Is It Getting Hot In Here, Or Is It Just Me?
Jonathan Edward’s depiction of eternal misery is a grim one. The furnace of hell is hot, “the flames do now rage and glow”. God’s wrath is like a dam ready to burst forth with fiery floods of inconceivable fury, laying waste to the damned with omnipotent power. The suffering will be so severe that should these poor souls have a constitution 10,000 times hardier than that of a demon, it would still be nothing in the face of the terrible agony that is in store for them. Arguably the most haunting portion of Edward’s description is the following paragraph:
There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite .
Now add to this frightful picture by imagining a child dying in infancy being subjected to something like this. Surely even thinking about the stupendous moral idiocy of such a scenario is enough to make a person’s head spin. Despite what appear to be obvious logical and moral problems raised by this state of affairs, confessional Calvinism contends that infant damnation fundamentally makes sense. In light of that, consider the following argument against this view:
- If Confessional Calvinism is true, children dying in infancy deserve eternal conscious torment.
- Children dying in infancy do not deserve eternal conscious torment
- Therefore, Confessional Calvinism is not true
Let me clear up any confusion by describing how I am using some of these words and phrases. By Confessional Calvinism, I am referring to the position that affirms the teaching of the historic Reformed confessions and catechisms as being a faithful summary of the doctrine found within the biblical texts. For my purposes these documents include the WCF, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, LBCF, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort. A Confessional Calvinist is a person who affirms the teaching of these documents (minus the distinctives regarding baptism and church polity that conflict in some). If a person deserves something, they possess qualities worthy of reward or punishment . Finally, by eternal conscious torment I am referring to the view of hell that claims that the damned are caused to experience severe physical and mental suffering, in a state of full awareness, forever. With that out of the way, let’s turn to the argument.
If Confessional Calvinism Is True, Children Dying In Infancy Deserve Eternal Conscious Torment
I have already written a blog post that establishes the truth of this premise, so I am not going to rehash everything here. If you need convincing, click the following link to read for yourself:
What I will say is that the root of this issue is the Reformed doctrine of imputation. The guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all future posterity, not just a corrupt nature . Theologian Louis Berkhof explains how the reformed view of original sin involves two concepts: Original guilt and original pollution. Here is how he describes original guilt:
Any “Calvinist” who thinks original sin only relates to inherited pollution/corruption is either not confessional in their theology or doesn’t understand the documents in question. There would be no need for infants to be elect in the first place if they didn’t deserve eternal conscious torment because of inherited guilt .
Children Dying in Infancy Do Not Deserve Eternal Conscious Torment
To avoid rabbit trails regarding the nature of moral ontology, I am going to defend this premise in the context of moral epistemology. That is to say, what I am claiming is that If real moral knowledge is possible, then we can be extremely confident that this premise is true through moral perception/intuition. Put another way, I am suggesting that if our moral intuitions really are generally reliable and in contact with an objective standard, the statement “children dying in infancy do not deserve conscious eternal torment” is as close to a self-evident moral truth as we can possibly get. I take it for granted that most normally functioning adults can see that this premise would be obviously correct under such circumstances. If you fail to see this, or are not at least made deeply uncomfortable by the prospect of defending the rightness of the eternal torture of small children, perhaps you need some counseling!  In fact, I’m quite sure that any Christian who would attempt to dispute premise 2 would only do so because they feel absolutely compelled to by their theological system. After all, what an embarrassing position such a person has to take! Imagine the cognitive dissonance involved in being outraged by abortion because you believe it’s murder, but also being required to affirm that those same dead children deserve to wake up for the first time only to be greeted with millions and millions of unending ages of the omnipotent floodgates of the fierce wrath of God that is vastly disproportionate to their strength to bear it. How ridiculous. What about a Calvinist who tries to brush this off by claiming that it is fundamentally an appeal to emotion? This would strike me as an attempt to not take the argument seriously, especially given some of their other commitments.
