Divine Providence Can Be Brutal

I can only admire — from a distance — God’s relentless efficiency in the Old Testament in setting up the conditions for the Incarnation, regardless of lives and worldly goods apparently sacrificed.

He calls Israel “my son, my firstborn,” then kills thousands of them. Etc.

He shapes and manipulates and uses the world as His instrument with a singular aim begun at creation and not finished even as yet. He makes His ultimate art from clay with perfect unconcern for the clay.

When John the Baptist says, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones,” (Mt 3:9) you kind of get the idea of how expendable our earthly lives might be in comparison with our final end of everlasting life in glory (which the Incarnation furthered).

God says then: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son.” (Rev 21:6-7) The middle, i.e., this life, is only a means to an end.

Whether God Is a “Hard Man”?

Jesus tells a fascinating (and terrifying) “parable of the talents” which concludes as follows:

Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said,

“Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.”

His master said to him in reply,

“You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?

“Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

“And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Mt 25:24-30)

One striking feature is how well this confirms the essence of the human condition: perpetual improvement in whatever each man is interested in, his soul included. This life requires one, as a rule, to strive for happiness and succeed. Mises puts it this way:

As long as a man lives, he cannot help obeying the cardinal impulse, the elan vital. It is man’s innate nature that he seeks to preserve and to strengthen his life, that he is discontented and aims at removing uneasiness, that he is in search of what may be called happiness.

In every living being there works an inexplicable and nonanalyzable Id. This Id is the impulsion of all impulses, the force that drives man into life and action, the original and ineradicable craving for a fuller and happier existence. It works as long as man lives and stops only with the extinction of life. (HA, 882)

I conclude my book with asking, “what is the universe for if not a process of its eternal self-improvement?”

But here I want to focus on another aspect of the parable, which is God agreeing that He “harvests where He did not plant and gathers where He did not scatter.”

This much is obvious, given the existence of nature and its secondary causes which interpose between the Father and His creatures. New humans themselves appear on earth through perfectly natural human reproduction and its genetic lottery. God does not determine the make-up of one’s body; nature does. God then must take humans as He finds them, with all the (random) defects of their nature, bodies, and — because of the intimate union of the body and soul — their spirits / personalities, as well.

So then, does God get what He can from nature and impatiently waves aside the failures? Is He a cold-blooded perfect utilitarian who ushers the successful into heaven and unceremoniously throws the human refuse that proves itself worthless into hell as irrelevant aborted “clumps of cells”? Is life survival of the saintliest?

Earlier I pointed out how unforgiving nature is, and how the Father reflects (or rather causes) this condition of our lives.

In an important book on the vitamins-as-treatment medical paradigm, Abram Hoffer et al. write:

[Bill Walsh’s] experiences led him to compare mineral levels in the hair of twenty-four pairs of brothers. In each case, one brother was a well-behaved member of society, while the other was a “boy from hell.”

The results were amazing. The hair analyses showed that well-behaved males had normal mineral levels, but the imprisoned delinquents all showed one of two abnormal patterns.

“Boys from hell” had either very high copper and very low zinc, sodium, and potassium levels in their hair or very low zinc and copper and very high sodium and potassium.

In addition, the delinquents also had lead and cadmium levels that were three times greater than those of their well-behaved siblings. (Niacin: The Real Story, Ch. 8)

If the behavior of these boys was influenced (though not caused) by their bodily chemistry, such as poisoning by heavy metals, it seems improper to condemn the boys from hell to hell for moral flaws that flowed from something as obviously irrelevant to the fate of their immortal souls as unusual mineral ratios in their systems. Can God really be so callous as to condemn to eternal horror people whom fully to cure physically and improve morally would take nothing more difficult than prescribing a cheap nutritional supplement?

Are we toys whom God casually tosses aside when they no longer amuse Him? It seems unbecoming of the goodness of God to give up on us so easily.

And that’s precisely why the history of the world from the point of view of God is incomplete without the other 2 persons of the divine Trinity, the Holy Spirit and the Son.

