Friday, December 26, 2008

Hell: a Philosophical Defense of its Plausibility, Necessity, and Factuality

By Dave Armstrong (12-26-08)

The following is a response to a person who is sincerely seeking to understand Catholic teaching on hell. He is "currently completing a PhD on the philosophy of Aristotle": so one can see that it is quite a challenge to me to answer his inquiring objections. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

I believe good, honest, sincere questions deserve a good answer, so I will offer mine, and hope that it is an aid to you as you work through the issue and come to a decision about Catholicism one way or the other.

I took about eight courses in philosophy in college and have always loved it. I delve into some philosophical theology now and then in the course of doing apologetics, and love to apply the socratic method in my own debates.

[There] are certain basic Catholic doctrines which I find it impossible to reconcile with the dictates of my conscience. I am hoping that somebody on this forum will be able to help me to find clarity regarding some of the issues troubling me.

I hope so too. I admire your evidently sincere search for truth in these matters. You show yourself a true philosopher, in the best meaning of the word.

I want to make it very clear that my expression of disagreement with certain Catholic positions, as I understand them, is not intended to be polemical. I am deeply struggling with the question of conversion. What I am looking for is clarification, which will hopefully make it possible to reconcile my conscience with the Church's teachings, thus removing the obstacles to conversion.

That's what the apologist tries to do: the very heart of our endeavor: to remove obstacles and roadblocks that hold people back, in good faith.

I know that on some issues my own convictions differ from the teachings of the Church. What I am hoping for is a statement of the Church's position on the issues I mention, but a statement which responds to the concerns I have, in a way which helps me to see why I am wrong ( if that is the case) and why the official Catholic position is not subject to the problems I mention.

I'll do my best. I suspect that, given your education, some of what you seek will probably have to come from fellow philosophers who are Catholic (or otherwise Christians if it involves doctrines that are agreed), but I think I can offer you something to ponder. Just take from my replies whatever you think is useful to you.

My first and foremost problem is with the doctrine of Hell. I realise that this is not exclusive to Catholicism, but I am interested in the Catholic perspective on this. I have tried since I first grappled with the idea at 17, to find some way of reconciling this doctrine with my understanding of God and morality and I have been unable to. I have spoken with many Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, and nothing they have said has made the doctrine acceptable to me. I consider this to be a question of fundamental importance in so far as a conception of hell implies a certain understanding of God. I cannot relate to this doctrine purely intellectually. It offends me at some fundamental level, since it seems to me to be a calumny against God.

So you might be wondering what exactly my problem with hell is, and what kind of conceptions I reject.

I definitely would, in order to answer properly. Objections to hell generally fall into relatively few general categories. But there are lots of particular variations. To give a solid answer, I would need to know with great specificity what your objections are. That may very require a few back-and-forths. If it becomes inappropriate here at a certain point, I'd be more than happy to continue such a discussion on my blog.

Let me try to give you a brief statement of my views.


Firstly, I am not talking simply about the conception of hell which sees its punishments as essentially retributive. The view that God actively punishes the damned is to me so morally abhorrent, indeed blasphemous, that I have never been able to even consider it as a real possibility.

Well, it seems that you have a very strong emotional reaction to your conception of the Christian doctrine of hell. I think, oftentimes, we project onto God thoughts of our own, as if hell reduces to some kind of petty revenge on God's part or His desire to exercise a sort of sadistic power to torture people who disagree with Him. I don't think any of this is true. I wrote in one of my debates with an agnostic:
Those who go to hell do so in their own free will, by their own free choice, having rejected the God Whose existence and nature is "clearly seen" by all (Romans 1). For the life of me, I don't understand why this should be so objectionable: God allows free creatures to reject Him and even spend eternity without Him if they so desire. Would you rather have Him force you to go to heaven rather than give you the freedom to freely choose heaven or hell as your ultimate destination? In any event, the existence of hell is no proof whatsoever that God is evil. It proves (almost more than anything else) that men are free.
In my main defense of the Christian doctrine of hell, I stated:
The essence of hell is separation from God. God in effect says: "so you want to live apart from Me? You think that is a preferable state of affairs to living with Me? Very well, then, go ahead; see how you like it." Of course, God would have a great deal more love and compassion than that (I'm applying human emotions to Him -- a sort of anthropomorphism in reverse), but this is the basic idea. The Bible talks about God giving men up to their own devices and the hardening of their hearts (the same sort of notion).