Imagine that this Calvinist was sharing “the gospel” with an unbeliever named Bob. He paints a picture of Bob being guilty before God, and how gracious and loving Christ is towards those who repent. Now imagine that Bob says: “This is fundamentally an emotional appeal, so I don’t have to take what you are saying seriously.” This would obviously be wrong because what the Calvinist is trying to do (at least in his mind) is to be a means through which Bob experiences spiritual sight. This process will inevitably involve making moves that appeal to Bob’s emotions at some level, but it would be a mistake to conflate what he is attempting to do with an emotional appeal. In the same way, my attempt to paint a picture of aborted children in hell is a way for me to help facilitate an experience of moral sight in you, dear reader – an effort to help you see more clearly how diabolically insufferable such moral reasoning truly is. I can remember Christian theologian David Bentley Hart arguing that this kind of understanding of inherited guilt is about as coherent as a square circle. I agree, and I hope you will too. Unfortunately, I would imagine that there are Calvinists out there who might still want to claim that this is a subjective, emotional appeal. Very well. But just remember that if you insist on being uncharitable towards the non-sensory perceptions of others, don’t complain when people call your epistemology regarding the bible (as contained in WCF) an essentially subjective, emotional appeal – an ad hoc and unfalsifiable floating house of cards crafted for the sole purpose of holding on to that warm fuzzy feeling you get while reading an ancient collection of books. The thought of a person who knows the bible is true “in their heart” accusing someone else of subjective emotionalism is about as delicious an example of irony as I can possibly conceive of.
Concluding Thoughts: The Consequences Of Denying Our Most Basic Moral Intuitions
If premises 1 and 2 are accepted, the conclusion “Therefore, Confessional Calvinism is not true” follows logically. I defended premise 1 by unpacking Reformed theology, and premise 2 by arguing that it should be considered as close to a self-evident truth as one can get if morality is in fact objective. For Calvinists, I am hoping that the strength of this moral perception will at least cause them to question their interpretation of relevant passages, or lead them to reconsider their biblicist model of inspiration. If they can’t let go of their interpretation or approach to inspiration, then perhaps they will realize that premise 2 is more self-evidently true to them than the bible ever was in the first place. For those stubborn individuals who continue to deny the second premise, I would contend that the cost of doing so is higher than they realize. The suggestion that our fallen nature prevents us from being able to trust the strongest moral intuitions we have does not bode well. C.S. Lewis puts his finger on the problem with this:
You could say we are fallen and depraved. We are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing; or worse than nothing – the very fact that we think something is good is presumptive evidence that it is really bad. Now God has in fact – our worse fears are true – all the characteristics we regard as bad: unreasonableness, vanity, vindictiveness, injustice, cruelty. But all these blacks (as they seem to us) are really whites. It’s only our depravity that makes them look black to us. And so what? This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes, sponges God off the slate. The word good, applied to him, becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying him. Not even fear. It is true we have his threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from his point of view “good”, telling lies may be “good” too. Even if they are true, what then? If his ideas of good are so very different from ours, what he calls Heaven might well be what we should call Hell, and vice-versa. Finally, if reality at its root is so meaningless to us – or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles – what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? This knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight .
The sentence that I have put in bold is an important observation. If one can believe that the very thing that offends your moral sensibilities the most is “good” when it applies to God, then how can you possibly rule out the prospect of divine deception? Why couldn’t there be a morally sufficient reason for God to deceive you, after all you are so fallen and depraved that you could not possibly know what it would mean for God to be guilty of lying! If you can believe that God is the ultimate sufficient cause of the fall and every sin while remaining blameless, why couldn’t God “cause” the Bible to be filled with lies “without himself lying”? Talk about cutting off the branch you are sitting on! Denying that our most powerful moral intuitions are reliable lands you in a skeptical bog, and not even appealing to the bible as a foundation is enough to escape .
- Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, p. 401-411. The paragraph before the direct quote was also a paraphrase of many of Edward’s descriptions
- Definition taken from lexico.com
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 6
- Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine, p. 145
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 10
- Randal Rauser, Special Pleading or Therapy? The J. Warner Wallace Dilemma
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 31-32
- Going too deep into this topic is beyond the scope of this blog post. If you want to criticize the point being made, make sure to actually read up on the topic before doing so. See Erik Wielenberg, Sceptical Theism and Divine Lies. See also Dan Linford & Jennifer Benjamin, On Knowledge Without God: Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and Divine Deception