We can go even further and affirm that without these two, literally no one would get to the Father, who wants absolute metaphysical and moral perfection from us. The human project would be a 100% failure without (1) grace and progress in charity and (2) forgiveness of sins.

Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit

Can the Holy Spirit ever lie? (Actually, like Mark Twain and unlike George Washington, He can lie; the proper question is, does He?), Well, it is at the very least obvious that He can withhold truth, especially since the content of the divine wisdom is infinite and telling any truth is grace, a free gift. God allows us to be deceived, as Descartes famously pointed out: “If, however, it is contrary to His goodness to have made me such that I constantly deceive myself, it would also appear to be contrary to His goodness to permit me to be sometimes deceived, and nevertheless I cannot doubt that He does permit this.” (Meditations, I) The Holy Spirit is under no general obligation to remedy that.

I can concede that God may lead people to different faiths for His own reasons. These reasons may depend on what opportunities God actually detects to improve us, on which faith will most benefit each particular person, on what’s going on with the angels and saints in heaven (or less pleasant places “up there”), on overall “utilitarian” providence, and so on. Can we expect the Holy Spirit to testify truthfully?

Regarding the commandments, God did murder a bunch of people both directly and indirectly in the Old Testament. Could He sometimes bear false witness, too? Not about things above human nature, such as the Christian articles of faith, or “official” prophecies about distant future, as we are helpless regarding them without Him. But regarding scientific things, I can see how He might mislead someone who does not deserve the truth, such as explicitly to make him more self-reliant. If a scientist is praying to God instead of conducting his experiments properly, I can see God getting annoyed and lying to the scientist in order to cause him to fail and thereby set him straight. There are the sins of superstition and temptation of God to remedy which God might lie. Or asking for a revelation of some supernatural truth, perhaps like the specifics of the afterlife or future events, in prayer that might not be our business to inquire of, may elicit a lie to impart the crucial lesson unto the believer to focus instead on his own salvation.

Or consider a question, “God, will I be saved?” This is a tricky one. For one, answering “no” might fill the person with despair, leading to self-fulfillment of the prophecy. And answering “yes” may fill him on the contrary with presumption, if he imagines that he is guaranteed heaven and immune from sin, also hindering salvation. If God does reply, it may well be a lie in order to prevent these perverse consequences. There are things in this life that are best not to know, and God, realizing this, might mislead you.

Or what if telling a person a divine secret will in the long run hurt his happiness or salvation? Since happiness is our last end, I think God would rather, foreseeing all the consequences of His own actions, tell a saving lie than a condemning truth.

Or what if a person is asking to be enlightened idly out of some bored curiosity? It does not belong to a man to bother God with pointless questions. God would not necessarily lie, but He definitely need not reveal anything He does not feel like revealing. I can see Him dismissing the question with an irritated “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

So then: There is truth in Islam, and if God helps to impress on a man a deep seated conviction that Islam is true, then He does so by testifying to the true aspects of Islam while abstaining from commenting on its false aspects. If this testimony thereby causes the man to accept Islam as a whole, both the truth and falsehood in it, then the false beliefs are no skin off the Holy Spirit’s nose. It’s not His fault the man was too enthusiastic and ultimately by his own choice and discernment swallowed the good along with the bad.

In that case, Craig is right that to the extent that the Holy Spirit continues to testify to a Muslim true believer, presumably it’s to turn him toward a better faith, such as indeed Christianity which at least teaches that the Holy Spirit exists!

And what of different Christian theologies? People have all sorts of wrong ideas about God or angels or the afterlife. God is not hurtling lightning bolts at them immediately to correct them all the time, though He may manifest His influence as He chooses.

This does suggest that even true sincere religious believers can be wrong about many particulars and even some fundamental things.

So, I think the witness of the Holy Spirit regarding divine things above our nature is always true and would be “an intrinsic defeater-defeater,” if one always listened to it carefully enough, or such as to identify His voice perfectly from all other considerations, or such as to act virtuously by fully accepting His grace. The flaw in not in God but in ourselves, and life is too complicated for knock-down arguments like this.

