Apologetics and Hell: A Possible Problem With the A-theory

Here are three thoughts which occurred to me recently as I was rethinking my arguments in The Paradox of Hell and Justice. The first is that, contra the Molinist apologetic offered by William Lane Craig, the atheist (or other critic of Christianity) could argue that since the pool of logically possible worlds includes many more worlds where not every single counterfactual conditional about the libertarian free choices of those in hell is such that every person in hell incurs, by their free uncoerced will, indefinitely more damnation upon themselves, than it includes worlds which do, the Molinist account is unlikely to succeed. In other words, worlds where the counterfactuals allow for at least one person in hell to reach the end of their deserved punishment are more plenteous among the set of logically possible worlds than worlds in which the set of infinitely many subjunctive counterfactuals do not allow even a single person in hell to reach the end of their justly deserved punishment. This is an argument from the incredible improbability of the Molinist account – what the Molinist proposes is so unlikely to be true that if it were the only way in which hell could possibly be justified then the likelihood that hell is not justified would be so incredibly great it couldn’t be reasonably denied. This would not be a case for the logical incompatibility of God’s being just and the existence of hell, but rather an evidential or probabilistic argument against their being coincident.

The second thought is this. First, I had thought that the apologetic Pruss proposed could be made to work on either theory of time (the A-theory or the B-theory), but I am now thinking that there may be a subtle problem on the A-theory. Clearly, on either theory, there is no point in time at which the subjective suffering of the damned is ‘complete.’ The trouble, though, is that on the A-theory the amount of suffering demanded by God’s justice is not and will never be satisfied. Although the point at which such suffering would be ‘complete’ is removed an infinite distance away from any point in time (on either theory of time), the difference is that on the A-theory that point acts as the limit towards which something endlessly approaches and never actualizes, whereas on the B-theory the whole infinite set of times is already actual. So, if some measure of suffering is both justified and is demanded by justice itself, then this second apologetic account of hell, at least on the A-theory, does not allow for justice to ever be satisfied in actuality, or, to be more precise, it doesn’t allow for justice to be satisfied in actuality (we remove tensed indexicals). Therefore, if this second apologetic account of hell were correct, it would provide us with good reason to adopt a B-theory and reject the A-theory. On the other hand, one could always resort to arguing in the reverse direction, suggesting that since the A-theory is true this apologetic model of hell must be wrong.

This leads me to my final thought for the day; namely that the problem here may be stickier than the A-theorist imagines. It’s not just that this particular model of hell proposed by Pruss poses a problem for the A-theorist. Now that I think of it, it seems as though this would provide a serious problem for any apologetic account of hell on the A-theory, for it is strictly not logically possible that i) the A-theory be true, that ii) the classical doctrine of hell be true, and that iii) God’s justice is (possibly) satisfied in actuality.

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21 thoughts on “Apologetics and Hell: A Possible Problem With the A-theory

  1. Is it possible that both A- and B- series of time are true? A. N. Prior did not see them as two opposing understanding of time but complimentary. In computer science, using Prior ideas, systems are designs with both A and B – understanding of events. B- series is designers outward view while A- series is the users inward view.

    I am toying with the idea on how both views could be true. For continent creatures like us who are inside the system then A – series is what is more real to us, but if it was possible to be a necessarily being and see the system from outside, then B – series would be a live possibility.

    Thank you for your thought. Sorry that I through in what is in my head lately 🙂

      • I would disagree. There is no explicit nor implicit contradiction between A and B theories. Remember for there to be a contradiction p must be q and not-q at the same time and same sense. A and B theories are not in the same sense thus cannot contradict it other. In B theory there is no timeline, timeline applies only in A theory.

      • Prayson Daniel, thanks for the comments. Here I really do think there is a genuine contradiction though, since the A-theory essentially maintains that tense is an objective and ineliminable feature of reality, but this is precisely what the B-theory denies. One affirms Q, the other denies Q, in the same sense and at the same… Well, you know.

    • “For contingent creatures like us who are inside the system then A – series is what is more real to us, but if it was possible to be a necessarily being and see the system from outside, then B – series would be a live possibility.”

      Those who accept the A-theory, at least if they are theists, maintain that God is in time.

  2. Does this ‘satisfaction’ problem extend to the non-heaven/hell world for A theory? Suppose God desires that the world continually progress to a greater good. If A theory is true and time goes infinitely in the future, then those desires are never satisfied. But this is all speculation on what God would desire. Maybe God desires A theory to be true for all we know.

    Here’s a Cartesian argument for A theory. If B theory is true then our experience of time is a deception. God is not a deceiver.

    Anyways, I think you have a strong burden of proof–which may have been your point of this post–to show that not only is B theory true of our world, but that tenseless theories of time are true in all possible worlds due to your belief in God’s necessary atemporality and necessary omniscience.

    • The Cartesian argument you present is not unheard of, but it is rather weak, since even Descartes allowed that God could so arrange the world that I could be mistaken about some of my beliefs, though only (for Descartes) if God provided a way in principle for me to correct myself. The B-theorist will argue that there is such a way to correct ourselves. The B-theorist might also argue that there is no legitimate way to infer from our experience of temporal passage to anything like the A-theory. These are standard responses.

      If God desired that the world continually progress to a greater good then the A-theory could satisfy that. I’m not sure there’s any problem here. Perhaps you could try to clarify what you think the problem might be?

      Concerning the burden of proof, it seems to me that the burden of proof is equally heavy on the other side, for if the B-theory is true then it is metaphysically necessary (at least given a world), and if the A-theory is true then it is metaphysically necessary(at least given a world). However, since this is the case, all one has to do is argue effectively that the B-theory (or the A-theory) is true of our world. That’s a burden of proof I feel ready to meet.

      • “The B-theorist might also argue that there is no legitimate way to infer from our experience of temporal passage to anything like the A-theory.”
        We can have legitimate inferences without the inference being infallible, right? As our buddy WLC would say, it’s not inferred from other beliefs. It’s properly basic because we experience it like we experience the seeing of trees. I’m not sure B-theory is similarly properly basic.

        “Perhaps you could try to clarify what you think the problem might be?”
        The idea is that God has a goal that we continually progress to some type of utopia. On A-theory, there will at least be some time where we haven’t reached that utopia and haven’t satisfied God’s goal, and, additionally, we will never do so given it’s a potential infinite.

        “for if the B-theory is true then it is metaphysically necessary (at least given a world), and if the A-theory is true then it is metaphysically necessary(at least given a world).”
        If I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying if B theory is true in our world, it’s true in all possible worlds. I’m not seeing why A theory can’t be true of one possible world and B theory true in another possible world.

  3. Here’s another random thought. If we take a Kripkean idea that pain just is the experience of pain, and if we further think that A-theory and B-theory are empirically/experientially equivalent, then on either an A-theory world or B-theory world, the amount pain is the same.

