The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Opening Questions Tilling to Reitan

A discussion with Eric Reitan about the case for Universalism in John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (London: Continuum, 2011)

The first thing that needs to be said is a “thank you” to you and John Kronen for your hard work in producing one of, if not the most, vigorously and closely argued cases for Christian Universalism to date. God’s Final Victory is surely required reading for anyone, whether friend or critic, who wishes to think about Universalism.

Usually, such an opening salvo leads to such a statement as … “Having said that, I have serious misgivings about your heretical argument at points X, Y and Z”! But as a result of discussion with the moderators of this discussion forum, I will simply ask you some questions about your work, rather than to enter into a dispute framed as Universalist Vs. Non-Universalist. I want this to be a *discussion *rather than a *debate *in those terms.

In this light, what I plan to do is twofold. First, for the sake of those who have not forked out the (sadly) substantial amount of money for a hardback copy of your book (my wife got it for me for Christmas!), I wanted to ask you to summarise

a) the key contours of your thesis
b) the major areas of originality
and c) what you hope your book will achieve

Second, and anticipating some potential areas of criticism, I wanted to ask you a few probing questions (which I will detail later) about

• the nature and limitations of logical reasoning when it touches upon theological matters dependent upon revelation
• your definition of the essence of salvation
• your engagement with Scripture and the red-herring of a “plain sense” meaning
• your (limited) dialogue with views uncomfortable with both eternal conscious torment and Christian Universalism

I will reserve the right, if that is okay, to raise one or two further questions in light of your summary, but this about distils areas of potentially fruitful dialogue.

So, without further ado, perhaps you would be kind enough to summarise the key contours of your thesis, the major areas of its originality, and what you hope your book will achieve?

First of all, I’d like to express a warm welcome to Chris Tilling and gratitude for his willingness to engage in this conversation and for his thoughtful opening questions. I look forward to a constructive and informative exchange. In his opening remarks, Chris asks about “the key contours” of the thesis John Kronen and I defend in God’s Final Victory, as well as my thoughts on “the major areas of (the book’s) originality, and what you hope your book will achieve.”

In God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and I offer what we call a “comparative philosophical case” for Christian universalism. In briefest terms, this means that we explore the following question: Which doctrine—the doctrine of eternal hell (hereafter DH) or the doctrine of universal salvation (hereafter DU)—is a better philosophical fit with traditional Christian teachings? (What I mean here by “philosophical fit” will be explained more in what follows).

In the book, John and I argue that granted an essentially conservative Christian context, DU is the better fit. More precisely, we argue that for every version of DH, there is a version of DU that fits better. To make that case, we first distinguish species of both doctrines, and then argue that defenders of both doctrines can find support for their view in biblical texts—but that bare appeals to Scripture are not the best approach to settling doctrinal disputes in any event. Then we offer several “prima facie” arguments in favor of DU—that is, presumptive reasons to think that God will save all.

These prima facie arguments rely on the plausibility of two assumptions: (a) God, being perfectly loving and wholly good, wants to save all in the sense that, for each created person, God regards their salvation as an end worth achieving should a morally permissible means to that end be available; (b) God, being infinitely resourceful (omnipotent and omniscient). has access to a morally permissible means of achieving the salvation of anyone He wants to save.

Defenders of DH have to deny one or the other of these assumptions. Those who deny (a) typically do so by appeal to divine justice. In effect, they hold that bringing about the salvation of at least some sinners would violate the demands of retributive justice. Hence, even if there were a way for God to save them that was morally permissible as a means, achieving that end would be unjust. The view, in short, is that God no longer wills their salvation as an end.

Those who deny (b), by contrast, typically appeal to human freedom. They hold that God could only guarantee the salvation of all were He able and willing to override the (libertarian) freedom of rational creatures—but either God isn’t able to do this, or (more plausibly) libertarian freedom is taken to be of such overriding moral importance that God would respect it even at the cost of regrettably allowing a creature to be forever lost.

The bulk of the book is devoted to critically assessing these moves. We argue that the first strategy—truncating the scope of God’s salvific will by invoking God’s justice—has implications that most Christians would be very loathe to accept. Furthermore, we argue that DU is consistent with taking divine justice and wrath against sin very seriously indeed, and so doesn’t have the costs of derogating from divine justice that many opponents of DU worry about.

We then turn to arguments contending that, although God would save all were he able to do so by morally legitimate means, human freedom gets in the way of God’s salvific aims. Our argument here becomes disjunctive, based on a persistent divergence in Christian theology between those who are convinced that God can and morally may extend efficacious grace and those who deny this. By “efficacious grace,” we mean grace the bestowal of which is sufficient to guarantee salvation, because the bestowal of such grace guarantees that all the necessary conditions for salvation fall into place (including the willing consent of the creature, assuming such consent is a necessary condition for salvation).

