Monday, February 29, 2016

The threat of damnation

Consider the following word from Jesus:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7.21).

If we were to do a strict logical analysis of this verse, we'll find that it predicts the eventual damnation of some. After all, to say that not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will be saved implies that there are some who do say 'Lord, Lord,' and yet won't be saved. Consider the following analogous example: not every student will graduate. That seems to imply that there are some students who will not graduate!

Let's consider this from the point of view strict predicate logic:

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven.

We might formalize this as:

~ (x)(Fx -> Gx)

where Fx = x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord'; and Gx = x will enter the kingdom of heaven. This logical sentence says: it's not the case that for all x, if x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord,' x will enter the kingdom of heaven. And of course, that sentence also implies this:

∃x(Fx & ~Gx)

This says that there is at least one x such that x says to Jesus 'Lord, Lord,' and x will not enter the kingdom of heaven, i.e. x will be damned.

Taken from a strictly logical point of view, then, it would seem that Jesus' statement straightforwardly entails that some persons will be damned. But now consider the following question: can we take this entailment as establishing with dogmatic certainty that some persons will therefore be damned? In other words, can we therefore know that some persons will be damned?

No, I think not, because it seems to me that texts and statements such as these of Jesus' have a different rhetorical purpose than a mere statement of fact. In other words, Jesus is trying to do something with these words: specifically, he is trying to motivate people to true repentance and to obedience of his commandments, precisely so that they will not be damned and excluded from the kingdom of heaven.

Suppose only a handful of people exist, and Jesus is speaking to all of them about the future judgment. He tells them, Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. This statement, analyzed logically, implies that at least one of our handful of people will be lost. But imagine that everyone takes this warning to heart, and their words are backed up by true obedience; they live in true faithfulness, and none of them are lost -- they are all saved in the end.

Is such a scenario possible? Would Jesus' words have been nullified? Did he turn out to be a liar? It seems to me such a scenario is eminently possible, that Jesus' words would not have been nullified, and that he clearly would not have been a liar. The point of his making that statement in the first place was to motivate obedience, not to provide an infallible prediction of the final state of some persons or other. His words, their explicit logical form notwithstanding, are primarily and essentially an exhortation and a warning, not a historical prediction. It may be precisely because Christ spoke in that way that no one turned out to be lost; if he had not made the threat, it may be that some persons would have limited themselves to words and not to true deeds, and thus would have secured their own damnation.

This is my general point about the biblical texts which threaten damnation and seem to predict it for at least some persons: these texts, taken by themselves, do not provide any dogmatic certainty about the eventual damnation of some. Why is that? Because they are evidently (at least to me) aimed at motivating repentance; their purpose is precisely to move people away from damnation and to salvation through a threat. We do this all the time. I tell a person who is baiting an angry dog: "You're going to get hurt." Strictly speaking, my statement is a prediction about a future state of affairs; and yet that's clearly not what I'm trying to do when speaking those words -- rather, I am trying to prevent that state of affairs from obtaining precisely by telling you that you are headed towards it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the same thing in its discussion of the New Testament's clear warnings about the existence and eternity of hell:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion (CCC §1036).

This is the point of the hell texts in the New Testament: warning people about the reality and possibility of damnation precisely so that it is avoided through repentance and true faith. Their logical form is not always a true indication of their proper interpretation, and it is universally accepted that we often do more with our words than merely make logical subject-predicate affirmations about real things in the world.

2 comments:

anonymous said...

I agree that we shouldn't construe these statements according to their strictly logical senses. I think it is quite plausible that such assertions are used for rhetorical purposes. However, it seems to me that when we make such assertions in certain contexts, we have a background belief the content of which makes a historical prediction. Imagine a principal of a school announces to all of his pupils, "Not everyone who shows up for the exam will get a good grade, but only the students who study really hard." (Let's suppose that studying really hard is a sufficient condition for getting a good grade in this case.) The principal's statement is definitely motivational in the sense that it exhorts his pupils to study diligently. However, it would be odd to think that the principal didn't have an additional belief that it is very probable *some* students will not study well. Moreover, it seems that, *because* he has the belief that some students will not study well, he is compelled to make the former motivational statement.

Perhaps the same applies to Jesus's statement, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' ..." This statement by itself should be construed according to its rhetorical purpose, as you say. But, as I tried to argue, it would seem odd that Jesus wouldn't have some background belief that it is probable that some persons will not do the will of the Father, which leads him to make the motivational statement. If Jesus has this background belief, then that would seem to support the conclusion that Jesus isn't a universalist (of a certain kind) because he believes that it is likely that some will not do the will of the Father.

Now, maybe you will object and think that all that is necessary is that Jesus have the background belief that it is *possible* that some will not do the will of the Father. But consider the case of the teacher. It doesn't seem that a belief in the mere possibility that some students will not study well is what would compel him to make a motivational statement to the student population. It seems more plausible that he believes that there is a good likelihood that some students will not study well, especially if he is experienced and well-informed about the students' habits. Similarly, it seems to me that Jesus, someone presumably informed about the habits of human beings and facts about the future, holds a belief the content of which is stronger than a mere possibility that some will not do the will of the Father.

Steven Nemeș said...

Jesus' background belief just need be that some will not do the will of Father unless he mentions this possibility, even precisely as he has phrased it here. Likewise the principal mentions that only those who study will get a good grade, because he believes that unless he mentions it, some number of them will not study and not get a good grade. If he simply had the background belief that some would not study, that by itself is insufficient to motivate him to make any statement about it; the statement by itself speaks to his desire to motivate those students who he knows might not otherwise study. Likewise Jesus mentions that mere talk is insufficient for salvation precisely for the sake of those who might otherwise not exhibit sufficient faithfulness. Whether they will be faithful or not is clearly up to them, but the fact that Jesus bothers to mention it at all, rather than merely allowing them to be damned without any warning, speaks to his intention to get them to be faithful in deeds and not only words.