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Some further reflections regarding the Talbott–Crisp debate on the Augustinian concept of everlasting punishment


This article consists of a critical discussion of the debate between Thomas Talbott and Oliver Crisp on the philosophical justification for the traditional Augustinian concept of everlasting punishment in hell. First, I outline the debate, describing Talbott's challenges to the Augustinian retributivist understanding of everlasting punishment and Crisp's responses to them. Next, I analyse their main points of disagreement, indicating the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments. Finally, I present conclusions arising from analysis of the debate in the framework of Christian theology, and I discuss possible implications for the thesis of everlasting punishment in monotheistic religious thought in general.

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1. Talbott, ThomasPunishment, forgiveness, and divine justice’, Religious Studies, 29 (1993), 151168.

2. Crisp, Oliver D.Divine retribution: a defence’, Sophia, 42: 2 (2003), 3552.

3. In the second part of his article, after the critical section, Talbott proposes a summary of his alternative view of the idea of divine justice as nothing different, or separate from, divine mercy. According to his view, divine justice necessitates forgiveness for sinners for their sins, forgiveness which may in certain circumstances find expression in the form of a punishment. This view is part of his thesis of theological universalism, which he details in other articles. See, for example, Talbott, ThomasProvidence, freedom, and human destiny’, Religious Studies, 26 (1990), 227245; idem The doctrine of everlasting punishment’, Faith and Philosophy, 7 (1990), 1942; idem Three pictures of God in western theology’, Faith and Philosophy, 12 (1995), 7994; idem Freedom, damnation, and the power to sin with impunity’, Religious Studies, 37 (2001), 417434; idem Misery and freedom: reply to Walls’, Religious Studies, 40 (2004), 217224. For criticisms of Talbott's thesis of theological universalism, see, for example, Craig, William LaneTalbott's universalism’, Religious Studies, 27 (1991), 297308; Jensen, Paul T.Intolerable but moral? Thinking about hell’, Faith and Philosophy, 10 (1993), 235241; Holyer, RobertJustice and mercy: a reply to Thomas Talbott’, Religious Studies, 30 (1994), 287294; van Holten, WilkoHell and the goodness of God’, Religious Studies, 35 (1999), 4750; Walls, Jerry L.A hell of a choice: reply to Talbott’, Religious Studies, 40 (2004), 203216.

4. Academic literature on the theories of retributivist and utilitarian punishment is extensive. For a concise and clear summary of each, see, for example, Joel Feinberg's introduction to the section ‘Punishment’, in Joel Feinberg & Hyman Gross (eds) Philosophy of Law (Encino and Belmont CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1975), 500–505.

5. In addition, this belief is not at all compatible with Anselm's contention that every sin against the eternal God is of infinite severity, and thus equal to all other sins against God.

6. See my summary of Talbott above, in the penultimate paragraph of ‘Talbott's criticisms’.

7. By making this analogy, I do not mean to claim complete resemblance between all characteristics of the items under comparison. There is a substantive difference between exclusion from everything good in life that the concept of hell entails, and removal from society and life-long deprivation of rights.

8. See ‘Punishment’, 158: ‘The gravity of an offence has nothing to do with the degree of harm done’ (emphasis mine). Later, Talbott adds (ibid., 160) that when we try to evaluate the degree of sin according to a criterion that is not the amount of damage caused (such as the criterion based on Anselm's argument), this invalidates the rationale of the retributivist theory that demands fitting the level of punishment to the severity of the sin.

9. For an interpretation of Anselm's argument as including both criteria, see McCord Adams, MarilynHell and the God of justice’, Religious Studies, 11 (1975), 441444. Talbott also expresses himself in this manner, after arguing for a conflict between the Augustinian concept of EP and ER, when he determines that supporters of the Augustinian view must reject or change ER (see ‘Punishment’, 156). This also appears in Talbott's first criticism of Anselm's argument (ibid., 158), according to which the personal guilt of the sinner must necessarily depend at least partially on facts related to him, such as his responsibility for the sin.

10. For our argument, we need only the assumption that this is a reasonable possibility. Some argue in a stronger voice that the combination of the two criteria of SP in the framework of the retributivist theory is necessary. See, for example, Jonathan L. Kvanvig ‘Heaven and hell’, in Philip L. Quinn & Charles Taliaferro (eds) A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 565; Kabay, PaulIs the status principle beyond salvation? Toward redeeming an unpopular theory of hell’, Sophia, 44: 1 (2005), 91103.

11. The source of Crisp's discussion here, as indicated by him, is Jonathan Edwards's Original Sin.

12. The two concluding comments of this article are based on the rationale of the strategy of structural analysis, in keeping with the comparative trend in contemporary philosophy of religion. See Paul J. Griffiths ‘Comparative philosophy of religion’, in Quinn & Taliaferro A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 618–619.

13. For a list of sources regarding the issue of everlasting punishment in hell in medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy, see Altmann, AlexanderEternality of punishment: a theological controversy within the Amsterdam rabbinate in the thirties of the seventeenth century’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 40 (1973), 188; Meir Benayahu ‘The positions of Rabbi Moses Zakuto and Rabbi Samuel Aboab in the polemics between Portuguese converts who returned to Judaism’, in Daniel Carpi et al. (eds) Shlomo Simonsohn Jubilee Volume: Studies on the History of the Jews in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1993), 29–44 (Hebrew section). These sources present mainly interpretative and not philosophical discussions. For a broad philosophical discussion on the issue of the temporal or everlasting nature of reward and punishment in the world to come in late medieval Jewish philosophy, see Joseph Albo Sefer ha-‘Ikkarim (Book of Principles), part 4, chs 36–38. This discussion will require a separate treatment.

14. See, for example, Abrahamov, BinyaminThe creation and duration of paradise and hell in Islamic theology’, Der Islam, 79 (2002), 87102.

15. This contention appears in Talbott's discussion in several formulations of varying degrees (‘Punishment’, 153, 154, 156).

16. Charles Seymour makes a similar assumption at the beginning of his discussion of the theory of hell. In his view, the assumption that it is unjust to punish in a manner disproportional to the severity of sin is an obvious ethical principle. See Seymour, CharlesHell, justice, and freedom’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 43 (1998), 6970. But this is a retributivist presumption, which is not necessarily valid in a utilitarian theory of punishment.

17. See Sa'adia Gaon The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, S. Rosenblatt (trans. and ed.) (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1948), 344–345. Sa'adia's argument also includes an interesting treatment of the moral problem that characterizes everlasting punishment, which I intend to discuss elsewhere.

18. Ibid., 345.

19. This paper has been published through the generous support of the Dr Naim Dangoor interdisciplinary programme of universal monotheism at Bar Ilan University. I would also like to thank Professor David Widerker and Professor Thomas Talbott for their enlightening comments and helpful suggestions.

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Religious Studies
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