Response 3 to a Conditionalist Critical Review

This is the third in a series of responses to the extensive review of Is There Anything Good About Hell? by the conditionalist, David Jukobovic. As stated previously, the reviewer is erudite and congenial, both welcome attributes in a reviewer. I will be dealing exclusively in this installment with the reviewer’s response to chapter 8, Infinite Honour and Infinite Sin. By way of introduction and summary, I will be arguing that Jukobovic has somewhat missed (or ignored) the center of the chapter’s thesis, and perhaps of Anselm’s theory as well.

I suggest that this is one of the only places in the author’s review that he has somewhat missed my meaning. I say that happily. It is a frustrating thing for an author when reviewers consistently mis-read or mis-understand what is written. For the most part, Jukobovic has not done this and for that I am thankful. His errors, as explained in my last response (now far too long ago) lie more in the realm of opposing everything he views as hostile to conditionalism, even if he uses arguments or quotes that are internally oppositional. No doubt the author may write his own book and at that point a more fruitful discussion may be warranted. He has, in fact, responded to my second article, but I cannot at this time commit to more than simply finishing this long overdue series of “first” responses.

The center of my thesis in chapter 8 is that it is good that sin be punished in a way that vindicates the exceeding glory and greatness of God. But I also take great pains to tie this somewhat ambiguous concept to a much more concrete one–the idea of obligation. It is for this reason that I spend a significant amount of time using the analogy of parents. Why are sins against parents so much more greatly punished than the same sins against others? In this case it is not because parents are more honourable than any one else, but because the child has a specific obligation (including to honor them) by virtue of their relationship.

In the Bible, sin is more odious and outrageous when it is committed against certain people, namely those who stand in a close and definable relationship to the offender. Whether against one’s parents, governor, or master, these sins are punished more severely than sins against others. Although there is ontological equality between all those created in God’s image, there is also functional inequality, and the penalty of sin depends significantly on the offender’s relational status to the one wronged. (p140)

I restate this because the connection between honor and obligation is also present in Anselm’s argument which others have, I think, mis-named the “Status Principle.” I hope I am not being too provocative, but I wonder if the reviewer has read Cur Deus Homo for himself? Perhaps he has. But for the most part Jukobovic does not deal with the measurement of sin and its punishment in Anselm, but merely with a particular (and overly feudalistic) conception of what he assumes Anselm is arguing. For instance, I completely agree with the reviewer’s statement that “the status not only of the offended but also of the offender carries weight in law,” and I footnote this exact point in the chapter, citing Dean, Crime in Medieval Europe, and Miller, Eye For An Eye. But here’s the thing that may throw the reviewer for a loop–I think Anselm would agree with him as well. I cannot be sure, and I could be wrong, but there is nothing in Cur Deus Homo that suggests that Anselm’s theory is in any way tied to a feudal-status conception. But it makes for an easy dismissal of the theory, a trap that even this relatively careful reviewer falls into: “This medieval, even feudal idea is invalid”; “But to revisit Anselm’s ‘honour’ issue: is it even still serviceable 1,000 years on?” It is quite incredible to me that many non-traditionalists have so significantly mis-read Anselm including Fudge, Talbott, Pinnock, McCord Adams, and Kvanvig, as I state in footnote 266. Charles Seymour, who does end up rejecting Anselm’s theory (if memory serves correctly) at least attempts to truly understand him.

But I make this obligation-honour connection very clear in chapter 8 (page 143), almost belabouring the point, and the reviewer mostly skirts it, although I will come back to a few statements and quotes that briefly touch upon it. The thing which the reviewer and many other authors miss in Anselm is the idea of obligation and how his rational proof, (which I personally think is drawn by allusion from Scripture), actually measures obligation, sin against that obligation, and its punishment. Let me restate for clarity: Anselm doesn’t just state his theory, he proves it. He does so via a ratcheting series of obligation comparisons on an imaginary set of scales. To undermine Anselm would require a demonstration that he has not measured obligations in the right way or with the right weighting. I have just completed an article touching on Anselm’s proof for Themelios, but I will try to summarize the argument without copy and pasting either from it or my book.

Imagine scales for measurement. Upon one side Anselm places the obligation that we all have to God. To represent this obligation he uses a very simple command, which I think alludes to the Fall in Scripture: “don’t look that way.” I suspect he deliberately chooses something almost arbitrary (such as was the command to not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.) Anselm never changes the “weight” of this pan. But in a series of questions and answers with his dialogue partner, Boso, he measures this obligation against other things, adding more and more weight to the other pan in order to make his measurement. Firstly, he states “Ask yourself in your heart what there is, among all existing things, for the sake of which you ought to take that look in violation of God’s will?” The answer, of course, is that there is no thing that is able to overturn or supersede the obligation we have to God.

