December 07, 2008
Knowledge of the Fate of the Damned
Thank you for your blessed work. Your writings and lectures have helped me through some dark periods of doubt and questioning in my life. I have been reading some of your work on Talbot's Universalism and I had some questions concerning the knowledge that the saved will have of those loved ones who are lost to salvation. You mentioned that God may shield us from the knowledge of the damned. In your article you stated;
But I see no reason to think such shielding of His redeemed people from this painful knowledge is immoral deception. We can all think of cases in which we shield persons from knowledge which would be painful for them and which they do not need to have, and, far from doing something immoral, we are, in so sparing them, exemplifying the virtue of mercy.
Now you have spoken and written repeatedly of your belief that God's supreme love for us renders it impossible for him to override our free will, or change who we are. But if God took this knowledge from us wouldn't that be what he is doing? He is not shielding us from knowledge but taking knowledge from us. I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind.
I also find it hard to come to terms with your later assertion that my love and joy in being in the presence of the Lord would make me not care about my loved ones burning in hell. This is a gross and perhaps unfair simplification of what you wrote which is:
It is possible that the very experience itself of being in the immediate presence of Christ (cf. the beatific vision) will simply drive from the minds of His redeemed any awareness of the lost in hell. So overwhelming will be His presence and the love and joy which it inspires that the knowledge of the damned will be banished from the consciousness of God's people. In such a case, the redeemed would still have such knowledge, but they would never be conscious of it and so never pained by it.
I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don't think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.
I was wondering if you could perhaps expand upon your intital statements or point me in the direction of some further reading.
Thank you for your work and may God continue to Bless your ministry.
For readers who aren't familiar with this discussion, let me say by way of background that Thomas Talbott argues for universalism (the doctrine that all human beings will find salvation) on the grounds that redeemed persons could never be truly happy in heaven if they knew that other persons were in hell. Since heaven is a state of supreme happiness, it follows that everyone must (eventually) be saved. (See articles on Talbott's universalism under "Scholarly Articles: Christian Particularism.")
I claim that the argument is not a good one because, first, it assumes without justification that the redeemed in heaven do know that some persons are damned, and, secondly, it fails to distinguish between knowing that p and being aware that p, where p is any fact.
My first option suggests that it is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God's part. You object, Eric, that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don't see that this implication follows. God's respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways. He has so situated me that I cannot, for example, choose to begin speaking Vietnamese or to fly about by flapping my arms. My freedom is circumscribed in innumerable such ways. None of this violates my integrity as a moral agent. My morally significant decisions are still up to me. Similarly, if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus. At least I've yet to see any argument that removing such knowledge violates free will in the morally significant way which is at issue.
The second option I find even more appealing: the redeemed do retain knowledge of the fate of the damned but they are not conscious of it. When you think about it, we're not conscious of most of what we know. This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ's immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell. You reply that you can't imagine yourself being so happy that you don't think of your child who is damned. Well, to help stretch your imagination a bit, imagine an experience of pain—say, having your leg amputated on the battlefield without anesthetic—which is so intense that it drives out awareness of anything else. In such a condition you wouldn't be thinking of your child at all. Now substitute for that pain-awareness a feeling of joy and elation, but immeasurably more intense and enthralling. That's the beatific vision of the redeemed in heaven! It's not at all implausible, it seems to me, that such an experience would preclude your bringing the painful knowledge of your child's fate to mind.
I'm not claiming, of course, to know if either of these alternatives is true but merely claiming that they serve to defeat Talbott's argument for universalism.