Those Christians who deny that God can or morally may extend efficacious grace worry that God either cannot guarantee the willing consent of rational creatures given their libertarian freedom, or that God would be doing something wrong were he to do so (because their libertarian freedom demands a sort of respect that God would be failing to show were He to grant efficacious grace).

Instead of taking a stand in this debate, we make a disjunctive case for DU. First, we make the case for the metaphysical and moral availability of efficacious grace, and argue that given its availability God would use it to save all. This case, however, rests on assumptions about which sincere Christians can plausibly and sincerely disagree. All we conclude at this point in the book, then, is that given these assumptions a version of DU in which God saves all by the exercise of efficacious grace is preferable to any version of DH.

We think, however, that if these assumptions are denied, there is a different version of DU that is preferable to any version of DH—a version according to which God guarantees the salvation of all by affording every creature an indefinite number of decision opportunities in an environment congenial to motivating salvation-conducing choices.

This is an overview of the main contours of God’s Final Victory. At this point I could go in two directions: I could try to summarize the main arguments that fit within this outline (and discuss the kind of distinctive contribution that these arguments make to the debate); or I could try to say a bit more about the methodological approach we take in the book—an approach which focuses on comparing the “philosophical fit” of each doctrine—and how I think this approach contributes in a distinctive way to the ongoing work of philosophers and theologians interested in Christian soteriology.

Eventually, I think, I’ll probably end up doing a bit of both. But I think it would be too much to do both things here. And so, for these opening remarks, I’m going to follow the second path, and say something more about the approach that John Kronen and I take in Gods’ Final Victory.

Clearly, *Gods’ Final Victory *straddles the line between philosophy of religion and Christian theology, and I think it contributes to the conversations about Christian soteriology in both intellectual communities—but in different ways. Were I to pinpoint what is distinctive about the contributions our book makes, I’d emphasize something different with respect to each discipline.

To fully characterize my thoughts on how the book contributes to the philosophical conversation, I’d need to lay considerable groundwork—specifically in terms of how philosophers who address DH and DU have tended to appropriate many of the concepts, distinctions, and argumentative strategies developed in relation to the problem of evil. I worry that some of these appropriations have pushed the philosophical debate into artificially limiting parameters. Part of what I hope our book will do is offer a framework for discussing these issues that is a bit less limiting.

But I think it would be too much, for these opening remarks, to lay out all the background needed to explain what I mean here. Again, I think I’ll eventually have something to say about this, but for this opening sally I suspect it may be particularly helpful to illuminate the philosophical method John and I pursue in *God’s Final Victory *by exploring how that method connects up with biblical exegesis. Doing so will, I think, provide a framework both for better understanding the kind of philosophical approach we take to the topic of Christian soteriology, and for better appreciating the distinctive kind of contribution to the topic that our book has to offer.

More precisely, I’d like to consider how our essentially philosophical project is both distinct from and related to the exegetical project of trying to discern what the Christian Scriptures teach about soteriology. It is distinct from it in the sense that asking about the “philosophical fit” of a doctrine within a broader network of teachings is primarily asking us to look closely at rational arguments: What logically follows, and what doesn’t, from this or that teaching? Under what conditions are these two doctrines compatible, and under what conditions are they incompatible? And this is a rather different thing from asking us to look closely at what the biblical authors were intending to say in passages that seem to speak to a particular doctrinal issue.

But despite this distinctness, the philosophical project is related to the exegetical one in at least two important ways: First, we have to remember where we get the broader context of Christian teachings within which we are assessing the relative merits of DH and DU. These teaching have in large measure emerged as the fruits of generations of collective exegetical efforts in conversation with the more practical project of trying to live out the Christian life. In an important sense, then, by looking at DH and DU in the light of these teachings, we are looking at them in the light of Christianity’s communal exegetical efforts.

Imagine that someone, say Bessie, engages in what we might call “straight exegesis.” When Bessie wants to know what to think about a particular theological issue, she looks into the Bible to find passages that speak directly to it, and she tries to unpack the meaning and intentions of the authors of these passages (perhaps with the help of various scholarly resources, such as knowledge of the cultural and linguistic context within which the passages were written). Bessie wonders what to believe on topic A, and so looks for passages and stories in the Bible that seem to speak to this topic. She concludes that these parts of the Bible are most clearly understood as affirming a particular view, say A*. Bessie does the same for topic B, concluding that the passages say B*, etc.