Moreover, my justification for Christianity is not weakened because Muslims are also well-justified in Islam. So, perhaps the deep assurance / conviction do justify a belief to each believer, but the belief itself need not be true or at least fully true. Again, however, regarding supernatural things, God never lies in the foregoing sense. As per the distinction I’ve drawn, both a Christian and Muslim true believer would have scientific knowledge of the best religion; but only one of them would have philosophical knowledge of it.

Why the Old Testament Ultraviolence?

I mention a few examples of the over-the-top violence in the OT in previous posts: [1], [2].

What’s the deal with all that? One explanation may be that the physical wars in the OT were signs of the spiritual warfare after Christ.

Another is that God was pursuing a very important end: preparing the world for the Incarnation of the Son. Great sacrifices had to be made in order for this momentous and highly beneficial to mankind event to succeed.

From the deontological perspective, God is the Author of life and death and has a “right” both to give life and to kill at His pleasure.

But the truth is probably even simpler. John the Baptist said, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Mt 3:9) It follows that natural unregenerated humans are almost worthless. They are a dime a dozen. They are grass, and God can mow the lawn of His creation however He wills. What does it really in the final analysis matter if I die now at Moses’ sword or 20 years from now from some hideous disease? Earthly life ends, and with it, as it appears to a faithless man, all subjectivity, experience, pleasure, understanding, and memory. If it ends a little sooner rather than later, so what?

But among this grass, there are a few flowers. God cares for them. He gives them living water; He prunes them; He increases their charity. There is a price God pays for this care; not, obviously, because He gets tired from the effort of gardening, but because He cannot grace everyone, and if He chooses Smith to be the flower, He by that very fact refrains from uplifting Jones. For mysterious reasons of divine providence, grace is fairly scarce.

These flowers “are worth more than many sparrows.” (Lk 12:7)

Now if a person has been chosen thus, then rejecting the grace is a monstrous crime, because God has forsaken others for his sake. The costs have been borne, but no profit realized. Therefore the importance of cooperating with grace cannot be overemphasized.

Whether God Can Infuse a False Faith?

The job of the Holy Spirit regarding faith seems to be to remove doubts regarding the articles of faith, as per St. Thomas’ understanding that the intellect can “assent to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other: and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith.” (ST, II-II, 1, 4) I mentioned the false religious beliefs of, say, Jews and Muslims, such as that Jesus is not God. Sometimes these beliefs are firmly and even fanatically held.

This bothered me somewhat, so I asked the Holy Spirit whether He ever acted to convince someone of a false belief, perhaps for reasons of overall “utilitarian” providence. He answered no, but I think it was presumptuous even to ask in light of 1 John 4:

Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the antichrist that, as you heard, is to come, but in fact is already in the world. (1-3)

NABRE comments:

Deception is possible in spiritual phenomena and may be tested by its relation to Christian doctrine: those who fail to acknowledge Jesus Christ in the flesh are false prophets and belong to the antichrist.

Even though these false prophets are well received in the world, the Christian who belongs to God has a greater power in the truth.

So it seems rather that the Jews and Muslims, in regard precisely to their devotion to their corrupt religions, are victims of the influence of evil spirits. How unfortunate, especially because “the devil made me believe it” is hardly a valid excuse.

But how can a person honestly contemplating whether Christianity or Islam is true in order to choose between them be sure whether he is being prompted by the spirit of God or of the devil? Well, the passage continues: “You belong to God, children, and you have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4) It may be that a genuinely honest inquiry, especially made through a pure heart, is guaranteed to lead one, at least eventually, to the truth.

Mystery of Salvation Statistics

I have discussed the problem of whether everyone will in the end be saved and found the evidence inconclusive as regards both reason and Christian faith. No near-death experience I am aware of resolves the matter, either. Nor any private revelation to any saint. Nor, again, does reincarnation, if it be real, guarantee it.

I have argued that the created universe was a gift from God the Father to the Son. It was the Son who chose both the possible world to be actualized by Father and along with that, the providential path through it by the Holy Spirit at the Son’s greatest pleasure. Predestination of humans toward either hell or different degrees of glory occurred as an aspect of this choice: the world on the whole is best possible one, and its human potential as a one thing is best realized — as judged by the Son but perhaps also “objectively,” but perhaps some individuals through their sin destroy themselves, as per God’s permission.