  4. One must first have a morally valid theory of justice before one can assert that a penalty is “justified”.

    On Earth, Jefferson said that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted”. A constitution (national and state) is our agreement to create the means to secure our rights. A legislature creates laws forbidding murder, slavery, and theft to secure our rights to life, property, and liberty. A police force arrests offenders. A court determines guilt or innocence and if guilty assigns a penalty.

    A “justified” penalty would (a) repair the harm to the victim (victim’s rights), (b) correct the behavior of the offender (society’s rights), (c) protect society until the offender is corrected, and (d) do no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c) to protect the right of the guilty to a “just” penalty. Ideally, the end result of a corrective penalty would be the offender’s redemption and return to society as a law-abiding person.

    Once you know the point of justice and the reason for the penalty you are no longer in the dark as to saying what is “justified” and what is not.

    So, now, that brings us to Hell. What is the point of Hell? Is it redemption? Is it vengeance? Or is it something totally different. Once we know what is supposed to be accomplished, we’ll know whether the means are appropriate or not.

    • Sorry for the somewhat late timing of this reply. The intuition here is that justice has something to do with (moral) accountability. The person who manages to kill many people and then gets himself shot by a cop accidentally, instead of facing trial and a sentence, has not really faced a just penalty for their crimes. If the same person had gotten away from the police and lived the rest of his life without being caught, finally dying with cancer, then that person would not have faced justice (according to the common intuition). On your view, however, his dying would satisfy justice – but the intuition people usually have is that if the criminal wasn’t held accountable, then justice wasn’t really served.

      Going back to my example of the criminal who flees the country, notice that I asked us to imagine that we have good reason to think that the criminal would never return, and I could have added that we have good reason to think he would never cause harm to anyone else. Even if the country he flees to has no extradition treaty, or perhaps (like Italy) refuses to extradite certain criminals if those criminals would face a death penalty, the country from which he fled will still attempt to capture him and return him – and this is not done for the safety of the people in the country he has fled to, nor is it for the safety of the people in the country he has fled from. His country will attempt to hold him morally accountable and expect him to face the justice of a penalty (not for the good of their citizens, and not for the good of the criminal). Why? Because otherwise he will not have been held accountable, and justice is, in part, about being held accountable for one’s actions.

      The question of hell seems tendentious at best here, but I don’t mind briefly addressing it (though I will note that I have written other articles on this blog which you may be interested in, such as ‘the paradox of hell and justice’ – some comments may be more appropriately deposited there). First, insofar as hell is ‘just,’ hell isn’t just intended as a kind of reparative therapy, but intended as a way of ensuring ultimate moral accountability. However, to think of hell as a punishment, while not wrong, is (or can be) misleading. Hell is just the doctrinal compliment of the doctrines of eternal life, and free will – if one has eternal life, and if one is free to love and embrace God, or to hate and reject God (in one’s heart, more fundamentally than in one’s head), then hell is simply an eternal life for those who chose to hate and reject God eternally. If you think there are problems with the doctrine of hell, I would invite you to share them elsewhere (such as in the comments section of the article I mentioned above). However, insofar as justice is about being held accountable, and insofar as hell is a ‘punishment’ freely chosen on the part of the offender which holds them morally accountable for their sins (which, on the Christian worldview, they have chosen not to allow Christ to relieve them of), I see no conflict between hell and what is usually meant by justice.

      There is certainly a conflict between hell and what you mean by justice, but I’m afraid your concept of justice is a bit of an ad hoc invention. What I mean is this: it isn’t the concept which thinkers like John Locke or Immanuel Kant had (and these thinkers were extremely influential in shaping western political theory). Your concept of justice, as I explained earlier, is literally at odds with what we have ‘on the books,’ insofar as it is written into the law itself that part of the purpose and function of the courts is to punish the guilty (not for the sake of rehabilitation, but for the sake of what everyone in the western world – Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, etc. – has always meant by ‘justice’).

      In summary, the reason for the punishment (on my view of justice) is that a person needs to be held morally accountable for their actions. As to the degree of punishment, the legal rule written in the Bible, and articulated philosophically by Immanuel Kant, is ‘an eye for an eye’ – the punishment must fit the gravity of the crime. Notice that on your view this isn’t necessarily so – the offense may incur a much more grave punishment. For instance, imagine a kleptomaniac who steals a video game – on your view the punishment is for the sake of rehabilitation, but the rehabilitation of a kleptomaniac may take years, and even decades. The kleptomaniac could conceivably be living behind bars for most of their life just for stealing a video game. On my view, that can’t (or shouldn’t) happen. On your view it could (and, conceivably, should under special circumstances).
      I hope that’s a thorough enough response to give you something to chew on for a while. Thanks again for the comments.

      • The purpose of justice is to serve moral good.

        We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. To the degree that the need is clearly real, the good in meeting it is both objective and empirically verifiable.

        For example, we can say without argument that a glass of water is good for the man dying of thirst in the desert. And we can say that the same glass of water is objectively bad for the man who is drowning in the swimming pool.

        However, as we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, things start getting fuzzier and more subjective. But everyone can agree that it is a good thing to provide food for the hungry.

        The concept of moral good is served in many ways, by feeding the poor and also by growing the food, transporting it to market, and exchanging it for other “economic goods”.

        Justice serves moral good by dealing with those whose behavior causes harm to others or their rights. To reduce this type of harm, justice provides a penalty that seeks to (a) repair the harm to the victim (if feasible), (b) correct the offender’s future behavior (if reasonably possible), and (c) restrain the offender’s liberty until his behavior has been corrected. In its service of the best good for everyone, the penalty may be no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

        Since it is the purpose of Justice to serve moral good, the actions in the name of Justice may be judged by how well they accomplish this purpose: to improve moral good and reduce unnecessary harm for everyone. .

        This is how the offender is held accountable. It is not for some arbitrary or mysterious purpose.

        Even our intuitive responses fall into this definition of justice. Two brothers sit at the breakfast table. One finishes his own waffle and reaches for his brother’s plate. The brother, or the parent, intuitively smacks his hand. The intent of this punishment is to immediately protect one’s own waffle and teach a lesson to reduce the likelihood that he’ll reach for my waffle again.

        What a person justly deserves is a just penalty, one justifiable by the need to protect others from unnecessary harm and designed to, if possible, correct the offender, redeeming him to better future choices.

        The rationale for justifying any given penalty must be to accomplish a better good for everyone and less needless harm.

        One way that people have tried to do this is by a penalty severe enough to provide an effective deterrent to those contemplating a crime. But this is like penalize one person for the sins that have not yet been committed by another. In theory, if the penalty is sufficient to correct the person who already deliberately committed the crime, it should already be sufficient to deter the person who is only contemplating it.

