February 28, 2011
Middle Knowledge and Hell
First I wanted to thank you for this website and for your work. I've gone through a period of questioning my faith in Christianity and through my process of research on my objection to Christianity I found your website, debates, and your writings. As an engineer, I wholly appreciate your work to approach Christianity with logic and reason.
I've been struggling with my faith on a question that you have touched on in the past the Problem of Hell. I feel that was never answered adequately, or at least not in the respect to a particular objection that I have with the issue. I'll state it as such:
"How can God be considered Wholly Good, when he knowingly created the angels, the universe, and humanity, knowing that hell would be a requirement for such a world, and also knowing that a majority of people would be condemned to it for all eternity?"
I believe this objection is valid because even if someone is condemned to hell as a result of their own free will, the fact is that God using his middle knowledge already knew that person would freely choose to go against God, and thus would be condemned to hell but created the person/world/hell anyway. The fate is so terrible, and the number of people who would be condemned is so high, that in my view, the only moral choice would be to either not create the universe/humanity, or not to create humanity with Free Will.
I also contend that hell is such a terrible fate, that I feel it's creation as a place of eternal conscious torture (either mental as you would interpret, or as physical according to the traditional interpretation) is itself a morally wrong thing to do. At least from my view, nothing can justify condemnation to eternal conscious torture. I am not a being of perfect love, but I would not wish such a fate on even the worst examples of humanity: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.
From your debate with Dr. Bradley you seem to get around this concept by stating "why should the unbelievers hold a veto power on God's creation?" and I would state that they did not ask to be created, and had they been presented with the stark choice of Non-Existence and Eternal Conscious Torture they would undoubtedly choose Non-Existence. Also from listening to your debates on the existence of God, I see you would state opposition to torture as an example of objective moral values and yet this is exactly what we Christians believe God would do to the unbelievers.
I would very much like to hear your answers to these questions, or if you think they could be answered at all.
I have found this problem so troubling that I came to the edge of apostasy. It was a combination of talking with pastors at my church and to listening to your debates that I found the only way to overcome this question and come back to my faith. I have not found an answer (which is why I ask you), but what I found was similar to what you have done in debate when poised up against evidence that makes one question the existence or nature of God: Find something else that can continue to make belief in God more plausible than the evidence against him.
This is what I have deduced:
1.) The Problem of Hell (and my subsequent contention) is based on accepting Christianity as true as an initial premise.
2.) By accepting Christianity as true, one also must accept that Jesus Christ is the son of God and his sacrifice is the way one may come to God and escape hell.
3.) God not only provided a sacrifice through Christ for humanity, but before he created our actual world he logically already had to commit to the plan of Christ's sacrifice
4.) That God would commit to such a painful sacrifice of himself before creating the actual world, it is therefore *plausible* to believe that God must have had a very good reason to continue to go through with the act of Creation.
I see this as a way to reconcile what would otherwise appear (to me at least) to be a logical contradiction between God being wholly good and the knowing creation of beings condemned to hell. I would also like to know your opinion on this deduction and if you find it to be logically valid, or even theologically significant since it seems to be a "catch all" that could answer nearly any objection.
Finally, while I may have found a way to get around the problem, I've not found a way to answer it. In addition to asking scholars such as yourself, I've committed to the idea of investigating whether or not the doctrine of Annihilationism could possibly be biblically valid. I've read some work by that makes a compelling case, but one I feel is so divergent from what I've been taught that it would take some further investigation to believe it as a valid translation/interpretation. If you had any references to books or articles on that topic, it would greatly be appreciated.
Yours is a thoughtful and difficult question, John. I think that your response to the objection is quite well-taken. You offer, in effect, not an undercutting or rebutting defeater but what I call an overwhelming defeater of the argument’s conclusion, namely some consideration in favor of Christian faith that is more warranted than the objection against it. When we can’t answer some objection to Christian faith, we can rationally continue to hold to Christianity if we have warrant for the truth of Christianity which is greater than the warrant possessed by the objection. So you can hold that God has a good reason for creating a world in which people freely separate themselves from God forever, even if you don’t know what that reason is. That seems to me to be a perfectly rational response, given the good arguments and evidence for Christianity’s truth and the witness of God’s Spirit.
But let’s press harder. Suppose the worst case scenario. What would the objection, if fully successful, require you to give up? The existence of God? The resurrection of Jesus? Hardly! It would seem to require you to give up biblical inerrancy, at least with respect to the reality of hell. That would be jarring, but it’s no reason to commit apostasy!
But maybe it wouldn’t even require that much. As you say, you could always adopt annihilationism, as some evangelical Christians have done. That would seem to solve your problem.
But suppose you think annihilationism is not the correct interpretation of the New Testament with respect to hell. What then? Well, notice that the objection presupposes the doctrine of middle knowledge. For it assumes that logically prior to God’s creative decree, He knew what any person would freely do in response to His grace. If He lacks such knowledge, then the objection can’t even get off the ground. And it hardly needs to be said that middle knowledge is a hotly debated doctrine that is not incumbent upon the biblically faithful Christian. So you can completely avoid the objection just by denying middle knowledge. I hope you’re beginning to breathe easier.
But suppose you think, as I do, that God has middle knowledge. Here my response, as you note, is that those who would freely reject God’s love and forgiveness and His every effort to save them and so damn themselves forever, against His will, should not be allowed to have a veto power over God’s creating a world in which multitudes of other people freely accept His grace and are saved. Why should the blessedness and joy of those who would be saved be prevented by what evil and intransigent people would freely do? Why should they be allowed to prevent an incommensurable good?
Your response is that unbelievers “did not ask to be created, and had they been presented with the stark choice of Non-Existence and Eternal Conscious Torture they would undoubtedly choose Non-Existence.” This response seems to miss the thrust of my answer. Of course, the damned would prefer not to have been created! Obviously! But my question is why such persons’ freely rejecting God should be allowed to prevent the blessedness and joy of those who would freely accept God’s salvation? These people shouldn’t be privileged over those who would love and want God. So long as God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every person He creates and wills that person’s salvation, then I can’t see that God is less loving for creating a worlds with less than universal salvation rather than refraining from creation of free creatures altogether. (Recall that we’re assuming that there are no worlds feasible for God to create which involve universal salvation without overriding disadvantages.) But if it is not less loving, then what’s the problem supposed to be?
You suggest that the creation of hell “is itself a morally wrong thing to do.” Ah, there’s the rub! Your objection isn’t really rooted in middle knowledge after all but in your belief that hell is inconsistent with God’s nature. That puts a very different perspective on things. As I’ve sought to show elsewhere, the reality of eternal punishment is in no way inconsistent with God’s love or justice (Questions 35, 55, 172). You should read those answers in connection with this answer.
God doesn’t wish hell on anybody either, John. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33.11). But those who freely reject God deserve their awful fate; they thrust eternal life from them. It is really they themselves and not God who is responsible for the reality of hell. In possible (if infeasible) worlds in which everybody either always does the right thing or else turns to God for forgiveness, hell does not exist. It exists in only those worlds in which rebellious creatures freely spurn the love of God and so separate themselves from Him forever.