Daniel Sinclair has shared what he learned at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference. Since I was not there myself, I read his comments with interest, but I was surprised when my name showed up in his second point. I think that the ideas cited from Walls definitely merit some consideration, and I offer this as a contribution to the discussion of this very important matter.
Jerry Walls’s perspective on my model of salvation
Sinclair’s second point was as follows:
2. The Doctrine of Optimal Grace is important
Traditionalist philosopher Jerry Walls’ lecture on optimal grace really planted a seed in my mind. Do we think of God as offering just enough grace to absolve Himself of guilt in sending some to hell, or should we not rather consider that God offers every chance He can to each person before allowing them to solidify their choice for condemnation? Of particular power was his quote from Conditionalist Terrance Tiessen:
God’s saving grace is universally sufficient so that, on at least one occasion in each person’s life, one is enabled to respond to God’s self-revelation with a faith response that is acceptable to God as a means of justification….
I suggest we maintain the term sufficient because there is an important sense in which this grace is, indeed, sufficient, even though it does not suffice for salvation. Its sufficiency lies particularly in its being enough to justify condemnation. (Who Can Be Saved?, 230, 242)
Dr. Walls pointed out that this ‘minimal grace’ model seems like a poor reflection on the mercy and love of God, and argued strongly for an ‘optimal grace,’ where God gives each person a maximal amount of grace and chances to repent – in fact, he goes so far as to propose post-mortem repentance as an addition to his otherwise traditional view of hell (eternal conscious suffering).
Now, I’m not sure Dr. Tiessen was arguing for a minimal grace, but rather he may have been arguing that all are without excuse, and God does not need to offer any more than minimal grace in order to be just in condemning them. A Calvinist might further argue that God is perfectly just in condemning ALL sinners to hell, and is not in the least unjust in saving a few.
Dr. Walls has adopted post-mortem repentance (neither explicitly supplied nor prohibited by scripture) as a solution to the problem of the unevangelized. Myself, I have suggested an alternate, albeit less direct solution, in God’s use of generational justice, arguing thus:
My claim is this – modern nations who are largely without a gospel witness are not so because their ancestors never heard the gospel – most DO have early first and second century witnesses that they murdered or rejected, and in doing so, they brought God’s just judgment upon themselves AND their descendants.
And so God is just in condemning the Unreached, based not only on their own sins, but on the sins of their forefathers. In the proxy of their own leaders, they DID receive the mercy of the opportunity to hear the gospel, but, just as all sinned in Adam, these sinned in their ancestors, who rejected God’s mercy for themselves and their descendants. (“The Unreached: Can God justly punish those who have never heard?”)
But even if God is just in condemning all, the question still remains, to what extent does his desire to save the lost play out for the unevangelized, and does God provide more than a stingy, minimal grace in His desire to save all? While we may not conclude, as Dr. Walls has, that God is obligated to extend our chances to repent into eternity (something NOT available in Conditional Immortality, since the lost are destroyed at judgment), we may need to respond to the challenge of optimal grace within the Conditionalist framework.
My response to Walls
Daniel Sinclair has suggested that we should “respond to the challenge of optimal grace within the conditionalist framework.” Since my model of salvation was brought up in Walls’s proposal of an optimally gracious model, I am offering this response to Jerry Walls’s criticism that my model of salvation is a “minimal grace” model, and to his claim that his model is preferable because it attributes to God “optimal grace.” I am a conditionalist, but I don’t think that one’s understanding of the nature of hell is intrinsically tied to a model of salvation. So I will speak in terms of my own model of salvation, but what I say will not be distinctively conditionalist in its perspective.
All evangelical theologians believe that the model of salvation they have concluded from study of Scripture is an “optimal grace” model
It saddens me that my understanding of God’s saving work is perceived by anyone as minimizing God’s grace, but perhaps it is not really surprising. For starters, I am a monergist (of the Calvinist type), so I believe that God unconditionally chose from among the multitude of fallen humans of all time those whom he would efficaciously save. I am well aware that this is scandalous to the ears of synergists like Walls. Roger Olson has even stated that he has difficulty differentiating the God of Calvinist soteriology from the devil, because a God who maintains the meticulous control which Calvinists believe he does must be responsible for all the evils that occur in the world by his ordination. This is an extremely important complaint, and I have written about it often, both in private correspondence with Arminians, and in my books or blog posts. I feel its force. Indeed, I commented to Clark Pinnock after I had read The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, a helpful book that he had edited, that I had hoped when I started into the book that I would be convinced.