Thus, God the Father created nature which the Holy Spirit then may have labored on through intelligent design = grace, but God does not create individual humans; nature does. And nature is a mad scientist. Can we make an analogy that perhaps just as nature eliminates the physically unfit by killing their bodies, so perhaps God or even “spiritual” natural laws eliminate the spiritually unfit by throwing them into hell?

God then chose the world as a whole, but He did not directly decree that any particular Smith would be born or live; Smith’s existence is foreseen but not thereby intended by any person of the Trinity. An analogy would be direct vs. representative democracy: in the former one votes for individual laws or policies; in the latter, one votes in a package deal for a congressman who will then according to his own counsel vote for many policies. God intended Smith directly only in the sense that He was influenced by the foresight that Smith would contribute his minuscule amount of goodness to the goodness of the world. Again it is also possible that Smith is good only indirectly and even if hell-bound, if his existence still is useful on utilitarian grounds as regards the welfare of the entire world.

Thus, perhaps God, in foreseeing Smith, his randomly generated self, and his future adventures, loved Smith and chose the world in a (very) small part because of him; then again, perhaps He hated Smith’s guts and chose the world despite Smith’s lamentable depravity but such that the world is still the best possible one on the whole.

Hence, Jesus’ analogy with the divine judgment as applying to an almost randomly grown harvest which contains some good and some bad plants:

When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Mt 13:26-30)

The parable asserts that an “enemy” sowed evil men, but we have to be careful here. Perhaps the enemy can corrupt the seeds morally as they develop and live, but all the seeds themselves must needs be metaphysically good, lest God be the direct author of evil or even a fetus could be judged evil by its very nature and burned even prior to committing any actual sins or wicked deeds. NABRE comments that “weeds” refer to “darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat.” So, at first, the weeds and wheat are indistinguishable but separate later in life which is a defensible idea. In short, as God did not create any individual, neither did the devil.

In this case, as already asserted, life of the soul is “survival of the saintliest.” God takes each soul, evaluates its beauty, and unceremoniously consigns it to either heaven or hell. Just how exactly beautiful must my soul be in order to get to heaven? Where’s the cutoff point? I don’t know, but something like this would be true in an unredeemed world.

It follows that positive reprobation is false, since God directly predestines no one by virtue of not creating anyone. In addition, of course, it is generally unattractive. If God had created Smith evil and predestined him for the life of sin and self-destruction, perhaps in order to sacrifice him in some utilitarian fashion for the sake of those predestined for salvation, then we could take exception to such an objectionably callous divine decision. Whether anyone is saved would depend on one’s luck, in particular on not being born Smith-like. Nor will it help to argue that “Smith drove himself into hell freely,” because such a “choice” implies that Smith is enjoying hell which cannot be. Hell is by its nature always an explicit punishment and the worst one possible at that. It would then be much harder than it is now to insist on the absolute essential goodness of God.

But negative reprobation where Smith’s sins are foreseen (though again not intended but permitted for the sake of some general welfare) and punishment is accorded on their account cannot be disposed of so easily. The world remains best possible and potential one, but God lacks the power to save everyone, though He makes the best out of a bad situation. (We may still wonder though why Smith would bother with attributing goodness to the Father and the Holy Spirit when the Son executes his soul.)

I am not making these questions up as though no one had asked them before; e.g., the Catholic Encyclopedia considers it a “hidden mystery,” asking, “Why is it that this child is baptized, but not the child of the neighbor? Why is it that Peter the Apostle rose again after his fall and persevered till his death, while Judas Iscariot, his fellow-Apostle, hanged himself and thus frustrated his salvation?” These considerations once again suggest that the answer to the question “Who will be saved?” is a carefully guarded mystery.

Whether Worship of God Ruins Human Moral Autonomy?