  5. em>”I am now thinking that there may be a subtle problem on the A-theory. Clearly, on either theory, there is no point in time at which the subjective suffering of the damned is complete.”

    Let’s say under annihilationism that the condemned are judged and take some finite amount of time to ‘burn up’ (be punished) before being destroyed. So, an observer A undergoes eternal torment of hell under the fourth response on The Paradox of Hell and Justice and observer A’ undergoes post-judgement, post-finite-punishment annihilation. As I understand the original argument, the punishment of A may be technically eternal on the time axis, but it asymptotically approaches zero (no more punishment: i.e. “limit [torment(time)] = 0”). On an eternal scale the punishment is limited. Wouldn’t the experience of A and A’ be identical from their own perspective? The finite punishment required for justice must be the same for both A and A’. If you limit the experience of a person’s suffering (‘time whizzing by’), you must also limit their existence (from their own perspective).

    So why even talk about ‘eternal torment’ at all if what you really mean is a finite amount of suffering? Isn’t finite suffering exactly the annihilationist assertion? Where is the benefit to dragging out the punishment relative to some absolute eternal time reference? If you agree that A-theory is true and agree with reason four from the original argument in The Paradox of Hell and Justice, then the annihilationist view is simpler and the more reasonable explanation. The subtle problem you raise only adds support to this conclusion.

    Even if you accept B-theory instead of A-theory, why not just accept annihilationism if the total punishment must be finite? I don’t see how you get out of “That God allows some people to suffer for an everlasting eternity in hell” by saying, in effect, “Just kidding, it is really just non-everlasting punishment stretched out over eternity”.

    • I have read your comments in reverse (having started with your more recent comment on the Paradox of Hell and Justice), so this response comes after my response to your comments there.

      “If you agree that A-theory is true and agree with reason four from the original argument in The Paradox of Hell and Justice, then the annihilationist view is simpler and the more reasonable explanation… Even if you accept B-theory instead of A-theory, why not just accept annihilationism if the total punishment must be finite?”

      The primary reason, admittedly, is that it is as heretical as Sabellianism (at least from a Catholic perspective). Catholics have an obvious and concrete measure for orthodoxy, and on that measure doctrines like the Trinity, purgatory, hell, the incarnation (et cetera) are just non-negotiable for any faithful Catholic.

      “I don’t see how you get out of “That God allows some people to suffer for an everlasting eternity in hell” by saying, in effect, “Just kidding, it is really just non-everlasting punishment stretched out over eternity”.” The point is that it would be literally *everlasting* punishment without being temporally infinite in degree. However, even if annihilationism were true, what I was trying to demonstrate is that one of the primary intuitions supporting annihilationism against the orthodox view is severely undercut in light of the fact that everlasting eternal torment does not logically entail the experience of torment exceeding that deserved by the nature of the crime(s).

      • Well at least you are honest about your primary reason! Are you not setting up a potential defeater such that if any one Catholic doctrine could be shown to be false that this must mean Catholicism is false? I assume you’ve examined the biblical case for annihilationism and found it wanting? In any case, I fear that were we to compare doctrines you would find a great many to be heretical.

        even if annihilationism were true, what I was trying to demonstrate is that one of the primary intuitions supporting annihilationism against the orthodox view is severely undercut in light of the fact that everlasting eternal torment does not logically entail the experience of torment exceeding that deserved by the nature of the crime(s).

        It appears the the only reason for not taking an annihilationist viewpoint is a dogmatic one: being Catholic. Specifically, the annihilationist view is essentially equivalent to eternal punishment to a finite degree (see below), except you don’t have to go through any philosophical hoops (and contrivance) to get there. It is the eternal view of hell that is severely undercut by turning it into a modified form of annihilationism to avoid the original objection.

        Let me reformulate one of my original points. Annihilationism ends with a soul’s existence terminated, that is, meaningful (conscious) existence is finite. Because finite-degree-of-punishment-eternal-hell necessitates finite torment it must logically follow that the soul’s meaningful (conscious) existence must also be finite. In both explanations the torment and existence are finite to the same degree, therefore they are equivalent descriptions of the same thing.

      • “Are you not setting up a potential defeater such that if any one Catholic doctrine could be shown to be false that this must mean Catholicism is false?” Yes, absolutely. If somebody can convince me that a single Catholic doctrine is false, then tomorrow I’m no longer a Christian at all (for I can make no sense of Christianity without the Catholic Church). I have welcomed that challenge since I was received into full communion on the Easter Vigil several years ago – my confidence in the truth of the Catholic faith grows more all the time.

        “I assume you’ve examined the biblical case for annihilationism and found it wanting?” At one point while I was still an evangelical I actually adopted annihilationism as the correct view (and argued for it pretty forcefully). However, what changed my mind was not primarily a Biblical case, it was a dogmatic case; I can make no sense of even using the Bible (as an authority) at all without acknowledging the authority of the Church which put the Bible together. I feel like people who miss this (as I did for most of my life) just can’t see the forest for the trees. Moreover, the scriptural case for the traditional view is still very strong, and the main objection to the traditional view is the one I think I’ve dealt with in the posts. You write that “In both explanations the torment and existence are finite to the same degree, therefore they are equivalent descriptions of the same thing.” While I don’t quite agree that they are perfectly equivalent, I wonder if you shouldn’t regard these two competing views as in a sort of stalemate (on your view) – I suppose that would depend on your assessment of the biblical case for the traditional view. What do you do with passages like Revelation 14:11 (even given that the imagery is borrowed from Isaiah 34:10, the context in which it is used in Revelation makes for a strong case against annihilationism). What of Mark 9:48 and the undying worm? What of Matthew 25:46 which juxtaposes the eternal punishment of the damned with the eternal life of the elect? Just a few verses earlier Matthew 25:41 mentions that the eternal fire is prepared for the Devil and his angels, which raises the question: why, if the fallen angels were as definitively damned as damned humans, are they not to be annihilated (Jude 13 says that they are those “for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever” and Revelation 20:10 says: “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”)? If they are to be annihilated as well, why haven’t they been annihilated already? Doesn’t the Scripture make clear that their punishment really is everlasting, for it says “‘Hallelujah!
        The smoke goes up from her for ever and ever.’” (Revelation 19:3). Mark 9:43 tells us that we too are in danger of being cast into that very same “unquenchable fire.” In what sense could annihilationism account for the passage: “It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’” (Matthew 26:24) if, on annihilationism, it will be exactly the same for them as though they had never been born(!)? The cumulative case for the traditional view may not be compelling, but it is considerable.

        The doctrine of annihilationism has basically been considered a heresy since it appeared with the Gnostics (in particular, the Valentinians). [Note that while universalism was taken a lot more seriously by Catholics like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, Annihilationism was rejected by everybody]. It is contrary to the Athanasian creed, the traditional liturgy, countless other canons and declarations throughout the history of Christianity, and has today become, I think, just another product of itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3).

