“Refuting the (Astrophysicist) Critics” Series Links
This article is the fourth in a series of articles addressing the case for traditionalism offered by the young-earth-creationist and astrophysicist Jason Lisle. To access other published articles in this series, use the following links:
Previously in this series, I’ve lamented and corrected astrophysicist Jason Lisle’s armchair psychoanalysis of annihilationists, and his mischaracterizations of what we believe; now I turn my attention to the arguments he makes for traditionalism, beginning with his philosophical ones. Laudably, Lisle does his philosophy in service to his theology; as the handmaiden to theology, philosophy can help us make sense of what we think Scripture teaches and integrate it into a larger worldview. In service, however, to mistaken theology, philosophy can compound erroneous thinking—as does Lisle’s in defense of eternal torment.
Lisle’s philosophical blunders begin with his Anselmian calculus—that is, his adaptation of the argument Saint Anselm made around the year 1100.1Anselm argues in Cur Deus Homo that only the God-man can satisfy the debt human beings owe to God, because the satisfaction of that debt requires a payment that is greater than everything God already owns. “Since unbelievers have committed high treason against the infinitely holy God, their right punishment must also be infinite.”2Jason Lisle, “The Good News About Hell,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], February 14, 2020, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/the-good-news-about-hell/. Now, if this reasoning were sound, annihilation qualifies as the “right punishment.” Even the traditionalist Jonathan Edwards acknowledged as much:
if it be owned, that Scripture expressions denote a punishment that is properly eternal, but that it is in no other sense properly so, than as the annihilation, or state of non-existence, to which the wicked shall return, will be eternal . . . it answers the Scripture expressions as well . . . provided the annihilation be everlasting.3Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards in Ten Volumes, vol. 7 (G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), 401. See also Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns,” Rethinking Hell [blog], June 19, 2012, https://rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/19/eternal-punishment-and-the-polysemy-of-deverbal-nouns/; and Glenn Peoples, “Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism,” Right Reason [blog], August 2, 2008, http://www.rightreason.org/2008/jonathan-edwards-comes-to-the-aid-of-annihilationism/.
Of course, we conditionalists believe it is the penalty of death that will last forever, as I explained in the previous article in this series, but Edwards’ reasoning nevertheless applies. Since the punitive lifelessness inflicted upon the resurrected lost will endure for eternity, it is properly everlasting and therefore infinite, and would qualify as the infinite penalty to which Lisle’s argument concludes. However, his argument is exceedingly questionable.
Plausibly, holiness is not the kind of attribute that can be infinite. It may be like roundness, and the most perfect of circles is perfectly round, but it would be unintelligible to speak of infinite roundness. Likewise, then, perhaps it is more accurate to say God is perfectly holy, rather than infinitely so. And the conclusion that sin against God merits an infinite punishment does not logically follow from God’s perfect holiness.
Moreover, Lisle’s calculus is a double-edged sword. To the extent that a victim’s status determines the severity with which a criminal ought to be punished, it is to that same extent that the maturity, acuity, and sanity of the criminal ought to do so. Just as a grown man is punished more harshly for assaulting a government official than for striking a dog, so assaulting a government official is punished more severely when the perpetrator is a grown man than when he is a young child, someone who is cognitively disabled, or someone who is insane. And human beings are immeasurably less intelligent, wise, and lucid than God, so the hypothetical argument that God should punish them very little would be no less reasonable than Lisle’s argument that they should be punished infinitely. The fact that the same argument can reason to mutually exclusive conclusions casts doubt on its soundness.
The shortcomings of Lisle’s philosophy continue with his treatment of freedom. He claims that hell, understood as eternal torment, “is good news because it shows that God respects human freedom,” in that he “allows [those who hate him] to reap the consequences of their actions.”4Lisle, “The Good News About Hell.” But this is true in annihilationism, too, with the consequences of sin consisting of death, rather than endless life in torment. Lisle adds that “since God is not a cosmic rapist, He will not force His love on those who hate Him,” and that “hell is simply God giving people exactly what they want: existence apart from Him.”5Ibid. Yet, Lisle’s belief implies that if the immortally embodied wicked in hell wanted to die and cease to be—if they were to plead with God to be annihilated, thinking it preferable to eternal torment—God would reject their plea and “force [continued conscious existence] on those who hate Him.” It seems, then, that Lisle’s reasoning here does him no service.
One further example of flawed reasoning on Lisle’s part is found in his philosophy of punishment. “Punishment by definition,” he writes, “involves suffering or pain; it is an imposed unpleasantness that serves as retribution.”6Jason Lisle, “Denying Eternity,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], January 2, 2023, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/denying-eternity/. But this is simply untrue. Privative punishments—those which deprive the offender of something desirable and once possessed—are not inflicted under the assumption that the criminal will suffer pain or anything unpleasant at all. A billionaire fined a mere $100 for speeding, for example, is thereby punished, even though the privation of that money likely won’t cause him any distress. Likewise, governments all around the world inflict the death penalty without assuming capital offenders will suffer after their deaths; indeed, governments often provide such offenders with chaplain services that may include a last opportunity to repent and be spared punitive consequences in the afterlife. Capital punishment therefore does not consist of “an imposed unpleasantness”; it consists of the privation of life once possessed. Lisle may be right in saying, “Those who do not exist cannot experience suffering, pain, or unpleasantness, and therefore cannot be punished.”7Ibid. However, a living and conscious person can be punished with the loss and everlasting privation of one’s life, even if one will no longer experience anything after it is taken. Once again, Lisle’s philosophy is fatally flawed.
There are challenging philosophical arguments in favor of each of three Christian views of hell, to be sure; those Lisle offers in defense of eternal torment, however, are not among them. Annihilation qualifies as an infinite penalty if one is required of someone who sins against an infinitely holy God, but the premises in Lisle’s Anselmian argument are dubious at best. Threatening impenitent sinners with eternal torment, and then carrying out that penalty, honors human freedom no more than threatening them with capital punishment, and then putting them to death. And punishment does not definitionally involve suffering, pain, or unpleasantness; it can instead deprive someone of something previously possessed, whether its privation produces pain or not. Lisle practices science with the best of them, but when he steps outside of his wheelhouse to engage in philosophy, his reasoning leaves much to be desired.
|￪1||Anselm argues in Cur Deus Homo that only the God-man can satisfy the debt human beings owe to God, because the satisfaction of that debt requires a payment that is greater than everything God already owns.|
|￪2||Jason Lisle, “The Good News About Hell,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], February 14, 2020, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/the-good-news-about-hell/.|
|￪3||Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards in Ten Volumes, vol. 7 (G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), 401. See also Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns,” Rethinking Hell [blog], June 19, 2012, https://rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/19/eternal-punishment-and-the-polysemy-of-deverbal-nouns/; and Glenn Peoples, “Jonathan Edwards Comes to the Aid of Annihilationism,” Right Reason [blog], August 2, 2008, http://www.rightreason.org/2008/jonathan-edwards-comes-to-the-aid-of-annihilationism/.|
|￪4||Lisle, “The Good News About Hell.”|
|￪6||Jason Lisle, “Denying Eternity,” Biblical Science Institute [blog], January 2, 2023, https://biblicalscienceinstitute.com/theology/denying-eternity/.|