The argument in this paper is that worshiping God entails abdicating one’s moral autonomy and judgment. “In saying that a being is worthy of worship, we would be recognizing him as having an unqualified claim on our obedience.” (53) Is it true, therefore, that there is “a conflict between the role of worshiper, which by its very nature commits one to total subservience to God, and the role of moral agent, which necessarily involves autonomous decision making”? The formal argument is this:

1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God. (54)

In other words, Rachels thinks that worshiping God entails obeying His decrees blindly. There is a certain weak connection here; e.g., here is St. Thomas on what we owe to God as our Father:

1. Honor.

  1. In reference to Him, we should honor God by giving Him praise.
  2. In reference to ourselves, we should honor God by purity of body.
  3. In reference to our neighbor, we should honor God by judging him justly.

2. Imitation.

  1. by loving Him, and this must be in the heart;
  2. by showing mercy, because mercy is bound to accompany love, and this must be in deed;
  3. by being perfect, since love and mercy should be perfect.

3. Obedience.

  1. because of His dominion, for He is the Lord;
  2. because of His example, since His true Son was made obedient to the Father unto death;
  3. because obedience is good for us.

4. Patience.

We own God patience under His chastening: “The discipline of the Lord, my son, do not spurn; do not disdain his reproof; For whom the Lord loves he reproves, as a father, the son he favors.” (Prov 3:11-12) (Aquinas Catechism, 2.II.B)

But this loving Father-child relationship of Christianity is not at all the master-slave relationship in which the slave’s fear is predominant.

Note that the Rachels’ argument has nothing to do with the divine command theory of ethics which says that whatever God commands morally ought to be done. Rather, it suggests that robotically following God’s commands, regardless of their moral status, is inhuman. And I agree that there is a grain of truth to this observation.

But what if it’s contrary to God’s explicit design of the universe for Him to bark orders at people? The nature of this world precludes God’s commanding us to do things. Matters might be different in a different world, but in this world they must be this way and are therefore not contingent. It may be the very essence of God’s human project to make us good not by God’s goodness but by our own that we earn in part by learning and acting on moral truths. That’s why God has laid down natural law to interpose between Himself and creatures. God is then the author of the operation of nature not of any individual. It is not God but nature that is the source of morality. Some knowledge of the law or duty may be innate; some learned through moral reasoning; and some infused through grace.

I admit that a divine command might seem to undermine human nature by turning a man into a machine that obeys God’s decrees mindlessly. But it is not God’s aim to destroy our nature but to build it up. This goal would be frustrated if God retained any intention of issuing divine commands as copiously as the US Congress issues its outrageous “regulations.” Just as Socrates is necessarily rational, so the universe necessarily requires God to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward us.

It may be objected that worshiping God involves conceding that if for whatever reason God asked Smith to do X, then Smith would have to do X. It’s a change in Smith’s character, as he becomes the sort of person who stands ready at any moment to “abandon his role as an autonomous moral agent” upon divine demand. Isn’t this an unfitting self-abasement?

First, perhaps worshiping God involves nothing of the sort; but on the contrary devotion to wisdom and virtue obtained usually through a massive heroic personal effort. The best way to worship God may be to imitate His glory within one’s own self, including by becoming an expert at moral reasoning and a saint in living a moral life.

Second, consider miracles which apparently happen from time to time. If we take miracles to be some sort of “violations of laws of nature,” then too many miracles will probably destroy the law-bound nature of the world and therefore God’s own creation. In particular, humans might no longer be able survive in such a chaotic world. But an occasional miracle might serve a useful purpose, such as to remind the people that God “lives,” that would outweigh the threat to the integrity and autonomy of nature.

Similarly, suppose that on some unique occasion, God did ask Smith to do X. Smith, being a religious person, does X blindly. Perhaps he trusts that some important good will come out of it. (It may even be that if God explained His purposes to Smith, then Smith would obtain an adequate reason to do X willingly and autonomously; it’s just that the divine providence is too complex to be grasped by a mere mortal. In other words, the human power of prudential judgment is very limited; e.g., we may try to be good utilitarians, but our ability to calculate the consequences of our actions is depressingly poor; God, however, is omniscient. Perhaps obeying God, when He does talk to us in our most private moments, is rational.) If such commands are exceedingly rare, then that does not entail that Smith can from then on rely on God to tell him what to eat for dinner. Smith’s nature as an autonomous moral agent is not destroyed as a result of a once-in-a-lifetime divine command. The benefit of a lone divine command can outweigh its negative influence on Smith’s character. So the commitment to obey need not be vicious at all.