      • I should clarify that Matthew 26:24, in its literal sense, is referring to Judas – I make the presumption that Judas is, here, an archetypal stand-in for those who betray the son of man by abandoning the faith (Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-29), in quite the same way the Apostle John is, in John’s Gospel, an archetypal stand-in for the faithful Christian disciple (right up to and including taking Mary as his mother at the behest of Christ (See Revelation 12:17)). However, if you think this reading of Matthew 26:24 is a stretch, then I can simply reframe the question as applying just to Judas. If you think that the devil and his demons will suffer for an everlasting eternity rather than being annihilated, do you think Judas will join in their torment rather than being annihilated? There may be some challenges you could raise to this as well I suppose (see, for instance, Pruss’ blog here: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2011/03/common-mistake-about-hell.html).

        I thought I should add, while I’m at it, that passages which support the classical doctrine of hell also come from the Deuterocanonical books. For instance:

        “The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.”
        (Judith 16:17)

        That helps to highlight the fact that this disagreement is more fundamental and dogmatic than it is merely a matter of biblical interpretation. The Bible doesn’t include a canon, so to determine whether Judith, 2 Peter, Ecclesiastes, 1 Timothy, (etc.) are genuinely scriptural seems a necessary first step in building any respectable case from scripture for the truth of any doctrine. It’s rather convenient to prop up a doctrine of hell which has always been considered heretical by the Christian Church, argue for it from scripture, and then argue that at least some of the passages which most strongly undermine the view don’t move you because you also reject the authority of those books which had been considered inspired (and canonical) by every Christian since Pope Damasus I’s Council of Rome (382 AD) which issued the Decretum Gelasianum, not to mention the reinforcement of the first council of Carthage (397 AD), The synod of Hippo (393 AD), the second council of Carthage (419 AD), Pope Innocent I’s list of canonical books (405 AD), and the unanimity of the universal Church right up until the protestant reformation (where, of course, the Church reaffirmed, yet again, the same canon at Trent). How is this any different from Marcion arguing from scripture only after he has removed several gospels and a myriad of epistles (not to mention redacting even the books he retained for his contrived canon)? The difference cannot be merely that he was unsuccessful in getting people to agree with him (for truth is not the determination of democracy – though, I note, if we were to decide doctrine based on Christian democracy, and we take seriously what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead, then the traditional view of hell would win in a landslide, as would the Catholic canon of scripture).

        I realize I’m pressing you, slightly, but to be honest I’d rather argue about the forest than the trees. To argue about the best biblical interpretation of a doctrine with a protestant (or a Gnostic, or anyone else) after they have already artificially rigged the game by excluding whatever books they deem uncanonical is to engage in a sort of shell-game. It is worth playing only (or primarily) in order to show that even when the game has been wildly rigged, even when the Catholic is handicapped (for she cannot draw on all of scripture, anymore than she can draw directly from tradition or the magisterium or the rest of the whole tapestry of Christian faith), the stronger argument still favours the Catholic faith. Otherwise, whether the stronger case which can be made biblically *when only considering a sub-set of Biblical books according to a truncated hermeneutical rule* is the Catholic one, or an alternative one, seems so trivial as to be purely academic.

      • If somebody can convince me that a single Catholic doctrine is false, then tomorrow I’m no longer a Christian at all

        That terrifies me! I’m tempted to never post on your site again rather than play a role in a potential false deconversion. God (literally) forbid. I can’t understand deconversion unless the resurrection is disproven. As Jesus said in Matthew 12:39-40, it is his death, 3 days and nights in the grave, and resurrection that prove who he is. The demands of truth dictate that if I find any specific doctrines to be false (in Catholicism or otherwise), then I am obligated to accept the minimal fact and still believe. Ultimately the demands of truth require truth to be discerned, no matter the consequences. It would be a great tragedy were you to become like Charles Templeton.

        What of Mark 9:48 and the undying worm?

        This quote is from Isaiah 66:24, where they go out [of the city] and see the dead bodies. The worms that eat the dead body do not die, the fire that burns them does not go out, and witnesses will be horrified. But the bodies? They of course cease to be once the worms and fire have done their task. Burning and devouring are destroying actions.

        Verse 42 refers to being drowned in a real, not figurative, lake of water. Verses 43/45/47 discuss voluntarily throwing just one hand, foot, or eye going into the fire instead of two involuntarily. Using separate body parts to reflect the traditional eternal hell explanation verges on incoherent. These verses discuss being in life while maimed. Verse 49 says that everyone is ‘salted with fire’. The context (verse 47) is γέεννα, the Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem (where Jeremiah situates child sacrifice to Moloch). That this is a physical place cannot be discounted, Jesus’ figurative and legendary use notwithstanding.

        This text is about purification and removal of sin, that which is horrifying to God, through fire and worms. It strains credulity to suggest that this refers to eternal punishment, let alone torment, in hell. Why contrast the lesser part, greater part or whole from being destroyed in the fire. The ultimate punishment described is complete exclusion from the coming Kingdom of God and destruction, in the Second Death. Generally this has been treated as destruction (e.g. Matthew 10:28, and many others) or a place like purgatory (which I understand to include the Talmud and Mishnah).

        Mark 9:43 tells us that we too are in danger of being cast into that very same “unquenchable fire.”

        Of course the fire is unquenchable. Once judged, the sentence cannot be avoided.

        What of Matthew 25:46 which juxtaposes the eternal punishment of the damned with the eternal life of the elect?

        It matters greatly how you treat κόλασιν and αἰώνιον. We’ve already agreed, since we’ve considered finite-degree-of-punishment-eternal-hell, that ‘unlimited torment’ is not a required translation. The phrase is ‘everlasting punishment’, not ‘everlasting punishing.’ The punishment, death, goes on forever (is permanent): there is no later resurrection after the Second Death (described here). While ‘everlasting punishing’ is one of the two possible interpretations it isn’t the most natural. We should look elsewhere for confirmation. See John 3:16, John 5:24 and Romans 6:23 which clearly state that the choice is between life and death, not life and torment. The juxtaposition of life and death is natural, but not the juxtaposition of life and torment.

        What do you do with passages like Revelation 14:11 (even given that the imagery is borrowed from Isaiah 34:10.

        But the answer is not difficult at all: the language is figurative. Specifically: hyperbole. This is pretty obvious when reading the Isaiah passage in context. It isn’t surprising that the clearest statements of eternal torment are in the book of Revelation.

        Why, if the fallen angels were as definitively damned as damned humans, are they not to be annihilated?