So now Bessie has arrived at a set of supposed doctrines derived from “straight” biblical exegesis: A*, B*, C*, D*, etc. This is the point at which we can ask the essentially philosophical question, “Does D* logically cohere, given what else we know and reasonably/justifiably believe, with A*-C*?”

What if a philosopher shows, through careful and rigorous examination of logical implications, that the answer is no? Then it seems as if what the philosopher has shown, albeit indirectly, is that the biblical passages Bessie used to arrive at A*-C*, interpreted as Bessie interpreted them, count against D*. In so doing, the philosopher isn’t rejecting the teachings of Scripture based on some kind of free-floating “reason,” but is using reason to integrate otherwise isolated exegetical efforts. The philosopher is, in this case, basing a philosophical argument on the fruits of exegesis, even if the conclusion of the argument is a challenge to a particular effort at exegesis.

And this leads to the other way in which the philosophical project is related to the exegetical one. Suppose that the biblical passages which Bessie consulted on topic D were rather ambiguous or conflicted. Suppose it was hard for Bessie to figure out what was being said, or it seemed as if two conflicting messages were being communicated. Bessie might be pretty confident that the Bible teaches A*-C* but much less sure of what to make of biblical teachings that pertain to D. Perhaps D* and D** are both possibilities, at least given the texts that speak to the topic directly.

The philosopher then comes on the scene and says, “Okay, but D** coheres better with these other teachings, and these other teachings are also derived from your attempt to understand what the Bible says—so in that light, it seems the Bible more broadly construed speaks in favor of D** as opposed to D*.” In this way, the philosopher is not only relying on biblical exegesis in developing his or her arguments, but is contributing to Bessie’s exegetical efforts—by highlighting the ways in which parts of the Scriptures that speak less directly to a theological topic bear on the topic.

In fact, I think that something like this more holistic approach is at work all the time in biblical exegesis, which is why I don’t think anyone ever really engages in nothing but “straight” exegesis of the sort I’ve attributed to Bessie. Every biblical exegete is, to some extent at least, doing some philosophy. But the philosopher’s training aims to facilitate doing this sort of thing as systematically, accurately, and completely as possible.

One way to think about what the philosopher is doing is in terms of “philosophical costs” of embracing a doctrine given certain starting points. For example, the philosopher may uncover some crucial implications of combining doctrines A*-C*—and then discern that there are certain assumptions Bessie would need to embrace in order to make those implications logically consistent with D*. Suppose these assumptions are intuitively implausible to Bessie. That would be a philosophical cost of embracing D* given A*-C*. Or suppose that one of these assumptions strikes Bessie as having deeply troubling moral implications. That would be a philosophical cost. Or suppose that reconciling D* with A*-C* requires an assumption at odds with E*—which happens to be a widespread Christian teaching that Bessie embraces. The need to reject E* would be a philosophical cost.

Of course, sometimes an apparent cost proves to be only apparent. It might at first appear that in order to reconcile A*-C* with D*, one would have to make a deeply implausible assumption. But perhaps the philosopher can show that A*-C* is compatible with D* under two distinct but closely related conditions. These conditions might be easily conflated unless one is very careful. But once one makes those distinctions, it turns out that only one of the two conditions is deeply implausible. The other isn’t. And so A*-D* can be happily reconciled without philosophical cost, once the relevant distinction is made.

In a nutshell, the more philosophical costs that are associated with embracing a doctrine within a given context, the more reason there is, granted that context, to reject the doctrine. This is not to say one can’t or shouldn’t accept a doctrine just because there are philosophical costs attached. Sometimes you may need to “bite the bullet.” But at least ideally, it makes more sense all else being equal to favor that doctrine which, among the available alternatives, has the fewest costs. If you’re going to bite bullets, it makes sense to bite as few of them as you have to.

In God’s Final Victory, John Kronen and I take this basic approach with respect to DH and DU in the context of broadly traditional Christian teachings. In characterizing our thesis as saying that DU is a better philosophical fit, what I mean is that we think the philosophical costs of embracing DU within a conservative Christian context are substantially less than the philosophical costs of embracing DH. Part of our aim is to show that embracing DH has costs that are more serious than many Christians are prone to think. And part of our aim is to show that many of the costs attributed to embracing DU are only apparent.

Of course, our arguments here can hardly be seen as the final word. There may be costs to DU that we haven’t identified, or costs we attribute to DH that, on deeper investigation, might prove to be only apparent. Furthermore, insofar as our focus is on DH and DU, we only glancingly consider some of the other alternatives—such as annihilationism and what we call “soteriological agnosticism” (the view that what makes the most philosophical and theological sense within a broadly Christian context is to refrain from adopting a position on the scope of salvation). We do argue, albeit briefly, that our reasons for favoring DU over DH seem to provide the basis for favoring DU over these other alternatives. But there is obviously more to be said on that front—and some of what Chris Tilling has sketched out elsewhere on this forum might be construed as the basis for a Barthian argument for soteriological agnosticism. If so, it’s one that John and I did not explicitly consider in God’s Final Victory.

