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Misery and Freedom

Misery and Freedom

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Published by akimel
by Thomas Talbott
by Thomas Talbott

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Published by: akimel on May 27, 2013
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Revised: June 21. 2003
MISERY AND FREEDOM: REPLY TO WALLS
THOMAS TALBOTTWillamette University, Salem, Oregon. 97301 USA
Abstract:
In this brief reply to Walls’ challenging critique, I try to do two things: first, clarify themost fundamental point on which I think Walls and I disagree, and second, argue that, as surprisingas it may first appear, Walls’ free will theodicy of hell requires that God
interfere
with human free-dom in inappropriate ways.
For a number of years now I have considered Jerry Walls to be one of my better critics. In part because his views are far closer to mine than appearances may initially suggest, his criti-cisms have often seemed to me especially important; and I therefore offer my heartfelt thanks for his latest critique, which is both challenging and persuasively argued. As will come as no sur- prise to him, however, I also doubt that he has successfully undermined my necessary universal-ism, as he calls it. Accordingly, I shall try to do two things in this brief reply: first, clarify themost fundamental point on which I think Walls and I disagree, and second, argue that, as surpris-ing as it may first appear, Walls’ free will theodicy of hell requires that God
interfere
with hu-man freedom in inappropriate ways.
A Fundamental Point of Disagreement
For my own part, I am skeptical of the whole idea that we choose, freely or otherwise, aneternal destiny; we no more choose our destiny, I believe, than we do our own birth. In the early pages of the article that Walls criticizes, therefore, I sought to illustrate just how different thechoice of an eternal destiny would be from any other choice of which we might have had someexperience. I also drew an important distinction between our free choices, on the one hand, and
 
their unforeseen and unintended consequences, on the other—a distinction that the story of therich man and Lazarus illustrates nicely. For though the rich man no doubt made some badchoices
 
during his earthly life—when he ignored the plight of Lazarus, for example—he hardlyforesaw or embraced freely the torment from which he later begs relief. So in that sense, we can perhaps describe the rich man’s torment, which occurs entirely against his will, as a
 forcibly im- posed punishment 
.Or suppose, by way of a further illustration, that a foolish married man should have a rather frivolous affair with a woman who, unbeknownst to him, has an unstable personality; supposefurther that, unlike the well-known movie plot, this woman’s fatal attraction should result in themurder of the man’s wife and baby; and suppose, finally, that the man’s subsequent sorrow, re-morse, guilt, and (above all) sense of loss should then become a source of unbearable sufferingfor him. Insofar as these unforeseen and unintended consequences of the man’s sin (the murdersin particular) fall under God’s providential control and occur entirely against the man’s will, theyare, in that sense,
 forcibly imposed 
; and insofar as God uses the man’s suffering as a means of correction, or as a means of encouraging repentance, we can again say that the man has endureda
 forcibly imposed punishment 
for his sin. Now one virtue of this explanation is that it illustrates how the good in even the worst of sinners—the indestructible image of God, if you will—can itself become a source of unbearabletorment. For if the man in our example cared nothing for his wife and baby and had no worth-while desires at all, then neither would the murders have been a source of torment for him.The above explanation also accords nicely with the New Testament idea that God is some-how active in our punishment. Contrary to a widespread misinterpretation, the New Testamentnever pictures either hell (gehenna) or the lake of fire as an escape from the
 presence
of God.
 
For if God himself is a consuming fire, as the author of Hebrews declares,
1
and if the image of fire signifies God’s presence in holy judgment, as it does throughout the Bible, then hell and thelake of fire likewise represent God’s presence, not his absence. Put it this way: The same divine presence that brings refreshing times to the repentant (see Acts 3:20) also brings destructionupon the rebellious (see I Thessalonians 1:9).
2
Or, as Revelation 14:10 explicitly states, thosewho worship the beast ‘will be tormented with fire and brimstone…in the presence of the Lamb’.And similarly for Luke 16: Here, as elsewhere in apocalyptic literature, the image of being tor-mented in flames clearly signifies God’s active presence in the torment. In no way, to be sure,could hell exist apart from the sinner’s own deceptions and delusions; Walls and I probablyagree about that. But whereas Walls
appears
to hold that the delusions of the damned somehowrender their torment in hell more tolerable, I hold just the opposite view. I hold that the delu-sions of the rich man, for example, precisely underlie and explain the severity of his continuingtorment, which the text describes in graphic terms.
3
For only an unrepentant sinner, only some-one who misunderstands the divine nature entirely or continues to cling to his or her delusions,could possibly experience God’s love in the way that the rich man does: as a source of unbear-able suffering.
1
See Hebrews 12:29: ‘for indeed our God is a consuming fire’.
2
Unfortunately, many of our English Bibles (e.g., the RSV and the NIV) inject into I Thessalonians 1:9 the idea of  being
excluded 
or 
 shut out 
from the presence of the Lord. But these translations are not only inaccurate, but alsoegregiously inaccurate. The idea of separation is simply not in the Greek text. Just as the refreshing times of whichActs 3:20 speaks come from the presence of the Lord, so the destruction of which I Thessalonians 1:9 speaks comesfrom the presence of the Lord. Translating ‘apo’ as ‘away from’ makes no more grammatical sense in the context of I Thessalonians 1:9 than it does in the context of Acts 3:20. Indeed, the grammatical construction of both texts isidentical.
3
Walls points out, correctly in my opinion, that ‘despite the rich man’s misery he seems more concerned to justifyhimself than to repent and beg God’s mercy’ (Typescript, p. 17). In no way, however, is the rich man more con-cerned to justify himself than he is to mitigate his own suffering. For of course the former concern merely servesthe latter. A typical first reaction to intense suffering, especially when one senses one’s own responsibility for it, isto feel sorry for oneself, to ask ‘Why me?’ or some similar question, and to perfect the art of self-justification. Be-yond that, the rich man seems utterly confused about both the
 source
of his suffering and the extent to which hiscontinuing refusal to repent explains why the gulf between him and Abraham’s bosom remains so unbridgeable.

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