Finally, the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) was a sacrament of the unique future event: the incarnation of God the Son; further commands to the nation of Israel can be interpreted as continued preparation for this, as well. Hence, they cannot be used to demonstrate God’s normal everyday modus operandi.

Whether the Old Testament Lord Is Evil?

Bradley believes that God as He is described especially in the Old Testament is an evil, immoral figure because of the violent actions He commanded or authorized or threatened people with, including (P1) the slaughter of innocents, (P2) giving captive virgins to the troops, (P3) causing people to cannibalize their relatives, (P4) condoning child sacrifice, and (P5) fire and brimstone for the unbelievers. (132-142)

Now (P1)-(P4) are unique to the OT; (P5) is unique to the NT. Let’s apply to the former deontology first and consequentialism second.

First, that God had the right to take life in those days (and only in those days) I defend in my “Understanding the Salvation History” and elsewhere.

Second, how does Bradley know that the good that came out of God’s actions in the end did not outweigh the evil that He caused? God, given his perfect foresight, could easily calculate the consequences of His actions from the beginning of the universe till kingdom come. If God is a perfect utilitarian, then He’ll work to maximize human happiness as much as possible. And here is a plausible good that resulted from all those battles and punishments and whatnot: the coming of Christ through Israel and redemption of mankind, the establishment of the Church, the elevation of all humans to the rank of servants of God, and salvation for billions. But even if our author disagreed with this assessment, it would be up to him to show that the evils God inflicted on various people in the OT are not justified by some greater good. As long as the scenario I described is possible, I don’t think that God can be shown to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

And as for (P5) threats of hellfire in the NT, well, you’ve got to be forgiven for your transgressions to go to heaven, and

(1) not believing in Christ entails not believing in the existence of the only being who can forgive all your sins;

(2) not believing in the Holy Spirit entails not believing in the only being who can cleanse and heal and uplift you into fellowship with God; and

(3) not believing in the Father entails not believing in the only being who is pleased to give you the kingdom.

However, we are saved by Christ not by Christianity, so this answer is insufficient.

I answer, therefore, that it is permissible for a Christian to hold that (1) hell exists and is indeed a place of eternal horror but actually is and always will be empty; and further that (2) hellfire is restricted to purgatory and to especially severe cases of sinfulness or self-destruction, where it functions not as punishment but as an ultimate and perfectly serviceable incentive to human moral monsters to reform. No one can feel the hellfire and fail to be reliably terrified into mending his ways right then and there.

It is then possible to go to hell, and moreover one must avoid hell through his own efforts, but God’s mercy is so great that He ultimately saves everyone.

Is Transcircumstantial Depravity Necessary?

It is surely true that God never intends to lead anyone to ruin. But suppose God the utilitarian has a choice to steer the world into one of two possible directions. The first way will create circumstances to which Smith will respond well and earn glory, but in which Jones and Robinson will be condemned. The second way will produce the opposite result: Smith will perish, but Jones and Robinson will be saved and live.

Isn’t God essentially forced by arithmetic to pick way #2? God is absolved from any wrongdoing by the principle of double effect: Smith’s perdition is foreseen but not intended; it’s an unfortunate side effect of imparting into the world the greatest good for the greatest number. Christ may be the good shepherd (Lk 15), but even He must bow down before the iron necessity of cold utility calculus.

Here we bump against William Lane Craig’s idea about “transcircumstantial depravity” (TD) of the damned. Craig’s intention is to deny a sinner the following line of defense during the afterlife trial or judgment or “life review”: if he had heard the Gospel, then he would have believed; or in our case, if God had steered the world into way #1, then he would have been saved. He is a victim of divine providence, and God stands accused.

