I hold to a high view of providence—what is sometimes called the “Augustinian” perspective. This is essentially the view that God actively governs the entire cosmos, including human beings. The Augustinian view jives well with the Calvinist doctrine of salvation, which I also espouse, but it is much broader than this, affirming that everything that happens in history is somehow part of the divine plan. The Augustinian view of providence is strongly affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which declares that God ordains all things that come to pass.
This is a hard teaching, and frankly I can see why many Christians reject it. The two principal objections to the Augustinian view appeal to human freedom and the problem of evil. And between these two, the latter seems to me to be the stronger objection by far. How could God ordain such terrible evils as the Holocaust or that a small child should suffer from a brain tumor? Good questions indeed, and I certainly feel their force.
My wife, Amy, is also an Augustinian when it comes to providence. (I distinctly recall when I first learned that this was her view. It was early in our dating relationship, and this revelation, combined with her usual thoughtful articulation of her perspective, floored me. Like so many other issues, she arrived at the same conclusion as I, but via a more intuitive path than my more logical-theoretical approach. This was probably the clincher for me—when I knew I was falling for her. Or was it when she turned me on to the band Cake? Hmm… Anyway, I digress.) Recently, Amy had a long discussion with a friend about providence, and naturally, her friend posed the objection from evil, specifically challenging Amy to explain why God would allow a little child to have cancer. Amy responded by noting that God does everything he does for greater goods, such as to glorify himself and bless others. And sometimes this involves or even requires intense suffering. And if God can bring greater goods through the crucifixion of Jesus, which is the worst evil in history, then why can’t he bring greater goods through lesser, though still horrific, evils, such as cancer? Amy’s friend was not convinced, and they went on to discuss other things.
Later, when recounting their conversation, Amy noted how this same friend of hers affirms the traditional view of hell, known as the doctrine of “eternal conscious torment.” This is the view that those who are condemned to hell suffer eternally. Not only are the pains of hell unspeakably intense, but they last forever, according to this view. One of the many reasons that Amy and I reject this doctrine (in addition to the fact that it is not biblical) is that such endless suffering constitutes infiniteevil for which there is no redemption or sufficiently greater good. (Traditionalists, of course, argue that the greater good is that it demonstrates the justice of God. But how can infinite punishment for finite sins be just? In case you were wondering, we affirm “conditional immortalism,” the view that the damned are eventually annihilated in hell and that only those in Christ live eternally.) Ironically, many of these traditionalists who believe God tortures the damned forever in hell are the same people who reject the high view of providence because it implicates God in our finite suffering here on Earth. As Amy put it, some people can’t accept a God who allows cancer but they glibly confess that he allows infinite suffering in hell.
I suppose part of the explanation for this inconsistency lies in the fact that all (or most) of us have known cancer victims and have witnessed its awful ravages. None of us, however, have personally witnessed the horrors of hell. So, in the end, the problem is that of an existential gap. It’s easier to understand or appreciate what one has experienced than what one has not experienced. And it often takes tremendous effort to close this gap. When it comes to comparing the sufferings of the damned and suffering in this life, I suppose that gap could never truly be closed. We just can’t imagine the pains of hell, while the suffering we witness here among friends and family is all too real and, at times, overwhelming. But we can always do better to put these things into proper perspective, and if we do so, I believe it will help us to better formulate our views on the doctrines of providence and hell, among other issues.
I am still working on my doctrine of hell. I think by default I am a traditionalist. I do love however the doctrine of God’s supreme providence. Our pastor preached through a wonderful sermon series a few summers ago called “Spectacular Sins and their Global Purpose in the Glory of God.” It spoke to just the issue that Amy was discussing with her friend. Thanks for writing.
A couple comments for what they’re worth. I also hold to a high view of providence, but I guess I would be agnostic when it comes to a doctrine of hell. I understand some of the reasons you object the traditional view of hell, but do you think it’s a bit much to call it unbiblical? I will leave the debate to those who have studied it more than myself, but there seems to be biblical evidence for the traditional view. If nothing else, I would not say that the majority of Christians are unbiblical in their belief on hell. I think the greater issue here for me is that this post does not allow for one to hold a high view of providence and affirm the traditional view on hell. The believer wtih a high view of providence does not have to be a conditional immortalist. In fact, the majority of those who agree with Augustine and Calvin still promote the traditional view on hell.
