Tom's "Heaven & Hell" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Excitingly Talbott got asked to redo the “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought” entry for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and today, after a long review process, it finally got published!


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Hi Tom,

Thank you very much for this article. I hope you do not mind but I have a suggestion while I know that many SEP articles undergo revisions. I wish to suggest that section 2 should be “Gregory Nyssa’s Understanding of Hell.” Then section 3 should be your “The Augustinian Understanding of Hell” and so on.




Hi Jim,

Thanks for the suggestion. You are right: SEP entries are designed to be updated periodically, especially when new materials on a topic are published. But a major revision could also trigger another review process. So I will probably wait a while before making any such revisions.

Beyond that, the organization of the entry is as follows. We have a set of three inconsistent propositions, and we have accordingly identified three distinct theologies, each of which rejects one of the three propositions. We begin with those who reject proposition (1), namely the Augustinians, and examine some of the consequences of restricting God’s love to a chosen few; we then turn to those who reject proposition (2), namely the Arminians, and examine a freewill theodicy of hell; and finally, we take up those who reject proposition (3), namely the universalists, and explain why they find propositions (1) and (2) so compelling. In that way, the discussion of the Augustinian and the Arminian understanding of hell helps to clarify why the universalists, including St. Gregory of Nyssa, reject the idea of an everlasting separation from God. Given such an organization, Gregory of Nyssa would presumably belong somewhere in section 4–or perhaps as a further contrast (along with George MacDonald) to Augustine’s vision of divine justice, which is discussed in section 2.2.

Anyway, I will probably include some mention of him in the future.

Thanks again for the suggestion.




I linked your entry on my facebook page and received the following comment from a friend:

Do you have any comments to this? For some perspective, this is a pastor at my church where they pretty much teach that your three propositions are all true, and how it works is a “mystery” we can’t understand.



Sounds like the logic stopped him in his “tracts” and he realized he was “blinded” but then decided that must be what God wants. :wink:


LOL – That’s awful, Jason! :astonished: But I admit I get a little tired of people bashing “reason” and saying we can’t possibly understand. I think God wants us to teach us His ways, and wants us to understand.

Well if anyone is interested in the discussion on facebook, it’s here: … 6472786328

I don’t know if it’s going to go any farther, or if it’s stalled out, but you’re all welcome to add your $0.02 over there – just try to be a little nice to my friends! :sunglasses:



Hi Sonia,

Thanks for your query. Unfortunately, I stay away from all social media–it’s just too overwhelming–so I cannot post on your forum. But one thing you might clarify for your pastor as well as for others is that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is indeed an encyclopedia of PHILOSOPHY, and the purpose of my entry was to review ideas that various Christian philosophers and theologians have put forth on the topic of heaven and hell. It would have been altogether unacceptable in such a context to review the various exegetical and biblical arguments for and against the three systems of theology identified in the entry. The whole point was to review the philosophical and theological arguments, not the biblical arguments.

Now like you, I find increasingly tiresome the supposed contrast between God’s Word and human reason, as if one could interpret a biblical text without employing one’s reason (and imagination) in the process. Is it not just too easy to confuse one’s own theology, based upon one’s own reading of the Bible (or simply on the theology handed down to one), with the Word of God?–and is it not likewise just too easy to contrast one’s own theology, as if it were the very Word of God itself, with human reason? For my own part, I strongly suspect that, more often than not, those who draw such a contrast understand neither God’s Word nor human reason.

But in any case, perhaps the best strategy at this point is simply to ask questions of a kind that might encourage others to familiarize themselves with the way in which Christian universalists interpret the Bible as a whole. Although most Evangelicals have some idea of how the Calvinists put biblical ideas together and some idea of how the Arminians put biblical ideas together, very few, I am persuaded, have even the vaguest idea of how various universalists, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa or George MacDonald, not to mention someone like Robin Parry, put biblical ideas together. How many have even considered, for example, St Paul’s clear teaching in Romans 11 that God’s severity, his judgment of sin, and even his hardening of a heart is itself an expression of mercy (or compassion) to the objects of his severity? So the best suggestion I can make is that you ask your pastor (and others) to respond to the kinds of biblical arguments that Christian universalists have actually set forth rather than to what someone might imagine them setting forth.

Anyway, thanks again for your query.




Thank you for considering my idea about Gregory of Nyssa and re-clarifying your argument to me. By the way, my favorite and most used take home point from you is “Concerning the Misery of Loved Ones in Hell.”


Hello again, Sonia:

After re-reading your post this morning, I realized that my response written last night did not address your pastor’s concerns as directly as it might have. So on further reflection, I thought I would relate to you three questions that I would love to put to him.

(1) Your pastor states that I make “several assumptions that God’s word doesn’t make.” Whenever I confront a generality of that kind, I typically ask for a specific example. I would therefore ask: “Could you perhaps identify a specific assumption that I make and that God’s Word, as you understand it, does not make?”

(2) Your pastor also states: “What it really comes down to is do you trust what He [God] actually says even if you don’t understand it or it appears to make no ‘human’ sense at all?” Here I would ask, “What does it mean to trust in something that makes no sense at all?” The putative statement that the number seven is in C-sharp minor makes no sense to me at all. So what would it mean for me to trust that we nonetheless have here a true statement?—or even to trust that God actually said something like this? Does the mere opinion that God has said something suffice to show that he actually did say it?