        Revelation 20:10 parallels Revelation 14:11 (discussed above). Matthew 25:41 parallels Matthew 25:46 (also discussed above). Those same points should apply here. But if you don’t accept that, I don’t see why you can’t claim that angels are treated differently than humans.

        If they are to be annihilated as well, why haven’t they been annihilated already? Doesn’t the Scripture make clear that their punishment really is everlasting, for it says “‘Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her for ever and ever.’” (Revelation 19:3).

        I don’t understand your question. Why would they be annihilated already (before their time comes)?

        Revelation 19:3 and Revelation 14:11 (discussed above) are obvious parallels. It bothers me that the strongest evidence for everlasting punishment (in the traditional sense) is from a book that contains such obviously figurative language, including hyperbole. Shouldn’t you be able to defend the doctrine of hell without relying heavily on Revelation?

        In what sense could annihilationism account for the passage: “It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’” (Matthew 26:24) if, on annihilationism, it will be exactly the same for them as though they had never been born(!)?

        I’m not following the logic. Destruction doesn’t mean they were not born or that their existence is wiped out (as in a sci-fi time-traveling timeline change). The figurative “smoke keeps rising” certainly suggests that the punishment is meaningful to more than just the person being punished, though I wouldn’t be dogmatic on that point.

        do you think Judas will join in their torment rather than being annihilated?

        You’ve lost me on where you are going with this. I’ll pass on trying to figure it out unless you think it especially relevant to some point I have not already made.

        Judith 16:17: …the day of judgment…they shall weep in pain forever

        This is interesting. Were we to take this surface-literally, it would be difficult accepting the finite-degree proposal that we have been discussing. Then you’re back to square one with the moral/justice objection to infinite torment. The philosophical attempt seems to cheat the plain literal meaning of this particular text. One could probably criticize the interpretation by addressing Judith on a literary textual analysis basis. I think it would be much more promising to do a more detailed analysis on how the OT uses absolutist, hyperbolic language to describe the day of judgment. We have not talked about OT eschatology at all to this point. But that’s probably a discussion that is way out of scope for posts like this. I would need to see good reason why this in particular should be treated as an apparent contradiction to other teachings.

        The Bible doesn’t include a canon

        I have no qualms with using the deuterocanonical books in this discussion. I don’t think this is nearly the roadblock between us that you assume. If your case is strong, then you’ll be able to use it persuasively. That doesn’t frighten me at all.

        I’d be equally comfortable going the other direction and arguing the same position while excluding both the OT deuterocanonical books and Luther’s NT non-canonical books. If a critical core doctrine requires one or two specific books to show it, then I’m highly skeptical that it should be considered core doctrine. Similarly, if a doctrine is contradicted by adding more canonical books, that also indicates a problem.

        The point is that we can assume the Catholic canon and work from there.

        It’s rather convenient to prop up a doctrine of hell which has always been considered heretical by the Christian Church, argue for it from scripture, and then argue that at least some of the passages which most strongly undermine the view don’t move you because you also reject the authority of those books which had been considered inspired (and canonical) by every Christian

        Well yes, cherry picking can be a problem. Although of course the formation of a canon requires cherry picking. It’s unavoidable. I can understand why the Catholic OT is considered canonical: Jesus and the apostles apparently used something very close to it. But the NT? It obviously didn’t exist. You have no choice but to appeal to some authority other than Jesus and the apostles. You use the Catholic church, but that’s not the only logically valid option, although you would certainly claim it to be the only theological option.

        The cumulative case for the traditional view may not be compelling, but it is considerable.

        There is certainly some biblical ambiguity between the various views: universalism, annihilationism, and hell. The three views are not necessarily completely mutually exclusive from one another either. I think the body of evidence points to annihilationism, but the finite-degree-of-punishment-eternal-hell proposal unifies the two views. Some modified form of universalism may be compatible as well. Since the catholic doctrine teaches that the doors are locked from within, perhaps there is a way for people to leave hell of their own free will. (Also, I was surprised that the Catholic church has not already officially stated, as part of core doctrine, that hell is both eternal in time and degree. If this were the case, you surely would have said so. The Revelation and Judith passages seems ‘clear’)

      • You write: “That terrifies me! I’m tempted to never post on your site again rather than play a role in a potential false deconversion. God (literally) forbid. I can’t understand deconversion unless the resurrection is disproven.” While this concern is appreciably sober and loving, let me assure you that you needn’t worry about it. I should probably also amend my statement to the following: if I were convinced that Catholicism were false, then I would be more inclined to believe that Christianity is false than to retain the belief that Christianity is true. I can, at least vaguely, stipulate conditions under which I’d retain some semblance of Christian faith – but I’d have to be convinced of a plethora of things from epistemological coherentism to the denial of free will, belief in irresistible grace, the denial of a manifest formally revealed orthodoxy (rather than merely materially revealed), denial of the vast majority of the Christian faith of the Church Fathers, denial of the sensus fidelium expressed throughout all the ecumenical councils in the history of the Church (etc.). At that point, quite frankly, I would very likely just adopt some version of sophisticated religious pluralism on which I could pragmatically justify maintaining Christian (and even Catholic) faith while not committing myself to its literal truth in the classical correspondence sense of truth. I’d basically retain my religion without my theology, unless some Protestant could make good sense of Protestantism as a Christian theology (in such a way that I could understand it at all – or maybe I’d be inclined to move to the Eastern Orthodox (or Oriental Orthodox, or some other autocephalous apostolic communion tracing back, in apostolic succession, to Jesus Christ himself)).
        Just as a quick note, however; the resurrection of Christ is a necessary but insufficient condition for Christianity’s truth. Christ could have risen again because extra-terrestrials decided to play a cosmic prank on us, which they may admit to us when we’ve matured enough to be introduced to the intergalactic community of civilizations. Christ could have risen again miraculously by God’s activity, even though sophisticated religious pluralism turned out to be correct, rather than Christianity. Christianity requires more than just the resurrection – the faith is richer than that!
        Concerning Isaiah 66:24, it is, obviously, not the only part of scripture where the imagery of a worm is used to indicate uncleaness, unholiness, damnation, etc. (Isaiah 14:11, Acts 12:23, Judith 16:17, Sirach 19:3, 2 Maccabees 9:9), and it isn’t even the only one to note that the affliction will last forever (Judith 16:17). I’ll grant you, though, that Isaiah 66:24 is the only one which says that the worm is undying, and plausibly was the primary source for the imagery in the statement in Mark’s gospel. However, I have two observations to make about this. The first is that the book of Isaiah is not the best source for eschatology anymore than the book of Psalms is the best source for history; Isaiah, looking forward to the messianic deliverance, says “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.” (Isaiah 65:20). Clearly, however, heaven is not temporary. Isaiah is a great book (in fact, if I had to pick a personal favorite book of the Bible, it would be Isaiah), but it is not a book primarily concerned with eschatology. This point segues into my next point about the proper way to approach scripture.
        The right way to approach Isaiah, as any other part of holy writ, is to divide its senses into literal, allegorical, analogical and tropological senses. When one does this one can understand that the polyvalency of scripture which makes room for prophetic undertones also lends it ambiguity (thus providing a partial answer to the skeptic who wonders why the Bible isn’t clearer than it is). One can also see how passages like Hosea 11:1 could be referring to Christ in an allegorical sense without referring to the Messiah in the literal sense, and how passages like Ezekiel 37:1-14 could be anagogically referring to the general resurrection without literally referring to a general resurrection. It can, in the same vein, be understood how and why Isaiah 66:24 could be anagogically referring to the everlasting eternity of hell without thereby referring to it literally – though Mark 9:48 uses the image to refer to hell literally, just as Matthew 2:15 uses Hosea 11:1 to refer literally to Jesus’s departure from Egypt. The argument that Mark 9:48 is not referring literally to an everlasting eternal torment in hell because Isaiah 66:24 is not referring literally to an everlasting eternal torment in hell is exceptionally weak. Clearly, even in passages like Isaiah 14:12, which refers in one sense to the Devil, Isaiah is not literally referring to the Devil, and in Isaiah 7:14 Isaiah is not literally referring to the Messiah. Isaiah 65:20 is literally metaphorical (insofar as it intends, primarily, to use the vehicle of metaphor), and its anagogical significance would be totally obfuscated if it were read as literally eschatological. Mark 9:48 is more directly eschatological. So, that concludes the second observation I wanted to make.

