks far.” IV.8.4 (MacKenna 338 – cf. O’Brien 66).

      “There are two wrongs the soul commits. The first is its descent; the second, the evil done after arrival here below. The first is punished by the very conditions of the descent. Punishment for the second is passage once more into other bodies [and possibly] more severe penalties administered by avenging daimons. . . .

      “By voluntary inclination it plunges into this sphere. If it returns quickly, it will have suffered no harm, thus learning of evil and what sin is, in bringing its powers into manifest play, in exhibiting activities and achievements that [needed to be actualized].” IV.8.5 (O’Brien 67-68).

      “[The ugly soul] is dissolute, unjust, teeming with lusts, torn by inner discord, beset by craven fears and petty envies. It thinks indeed. But it thinks only of the perishable and the base. In everything perverse, friend to filthy pleasures, it lives a life abandoned to bodily sensation and enjoys depravity. . . . For the life it leads is dark with evil, sunk in manifold death. It sees no longer what the soul should see. It can no longer rest within itself but is forever being dragged towards the external, the lower, the dark…. It has bartered its Idea for a nature foreign to self.” I.6.5 (O’Brien 38, 39).

      “Yet its higher part remains. Let the soul, taking its lead from memory, merely ‘think on essential being’ and its shackles are loosed and it soars.” IV.8.3,4 (O’Brien 66).

      “It is not in the soul’s nature to touch utter nothingness; the lowest descent is into evil and, so far, into non-being: but to utter nothing, never. When the soul begins again to mount, it comes not to something alien but to its very self; thus detached, it is not in nothingness but in itself; self-gathered it is no longer in the order of being; it is in the Supreme.” VI.9.11 (MacKenna 548 — cf. O’Brien. 88).


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom Talbott, in your long experience in reflecting and debating the greater hope, what do you believe to be the strongest and most persuasive objections against it? Or to put it differently, what are the weakest links in your chain? 🙂


    • Tom Talbott says:

      That’s an interesting question, Father Aiden. During my undergraduate and seminary days, I was pretty much a proponent of a free will theodicy of hell; and once I discovered George MacDonald and started taking seriously the idea of universal reconciliation, I still thought for a while that the idea of free will posed the strongest philosophical objection to such an idea. Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, for example, had a powerful influence over my philosophical development in graduate school, as it did for so many others, and for a couple of years I assumed uncritically that libertarian free will, if it should exist, would establish at least the logical possibility of someone freely rejecting God forever.

      But one day it struck me that the concept of libertarian free will was figuring into the abstract calculations of Christian philosophers no differently than an utterly random occurrence would, that people were proceeding as if there were no limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice, and that Christian philosophers needed a much more complete explanation of libertarian freedom, which had become little more than a jargon trap-word, than any of them have given so far. So now I no longer find this a persuasive objection at all. But because so many who share my understanding of divine love, even as they affirm the possibility of an everlasting separation from God, let’s leave it at this: a free will theodicy of hell includes perhaps the strongest philosophical objection to the larger hope, as you call it.


  8. If the door is, indeed, locked on the inside,it seems unlikely that the most reprobate of prodigal sons would not, at some point, have a moment of clarity in which he turns his mind and his heart toward home. If not, must we not then conclude that the bliss of the redeemed is, to some degree, dependent on the suffering of the damned? (Which has come to light as being unavoidably integral to God’s eternal creation, has it not?). If so, it could be argued that they are paying the real price for our salvation–if, indeed, they are truly suffering!

    But why must we insist that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, suggesting that it has pleased Him, from the beginning, to create in such a way that the eternal, conscious suffering of a significant percentage of human and celestial creatures is unavoidable? (Especially if we must affirm, simultaneously, that creation was optional–that he need not have created at all). Appeals to human freedom fall flat at this point—especially given the weight of original sin and the necessity of God’s grace for our salvation. Who brings us into existence in the first place? Who decides that we must unavoidably suffer from the sin of our first parents? And since our salvation depends upon the grace of God, who is it that decides who will receive sufficient grace to be saved and who will not? It is usually explained, on the basis of Romans 1:20, that all of us receive enough light to be justly condemned, but we seem to read in Romans 9 that not all receive enough grace to be saved. Does this scheme of things really seem plausible?

    Make no mistake, I think the concepts of sin and separation in conjunction with those of human freedom and Divine sovereignty– rightly understood –express very profound truths about the human condition. But superficially understood– in light of a very literal reading of Genesis combined with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment –such teachings are both logically contradictory and morally hazardous. For more in this vein, see: “Is the Doctrine of Hell Defensible”:

    A better way forward can be found in the following two sources:

    1) See relevant selections from Letters VIII and IV of “Meditations on the Tarot”, by Valentin Tomberg:

    Click to access Meditations-on-the-Tarot.pdf

    2) Read this brilliant essay by Ananda Coomaraswami: “Who is Satan and Where is Hell”:

    Thank you for addressing this topic on your blog and for allowing a wide range of comments.


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