Hell and “optimal grace”

September 7, 2011

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

One book I read to prepare for our two-part sermon series on heaven and hell is Methodist theologian Jerry Walls’s fun-sounding book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. In it, he seeks to overcome the most important objections to hell and damnation on moral grounds. And unlike our hyper-Calvinist brothers and sisters, Walls isn’t content to say, “God is perfectly good, even though our human understanding of God’s ‘goodness’ bears no apparent relationship to God’s goodness”—that God is good, in other words, even if our account of that “goodness” makes God out to be a moral monster.

In the real world, skeptical people of good faith do raise honest objections to Christianity on moral grounds. Let’s assume for a moment that they are doing so of their own free will, and that God isn’t simply making them be that way. We Arminian Christians, who live in that same world with them, should try to answer their objections. Hence Walls’s book.

In his chapter “Hell and Divine Goodness,” he brings the problem in sharp relief by discussing a few hypothetical scenarios, one of which I excerpt below:

Next, consider the case of two young women, both of whom have been taught the Christian faith, but have rejected it. Both are involved in an automobile accident in which one is killed while the other lives. Let us say the second is eventually converted and becomes a saintly person, whereas the first is damned. Suppose God knows the first would also have become a saintly person if she had lived to a normal age before dying.

What all these cases suggest is that it is very odd, to say the least, to think that salvation and damnation might hinge in some way on such factors as the circumstances of one’s birth or the time of one’s death. If this is actually possible, it seems to raise doubts about the claim that God, in perfect goodness, desires to save all persons.1

In other words, doesn’t our salvation or damnation often depend on circumstances over which we have no control? And if so, doesn’t this reflect poorly on God’s goodness?

After all, I was brought up in a Christian home. I grew up going to Sunday school and church. I saw many Christians role-model the love of Jesus for me. I had one opportunity after another to respond positively to the gospel, which I eventually did. Clearly, the vast majority of people in the world today—and who have ever lived—have not had those same opportunities, to say the least. Would God damn them to hell without giving them a fair chance of hearing and responding to the gospel? (This was a primary objection to Christianity raised by Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century, and Walls frames his argument to meet Russell’s objection.)

Walls doesn’t think so, and neither do I. In fact, I think this opinion represents a consensus on the rightward side of the mainline Protestant spectrum in which the United Methodist Church finds itself (which is to say the leftward side of evangelical Protestant spectrum). I have believed (or hoped) for years that an equal opportunity exists for people to respond positively to the gospel, even after death if necessary.

Before Walls’s book, however, I’d read no writer who had explained in a plausible way what this might look like. Walls argues that God gives everyone an “optimal measure of grace” to enable a “decisive response” to the gospel. So, getting back to the hypothetical case above, Walls writes,

I am inclined to say the one killed had not decisively rejected God. Although her initial response to grace was negative, she would have become a saintly person had she lived longer. This suggests that her initial negative rejection to God was not really a settled response. If God knows this, it may be the case that God will give her the grace at the moment of death to begin to become what she would have become if she had not died. Further spiritual growth could occur after death.2

Walls concedes that this notion would involve some form of purgatory. Stripped of its medieval Catholic excesses, he doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently un-Protestant about the idea. Indeed, many Protestants of Lutheran and Anglican extraction (including my man C.S. Lewis) believe in some form of it.

Walls even addresses one objection I have to the idea: If God were to give people an opportunity after death to respond (because in this life they failed to decisively accept or reject the gospel), who could possibly say no? Wouldn’t it be rather obvious what the correct “choice” would be? I put the word in scare quotes because at that point, it would fail to be a choice. It would be coerced. Walls responds:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such a reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation  after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.3

Or maybe not… It’s obviously highly speculative. But I’m glad Walls is at least making the effort to explain it.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, what we know for sure is this: We have this time now, this moment now, to respond. Everyone who has life still has the opportunity to find salvation. This should give urgency to our mission. Moreover, along with Walls, I believe our choices in this life can have eternal consequences. I believe people can decisively reject the gospel. I also fear that if we continually fail to respond to the gospel, we may harden our hearts such that we can no longer respond, in this life or beyond. (This, I believe, is the “unforgivable sin” Jesus mentions.)