What this means is that we don’t expect *God’s Final Victory *to settle the Christian controversy about hell and universalism. We do hope that those who read the book will come away convinced—if they weren’t before—that a sincere and essentially conservative Christian could reasonably be a universalist, even if the reader does not decide to become a universalist based on the book’s arguments. In other words, we do hope that those readers who initially regard universalism as heretical will be more inclined to say, instead, that universalism is a matter about which sincere Christians can honestly disagree. More importantly, we hope that *God’s Final Victory *will provide a framework for thinking productively about the scope of salvation, and a foundation of arguments on which future thinking can fruitfully build.

Let me begin with my sincere apologies to everybody who has been waiting so long for my response. Unfortunately, commitments at work have had to dominate my attention for the last few weeks, but all of the essays are now marked (phew!) and the semester is coming to an end, so time to think about ER’s terrific comments and helpful overview of God’s Final Victory.

Again, let me reiterate my understanding of the ethos of this discussion. I do not see this as a “debate”, but rather as a conversation. Hence, when I ask questions below, I am not expecting to “score points”, but rather to clarify matters. I hope this makes sense!

  1. The first thing that needs to be said is that having read the book, I still found ER’s summary very helpful. In particular, readers would be well advised to pay attention to his example of Bessie’s reading of the Bible, elucidated in ER’s explanation of his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and exegesis.

I think those engaged in exegetical debates relating to Universalism have much to learn here. And this is the case not only for those whose biblical exegesis proceeds on naive grounds (what ER calls “straight exegesis”), but also for those skilled in the academic guild. I say this, as many NT scholars have a very difficult time connecting the dots when it comes to theoretical considerations in the task of exegesis. I think one good example of this is the confusion of NT scholars as they (not always helpfully) engage the pioneering work of Douglas Campbell, particularly his book The Deliverance of God. Indeed, my appreciation for ER’s proposal can perhaps be clarified by noting what a “good reading” of the NT looks like for Campbell. There are four criteria for a successful reading of the Bible: 1. A coherent account of the lexical and syntactical data of a given Pauline text (the ‘exegetical level’). 2. A coherent account of the necessary ‘framing requirements’ (a reading needs to demonstrate integrity with respect to its cultural and linguistic context etc.). 3. A plausible construal of the argumentative dynamics in a given text (a preferable reading of a text is one which demonstrates a coherent argument within the text itself). 4. A coherent reading must also supply a plausible theoretical account of the ‘object’ under discussion. As Campbell writes:

ER’s response helpfully forces us to confront various theoretical considerations about the object under discussion, something all the more important at a time of scholarly ‘amnesia’ concerning the ‘subject matter’ of NT studies, as eloquently lamented by Markus Bockmuehl in Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). So ER writes:

In this respect, I can only pronounce a robust “amen” to a central matter relating to ER’s philosophical method.

  1. However, this raises a cluster of questions seeking clarification which I wanted to address now. To begin, given that we are engaging this particular ‘object’ of discussion, what is the relationship between systematic theology and ER’s “philosophical method”? For example, to what extent is ER’s “philosophical cost” construed in relation to the driving concerns and unique logic of systematic theology? Let me press this and develop the point by focusing on something ER wrote in his wonderful response:

Certainly I understand the argument, but on what grounds should sometimes one ‘bite the bullet’? At this point I cannot help but think of an argument presented in Randal Rauser in his Faith Lacking Understanding: Theology “Through a Glass, Darkly,” (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2008). He maintains that orthodox creedal affirmations concerning Christology hardly accord with and can even refute the canons of logic. Why, or on what grounds, was it necessary to bite this – or any other – bullet, and more importantly for our discussion, how might our answers to this question inform our considerations regarding Universalism? This raises a more general question which I shall elaborate shortly: How does the church’s theological tradition relate to ER’s philosophical method?

