Masters Of Their Own Fate: The Arminian Logic Of Why Some Choose Hell

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In an understandable effort to preserve God’s loving character and to defend the New Testament teaching that ‘God is no respecter of persons,’ the Arminians grant ultimate sovereignty, at least in the case of the damned, to an utterly irrational human choice. As C.S. Lewis put it, ‘I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.’ But Lewis also recognized that union with the divine ‘nature is bliss and separation from it horror’; and if that is true, then a free choice of the kind he attributed to the damned seems deeply incoherent, even logically impossible. For no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror — the outer darkness, for example — to eternal bliss, nor could any such person both experience the horror of separation from God and continue to regard it as a desirable state. The Augustinian idea that the damned are subjected to punishment against their will at least makes coherent sense, but the Arminian idea that the damned freely choose horror over bliss, hell over heaven, makes no coherent sense at all (Thomas Talbott, “Towards a Better Understanding of Universalism,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate by Robin A. Perry and Christopher H. Partridge. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004, page 5). 

I’ve had some universalism material in my Amazon Kindle collection for a while, purchased, but sitting there. I bought a few works on universalism while at seminary, thinking that I’d get to read them there in my spare time. Of course, when you’re at seminary, the great deceiver there is that you’ll find the time to read X book when you know that the chances are greater that the Lord will return than that you’ll get that book read. You purchase one book with that mindset and before you know it, you’ve got an entire library you’d thought you’d read while at seminary.

Well, in this work written by Robin Parry (and edited, possibly co-written, by Christopher Partridge), universalist Thomas Talbott contributes a chapter in defense of universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved in the end. In the quote above, Talbott is detailing how it is that he found himself drifting out of traditional views on man and salvation — which includes Arminianism.

Prior to the quote above in the work, Talbott says in his contributing chapter that he never felt at home with Calvinism (a paraphrase, not an exact quote). But when it came to Arminianism, it seems as though he wanted to find his camp there. He seemed content with free will and the idea that people make choices and are responsible for them. But he didn’t like the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9-11 on the subject of Paul’s response to the fact that few Jews are saved currently.

And, in addition to what he says were strained responses of Arminians to Romans 9-11, a passage that he believes fits Calvinism best, he also found Arminian logic hard to embrace because, as he says above, “no one rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could possibly prefer an objective horror — the outer darkness, for example — to eternal bliss.” It is the result of this thinking that he decided he didn’t fit within the Arminian camp either.

Thus, universalism is the ideal place for his views because it makes sense of what he believes the Scriptures teach: that is, the idea of free will and human choice alongside of God’s predetermined will to save the world in Christ. He wants to say, as the Molinist case is stated in my mentor’s work titled Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, that “we freely choose what God has predetermined,” but he didn’t become Molinist; instead, he became universalist.

Molinism and universalism both have their flaws, with one arguing that God selects our choices before we choose them in time (Molinism) and the other arguing that God chooses to save us against our will (universalism). These two flaws seem to be the same to me, but I digress.

Arminian Logic: Why Some Choose Hell

An example from Hurricane Dorian

Why do some people choose Hell? This is a good question. It assumes that people do choose Hell, which Talbott finds problematic. He believes that no one in their right mind would do such a thing, that it goes against all reason and common sense, and that Arminians arguing this are making the case for “irrational choice.”

And yet, people make irrational choices all the time, do they not? As I’m writing this right now, Hurricane Dorian is outside my home window, blowing trees, powerlines, and everything in-between. I can hear Dorian loudly blowing, as it has been doing for the last few hours. Even after Dorian’s impressive, terrible, and deadly performance in the Bahamas, where the 400-mile-wide storm sat for two days as a Category 5 with sustained winds of 185mph and 220+mph wind gusts, Charleston, South Carolina and Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina residents still decided to stay instead of listening to evacuation orders and leaving immediately.