I’d be interested in reading a post on why eternal conscious punishment is not Biblical.
i’m with nate. i think. at least on this…
you’ve given me something to chew on, and i’m always happy for new bites
Thanks to all of you for your comments and questions, particularly as relates to my claim that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is not biblical. I do plan to present my case for this claim in my next post, but for now let me explain what I mean when I say any doctrine is biblical/unbiblical. One could mean that a doctrine is biblical in the strict sense that it is explicitly taught by Scripture (e.g. the Jesus is the son of God). On the other hand, one could intend by the term that a doctrine is simply consistent with Scripture (e.g. the special theory of relativity is biblical in the sense that it doesn’t contradict Scripture). When I use the term “biblical” I don’t use it in either of these senses but in a third sense that is somewhere between these extreme (narrow and broad) senses. When I say a doctrine is biblical, I mean that it is very much “at home” with Scripture or the best overall fit with the Bible. When it comes to the doctrine of hell, I do recognize that there are some passages which seem to point to eternal consicous torment, but it seems to me that, on balance, conditional immortalism makes the best sense of all relevant passages on the subject of hell. Again, in my next post I will try to show, if only in a summary fashion, why I believe this. Stay tuned!
“But how can infinite punishment for finite sins be just?”
One might argue that rebellion against a holy God infinitely worthy of our devotion is an offense of infinite magnitude.
I’m not arguing that, mind you, but it’s how I would respond if I were. 🙂
Interesting stuff. I actually just thought about this topic as my church is doing a sermon series on heaven and hell, in which hell was presented as eternal suffering. I remembered that you didn’t hold that view and believed that souls are eventually destroyed in some way, but I would love to hear the biblical backing to this view that I don’t know much about. many thanks,
meaghan oneill- miracle
Thanks for sharing your thoughtful contemplations. The clarity of your analysis is, as usual, refreshing and enjoyable. You might recall that I share your view of hell (which I first learned about from you), so I look forward to your subsequent treatment of conditional immortalism. I wonder if the subject of hell, in general, should occupy more theological discussion and critical reflection, given the possible implications of one’s posture, especially with respect to the Traditionalist perspective. My own study, I confess, is woefully deficient.
Since I’m inclined to dispute Calvinism about salvation, it’s supremely difficult for me to reconcile this element of Calvinism with those doctrines of hell which are commonly affirmed, particularly Traditionalism. One might construe this complaint as a component of the soteriological problem of evil. You noted that the Traditionalist holds that the greater good served by those who suffer eternally in hell is the justice of God. And you also emphasized (or implied) that Calvinists contend that God ordains all events to engender maximum good, including instances of extreme suffering and even punishment in hell (of a finite duration). In my estimation, though, if we accept Calvinism about salvation and any non-Universalist view of hell, it appears more plausible that the maximum good would be achieved by God’s foreordaining everyone’s salvation. For, if God is responsible for who is saved and who isn’t, and it’s within His power to redeem everyone, how could the greatest possible good involve anyone’s being punished in hell? It’s probably impossible even to imagine any good or collection of goods which outweigh the apparently maximum good of universal redemption. What could be better than eternal union with God enjoyed by every one of His human children? Of course, as is emphasized by theists in many discussions of the evidential problem of evil, it may well be the case that our limited epistemic position prevents us from apprehending the great goods of the relevant sort. Perhaps the goods which justify God’s actions are more numerous and magnificent than we would even begin to imagine.
Undoubtedly, this is a delicate and complicated matter, and I haven’t really constructed much of an argument on behalf of my position. It must be admitted, furthermore, that own view of salvation and providence (Molinism) involves God’s allowing some people to freely condemn themselves to hell, which thereby suggests, along with the likes of Plantinga, that a certain version of human freedom is a considerably great good and of enormous value to God. But I think the advantage enjoyed by Molinism is that it renders humans responsible for their fate, not God, in a significant fashion unshared by a more Calvinistic persuasion.
Interestingly, William Lane Craig has defended Traditionalism by appealing to the idea that one’s experience of hell’s agonies might eventuate in a perpetual, sinful attitude of rebellion toward God, which therefore warrants continued damnation. (This is one of the few items about which I disagree with him.) Craig seems to claim that such a person freely assumes this blameworthy posture, so as to exonerate God. But Craig’s argument appears to have the implication and seems committed to the notion that the condemned have the opportunity to freely revise their attitudes to cohere with God’s redemptive plan, a revision for which God extracts them from hell and introduces them into the bliss of heaven.
But, I digress. Apologies for my untempered prolixity. =)
I am most captivated when you wrote that we just can’t speculate the pains of hell, while the agony we witness here among friends and family is all too genuine and, at times, overwhelming. My friend is just recently found his fondness of theology. He’s even looking at enrolling in providence theological seminary because he wants to broaden his knowledge on this subject.