        “Generally this has been treated as destruction (e.g. Matthew 10:28, and many others) or a place like purgatory (which I understand to include the Talmud and Mishnah).” First, when I was a conditionalist/annihilationist that verse, Matthew 10:28, was my go-to verse in every debate, so there’s some nostalgia, for me, in seeing it used this way. Second, purgatory is understood not as a place of the destruction of the individual, but a place where the temporal (as opposed to eternal) punishment for sin is satisfied before full communion with God and the blessed in heaven. It is insinuaded in 2 Maccabees 12:42,44-45, which reflects a tradition carried on and testified to in the Rabbinic Jewish tradition(s) running through the Mishnah and Talmud. Purgatory should not be confused with any version of limbo (whether the limbo of the fathers, or the limbus infantium of Augustine, or that of Abelard, or that of Aquinas).

        “The phrase is ‘everlasting punishment’, not ‘everlasting punishing.’ The punishment, death, goes on forever” I recognize that this is what the conditionalist has to say. It is precisely what I used to argue. It is prima facie plausible considered on its own, so I don’t feel compelled to challenge its plausibility (especially from your perspective). On the other hand, John 5:24 and Romans 6:23 are both, plausibly, presupposing that we are already dead in our current state (or, were dead in our pre-Christian state), so its reference to death hardly supports the conditionalist doctrine of the second death as annihilationism. John 3:16 is more ambiguous when it comes to the issue of annihilationism and the traditional view of hell, so it seems to offer stronger support to annihilationism than the others.

        “It bothers me that the strongest evidence for everlasting punishment (in the traditional sense) is from a book that contains such obviously figurative language, including hyperbole. Shouldn’t you be able to defend the doctrine of hell without relying heavily on Revelation?… If a critical core doctrine requires one or two specific books to show it, then I’m highly skeptical that it should be considered core doctrine.” Well sure, I could defend the traditional doctrine of hell without relying heavily on Revelation, but remember that my hands are tied, to some extent, when playing that game with a Protestant because I’m not really allowed to use all the resources of the faith (as I understand it)– I am usually constrained to using only some of the Bible (though you’ve indicated that you’re comfortable with me using the Deuterocanonicals, or even trying the experiment of arguing for our preferred doctrine without relying on anything outside of Luther’s original New Testament canon – which comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise), and not allowed to make reference to the universally received oral teaching of the Apostles themselves in every Church everywhere since the beginning of the New Advent. I cannot make reference to the apostolic authority of the ordinary magisterium of Christ’s body, nor can I refer (to any avail) to the fathers from Ignatius of Antioch to Peter Abelard, nor in any way can I refer to the mind of the Church or the sensus fidelium. The game is rigged I tell you! :p

        However, I wonder why you think that you *should* be able to defend any correct doctrine without relying heavily on parts of the Bible suffused with figurative or unclear locutions, or without relying on just one or two books? Why think that God’s purpose in giving us the Bible is to make doctrine conspicuously clear? If that were the purpose, wouldn’t the skeptic have a powerful objection insofar as they rightly observe that the Bible could have been clearer in so many ways? Why think that Christians are left to clumsily stumble their way through the darkness of Biblical interpretation to find the truths of the Christian religion (I call it ‘darkness’ because, again, so many passages are unclear, from the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29 to all the figurative language of Revelation)? I realize it’s a dangerous-sounding question, but if you were God, and you could reveal to mankind the whole fullness of truth necessary and helpful for man to be directed to yourself (those truths being otherwise unattainable by their natural ability to reason), would you really do it that way? Why not do as Lactantius believes God has done through the Catholic Church: “But since many heresies have existed, and the people of God have been rent into divisions at the instigation of demons, the truth must be briefly marked out by us, and placed in its own peculiar dwelling-place, that if any one shall desire to draw the water of life, he may not be borne to broken cisterns which hold no water, but may know the abundant fountain of God, watered by which he may enjoy perpetual light… It is, therefore, the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth; this, the domicile of faith; this, the temple of God. Whoever does not enter there or whoever does not go out from there, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation… Because, however, all the various groups of heretics are confident that they are the Christians and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, let it be known that this is the true Church, in which there is confession and penance and which takes a health-promoting care of the sins and wounds to which the weak flesh is subject” (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4, Ch. 30)? Wouldn’t that be a more effective way of transmitting the truths of the faith to the faithful, many of whom are mired in sins with such noetic effects that they cannot otherwise extricate themselves from heresies? Why think that Christians are left to the devices of their own industry and ingenuity in discovering the truths of the faith? I will digress from this point, as I’m being a little too aggressively apologetic, but I would like to insist that this point isn’t trivial and it deserves some serious reflection.

        Concerning my argument from Matthew 26:24, you write “I’m not following the logic. Destruction doesn’t mean they were not born or that their existence is wiped out (as in a sci-fi time-traveling timeline change)… You’ve lost me on where you are going with this. I’ll pass on trying to figure it out unless you think it especially relevant to some point I have not already made.” So, Judas betrays Christ, commits suicide (a mortal sin), and is clearly damned. However, his end, on annihilationism, is exactly the same, for him, as though he has never existed (for there is no subjective difference between having failed to exist at all, and passing into the oblivion of miraculous annihilation). But Jesus says of him that it would have been *better* *for him* were he never to have been born. What I’m saying is that this presents annihilationism with a challenge, for on annihilationism it is tremendously difficult to see how ceasing to exist and failing to exist can be subjectively differentiated.