Craig would have it that for the sinner, there was never a way to be saved, no matter what God did. God was 100% powerless to save Smith. Smith would have revealed himself to be utterly depraved in any and all sets of possible circumstances. Thus, God never really had a choice to save Smith. Smith was done for from day one. It would be better for him if he had not been born; unfortunately, if Smith had not been born, then Jones and Robinson again would perish, and thus Smith turns into a tool used for their salvation which, once it is no longer useful, is thrown into the gas oven of hell.

Craig maintains that God “does no injustice towards the unevangelized who reject the light of general revelation and are lost because He knows that they wouldn’t have responded to the Gospel anyway, even if they had heard it.” He then tackles the accusation that this view entails “cultural chauvinism,” because his correspondent writes that “swathes of humanity are written off.” This is a mild way of putting it. Whole nations, billions of people sharing the same race or nationality are spiritually destroyed without so much as a hope for eternal life even in some possible world! But surely this result cannot be accidental; their race must be the cause; they must be some sort of subhumans! I seem to remember a medieval justification of the slaughter of the American natives to the effect that, why, living in the New World, they couldn’t have descended from Adam and Eve, and therefore they were probably devil’s spawn. Craig’s theory of salvation is quite a bit more implausible, because it does far more than merely call for bodily death to unbelievers; its wrath is not even satisfied with condemning their souls to hell, as though Craig were the all-holy Judge Himself, and they were irredeemable hateful monsters like demons; it consigns these folks to absolute depravity in every possible world!

And according to what mechanism, I ask Craig, have the billions of Asians and Africans turned from being transcircumstantially depraved into willing members of the Church? Ah, he will say, this is because “human persons are individuated by their souls, [and] my soul could have been placed in a different body so that I should have been a person of a different race or ethnicity born at a different time and place in history. On such an understanding of human personhood, bodily characteristics are of much less significance than on a materialistic view.” What he is trying to say is that God used to place evil, i.e., totally depraved, souls in the bodies of the miserable Chinese, and now that some of these Chinese have a chance of becoming Christians, God places good souls into their bodies. It is true that, while human persons are multiplied by their bodies, they are individuated by their souls or perhaps “spirits.” What Craig wants to convey is that humans are individualized by their personalities, and those are immaterial, and therefore the significance of the body is lessened. But surely, one’s bodily make-up affects one’s personality. Body and soul are enmeshed into one another, creating a psychosomatic unity. Anyway, I find it hard to believe that souls, being created or implanted into a fetus or developing naturally in it as it gestates can be divided into good and evil. It is well accepted that all children are born innocent and capable of becoming either good or evil.

In any case, however, Craig’s artifice of TD may be superfluous. For does not transcircumstantial depravity entail transcircumstantial glory? Here’s the argument: If a man is condemned actually, Craig proposes, then he is condemned in all possible worlds. By contraposition, if he is saved even in one possible world, then he must be saved in the actual one. But Jones and Robinson are saved in possible world #2; therefore, if God chooses to actualize world #1, then they must also by necessity be saved there.

Thus, Jones and Robinson never actually needed the sacrifice of Smith. They would have been saved even if Smith had never existed. They have — and always did have, supposedly — the “good” spirits in them. God stands in no need of Smith’s shameful “services.”

Craig might object that since God wants to protect His ass from lawsuits, He will not create any world, including but not limited to #1, in which Jones is damned. World #1, though “possible,” is not “feasible”: God can create it but for His own reasons definitely will not. At the same time, God created and predestined Smith for damnation to make possible world #2 in addition feasible. Perhaps; the reasoning is convoluted.

(Another argument against transcircumstantial glory is that, let’s face it, every man has his limits. Suppose God subjected Jones to agonizing though non-hellish torture for 10,000 years. It is quite possible that regardless of his initial resilience and holiness, Jones would end up cursing and hating God and be punished for that sin with everlasting hellfire.)

A more subtle objection is that perhaps Jones / Robinson obtained more glory with the help of Smith’s sacrifice than they would have obtained without it. But hell is such unspeakable horror that Smith’s eternal suffering would far outweigh in terms of utility any finite increase in Jones’ glory, even multiplied by all the days of Jones’ everlasting life.