In our post-enlightenment culture, most people intuitively understand “freedom” to be libertarian (entailing the power of contrary choice), and so any form of compatibilism, which understands human freedom in a way that is compatible with meticulous divine sovereignty, is a very hard sell. I once heard a Calvinist theologian assert that everyone is born an “Arminian,” and I think he is right, at least in the west. Prior to my conversion to Calvinism, which was rather a revolution in my thinking, I too had been unable to conceive of being free if God controlled the world so completely that absolutely everything that occurs in history was part of the will of God’s eternal purpose. But I came to believe that this is what Scripture teaches, and I have come to enjoy the wonderful peace that follows when we truly believe that God is in control, bringing about his good purpose even through the great suffering which occurs in the lives of so many people, including particularly God’s own people, whom he has warned to expect this (2 Tim 3:12).
I commend Jerry Walls for having described as “optimal grace” his recommended alternative to what he perceives as the “minimal grace” of monergist soteriologies like mine. It would be problematic if he had suggested that we should strive to enunciate a model of “maximal grace.” When I read Sinclair’s comments, the first question that jumped into my mind was: “by what calculus could we assess the relative measure of grace in different models of theology?” These comments were made in a conference whose focus was on the doctrine of hell, with particular attention to the proposals of annihilationism and universalism. I think that “maximal grace” would connote to most people something like this: “a situation in which God gives the greatest amount of undeserved goodness to the greatest number of people.” With that definition, universalism appears the best option, particularly if one believes in unconditional election, which is the only way I can see that dogmatic universalism would be feasible, though hopeful universalism is certainly a coherent option for synergists.
It seems very clear to me that all evangelical theologians believe that God is optimally gracious in his distribution of saving grace. Synergists (like Walls) characteristically believe that God has limited his own ability to have everything turn out as he wishes in every detail, because he wants moral creatures to be libertarianly free. Optimal grace, from that perspective, means that God does all that he can to save everyone. Christ died for them all and the Holy Spirit preveniently enables them all with enabling grace. Whether or not they appropriate grace is a choice God gave to human beings because of the inestimable value of libertarian freedom. Those who believe, as Walls does, that the opportunity to respond to God in saving faith continues in the next life may assert that their concept of God’s saving grace is optimal, by comparison with the model of traditional Arminianism in which the opportunity to believe and be saved is given only in this life. Understandably, Walls thinks that people minimize God’s grace when they posit that temporal limit on the possibility of saving faith.
By comparison with traditional Arminianism, however, Calvinism obviously looks to Walls (and other synergists) like a major minimizing of God’s grace. To propose that God could have saved everyone, but chose not to, appears scandalous and puts God in an ungracious light. At an emotional level, I can sympathize with that sentiment, which is why I have earnestly tried to achieve a synergistic soteriology. At this point, however, despite my willingness, the big picture I am getting consistently from Scripture is monergistic.
In the Bible, I meet a God who is meticulously sovereign, who has ordained all that occurs in the history of creation and has done so for perfectly good purposes. I am unable to explain why it is that God has not deemed it optimal to save everyone, but Scripture clearly attests to me that such is the case. This does not mean, however, that God’s saving plan is not a program of optimal grace. Clearly, God has decided that he is optimally glorified by the salvation of “a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” These will stand “before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,” and they will cry out “with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10). When that happens, all the angels standing around God’s throne will worship God, “saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen’” (Rev. 7:12). But, that celebration of God’s optimal grace is not mitigated by the fact that everyone will be judged by God “according to what they had done,” and those whose “name was not found written in the book of life” will be “thrown into the lake of fire,” which is “the second death” (Rev 20:12-15).
Since monergists can not use the “free will” appeal to account for God’s not saving everyone in the end, we characteristically appeal to the principle of “greater good.” God maximally reveals both his justice and grace, without inner conflict, by not giving efficacious grace to everyone but by manifesting his justice in leaving some people to pay the penalty for their willful spurning of God’s grace, which everyone has experienced in many ways during their lives on earth. In Scripture, the closest I think we get to a description of what makes optimal God’s not unconditionally electing everyone to salvation is probably found in Romans 9. Paul talks about “God’s purpose of election” which is established, “not by works but by his call” (9:11-12 NRSV). God chose Jacob and not Esau to be the one through whose line he would carry on the covenant relationship he had established with Abraham for the blessing of the nations through the covenant people. Paul acknowledges that this apparently arbitrary choice might appear to us to be unjust. But God had told Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (9:15, citing Ex 33:19). I concur with many Arminians that this particular election was primarily to service not salvation, but the principle at work here is true of all God’s gracious acts of election. These depend “not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (9:16). Accordingly, God had raised up Pharaoh, not because of any merit or fault in Pharaoh himself, but “for the very purpose of showing [God’s] power in [him] so that [God’s] name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” The principle at work here is that God “has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (9:18).