To sharpen this question I want to return to my claim above regarding the “unique logic of systematic theology”. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book, *Whose Justice? Which Rationality? *(Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), exhaustively demonstrates how notions of the “right” have developed and changed and how they are irreducibly bound up with conceptions of “truth” and rationality. In other words, rationality and logic are not ahistorical, but will be necessarily bound up – at least in relation to the subject we are discussing – with the claims of systematic theology (I think this then leads in turn to a distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘rationalistic’ discourses, the later understood in “timeless” terms, against which much of the tradition of continental philosophy could be cited - at least, according to John McCumber in Time and Philosophy: A History of Continental Thought). This all leads to my question, To what extent is ER’s “philosophical method”, operating with expected regard for contradiction, coherence and belief-justification, itself self-consciously located within the sometimes logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy? (As an aside, I find it fascinating that philosopher Graham Priest has even sought to “attack the law of non-contradiction”, by advocating dialetheism, the view that there are true contradictions! See Graham Priest, In Contradiction: A Study of the Transconsistent, reprint, 1987 [Oxford: OUP, 20062] and his article “What Is So Bad About Contradictions?” Journal of Philosophy 95 95, no. 8 [August 1998]: 410–26. But that is a topic for another day!)

To press this point, in light of such matters it should be remembered that Thomas Torrance makes his case against Christian Universalism (and ‘limited atonement’) by maintaining that philosophical logic finds itself judged at the cross of Christ, as it remains our own attempts “to project our own views from within fallen humanity onto the unique action of God in Jesus Christ” (so Paul Molnar in Thomas F Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity), which ends up redefining rather than clarifying soteriology. Without wanting to affirm Torrance’s inference, the question remains: logic, yes, but to what extent could ER’s case change if this logic is orientated into the theological universe of a specifically Christian tradition, which sometimes embraces apparently opposing statements (so Randal Rauser)?

In this light, perhaps we could ask whether it would have been preferable for ER to have theologically weighted some of his language more self-consciously. For example, when engaging the question of human freedom, it is common in philosophical traditions to understand divine sovereignty and human freedom in zero-sum terms. However, the theological tradition has resources for proposing what has been called “non-contrastive transcendence”, the view that “God’s sovereignty does not limit or reduce human freedom, but is precisely what grounds and enables it. The two agencies thus stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God” (John Barclay in* Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment*, in summary of the theological work of Kathryn Tanner). I think ER and JK come close to discussing such matters in their book, with reference to Talbott, so what is the relationship between the philosophical method and systematics at this point? Or again, towards the end of ER’s summary he make use of the word “heretical” to make an entirely justifiable point. However, this word has less, in the Christian tradition, to do with logical probabilities and philosophical purity, and more to do with (opposition to) creedal orthodoxy. In sum, I like adherence to a philosophical method to help adjudicate readings of the bible, but how is this method related to systematic theology, and if it were to engage this tradition more self-consciously, would any of his proposals be altered?

This leads to my final question for this round of conversation. ER has chosen, as a dialogue partner, what he calls “straight exegesis”. Certainly it is true that, in many evangelical circles, naive biblicism is the rule of the day, co-opted as it is into some simplistic notion of the perspicuity of Scripture. However, there are other ways of reading Scripture which are far more theologically engaged, and which would guide Bessie in her reading of the Bible in ways conscious of the development of the Canon, the “rule of faith”, creedal orthodoxy, the centrality of Christology, etc. (I could point to the many scholars engaged in what has become called “theological exegesis”, but it would probably suffice to mention the name John Webster!). On this point of ER’s engagement with exegesis and its “plain sense”, I do wonder if this dialogue partner was the best choice, much as if a new scientific theory on the evolution of humans sought to contrast key propositions with the claims of creationism. Narrative readings of the bible, or “object” orientated readings are proposed to clarify matters of scriptural polyvocality, and such readings will of course not necessarily affirm Universalism from within the logic of their reading systems (I think here of names such as Tom Wright and the aforementioned Thom Torrance). Perhaps these could have been engaged in more detail? (though I do understand ER and JK had a specific audience in mind and did not attempt the final word on the matter)

This is enough to be getting on with the now, perhaps in a later discussion we can return to ER’s definition of the essence of salvation and his thoughts about views uncomfortable with both eternal conscious torment and Christian Universalism. It goes without saying that I remain immensely impressed and greatly helped by ER’s response and book.

Chris Tilling’s interesting and challenging remarks raise some important questions about how the philosophical approach that John Kronen and I take in God’s Final Victory fits or should fit within the broader context of Christian theology, beholden as it is to a body of purportedly divine revelations.

For example, Chris writes the following:

The questions here center on what role logic can legitimately play with respect to the effort of Christians to faithfully understand the self-disclosure of a God who transcends the limits of human thought and its logic. I propose, therefore, to focus my response on seeking to explicate my understanding of this role.

Before doing so with care, however, I would like to make one important preliminary comment: There is a difference between apparent and actual contradiction. Likewise, there is a difference between “logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy” and apparently logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy. Some things that look as if they are logically inconsistent turn out to be consistent on deeper analysis. Our initial judgments about what is logically possible and what is logically impossible can be mistaken. Likewise, our initial notion of what follows logically from certain premises can be wrong.