Was this a rational decision, to stay instead of evacuating so that they could protect their homes? Is it rational to put the priority of an intact home over the possibility of losing one’s life? I’d dare say that such a decision isn’t rational, but irrational — and yet, humans have said on the news all week that, despite the storm’s raging winds and rain, they’d “stick it out” in their homes.

That’s an example from Hurricane Dorian, the current weather event. But let’s look at events within Scripture before answering the question at hand.

Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-24)

Genesis 3 and the Fall of Man is an account within Scripture that many believers know without rereading it (though I recommend you never get tired of reading it over and over again). In this chapter, we see Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve listen to the serpent, who questions them about what God has said and plants doubt in their mind as to what God said exactly (“Has God said…?,” Genesis 3:1).

Eve eats the fruit, but she didn’t talk with God; Adam did. Adam was the one who talked with God, who heard the Lord’s voice audibly. It’s likely he told Eve about the forbidden fruit because she seems to know something when she talks with the serpent (Genesis 3:2). But Adam talked with God, the Lord gave the command to Adam; he should’ve known better. Yet and still, he complies with Eve and eats the forbidden fruit he heard God say “You shall not eat.”

God told Adam not to eat the fruit: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 3:16-17).

Adam and Eve had immortality; they were living forever, without death, decay, and aging. And yet and still, they chose to sin and experience death over life because of the lie the serpent told them (“You’ll be God,” they’d achieve Godhood, he said in so many words). They wanted to be divine, God, equal to their Maker, when in reality, they’d never be equal to their Maker. And yet, they chose death over life, chose to surrender their immortality and eternal life for death because of the serpent’s claim — which, by the way, didn’t have an ounce of merit. Who was the serpent, that he knew more than God? Why would they trust the word of the serpent and believe the serpent’s lie over the word of their God?

Adam and Eve’s choice to listen to the serpent over God, and their choice to choose death by disobeying God rather than appreciate the immortality and eternal life they were experiencing was an irrational choice, was it not? Yet and still, they did it.

Wilderness Israelites and the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-35)

Talbott says that he finds it unbelievable and unreasonable that anyone would choose Hell, but we’ve seen residents choose to stay in the face of a storm that practically obliterated homes in the Bahamas once the storm set sail for the eastern coast of the United States. We’ve seen above that Adam and Eve chose death over immortality and the eternal life God had given them, that, despite God’s goodness to them, they still chose to believe the serpent’s lie over God’s truth.

Here in Exodus 32, we see another irrational choice humanity makes against its Creator. In this case, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are waiting for Moses to return from the mountaintop because he’s gone up to meet God and receive the Ten Commandments, God’s Law for His people. While Moses is on the mountain, the people turn to Aaron and force him to make a god for them: “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).

Aaron makes a golden calf out of the gold the Egyptians gave the Israelites on their Egyptian exit, and the people bow down to worship it, saying, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4).

Israel knew that their God wasn’t a god made of gold, that He wasn’t an inanimate object but a living God who’d given them leaders, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. They fashioned the golden calf with their own hands; surely it couldn’t be “God,” considering that they had to make it themselves! Is it rational for humans to bow down and worship something they made with their own hands? Was it rational for Israel to bow down to a golden calf Aaron made with melted gold? The calf couldn’t talk as humans do, walk as humans do, give advice, think, or anything. Surely, Israel wasn’t thinking straight when they bowed down to it.

It’s yet another example of how rational people make irrational choices.

I could go on with examples such as Lot’s wife looking back when she was told she’d be destroyed with the city if she did (Genesis 19:12-26), and the rich young ruler who wants to inherit eternal life but would rather stick with his riches and part from eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). All these examples just go to show that, contra Talbott, rational people don’t always do rational things.

Why Some People Choose Hell: The Arminian Logic

Why do some people choose Hell? Talbott has said that it doesn’t seem logical that people would choose Hell over eternal bliss, but, as Hurricane Dorian and Scripture teach us, people make irrational decisions all the time.