C.S. Lewis stated that "the doors of hell are locked from the inside." God respects human free will so much that He is willing to let men reject Him and spend eternity away from Him, if that is their choice. Of course, those who choose this don't have the faintest idea of what an existence utterly without God is like, because they have not yet experienced it. This is the tragic folly of the whole thing.

The instant they do experience it, they'll know what a terrible mistake they made, and in my speculative opinion that will be the primary horror of hell: the intense, irreversible self-loathing, self-hatred, and regret at having made such a stupid and perfectly avoidable mistake as to end up in an unspeakably dreadful, hideous place or state like hell. We know from this life how difficult it is to live with bitter regret: the mulling over the "if only's" of life and our bittersweet journey through it.

Imagine doing that for eternity! And, of course, this is one big reason why Christians want to proclaim the gospel, so people can avoid that miserable fate, and can live eternally the way God intended them to live, without suffering and sin: complete, whole, perfect creatures, rejoicing in God's wonderful presence forever.
If this is indeed the official doctrine of the Catholic Church then any possibility of my finding my home there is ruled out. I hope, and my conversations with a number of intelligent Catholics has given me reason to hope, that this is not in fact the case, and that enlightened theological opinion rejects this view. In my conversations and reading I have come across the view, supposedly quite influential, that the punishments of hell are not inflicted by God, so much as a necessary result of the post-mortem state of the soul of someone who has cut himself off from God. This seems to me far superior to the former view.

I think this may be another way of expressing what Lewis meant by saying that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. It's not that God forces people to follow Him, but that they don't want to follow Him, because of, often, misconceptions about what it means to follow God as a disciple.

But even here I find grave problems. Essentially I cannot accept the view that hell, even on this conception, is eternal, that once in hell it is impossible to leave it, and that the soul is, after death, fixed in its orientation and unable to make spiritual progress.

Why would this be inconceivable to you? There is a temporal and a timeless existence, as David Emery alluded to. Once we die we enter into a timeless eternity, which cannot be other than what it is. Therefore, once we grant that there are moral distinctions to be made in this life, between good and evil, and we grant that there is a good God, it seems rather straightforward that the concept of divine justice would make it absolutely necessary for there to be a rather definite and compelling cosmic justice and weighing of the facts of what a person has done and believed in this life.

The necessity of judgment is apparent from the human analogy of laws and judges. When we do bad things, there are consequences. And often, they are irreversible. If we murder a person, they are gone from the earth forever. The act had a consequence that to us, from the earthly, temporal perspective, is final. If we get drunk and ride a motorcycle and crash and have to lose an arm or leg or suffer brain damage, those things are irreversible. The dumb behavior had definite consequences. A price had to be paid. This is simply reality. By analogy, if (as I would strongly contend) the dumbest thing a person can do is reject and disbelieve in God, or in His goodness and mercy, then we would expect that there would be some extremely severe consequences to this in the long run.

Since souls are eternal by nature, that consequence is an unending place or state that is separate from God, that we have no remote conception of now: how horrible it is. And to end in hell is entirely our fault, not God's. So why would anyone in effect "try God" for the existence of hell, since no one ever had to go there in the first place? It's like blaming a judge who gives the sentence, for the existence of a penitentiary. Does that make any sense? Yet this is essentially what you have done by finding hell objectionable and somehow a thing that casts aspersions upon God's character.

God the Father has provided a way for any man to be saved who desires to. He has made the way of salvation available through the death of His Son Jesus, Who is in fact God, and the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Catholicism isn't Calvinism, inasmuch as it doesn't teach that God predestines people to hell. I think that view (double predestination) does indeed lay God open to the charge of cruelty and arbitrariness and injustice. But that is their argument: let them defend it. It's not our burden.

Catholicism and Arminian Protestantism and Orthodoxy (which constitute the vast majority of Christians now and at all times throughout Christian history) reject this. And that may constitute part of your objection. When it is seen that people choose hell of their own free will and that God allows them to go there if they insist, that takes the "blame" off of God, in my opinion. There is a strong sense in which it is absurd to even blame God for it, just as men habitually blame God for every evil: including ones that are the fault of man altogether (things like the Holocaust or unjust laws or wars).

Even on the more moderate view that the punishments of hell are a consequence of alienation from God, not of God’s active punishment, it makes no sense to me that they could be eternal.