In Paul’s day, just as in ours, this causes puzzlement and perhaps even outrage. Paul anticipates that the readers of his letter (including us) will naturally wonder: “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (9:19). To that question, Paul first reminds us who we are, human beings, without any right to “argue with God,” asking him: “why have you made me like this?” (9:20). And then Paul hypothesizes why God’s unconditional election to salvation of some, leaving others to their justly deserved condemnation, is optimal:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of is glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (9:22-24)
This is a good time to mention that I think synergists over-estimate what God could bring about if he were meticulously sovereign. Here I have been significantly helped by John Feinberg’s “integrity of humans defense” regarding evil (No One Like Him, 787-95), and this applies to the ultimate evil, the persistent rejection of God’s gracious overtures which leads to eternal punishment. Feinberg demonstrates that the compatibilist freedom which God has given moral creatures offers more constraints than libertarians (and probably many compatibilists too!) generally realize. He asserts that there is
“reason to believe it may be harder for God to get us to do right than we think. . . . It might turn out that God would have to constrain many people to do things he needed done in order to organize circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will for many of us, and would do so more frequently than we might imagine. Moreover, one begins to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all of this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not at the outset just make a different creature who couldn’t do evil? But of course, that would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumans or superhumans” (790).
Feinberg walks us through eight ways in which God might have gotten rid of evil, and he excellently demonstrates why “none of them would be acceptable” (790-94). He then concludes:
This discussion about what God would have to do to remove moral evil shows that God cannot remove it without contradicting his desires to make the kind of creature and world he has made (causing us to doubt the accuracy of ascribing to him attributes such as wisdom) or making a world we wouldn’t want and would consider more evil than our present world (794).
This is something that we must factor into our assessment of God’s grace in saving sinners, furthering our understanding of how it is that the human history that God has chosen, including his work of salvation, is optimal. (This “integrity of humans defense” is a plank in “my compatibilist proposal,” which is a response to the criticisms of incompatibilists.)
So, I propose that models of salvation can not be compared in a way which allows us to say that one of them is a model of “optimal grace” and that all the others minimize God’s grace to varying extents which make grace less than optimal. Every coherent soteriology offers a construct in which God’s grace and his justice, his treatment of his creatures and his magnification of his own greatness and goodness, are optimally achieved. But we have very different understandings of the composition of that optimal state.
The expectation of what proportion of the human race will be saved need be no less hopeful in monergism than in synergism
I suspect that Walls and many of his fellow synergists assume that Calvinism’s doctrine of conditional election results in a smaller number being saved than is true in synergist accounts. With respect to the relative number of those who will eventually be saved, however, I think it probable that most of the human race will be saved and I am not alone within the Calvinist community in this hopefulness, even on the part of gospel exclusivists. I’ll mention briefly a few features of my model of salvation which indicate that God is more generous in his grace than many people, particularly fellow monergists, believe he is.
Loraine Boettner included in his “summary of the Reformed doctrine of election” the optimistic statement that “much the larger portion of the human race has been elected to life.” I think it likely that his hopefulness rested on the next point he makes, the conviction that “all of those dying in infancy are among the elect” (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 149). Similarly, Charles Spurgeon explained Scripture’s portrayal of the number of the saved at the end as so great in this way: “I do not see how it is possible that so vast a number should enter heaven, unless it be on the supposition that infant souls constitute the great majority” (“Infant Salvation [Sermon 411], Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, Volume 7). Unlike many of my fellow Calvinists, I do not believe that Scripture explicitly teaches either that all who die in infancy are saved (an idea that is implicit in the common Calvinistic Baptist doctrine of the “age of accountability,” although technically the infants don’t then need saving), or that infants who die as children of believers are elect. But, given God’s great graciousness, I do think it most likely that most and perhaps even all infants are graciously enabled to believe prenatally, I just can’t say that this is certainly true of any particular baby. Since most of the human race dies before birth (assuming that human life begins at conception) or in infancy, this makes extremely large the proportion of the race who are elect to salvation.
B. B. Warfield offers fine exegesis of the Gospel texts which have classically supported what Warfield calls the “dogma of the fewness of the saved” (Matt. 7:14; Lk 13:23-24; Matt. 22:14), and he concludes (rightly, I think) that the point Jesus makes is “that the way of life is hard and it is our first duty to address ourselves with vigor to walking firmly in it.” But the proportional statement was not an assertion “that in the ultimate distribution of the awards of human life, few are to be found among the saved, many among the lost” (“Are They Few That Be Saved?” Biblical and Theological Studies, 343). Warfield’s optimism concerning the proportion of the elect rested primarily on his postmillennial eschatology, which included the belief that Christ’s return would be preceded by an extended period of time when most of the people of the earth would be brought into the kingdom of God through the preaching of the gospel. I am not a postmillennialist but, as an historic premillennialist, I share with Warfield this basic reason for optimism about the number of the elect.