        Concerning Judith 16:17, the view I’m proposing has no trouble with affirming that “they shall weep in pain forever.” They shall weep in pain forever. That is literally true, on my view.

        Concerning the canon you write: “You have no choice but to appeal to some authority other than Jesus and the apostles. You use the Catholic church, but that’s not the only logically valid option, although you would certainly claim it to be the only theological option.” Quite right. I think the Protestant has some options here, but they seem extremely implausible to me. One option is to try to argue that scripture is so interconnected that from any one book one can derive the whole canon (for instance, one derives Jeremiah from Daniel 9:2, Hosea from Matthew, etc.). Another option is just to insist that the spirit reveals to each and every sincere Christian privately which books are God-breathed, and those Christians who fail to come up with the right canon are to be regarded as not sufficiently faithful (or something like that). Another option is to insist that we need to presuppose the canon of scripture in order to make coherent sense of the world (thus, taking a presuppositionalist’s tactic, namely to adopt a peculiar version of coherentism). Another option is to insist that the canon is that to which most of the Christians with the otherwise correct doctrines (such as the protestant doctrine of justification) subscribe, making its discovery a matter of head-counting the Christians who have certain doctrines (which are, here considered, entirely presupposed in advance) correct. We can imagine variations on these general approaches as well. None of these seem plausible to me at all.

        Finally you write “(Also, I was surprised that the Catholic church has not already officially stated, as part of core doctrine, that hell is both eternal in time and degree. If this were the case, you surely would have said so. The Revelation and Judith passages seems ‘clear’)” So, just to reiterate (for clarity’s sake), the view I’m proposing is one on which the punishment of hell is eternal and everlasting, but involves only finite torment. There is no difficulty in the passages raised (Rev. 14:11 and Judith 16:17), for they affirm that the punishment of hell is everlasting, not that it involves a quantitatively infinite amount of torment. However, having said that, I have noted the curious reluctance of my fellow Catholics to affirm this model of Hell. I have also studied the Catholic faith for long enough that I know there’s still plenty I don’t know (the deeper I go, the richer it seems to get), so there’s always the possibility that the Church has, somewhere, in some obscure canon, or in some obscure passage of a neglected encyclical, or through some note in some papal bull (etc.) said something which would put this view of hell (which I put forward merely as a plausible heterodox opinion to which the annihilationist should be sympathetic) out of bounds for a faithful Catholic (at least if they are aware that it is out of bounds). Our back-and-forth on this has actually prompted me to post on this topic on the Catholic Answers forums (where there are several extremely knowledgeable Catholics always perusing the threads); I have asked everyone there to play the Devil’s advocate and argue against my view using whatever authoritative resources of faith they can. We’ll see what comes of that, I suppose.

        Thank you for this engaging interaction – it has been invigorating for me, and I hope it has been at least equally enjoyable for you as well.

  6. This is a very rare and positive experience. I deeply appreciate the time you have spent.

    ”…difficult to see how ceasing to exist and failing to exist can be subjectively differentiated.”

    It is self-evident: never existing vs. ceasing to exist after existing. Judas’ life, despite being in the image of God, was worth a net negative. He’s among the worst persons of history, a very rare thing. Annihilation no more eliminates a person’s legacy than natural death destroys our memories of a person. There is no issue (esp. considering Alexander Pruss’ comments). Demystify “the oblivion of miraculous annihilation” by calling it what it is: death.

    “There is no difficulty in the passages raised…for they affirm that the punishment of hell is everlasting, not that it involves a quantitatively infinite amount of torment. However, having said that, I have noted the curious reluctance of my fellow Catholics to affirm this model of Hell.”

    It isn’t curious at all. I’d be surprised if anyone likes the proposal. They’ve interpreted those passages from Judith and Revelation as ‘eternal punishing’. The writer of Revelation would’ve never intended such a contrived explanation as eternal punishment with finite torment. It isn’t a natural reading and screams of eisegesis. That’s what I meant by “being ‘clear’ in meaning” and why I was shocked that infinite torment isn’t already dogma: it is universally accepted.

    The typical Catholic has practically no choice of interpretation. It isn’t the only plausible (or doctrinally acceptable) possibility, but others favor annihilationism by weakening the strongest evidence for traditional hell. Like other questionable doctrines, it holds allegiance to narrow textual interpretations in grammatically ambiguous situations. Blind acceptance of dogma, enforced by threats, locks in false doctrines. Thus, the democracy of the dead is silly. Yet, if even one Catholic dogmatic doctrine was proven wrong, the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. (Although the deck is stacked, so that is unlikely to happen). Hellenistic Hades was incorporated into Christianity (and influenced Judaism) very early, and it has rarely been questioned. But that doesn’t make it any less a house of cards on a scriptural basis.

    Of the eschatological passages on the wicked, most focus on death and destruction (like Mark 9) and a few focus on permanent/eternal punishment/torment (like Judith and Revelation). The annihilationist interprets the former literally (second death is actually death) and the latter’s figurative language emphasizes the permanent punishment. Traditionalists interpret the first set figuratively (death as metaphor [!!]) and the second set literally (only vengeance matters). The annihilationist accepts multiple possible interpretations (e.g. hyperbole; or ‘eternal punishment’ as ‘permanent/irrevocable punishment’). It’s common to argue against ‘eternal punishing’ because the tradition relies on it. Traditionalists normally just accept this one interpretation.

    Your proposed view alters the traditional interpretation (but still rejects hyperbole). It harmonizes the competing views nicely, but believers will see it as, if not outright heresy, then borderline false, obscure, and pointless.

    “The phrase is ‘everlasting punishment’, not ‘everlasting punishing.’ The punishment, death, goes on forever” I recognize that this is what the conditionalist has to say.”

    No, this is what an anti-traditionalist finds easiest to argue (as outlined above). It’s plausible but not enough evidence on its own to decide the debate. It’s better to argue for hyperbole. The former is mostly a grammatical argument, but the latter requires a more detailed contextual analysis.

    The argument for hyperbole is strong. A quick overview: (1) the OT (e.g. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Nahum, Malachi) states that the wicked will be totally destroyed. Outside of the deuterocanonical books, the OT lacks clear references to eternal torment. (2) the NT illustrations (e.g. Matthew, John, 2 Peter) are about complete destruction. The language used in many books is that of destruction, devouring, ruin, etc. (3) the scriptural use of soul and spirit indicate the they can be destroyed. There is no immortality outside of eternal life in God’s kingdom. (4) Death, Sheol the grave, is overwhelmingly characterized by unconsciousness. The 11 NT references to ‘Hades’ should be treated as Sheol. (5) Retributive justice requires finite suffering and is not just a philosophical concept (e.g. Matthew 16:27). (6) If an author wanted to emphasize some punishments as being a category greater than others (e.g. Satan), hyperbole is the obvious choice. Scripture makes extensive use of hyperbole. (7) Gehenna: see below.