But you have to step back and ask yourself several things that you have assumed as premises before you even get to this point: "on what basis do I find an eternal state apart from God nonsensical or implausible or impossible?" Your presuppositions entail a necessary examination of anthropology: i.e., from the theological perspective: what is man? Of what does he consist? Does he have a soul; what is that, and is it temporal or dies it have no end? Is there such a thing as sin? If so, how does God judge it and what are its consequences? Is there such a thing as original sin or the Fall, sufficiently serious enough in its rebelliousness and wrongdoing to require in the nature of things justice and punishment from the God against whom we have rebelled? Is this corporate, and involving the whole human race (as the Bible clearly teaches)?

On what possible basis can one conclude that an eternal existence apart from God, of creatures who have expressly rejected this God, is an a priori impossible or unjust or implausible state of affairs? To me it's rather simple: we are creatures who will exist from this point into the future. We will never have an end to our existence. We're like a ray in geometry: with a beginning but no end. We can be with God in eternity after we die or without Him. The choice is ours. No one has to go to hell if they will simply believe in God and follow Him, enabled by His grace to do so. These things are essentially matters of faith, part of revelation. But they are also able to be defended by many analogies to human experience and felt internal conceptions of morality and justice.

If they were, any purpose or value that they might have would be totally removed. It would simply be purposeless suffering without end.

I reject your premises and fail to see why a timeless state apart from God (hell) reduces to a situation where, thereby, no "purpose" or "value" is present. The purpose is a combination of "cosmic justice" and the determination of God to permit human free will even where it entails a rejection of Him and eternal misery. Human beings are given an adequate chance to avoid all that. The choice is theirs. But to say that timelessness in and of itself wipes out all purpose makes no sense. One has to first establish that there is no such thing as atemporality. Even the laws of physics after Einstein make that rather difficult to do. Therefore, if there is an existence outside of time or beyond time or in other dimensions, then those who have chosen certain paths will be present in this state either happily or unhappily, just as they live on this state in basically one condition or the other, in the deepest depths of their heart and soul.

To me a God Who would countenance the existence of such suffering would be not much better than one who actively punished sinners. When I have brought these thoughts up with Catholic friends, they have usually responded by saying that hell is a necessary consequence of free will, and that God respects human choice even if this is the choice of eternal separation from God.

Okay; let's play along with that, then. We can pursue several alternative choices:
1) God chooses to annihilate people rather than their being eternal creatures (i.e., relatively from the time of their origination, not absolutely, like God, Who has no beginning or end).

2) God chooses to annihilate the ones who aren't worthy of salvation (this is the Jehovah's Witness and Christadelphian belief).

3) God chooses to not judge anyone at all. The evil as well as the good all end up the same. There is no "cosmic justice."

4) God saves everyone.

5) God predestines all to hell no matter what they do or believe. (the flip side of #3).
Now, let's examine each, and see if they make more sense than an eternal hellfire (and heaven).

Reply to Option 1: Here one argues from the existence of things that cannot be otherwise. We can comprehend many such things. The laws of non-contradiction and of geometry or mathematics are two such things. Can we really imagine any possible universe in which one can exist and not exist at the same time, or in which a square is a circle or a line is a triangle? No. Can we imagine a universe with no spatial characteristics at all, even one in which there was no matter? We can easily comprehend a possible universe that is entirely non-material or pure spirit, with no matter, but we can't comprehend either a completely dimensionless universe or a state of affairs where nothing whatever existed, even space.

Therefore, by the analogy of things such as the above that cannot be otherwise, we reason, based in part on the revelation about the existence of both eternity and souls, that souls, too, are included in the class of things that cannot be otherwise: that they are what they are (in terms of duration) by nature. They are unending, just as a ray in geometry is unending. They simply keep going indefinitely, analogous to rays of light that will travel throughout the universe without end. We may not understand it, but is it inconceivable? No, not at all. I see nothing implausible or unreasonable at all in the notion. And if we accept this and also some law of justice that applies to all sentient beings with moral responsibility, then we arrive at the Christian notion of heaven and hell as final destination places or conditions.

Reply to Option 2: This is certainly possible, but it is contrary to biblical revelation, and it has the characteristic of "metaphysical asymmetry." If saved souls live forever, then it would seem to follow that damned souls would also, not that they would be annihilated, because in both cases, human souls are involved, and souls have the characteristic of either being temporary or endless. So it would seem to make a lot more sense that either all souls are annihilated or none (in order to have one consistent definition of a soul), but not one class only.