One thing is also for sure: We don’t know the mysterious ways in which God works in the human heart. We don’t know how the Lord might move in that liminal place between life and death. Could it be that Jesus meets everyone, arms outstretched, as he met the two criminals on the cross beside him?

Will we, like the first criminal, reject him? Or will we, like the second, ask him to remember us when he comes into his kingdom? The choice will be ours.

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 86.

2. Ibid. 90.

3. Ibid., 100.

2 Responses to “Hell and “optimal grace””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t think I can agree with Walls. “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” I think the supposed “problem” Walls addresses lies with whether his hypothetical is valid. (Generally I have a policy that I don’t answer hypothetical questions, both because I have enough real ones to answer, and because the hypothetical may never appear, so why waste mental and moral energy on such things. However, I’ll waive that here.) How does Walls know that the lady who died would eventually have believed? God knows the day of our death, and we can assume he would not take someone from life unless he knew she would never believe or commit to Jesus as Lord.

    I think the actual moral concern is not about being “taken too soon,” but rather taken “with no chance ever to have heard the message.” This is more troubling and I am on shakier ground in my conviction as to the answer. However, I think there are two possibilities. First, David said of his son who died in infancy, “He shall not return to me, but I will go to him.” I don’t think it is reasonable for David to have simply been saying, “I am going to die too,” which would be totally “unprofound” and of no consolation. This is the support for the doctrine of “age of accountability.” It might be expanded in part to cover “someone who could not have the capacity to say yes or no,” such as extremely mentally handicapped people. This idea strikes me as reasonable.

    However, as to those who are capable of believing or not, one could possibly further expand the doctrine to include those who have never been confronted with the message so as to make the “choice” as a solution to the “problem.” But that poses significant problems. If it were true, we might have the incentive to NEVER evangelize, in the event we might end up damning someone who would otherwise be saved had we left things alone. The other possibility, which I am inclined to subscribe to, is what I heard the famous Baptist preacher and denominational leader Adrian Rodgers preach, which is that if one moves toward the light that one does see, God will provide further light, until that person reaches the point of having enough light to make the choice. This may seem implausible in the first instance, but I would note the example of the Ethiopian eunuch. God told Philip to go for a run in the desert, where he met this man who had come from Africa, and gotten a scroll of Isaiah, and Philip then led him to salvation. (People “in Africa” are usually the ones most frequently cited as “never having had the chance.”) Also, I have to go back to my view of God’s arranging history around bringing to those he foreknew would have the heart to believe the opportunity to believe. If there are actually people out there who “never had a chance to hear,” I think it is quite possible that God knew they had a heart that would never believe, come whatever chances there might be.

    • brentwhite Says:


      Keep in mind a couple of things: Walls, by his own admission, is engaging in philosophical theology. It is by nature a speculative endeavor, but its aim is apologetic: to provide possible answers to real philosophical objections to the Christian faith—in this case the objection raised by Bertrand Russell.

      Russell argued that, as a matter of simple logic, Christians should just murder babies to prevent them from going to hell for eternity. Something like that…

      We may not feel comfortable speculating, but we have to sometimes. Your words about the age of accountability and people who’ve never heard, as well as Adrian Rogers’s words, are speculative. It’s unavoidable because there’s so much the Bible doesn’t tell us. So that’s what Walls is doing: providing one possible answer to the objection. If we believe God gives everyone sufficient grace to make a decision, here’s one possible way it might work itself out. It may be before death, in the moment of death, or beyond. But it would be on this side of judgment.

      Regardless, we can know for sure that the Lord will be fair.

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