(3) If your church does indeed teach that all three propositions in my inconsistent triad are true, how does this differ from the teaching that although no humans will be lost forever, at least some will indeed be lost forever? From a human perspective that seems impossible to understand. But should we somehow trust that it is true nonetheless?

Okay, I woke up in a feisty mood and couldn’t resist that. Anyway, these remarks are perhaps more relevant than what I wrote last night.

Take care,




Both sets of comments are helpful and appreciated!

To be fair to Dave, he used to be overly wrapped up in theology, debating, blasting people who disagree, etc. He has since come to understand that Christianity is essentially about loving God and loving people, so now he’s trying to do that and avoid theological controversy – swinging to the opposite extreme, perhaps.

Yeah, I know. :unamused: The thing is, they look at each point individually and say “the Bible teaches that” – therefore they must believe it, even if they can’t make sense of it. In teaching, sometimes it comes out more Arminian sounding, sometimes more Calvinist, depending on the passage and whatever they’re trying to emphasize – security of the believer, assurance, etc.

Thanks again for the comments!


I think that’s great, Sonia. I would prefer a pastor to learn that lesson over just about any other. He sounds like a great guy.



can I suggest that the almost outright opposition, certainly suspicion, of all things related to ‘‘logic’’ is what has gotten the christian church in her current positions !, logic was rejected a long time ago - thing is I’ve always believed GOD is a GOD of logic :sunglasses:


I agree, Tom! And it seems to me that without the foundational doctrine of love, none of the other doctrines matter.

He is a great guy. Having come to believe that God is saving each person, I find myself appreciating and valuing all people more and more. I begin to catch glimpses beyond the surface – seeing the infant child of God in each one and seeing hints of what they will grow into.



I was thinking about your 3 propositions:

(1) All humans are equal objects of God’s unconditional love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.

(2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.

(3) Some humans will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever.

It seems to me that an Arminian might take issue with the wording of #1, and find this modification more accurate: “All humans are equal objects of God’s unconditional love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself, if they are so willing, and thus to prepare each of those who are willing for the bliss of union with him.”



I think you are right, Sonia, that many Arminians might want to amend proposition (1) in the way you suggest. But I also think these Arminians are confused about the best way to express their own position.

Would not God’s will or desire to save all, as expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4 for example, already include the desire that all sinners willingly (or freely) repent, so that God can prepare them for the bliss of union with him? This is not to say that God would causally override someone’s own reasoning processes or interfere with someone’s freedom in relation to him. For the whole point of the Arminian’s freewill theodicy of hell is to offer an explanation for why God’s own desire in the matter of salvation, although certainly sincere, may never be satisfied in some cases. But even if salvation itself requires a free choice of some kind, or a willingness to be saved, it does not follow that God’s will or desire to save all would itself depend upon anyone’s having the relevant willingness to be saved.

The example of Ted Bundy’s mother, discussed in section 5.1 illustrates the point nicely. Her heartfelt desire for her son’s redemption no doubt included the desire that he willingly repent of his monstrous crimes. But in no way was the existence of this desire itself–the desire that her son willingly repent–conditioned upon her son’s actually being willing to repent. Similarly, even if salvation requires a free choice of some kind, God’s desire to save all already is the desire that all should respond willingly. Whether he will successfully satisfy his own desire in this matter is, of course, a further question, and this further question brings us to proposition (2), which the Arminians reject. It seems to me, therefore, that an Arminian should simply accept proposition (1) as it stands and reject proposition (2).

Put it this way: God certainly desires to save each of us, if we are so willing. But he also desires that we be so willing.

Anyway, those are a few of my own preliminary thoughts. Thanks for a thoughtful response.



After all, none of us are originally willing to be saved from all our sins! – consequently, God doesn’t wait for us to be willing to saved from our sins before acting toward doing so.

(A point Calvinists often stress, and which Arminians usually agree with when they sit down to think it out.)


Hi Tom, I thought of a way to build on your argument that confronts Arminians who reject the possibility of postmortem conversions. Sadly, the following reasoning might not challenge various Calvinists, but we cannot always address everybody in one swoop. Here is my challenge to Arminians:

Tom, I would appreciate any thoughts that you have on this.



Thank you, I think you are correct.



Bob once counseled me to respond to the illogical affirmation as mentioned above like this:

Ok so I believe God will save every single person, not one will be lost.
And I believe many will be eternally damned to hell, seperated from God with no hope of redemption.

When they respond, well how can they both be true, you say “That’s what I’m asking you!!!”

LOL!!! At some point you just have to laugh.



If, in fact, the Bible is an incoherent mess of contradictions, the sooner we walk away, the better. I’m suspicious of people who talk about “maintaining tensions”. ie. “Ignore cognitive dissonance.” Makes me think they’re either dull or devious.

“God really wants to save everyone. He really can, but he actually won’t.” Talk about tension till you’re blue in the face. Fact is, this simply makes no sense, and if this is what I’m asked to swallow, I may as well become a Mormon or a Druid.