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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 1–Retribution


Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,

In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue.  I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.

Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions:  that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just.  In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself.  After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”.  These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve.  First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.

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Quote for the Week


It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

–Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Quote for the Week


Cum ergo audimus, Deum omnia facere, nil aliud debemus intelligere, quam Deum in omnibus esse, hoc est, essentiam omnium subsistere.

When we are told that God is the maker of all things, we are simply to understand that God is in all things – that He is the substantial essence of all things.

–John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, Bk. 1, ch. 72; translation from Hugh Fraser Stewart Boethius: An Essay (London: William Blackwood, 1891) p. 255; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Confucius and Socrates

Confucius and Socrates

I’ve mentioned the term “Rectification of Names” before.  The term in Chinese is  正名, or in Pinyin transcription, Zhèngmíng.  This is a very important concept in Confucius’s philosophy, and in my view it is universally applicable.  The basic idea is that one has to have a clear understanding of the world as it is and to use this understanding to call things what they actually are.  In short, we are enjoined to be honest, and in order to be fully honest we must not only not lie, but we must describe things as they really are.  To this end, we must dispense with cant, jargon, obfuscation, propaganda, and so on.  We should call things what they are because only in so doing can we understand how we should behave in any given situation.  The paragraph below gives a succinct description from the Analects (courtesy of here):

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

Rectification of Names is a Confucian term, but the idea behind it, as I said, is universal.  One of the greatest proponents of this concept, though he didn’t use that term, was the great Greek philosopher Socrates.  The “Gadfly”, as he called himself, was so important in the history of Western philosophy that all Greek philosophers prior to him are lumped together as the “Pre-Socratics”.  Socrates himself never wrote anything–our knowledge of him comes from his portrayals in the dialogues of his greatest disciple, Plato.  In his earlier dialogues, Plato is considered to have portrayed Socrates fairly accurately, though later on he uses him more as a mouthpiece.  In any case, I want to focus here on Socrates’ discussion of what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the dialogue in which it is discussed.

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The Divine Exception, Revisited

It occurs to me that we’ll need to take a short detour at this point.  We’ve been discussing the issues involved in freely made but irrevocable choices made by immortal beings.  We’ve already seen some philosophical issues.  On the one hand, it seems as if any such irrevocable choice would eventually have to be revoked.  On the other, if such a being were successful in carrying out such a choice, it seems as if this would indicate that it lacked free will in the first place.  Before we move on to examine these problems more, I think we need to revisit a previous post and consider how all this applies to God.

My argument there was that these issues do not apply to God, since He is eternal, properly so-called.  That is, He is outside of time altogether.  I’m essentially repeating that argument here, with slightly different nuance.  The last time I was making the argument in terms of probabilities.  The last two posts have been subtly different in their analysis, and I want to address that here.

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Quote for the Week


I believe that the Universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love and there is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one’s affections outward toward this one God, rather than inwards on one’s self, or on humanity, or on human imaginations and abstractions — the world of spirits.

I think it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

–Letter to Sister Mary James Power (1 October 1934); published in The Wild God of the World : An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (2003), edited by Albert Gelpi, p. 189; also partly quoted in the essay “Robinson Jeffers, Pantheist Poet” by John Courtney; courtesy of Wikiquote

A Cosmic Thought for Thanksgiving

Shall we not have reason to conclude, that other planets besides our own are inhabited by living creatures? All the planets resemble our earth; like it enjoy the light and genial warmth of the sun, have the alternation of night and day, and the succession of summer and winter: but what end would all these phenomena answer unless the planets were inhabited? Considering them as so many peopled worlds, what a sublime idea we conceive of the grandeur of God, and the extent of his empire! How impossible to fathom his bounty, or penetrate the limits of his power! His glory, reflected from so many worlds, tills us with amaze, and calls forth every sentiment of awe, veneration and gratitude. Supposing that his praise is celebrated in all the worlds which roll above and round us, let us not be surpassed in our adoration, but in holy emulation mingle our hymns with those of the inhabitants of these numerous worlds, and celebrate the Lord God of the universe with eternal thanksgiving!

–Christoph Christian Sturm in March XXX, of Reflections on the works of God, as translated by Robert Balfour (1810), p. 167; courtesy of Wikiquote

Quote for the Week


  • What do I know about God and the purpose of life?
    I know that this world exists.
    That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.
    That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.
    This meaning does not lie in it but outside of it.
    That life is the world.
    That my will penetrates the world.
    That my will is good or evil.
    Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world.
    The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.
    And connect with this the comparison of God to a father.
    To pray is to think about the meaning of life.

    • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Journal entry (11 June 1916), p. 72e and 73e; courtesy of Wikiquote

The Divine Exception: Spirit in the Sky

Update:   The informal theme for these  last few posts has been to put not pictures, but videos of songs connected (often tenuously) to the topic of the day.  I had a draft for this which I’d forgotten about, and forgot the music I’d prepared for this post.  Thus, I’m returning it, and modifying the title to reflect it.  Enjoy!

Back here, we saw what I consider a conundrum:  If we posit an immortal being, it seems that if that being makes a permanent, irrevocable choice of the form “I will never, throughout all eternity, do X,” then whether the being keeps its promise or fails, either result seems to undermine the idea of free will.  This is important in discussing universalism, since a universalist will want to make two metaphysical assumptions:  one, that a damned being in Hell could, in principle, change its mind; but a being in Heaven would not ever choose to do so.  The asymmetry here needs to be address, as do the issues touching on free will.  Before I do that, though, I want to claim an exception:  None of these potential paradoxes applies to God.

In order to support this contention, I had to make a slight detour.  Here I discussed the traditional understanding that God must always be seen as analogical to us in any attributes posited of Him.  He may “live”, “love”, “think”, and so on; but these words always must be understood as analogies, expressing something different when applied to God, as opposed to when they are applied to us.  Even “exist” must be understood analogically.

Then I moved on to look at the mode of God’s existence.  God, unlike us, is a necessary being.  This means that He contains no potentiality, but is pure actuality.  To put it another way, He encompasses all possibilities “simultaneously” (to use a temporal word that does not apply to God), so He is all that He is in all ways at all times.  In short, He can never be other than He is.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating something I noted some time ago and alluded to in the last paragraph:  It is extremely important to remember that God is completely out of time, and can never be said to be in it, connected to it, or related to it in any way we can understand.  God’s existence is essentially “all at once”

I now assert that, given the preceding, the following is true:

God, unlike any other being, can make eternal and irrevocable choices (“I will never do X”; “I will always do Y”)  without contradictions or any diminishing of His free will. 

God’s “will” and “choices” are analogues to what those terms mean for us.  Moreover, given His transcendence of time and given that God is pure actuality–that He cannot be other than He is–we cannot speak of Him as changing His mind “later”.  There is no “later” or “earlier” for God.  There is no contradiction of His free will, either–since God is truly eternal, and pure actuality, His unchanging being is an eternal manifestation of His will, which cannot be other than it is.  Therefore, God can make irrevocable choices with no contradiction.

Now it might be pointed out that the Bible describes God as changing His mind many times; and even on the more theological level, one might argue that God relates to humanity in different ways in different eras.  However, this change is only apparent, caused by our perceptions.  The shape of the moon doesn’t change; its motion with respect to Earth and the sun makes its shape appear to change over the course of the month.  Likewise, God is as He is, always–our perceptions of Him in His interactions with us are what change.

Thus, for God, the problem of eternal choices is no problem.  It’s when we move to humans and angels that we need to face these issues.  I want to argue that angels–and perhaps humans in the afterlife do not experience time as we do now, but that they don’t experience it as God does, either.  That’s what I want to look at next.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

In this essay, the word in question is not “inconceivable”, but “God”.

My jumping-off point here is part of the interview with philosopher John Gray, excerpted back here (emphasis is in the original):

(Interviewer) You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

(Gray) [Fritz Mauthner] was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

The “idea of God” is what I want to talk about here.

In the broadest sense, “theism” is the belief in one or more gods.  In this context, Gray is obviously speaking of monotheism.  One of the most persistent problems with theism, in my view,  is the problem of anthropomorphizing God, that is, conceptualizing Him as if He were human.  In a polytheistic religion, giving the various gods and goddesses human traits is more or less a feature, not a bug.  Even in a monotheistic religion, some degree of anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, since we have to use some categories in which to speak of God, and the categories of “human” and the various human attributes are the most accessible to us.  However, the danger of making God into a big man with a long white beard sitting in the sky is that it tends to end in attributing petty and nasty human characteristics (vengefulness, spite, hatred, favoritism, and so on) to Him, with bad results for believers.  After all, if God is OK with smiting the infidels, the believer might end up thinking it’s a good idea for him–and his armies–to do so, too.  Gray, however, seems to be taking it beyond mere anthropomorphism and locating the problem in language itself.

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