In many of these cases, the error arises because we are working with assumptions that we take so much for granted that we don’t even know we’re assuming them. The contradiction (or implication) only arises because we are importing hidden assumptions and incorporating them into our thinking without knowing it. Perhaps there really is a logical contradiction between A, B, and our hidden assumptions, but there is not a logical contradiction between A and B by themselves. We just take there to be one because we cannot imagine that our assumptions are wrong.

But God so transcends the world we know that even our most cherished assumptions cannot be treated as sacrosanct when we turn our attention to God. In many of the cases in which theologians claim that God defies our logic, I think this is what is going on: God defies the assumptions we are unwittingly importing into our logical reflections on God.

In such cases, it isn’t logic that needs to be thrown out. Rather, the problem is that we are insufficiently self-aware to recognize the ways in which our thinking is shaped by “givens” other than the rules of logic, givens that must be called into question when the object of our thinking is a God who transcends us.

So, for example, perhaps we think it is logically incoherent to assert that there is only one God and yet to assert at the same time that this one God is a triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—all of Whom are distinct persons. But perhaps the problem is that we are assuming, taking it for granted, that more than one person cannot share the same individual essence. Once we dispense with this assumption, we might find ourselves able to formulate a version of the doctrine of the trinity that does not defy the demands of logical consistency. In that case, what the orthodox Christian doctrine of the trinity defies, it turns out, are our assumptions, not our logic.

So, if we’re not careful, we may treat the apparently logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy as if they were actually logic-defying, and hence jump to unwarranted conclusions about the incompatibility of Christian orthodoxy with logic.

This is my preliminary point, which I think we need to bear carefully in mind throughout discussions such as these. But this point doesn’t answer the deeper question of whether, as Christians wrestle with divine revelation and try to formulate doctrine, it is ever the case that the laws of logic must be abandoned.

To answer this question, I think we first need to think about logic itself. What is logic? Let me attempt a fairly basic answer.

Logic begins, as I see it, with the fact that when we have a propositional thought—that is, a thought about what is the case or what is true—we are thinking that things stand thus. And to think that things stand thus is to think that there is some other, opposing way in which things do not stand.

Things stand thus and not otherwise. Now let me pause here for a moment to stave off potential confusion—specifically, confusion that is likely to arise in anyone who has read Anthony Flew’s famous essay, “Theology and Falsification.” Flew, in that essay, insists that “an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise.” He then suggests that “sophisticated” theists refuse to allow that anything might happen which would count against their theological claims—and in so doing, he thinks, they reveal that they aren’t really making any genuine assertions at all. Their pseudo-assertions prove to be “vacuous.”

But Flew’s thinking here is premised on the idea that any assertion I make about how things stand has to be about matters discernible to me—about matters I can test in experience. That is, he supposes that in order for me to make an assertion about how things stand, I have to be able to test the assertion, at least in principle—there have to be observations I might make which would either confirm or disconfirm the assertion.

I’m making no such assumption here. I’m quite confident that the limits of what I can think exceed by far the limits of what is experientially testable. Consider, for example, the following thought: There is another universe—a spatio-temporal whole—like ours but wholly separate from ours, such that it has no impact on what happens in our universe. It seems to me that this is a coherent thought, even though its truth is consistent with any conceivable observation we might make. It’s not empirically testable, because if things stand otherwise there is no observation I could make which would show to me that things stand otherwise. But nevertheless, this is still a thought because I am still envisioning that things stand thus and not otherwise: two universes and not one; two wholly disconnected universes rather than universes with links between them.

What makes this a coherent thought is that it involves envisioning that things stand in one way—two separate universes—as opposed to another way. And I can have thoughts about “how things stand” that I can’t test. What makes something a coherent thought is not its testability in experience, but the fact that it is a distinctive portrait, if you will, of how reality is—one portrait among rivals. And if a particular thought is correct, it means that the portrait it offers, and not the rivals, is the correct portrait.

In other words, affirming a thought just is embracing this portrait and everything contained in this portrait, and rejecting everything that is excluded from this portrait. Reality is like this and not like that. But of course, we don’t always clearly see everything that is contained in the “this” we’re embracing, nor everything that is excluded from it. Sometimes we don’t think clearly.

As I understand it, being logical is simply the practice, when affirming a thought, of striving to think so clearly that we actually affirm whatever that thought includes, deny whatever that thought excludes, and correctly identify what is neither included nor excluded. Logic as a discipline involves recognizing and applying the “laws of thought” which make these inclusions and exclusions clear. Logic provides procedures for us to discern, say, that to think this, given what it is to think this, means that we are denying that. Hence, if we simultaneously think that, we aren’t really thinking this after all…because to think this just is (in part) to think not that.