    ”…purgatory is understood not as a place of the destruction of the individual…Isaiah is not the best source for eschatology…Isaiah 66:24 could be anagogically referring to the everlasting eternity of hell without thereby referring to it literally – though Mark 9:48 uses the image to refer to hell literally.”

    Mark 9:48 is discussing Gehenna. When the Jewish rabbinical writings discuss Gehenna, they describe it as a place of destruction or atonement, like this passage in Mark, not as a place of eternal punishment. Gehenna is counter to eternal hell. I wasn’t confusing purgatory with eternal hell, on the contrary, you claimed that it is about eternal hell. The 12 instances of Gehenna scattered through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and James shouldn’t be translated as the misleading ‘hell’.

    Isaiah 66:24 is about destruction. Mark 9:42-48 is about destruction. Both use finite language. Of course they could be different but they are not. You call it exceptionally weak, but it was Jesus who anagogically applied the non-eschatology of Isaiah to the eschatological context of destruction and atonement. This isn’t about eternal hell, not even a little bit.

    (I apologize for the exegetical error I made about Mark 9. Verses 43/45/47 don’t talk about one body part thrown into the fire.)

    ”I could defend the traditional doctrine of hell without relying heavily on Revelation”

    I don’t think you can. Outside the deuterocanonicals, there are 12 references to ‘Gehenna’ (Matt/Mark/Luke/James), 11 references to ‘Hades’ (Matt/Luke/Acts/1 Cor./Rev.), one reference to ‘Tartaros’ (2 Peter), and 5 references to the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation).

    ”The Bible doesn’t include a canon…the Protestant has some options here…extremely implausible…”

    Ask what Jesus considered canon: Luke 24:44 gives the Law, Prophets, and Psalms. Add Daniel for the “Son of Man.” If we insist on more, we have Matthew 23:35, the accepted Jewish canon, and the quotations contained within the NT. We might include everything except the deuterocanonicals, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. While the NT canon is mostly uncontroversial, you could draw a line accepting just the Gospels and the uncontested writings of Paul.

    This is most of our Bible with little change in doctrine. But why even treat every book as equally important or applicable? Judicious use in the proper literary context is more important than inclusion or exclusion. Your points on Isaiah show that you understand this. We’re not forced to treat the Song of Songs, deuterocanonicals, and less attested OT/NT books the same way as Matthew or the Law. Denominations have historically used them all because they are instructive (but not necessarily primary authoritative). Ultimately, the choice of canon is dwarfed by issues of theology anyway.

    Jesus never gave instructions for the formation of a new canon. His fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures suggests, provocatively, that he didn’t think a new canon was necessary. He spent his time with the illiterate, the poor, and the children, keeping his message clear. Your insistence on a particular canon has way more to do with defending church structure and dogma than in whether or not Jesus thought we needed one. Ironically, your hands are tied, but not in the way you think. You don’t believe that the Holy Spirit could retain the message of the Gospel without a human patriarchy. Mormonism and Islam also hold that God allowed the scriptures to be corrupted.

    ”I’m not really allowed to use all the resources of the faith”

    Sure you can. One (or both) of us will probably be surprised by the result.

    ”…why you think that you *should* be able to defend any correct doctrine without relying heavily on parts of the Bible suffused with figurative or unclear locutions, or without relying on just one or two books? Why think that God’s purpose in giving us the Bible is to make doctrine conspicuously clear?”

    Did you really ask why we shouldn’t rely on unclear locutions for defining correct doctrine? To prove correctness, the clearer the evidence the better. Unclear evidence is weak evidence. Use all available evidence, but don’t overweight the weaker evidence. Doctrines like eternal hell, that are based on weaker evidence, should be questioned to see if they hold up.

    It isn’t impossible for doctrine to be hidden and unclear, but that would just lead to uncertainty and lack of confidence. Embedded in your second question is the dual assumption that God proposed to give us the Bible and that he intended the formation of many new doctrines. Asking whether or not a doctrine is clear is the wrong question.

    ”…wouldn’t the skeptic have a powerful objection insofar as they rightly observe that the Bible could have been clearer in so many ways?”

    Jesus addressed this very question in Matthew 19:16-30. Many people find difficulty not because they don’t understand but because they are not willing, like the rich young man. Clarity won’t help them. Is it hard to understand Matthew 5-7 or Matthew 22:36-40? Tell me: what percentage of people have mastered these things?

    Some passages are difficult. Why shouldn’t they be? Ethics and morality are complex topics. The basics should be straightforward yes, but we want advanced concepts too. Perhaps the Bible could have used less figures of speech or been written more simply, but I always come back to the same point: If you seek, you will find. Those who truly want the answers can find them. It’s not nearly as hard as the skeptic claims. Christianity hangs it all on the resurrection anyway.

    ”…if you were God, and you could reveal to mankind the whole fullness of truth necessary and helpful for man to be directed to yourself, would you really do it that way?”

    The way God did it was absolutely brilliant. Christianity relies on people: on the experienced to teach the inexperienced. It relies on the believers to present the message. It relies on the example of its members living out their faith. Jesus sent us to tell the world, to act as a congregation of missionaries. Christianity lives in the people: not a book, not an organization, not a building, nor doctrines, nor a history. This is the genius of God revealing himself; to do so in relationships multiplied in the lives of his followers. The Christian life lived out for all to see is quite compelling.

    ”Why not do as Lactantius believes God has done through the Catholic Church”

    Lactantius’ argument is circular, surely you can see that. Yet, insofar as the Catholic Church is made up of a great many believers, it will always be a shining example of the genius of God. But God is not limited by any human institution. The Holy Spirit brings us together and nothing, no demons, false doctrines, or divisions can overpower the Holy Spirit. I fear no heresy.

    ”Wouldn’t that be a more effective way of transmitting the truths of the faith to the faithful”

    Having the ‘elders’ transmit truths to the ‘young’ is exactly what Jesus sent us to do. But the methods and doctrines of the Catholic Church do not logically follow from that. You’ll have to be much more convincing than this.

    ”Why think that Christians are left to the devices of their own industry and ingenuity in discovering the truths of the faith?”

    We are all given the free will to discover the truth on our own, and choose to accept or deny it. But we are certainly not alone. Christians have the Holy Spirit to guide. They have other Christians. Your hypothetical question isn’t reality.

    There are many more things I could have said in response to your comment, but I’ve taken up enough space as it is.

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