To these two reasons which, taken together, provide ground for great optimism about the final numbers of the elect, I add my accessibilist belief that God saves some of the unevangelized. That deserves a separate point in my response to Walls’s charge that I have minimized grace.
The accessibilist model of salvation is the monergist model in which God’s optimal plan is maximally gracious
I expect that other monergists will substantially agree with my point about God’s grace being optimal in their models of salvation. But I have come to believe that the gospel exclusivism put forward by Calvin, which is most commonly affirmed amongst soteriological Calvinists, is a model that minimizes God’s saving grace in a way not warranted by Scripture. The accessibilist course taken by Ulrich Zwingli is a more biblical direction than the one taken by Calvin, but Zwingli’s approach is shared by a minority of Reformed theologians.
What I am speaking about is often called an “inclusivist” model, but I think that “accessibilism” is a more descriptive term for it. Accessibilism, as I teach it, posits that God provides every human being in all times and places with the means necessary, on at least one occasion in their lives, for them to respond to God’s gracious self-revelation with saving faith. When I laid out my understanding in Who Can Be Saved?, I argued for the particular atonement which is affirmed by many proponents of “5 point Calvinist” of the TULIP variety. Since that time, however, I have come to believe in what might be generally categorized as “hypothetical universalism.” Whereas I had argued that God has one intention in sending the Son to die for sinners, to redeem the elect, I have come to believe that God had more than one intention. Certainly, God purposed to redeem the elect, but the Synod of Dort was very deliberate in affirming that Christ’s atoning work was sufficient for all, even though it was efficient only for the elect. We know that some delegates to that Synod (such as John Davenant) affirmed hypothetical universalism. I have therefore argued that I continue to be a 5 point Calvinist. In fact, I think that a multiple intention understanding makes better sense of the sufficient/efficient formula than a single intent one does. This understanding actually provides better grounding for the universal sufficiency of God’s grace for which I argued in Who Can Be Saved?. It brings into better harmony the work of all members of the Trinity.
I have sought to enunciate a monergist soteriology which makes best sense of God’s penchant for grace in his dealing with sinners, being “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (cf. Neh 9:31; Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13). This is why I smarted a little when I first read Jerry Walls’ description of my soteriology as propounding “minimal grace.” As I have stated above, I understand how his own Arminianism leads him to this assessment but, within Calvinism, I can think of no model of salvation which maximizes God’s graciousness better than accessibilism. Within synergism, I think that some form of accessibilism is the only coherent position. Gospel exclusivism simply doesn’t fit with a model in which God desires everyone to be saved and is doing his utmost to bring it about, including the Spirit’s universal prevenient grace and the gift of libertarian freedom so that nothing prevents any human being from believing except a decision of their own free will.
(See my “Typology of Positions Concerning the Salvation of the Unevangelized,” which identifies 6 kinds of accessibilism. Jerry Walls exemplifies the first of those types, “postmortem evangelism accessibilism.” Also in that category are Gabriel Fackre and Donald Bloesch, but they posit the postmortem opportunity of saving faith only for those who did not hear the gospel during their lifetime, whereas Walls allows for second and, I presume, endless “chances,” so that it is never too late to believe, even for the occupants of hell.)
I think that agnosticism about the salvation of the unevangelized is quite legitimate. There are no texts in Scripture that explicitly state that God saves some of the unevangelized, but there are also no texts that state that God never saves any of the unevangelized. In my perception, Calvinistic gospel exclusivists work from an assumption that people are reprobate unless Scripture specifically states that they are elect. So they can not be convinced of the salvation of the unevangelized unless Scripture positively states, in principle, that this happens, and it does not do that. Calvinistic accessibilists, on the other hand, assume that God has chosen everyone to salvation, except those whom Scripture specifically states are lost. To convince an accessibilist that only the evangelized can be saved one would have to point to texts that explicitly say so. There are no such texts. So, unless we settle for agnosticism, we are left to study the narratives of Scripture and its statements about salvation and to reach a conclusion that coheres with the explicit doctrinal statements.
In essence, gospel exclusivists posit that one must have the latest covenantal revelation, in order to exercise the faith by which God saves people on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. But I see, rather, that in every stage of God’s covenantal work, he holds people accountable only for the revelation that he gives them, and the faith that he requires is appropriate to the revelation he provides. (See my paper on “The Salvation of the Unevangelized in the Light of God’s Covenants.”)