Now, there is much about God (arguably most) that falls outside the scope of human thought. If so, then insofar as the laws of logic are laws of thought, there is that of God which falls outside the laws of logic…not in the sense that contradictions can be true of God, but in the sense that there are truths about God that can never be encompassed by a human thought, and hence truths about God that we can’t think in such a way as to include some things within the thought and exclude others. If a truth falls outside the scope of human thought, there are no thoughts to be regulated by the laws that thoughts must follow in order to be thoughts.

But to say this is emphatically not to say that everything about God falls outside the scope of what human thought can encompass. If that were the case, then there could not be anything like the sort of divine revelation that Christianity has historically affirmed. At best there would be modes of divine revelation that wholly defy thought—mystical revelations which amounts to experiential encounters with what we cannot capture in thought, even of the vaguest and most general kind. While I think there are such mystical revelations, I do not think they are the only kind of revelatory experiences we can have.

And the Christian tradition has, generally speaking, agreed with this. The very business of systematic theology—of disagreeing about doctrines, formulating teachings, offering reasons to think that a particular theological view is better than another—presupposes that not all revelation is of this radically ineffable kind. While all Christian theology must be premised on the acknowledgment that its object exceeds the reach of efforts at systematic thought, this is not to say that there is no dimension of God with which our thinking selves can connect. God’s transcendence—including His transcendence of the limits of the humanly thinkable—does not preclude there being that of God which falls within the limits of the humanly thinkable. In other words, it does not preclude the possibility of our thinking selves, qua thinking selves, being able to commune with God.

When we engage in intellectual reflection on the divine—whether it be through theology or philosophy of religion—we are attempting to think carefully about that-of-the-divine-which-is-thinkable, while remaining conscious of the fact that there is so much more that exceeds this. But the recognition of a broader context of unthinkability does not entail that what falls within the domain of the thinkable can defy the rules of logic. To be thinkable just is to be subject to logic. Put another way, if affirming a particular thought about God does not involve denying the negation of the thought, then one isn’t affirming a particular thought about God.

Of course, some theologians appear to be quite consciously doing precisely this: affirming contradictions and denying logical implications in relation to God. But when they are doing this, I believe that their aim is to try to push themselves outside the domain of the thinkable in order to connect with that-of-the-divine-which-is-unthinkable (and, I think, also to remind themselves and others that most of the divine is, indeed, unthinkable). To deny the rules of thought is to refuse to think, which can be a strategy for attempting to connect with what cannot be thought.

I certainly don’t want to rule out such noncognitive connection with God. We are more than thinking creatures, and as such have avenues of communing with God that don’t involve thinking about God. Deliberately defying the laws of thought is a way to silence our thinking selves so as to make room for those noncognitive parts of who we are, hopefully facilitating our capacity to connect with the divine on that noncognitive level. But again, the practical value of rejecting the laws of logic for this delineated purpose is not the same as saying that the laws of logic don’t apply to God.

Any time we are actually thinking about God (as opposed to engaging in an intellectual exercise whose aim is to silence our thinking selves), a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for getting our thinking right is that we abide by the laws of logic. And any divine revelation that is amenable to the development of doctrine is thereby a revelation that falls within the domain of the thinkable.

As such, I do not believe that revelation in any way overthrows logic or calls us to set logic aside. Whatever portion of revelation we can think about and discuss and debate and disagree over is that portion of revelation within which the rules of logic must be obeyed. Where the rules of logic don’t obtain, attempts to formulate a view or debate opposing views is misguided. Where thought ends, silence or music or painting or poetry have to take its place. And there may well be revelatory silence, revelatory music, revelatory painting and poetry. But we can’t convert such revelatory works into dogma, since they aren’t that kind of revelation.

In short, I am convinced that the portion of revelation which can culminate in thoughts about the divine must conform to the rules of thought. Otherwise, they’re not thoughts about the divine, although they might be something else of great use to our relationship with God. But if this is right, then our capacity to appreciate that portion of divine revelation amenable to thought can only be served by the effort to think as clearly and logically and systematically as we can about the matters at hand—not all alone but in conversation with others who are attempting to do the same, so that we can help each other overcome our respective shortcoming.

In other words, when it comes to divine matters about which discussion and disagreement and debate are coherent activities, we ought to be rigorously philosophical—so long as we do so while remaining fully conscious that what is thus becoming clearer through careful communal thought (in the light of revelation) is only a small part of something much greater. To believe that God transcends our cognitive grasp is to believe that our most rigorous thinking (about those elements of the divine that are amenable to thinking) gives us only a fragment of the whole. But it is not to believe that something other than our most rigorous thinking is what is called for with respect to that fragment.

