Reasons, Rationality, and Universalism


What reasons does God have for damning people? If God damns them in one world, why not in every other world? Does God arbitrarily choose whether a person is damned? If so, how is God perfectly rational? God is perfectly rational if and only if God always acts for a reason.

I argue that if God arbitrarily selects persons to be damned, then no one can enjoy eternal bliss.

The Problem

Let the reasons for and against punishing a person P be RR either is or is not sufficient reason for P’s damnation. If R is sufficient reason for P’s damnation, then R is sufficient reason for P’s damnation in any world in which it holds. Now, there is a world W in which R holds and God damns P, and there is a world W* in which R holds and God does not damn P.

Question: If God has total reasons R and damns P in W and God has total reasons R and saves P in W*, then we can ask “Why? Why does God choose damnation in W and salvation in W*?”

The thought behind the question seems to be that we have exhausted the role of reason in God’s deliberation in each case. No other reasons figure in the deliberation, no other reasons affect the way the reasons are assessed. So does God arbitrarily select any person to be damned? If so, then it seems we have an argument for universalism.

The Argument

Plausibly, it is not possible for any person P to enjoy eternal bliss unless P knows that no one is arbitrarily suffering eternal damnation. However, if God arbitrarily selects any P to be damned, then, per the condition for enjoying eternal bliss, no one could enjoy eternal bliss. However, God enjoys eternal bliss. Therefore, no P is arbitrarily selected to be damned.

  1. For any person, P, it is not possible that P enjoys eternal bliss unless P knows that no one is arbitrarily suffering eternal damnation
  2. God arbitrarily selects any person, P, to be damned
  3. If God arbitrarily selects any person, P, to be damned, then no P can enjoy eternal bliss
  4. But God enjoys eternal bliss
  5. Therefore, God does not arbitrarily select any P to be damned

Potential Answer: Deny the second premise. God does not need a sufficient reason in the sense of a necessitating reason in order for there to be a reason for damning someone. All God needs is that there be a proportionate reason which would be sufficient to explain and justify the damnation. It is possible that God has incommensurable reasons, R1 in favor of damnation and R2 in favor of mercy, and He reasonably damns P in some worlds out of R1 despite R2 and reasonably shows mercy to P in other worlds out of R2 despite R1. As long as R1 is proportionate to the badness involved in damnation and to R2, it will be permissible for God to act on R1.

Following Aquinas, Randolph Clarke, and Robert Kane, we should not talk of “total reasons”; rather, the reasons that do the explaining of the choice are the reasons that favor the choice. So, instead, we say: “x did A for R despite S“. We do not say: “x did A because of R&S.” Now, you might ask, “why was x moved by the force of R rather than by the force of S? The answer: because of the force of R, and despite the force of S.

Response: But, in the case described earlier, R is identical to S. So suppose you have to make a decision on whether to condemn P. You have some on balance reasons, R (which are identical to S) regarding what to do. In one world W you are moved to condemn and in another W* you are moved not to do so. There are no other additional reasons in W* that serve to explain why you did not condemn P there. This ‘explanation’ makes it (or seems to make it) a brute fact that God responds one way rather than another. God just happens to act despite R in one world and in conformity with R in another. But that is just to describe the problem. And one man’s brutality is another man’s arbitrariness.

Rejoinder: If this is arbitrariness, then so be it. However, the normative situation mirrors others we have to accept if we are to be good theists. For example, God’s choice to create rather than not is a rational permissive case, and that is fine because there are plenty of explanations for how this sort of normative bruteness can come about, all while giving rational explanations for an agent’s actions, e.g. parity, ties, vagueness, indeterminacy, etc.

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