The sufficiency of universal revelation for just condemnation
I need to make one other comment about the statement Walls quoted from my book, in which I posited that the sufficiency of God’s universally sufficient grace “lies particularly in its being enough to justify condemnation.” With my new perspective on God’s intention in the atonement, I see its sufficiency more broadly than I did at the time I wrote the book, but I still believe that God’s universally sufficient grace is important to the vindication of his justice in condemning persistent unbelievers. But even in my book I differentiated my understanding of Romans 1 from that of gospel exclusivism. Calvinists have traditionally argued that what Romans 1 teaches us is that God has given everyone sufficient revelation to justify their condemnation, and I agree. But they hear Paul saying that those who receive only God’s universal revelation in creation are all condemned for unbelief, and I do not read this in that text. Paul states that God’s wrath is revealed against all “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). Although God made known plainly his eternal power and divine nature in his creative work, those against whom God is angry “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened,“ and they became idolaters (1:21-23).
Note carefully what Paul says, that God is angry at such people. What Paul does not say, however, is that everyone to whom God reveals himself in his creation does suppress the truth in righteousness. In fact, millions of believers throughout the ages, including many who are now in the world, look at creation and they worship God as Creator, honoring him and giving him thanks. Many of us come to that acknowledgment of God as Creator only after we have been graciously led to know Jesus as our Savior. But we have examples of people who did not have the latest covenant revelation (the new covenant, in our period of history) but who did come to see the futility of their idol worship and to worship the God who created them. That came about because of a gracious work of God’s Spirit, but it came to them before they heard the gospel, though we know of their stories only because they were later reached by an evangelist. What Paul does, in Rom 1:21, is specify the content of faith which God requires of those to whom he gives creational revelation, namely, everyone. He summons them to honor him as God and to give him thanks. In principle, I believe that Romans 1 teaches us what saving faith looks like in the context of nothing but universal revelation. So, although Paul clearly states that God’s self-revelation in creation is sufficient to ground the just judgment of those who suppress it, Paul does not state that absolutely no one, by God’s gracious illumination, is ever led to respond to that most basic revelation with appropriate faith.
There are people whose experience of revelation places them in a position where they live under the Adamic/Noahic covenant, but they are still able to be saved by grace, through faith, because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. Having said that, I doubt that many, if any people exist who have no more than creational revelation. In many unevangelized communities God gives particular revelation, and among many of those people groups the tradition of primal revelation has been passed down through the generations, though distorted in the process.
The importance of considering God’s hypothetical knowledge in our assessment of his justice relative to the wicked
God’s “hypothetical knowledge,” that is, his knowing counter-factuals of human freedom, is an important part of my compatibilist explanation of God’s justice in condemning unbelievers and also of my Calvinist model of salvation. (I called this “middle knowledge” in Providence and Prayer, but I now believe it is part of God’s natural/necessary knowledge). I accept the grounding objection to Molinism—even God could not predict what libertarianly free creatures would do in situations in which they never make a decision. It is only because creatures are not libertarianly free, but are soft-deterministically free, that God is able to know what a particular possible person would do in every possible set of circumstances, that is, in every possible world. Scripture makes it clear that God does know counterfactuals concerning the actions free creatures would take in hypothetical circumstances, so he has obviously not given them libertarian freedom. God is therefore able to actualize a world whose total history is of God’s choosing, but in which a large part of that history comes about through the voluntary decisions of moral creatures, with minimal divine “intervention” and maximal human freedom. This is what makes it possible for God to achieve his purposes without coercing moral creatures or depriving them of genuine agency.
Alvin Plantinga, from the Molinist perspective, has helpfully suggested the possibility of “trans-world depravity.” There may have been no world in which God could have achieved all the goods he desired without the occurrence of evil. Well known evangelical Molinist, William Lane Craig, is a gospel exclusivist who has posited that God’s saving grace is optimal, even though the unevangelized can not be saved, because God chose the world in which the optimal number of people are saved through the hearing of the gospel. There is no one in this world who is not saved during their life, but who would have been saved if they had received the gospel. Other Molinists, however, have offered an accessibilist model, in which God saves the unevangelized if he knows that they would have believed in Jesus if they had heard the gospel. This would be an attractive option if Molinism were coherent, but it is not an option available to monergists because of the impossibility of faith apart from the efficacious call which God gives to the elect. For reasons I have stated above, I am not saying that mine is the only monergist model in which God’s saving grace is optimal, but I believe that the hypothetical knowledge Calvinism which I hold is the monergist model in which God’s saving grace is most maximized.