With respect to the fragments of the divine which fall within the scope of our thinking selves, our best and only hope for getting revelations about those fragments right lies in being as careful and rigorous thinkers as we can be, meticulously abiding by the laws of thought as embodied in the rules of logic, and doing so in the company of other thinkers who are attempting to do the same (since we are fallible creatures), and being humble enough in these communities of inquiry to change our view when someone points out a logical implication we missed or a contradiction we didn’t notice (or reveals to us that what we took to be a contradiction really isn’t one, but only seems that way because of something we were assuming–something which, in relation to God, cannot be legitimately assumed).

If it makes sense to discuss universalism and the doctrine of hell at all, then, it follows that such discussion is best served through rigorous communal thinking of a broadly philosophical sort. And if such rigorous communal thinking is not a necessary condition for approaching the subject appropriately, it is because the subject matter defies thought and hence should not be something about which any of us has a belief, a suspicion, an intellectual assurance, etc. It should no longer be something about which the church makes doctrinal pronouncements. It should no longer be something about which preachers make claims from the pulpit.

Either we approach this topic as something amenable to thought, in which case all the standards of intellectual rigor need to be brought to bear, or we concede that this is one of those matters that defies the grasp of our human cognitive faculties. And in that case we abandon misguided attempt to formulate doctrines, have disagreements, etc.

If the former is appropriate, then we are best served by the kind of intellectual rigor and adherence to rules of logic exemplified (I like to think) in the best that the discipline of philosophy has to offer. That the raw material for our thinking on these matters comes from divine revelation doesn’t change this fact. That the divine far exceeds our cognitive grasp doesn’t change this fact. The fragment of the divine self-disclosure that can be formulated into thoughts—what might be called “cognitively-apt revelation”—needs to be approached with a serious effort to abide by the rules of thought. The effort to formulate sound doctrine is the effort to do precisely this in the domain of cognitively-apt revelation. In that little sphere of the divine infinity that our thinking mind can grasp, those who care about getting at sound doctrine should struggle valiantly to make sure that every element fits with every other element in a manner in keeping with the laws of thought.

And I think in the debate over universalism and the doctrine of hell, there is much that falls under the heading of cognitively-apt revelation. Even if there is much about the concept of salvation that defies our grasp, the concept is not wholly ineffable. Having a teaching about the matter, based on an interpretation of those aspects of Scripture that discuss what is thinkable, makes some sense. And so we can say, for example, that salvation involves coming to be in the best state that it is possible for a created human to enjoy. And though we can concede that much of this “best state” will defy formulation in terms that allow us to have thoughts about it, we might nevertheless be prepared (based perhaps on our interpretation of Scripture) to make some claims about it—for example, that salvation involves having a loving relationship with God, that it involves feelings of joy that exceed the joy we experience in this life, and that it involves moral sanctification.

And it surely seems to be the case that the distinction between universal and limited salvation is accessible to human thought. We can distinguish, in thought, between the view that all ultimately coming to experience this best state and the view that some never do. It makes sense, therefore, to consider things that have been revealed to us about God which are thinkable—revelations telling us that God is like this and not like that—and explore what, following the rules of thought, the implications of God’s being like this are: whether they exclude limited salvation or imply it, whether they exclude universal salvation or imply, or whether they leave both possibilities open.

Even if the raw material for thoughts on such a subject has to come from revelation, and even if much revelation is of a mystical sort that can supply no raw material for thoughts, those elements of revelation which lend themselves to thought will need to be approached in a way that abides by the rules of thought. If they seem not to be amenable to formulation in terms that abide by the rules of thought, then perhaps we have misconstrued revelatory poetry for cognitively-apt revelation. Or perhaps we misidentified as revelation something that isn’t revelatory.

If what we think of as a thought derived from revelation defies the rules of logic, what follows is that it isn’t a thought at all, let alone one derived from revelation. It might be a poetic device useful in transcending the limits of thought so as to connect with truths about God that defy thought. But a poetic device is not a doctrine and should not be treated as one. If the doctrine of the trinity, say, really defies logic, then it is not the doctrine of the trinity after all, but a poetic device for connecting with a dimension of the divine that exceeds the grasp of our cognitive faculties. But if it really is a doctrine, this means that it is one of those fragments of the divine that falls within the scope of what is humanly thinkable.

And if so, the law of noncontradiction obtains. Any formulation of the doctrine that defies this law is a false formulation. We must choose among formulations that conform to this law (a choice that may require looking beyond the laws of thought to other considerations–I am not claiming that the laws of thought will be sufficient to establish doctrine), or we must concede that what we are dealing with is not a matter of doctrine after all.

Likewise for the doctrine of hell. Or at least that’s what I think.