Secondly, he asks if all thing put together, “the whole world and whatever is other than God,” would suffice to keep us from even this small command of God. The answer, of course, is no.

Lastly, “What if there were more than one world, full of creatures, just as this world is?” The answer? “If there were an infinitely multiple number of worlds and they too were exhibited to me, I would still give the same answer.” Anselm then answers Boso, “But if it were to happen that contrary to the will of God you were to take that look, consider as well what you would be able to render as payment for this sin.”

Here is the brilliance of the argument: Anselm has successfully measured the “value” of a tiny sin. It is of greater negative worth than a million worlds, and because it is so, any payment to redress the wrong must be of like value. He proves that the restitutive value of sin’s debt is the inverse of the obligation to not sin. Now, this is no theoretical exercise. It is what sent one with the “value” of God to the cross to die for our sins. This is why God had to become man and die, hence the name of Anselm’s work.

This account of infinite obligation deals with many of the reviewer’s criticisms on chapter 8, including quotes by Kronen, Stackhouse, Kabay, but not all. He quotes from Clarke, who himself is responding to Jonathan Edwards. Clarke argues firstly, that infinite honor does not mean infinite obligation. I think it does, but I didn’t tackle “infinite honor” in the abstract in my book precisely because it is somewhat difficult to nail down. But secondly, Clarke argues that even if we could prove infinite obligation that this would not necessarily lead to just desserts for violation of that obligation being infinite. This is a direct counter to my (and Anselm’s) claim, but I don’t find it intuitive or reflective of law, let alone the biblical data (which I will get to shortly). The reviewer would do well to read a history of retributive law, for instance WIlliam Ian Miller’s excellent Eye for an Eye, which brilliantly shows how retribution has been the ground of law historically. The Lex Talionis is about getting (back to) even. Basic tort law demonstrates that the pans of debt and payment must be balanced. Does the reviewer deny this fundamental fact of justice? Maybe he does.

But let us consider the biblical data. In my recent Themelios article Hell for a Single Sin, I use three passages which demonstrate the exceedingly great measure of sin. I have already alluded to the Fall, which I believe is the source of Anselm’s first mesasurement. There are several minimizing aspects of this first sin of Adam’s. For instance, it is a sin against a light, almost trivial law. Given the great pleasures and other fruits to which Adam had access, it would have been no difficulty to say “no” to this one as commanded. There is also the extraneity of it. One would search long and hard to find a similar law in any law-book or code. This was no intrinsic, moral law, like “do not murder” or “do not steal”. Reformed theologians have recognized this command as a “positive” law. In spite of these minimizing aspects, however, the fall produced catastrophic results. The review will no doubt disagree about the fullness of the effects of the fall–but they required a redemption in nothing less than the blood and death of God–so there’s that! Does the biblical account of the fall, on its own, prove the eternality of an eternal, conscious punishment? No, but I think it proves the infinite obligation Adam has to God, and that the punishment (the death of God) fits this infinite obligation.

The second passage I mention is Luke 17:1-2, in which Christ’s conclusion is that the evil of causing a child to sin cannot be fairly compared to, or restituted by, the evil of capital punishment. But again, two aspects of the theoretical situation envisioned by the Lord, demonstrate the severity of even the smallest sin. The first is that in the text, the one for whom capital punishment would be much preferred doesn’t even sin! He “merely” causes another person to sin. The second is that the one who sins is the “least” human being, a child.

These first two passages operate similarly, demonstrating the enormity of the punishment due for even the smallest sins. The third passage, Psalm 51:4, achieves something similar, but in a different way, as it compares the effect of “large” sins (rape and murder) onto two groups/persons. In saying to the Lord, “against you only have I sinned” David is recognizing that the obligation he has to God is so much greater than that to his fellow man, that the latter is simply not in view and useless in the measurement of the sin. This is remarkable considering the sins are the greatest measurable among men: rape and murder. Again we have a quantification of the “value” of the sin against God. I simply don’t see how anyone can escape the biblical logic. The reviewer quotes Pollard saying, ““Criticism has been directed against what has been regarded as his quantitative conception of sin,” but the scriptures clearly evidence a quantitative conception of sin. Although it is possible I am overlooking some permutation of an argument against the law of infinite obligation-infinite sin-infinite punishment, it seems to me that the only way to undermine it would be to argue against retributive justice and penal substitutionary atonement themselves.

And if that is the case, then we are back to the injustice of God, but now not directed at sinful human beings (as the reviewer believes is the case with an eternal punishment) but directed at the perfect, innocent Son of God. For if such a great (yes, infinite) suffering was not required on account of sin, the Father would be a monster to send His Son to such a death.