And this puts us in a good position to examine the Arminian logic behind why some people choose Hell. In all the above examples, though different, one thing remains constant: people made irrational choices because they wanted to.

And when it comes to Hell, people choose Hell because they want to.

Thomas Talbott would tell me that the answer I’ve just supplied isn’t good enough, that I’ve gotta come up with something more than just that basic answer. It isn’t hard to come up with specific reasons as to why some people choose Hell.

Reasons Why People Choose Hell Over Heaven

They believe God is a fairy tale, and, by extension, Hell is, too

First, some choose Hell because they don’t believe in God. They think God is a fairy tale and so, when Christians tell people about life without God in Hell, unbelievers think Hell is a fairy tale, too. In the minds of some, Hell is something Christians have invented to scare people into professions of faith. This is an argument I’ve heard from some atheists when attempting to witness to them.

Riches

Some people choose Hell because of riches: they prefer to have the riches of the world, rather than give them up and follow Jesus. We see this with the rich young ruler, who earnestly desires eternal life when he encounters Jesus. And yet, when he’s presented with the ultimatum that mandates he part ways with his riches, he walks away, “for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).

The rich young ruler is not the only one. Jesus also taught in the Parable of the Sower that some will refuse to receive the word of salvation because of “the deceitfulness of riches,” that being the thorny seed or thorny hearer (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18-19; Luke 8:14). Paul notes that Demas, once an apostle in his ministry (Philemon 1:24), “has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10), NKJV).

Temptation

Temptation is another motivation for why some people choose Hell in spite of Heaven, as they see their sin as something it’s impossible to leave. In fact, Jesus says in the Parable of the Sower that some believers, having received the word of salvation, “believe for a time” and then fall away in time of temptation (Matthew 13:20-21; Mark 4:16-17; Luke 8:13). In the case of the Rocky Soil Believer, this individual receives the Word but is then persecuted “on account of the Word” (Mark 4, Luke 8) and falls away from the faith.

The Casey Novak Answer

In the end, contra Talbott, it’s not hard to understand that rational humans make irrational choices at times. Not every choice humans make is wise or the best. When it comes to choosing Heaven or choosing Hell, it makes sense, then, that some would choose Hell even in the face of Heaven. The rich young ruler, as we’ve discussed above, wanted to inherit eternal life, and Jesus told him what to do. Yet and still, after he realized he’d have to part ways with his riches to follow Jesus, he decided that following Christ wasn’t worth the effort.

I can recall a favorite Law and Order: SVU episode where prosecutor Casey Novak was trying a case involving a boy who had committed a lot of crime against others. His lawyer, played by Cheers character Rhea Pearlman, tried to get him off the crime by arguing that he was alone a lot of the time, his father worked long hours, and so he, being alone, would watch terrible things on television and attempt to act them out. Pearlman wanted to make Jack, the boy’s name in the episode (real name unknown), a victim of his circumstances and television. In other words, despite Jack’s victims, he was the real victim, his lawyer argued.

But prosecutor Casey Novak comes back with what I deem one of the classic lines of Law and Order that I’ll never forget: “Why did Jack do it? Jack did it, because Jack wanted to.” Jack wanted to. That’s a classic line that many of us say, but in truth, it’s the only answer for why Jack did the terrible things he did. He wanted to do them; if he didn’t want to do them, he wouldn’t have done them.

This, then, is the response I have for Talbott: “Why do some choose Hell, you ask? Some choose Hell in spite of Heaven because they want to. They want to go their own way, be their own boss, be the Masters of their own fate. And when they realize that, to come to Jesus, He must become their Master and they must lay down their control and power and yield it all to Him, they respond with “no deal” because the terms and conditions aren’t favorable to them.”

Talbott quotes C.S. Lewis, but he forgets that Clive Staples Lewis also had more to say about those who choose Hell:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Regardless of the particular reason as to why many reject Heaven and Jesus and choose Hell instead, there is one common denominator: they do it because they want to. No other answer accounts for genuine free will.