Reply to Option 3: This would make the world a meaningless place, where there is no consequence to good or evil actions. That is far more horrible than the state of affairs in which good, saved people are eternally happy, and bad, damned ones eternally miserable. Instead, we can commit any evil whatever and not expect any undesirable consequences for our actions. That would make "god" worse than the worst person imaginable. He would become evil Himself, as well as a weakling and the furthest thing from omnipotent.

Reply to Option 4: This is also logically possible, but the problem is that it makes mincemeat of human free will and it makes moral behavior meaningless. And of course it is utterly contrary to biblical revelation, if a person believes in that by faith.

Reply to Option 5: Variation of #3 and subject to the same replies.

We conclude, then, that the Christian scenario of heaven and hell makes (philosophically) far more sense (considered apart from revelation) than any of the alternatives.

Really, the issue for me has less to do with human choice and more to do with God.

But then you are discounting that we all make the choice to follow God or not. This contradicts your own introductory statements, that presuppose that you are making religious choices of your own free will ("I began my own path of questioning and eventually found my way back to Christianity, . . . I am currently struggling with the question of conversion to Catholicism"); indeed, this entire discussion would be meaningless if you have no free will to make such choices.

Even if we could choose hell,

What makes you think that we couldn't or wouldn't do so in the first place? This is the thing to ponder. Do you deny that there is such a thing as an atheist?

the more pertinent question is how could God countenance the existence of creatures condemned to eternal suffering.

Because God values free will more than a bunch of mindless, will-less, soulless robots that "love" Him. He wants us to enjoy the freedom of choice to do the good or the bad that He Himself possesses. God always chooses good. He can't make us creatures that way without denying free will, but at least He can give us the freedom to do good and to believe truth.

That being the case, there must necessarily be a class of those who will exercise this free will wrongly and stupidly. How could it be otherwise?

What kind of God could countenance something like that?

The true God doesn't countenance anything bad. I am contending that what you see as a "bad" thing is either misunderstood by you as to its actual nature, or isn't the case, period. Not all suffering and bad choices of creatures can be blamed on God. If there is free will, then there is also moral responsibility of the ones who possess it. And that simply can't be blamed on God. It's a bum rap.

It does not seem enough to me to say that God would suffer knowing that there were souls in hell.

God has compassion on all souls. He can't be otherwise. It's because God is love.

I cannot see how God could refrain from actively working to lead those souls out of darkness, however long it took.

They have an entire lifetime, and (many believe) a chance right after death, too. The thing to ask here is why you have this notion that God must work eternally to redeem souls? He is under no such obligation. He only has to give every person an adequate chance to believe in Him or reject Him, and we believe as Christians, based on revelation, that He more than amply does that in this lifetime.

You are presupposing that what God does to redeem a stray soul is never enough, but then we're back to blaming God again for the rebel, rather than placing the blame with the rebel, which is where it belongs. This makes no sense. We always want to blame God for everything. It's a sort of "cosmic blame-shifting." We never want to blame evil, rebellious man for anything. He's always a poor, pitiful victim, and it's always God, God, God Who is supposedly at fault for not having done enough. I would urge you to stop and consider (granting a good God's existence) the gross unfairness of that endeavor and "spirit."

To say that God respects a human beings choice of eternal suffering is to limit God’s love, His compassion, His wisdom.

How? I don't see that this follows at all. God, in effect, is saying:
1) You will live forever.

2) You can choose to believe in Me.

3) Or you can choose to reject Me, because I have given you the dignity of having the free will to do so and to make intelligent choices.

4) Both choices have eternal consequences because your soul is eternal (#1).

5) If you believe in Me, you will have a wonderful existence in heaven with Me for eternity. You'll have all your aspirations and dreams and deepest impulses and desires and longings completely fulfilled, beyond your wildest imaginings. You were created to serve Me, which is why you are happy and joyful and at peace only when you do that.

6) If you reject Me, you will suffer terribly. I love you and am trying to save you from that fate, and am giving you all the information from My revelation, and internal intuitions and knowledge, and the witness of other human beings and changed lives and miracles, and my enabling grace, to avoid this, But I will not deny your free will.
That's the choice given, according to biblical revelation. Yet you want to say that such a state of affairs is unloving on God's part? How? I swear that I don't comprehend it. Do we blame a parent when he or she does absolutely everything that they should to adequately train and provide for a child, yet the child goes astray in the exercise of his or her free will? We all know people like this. Is it their fault (at least in terms of primary responsibility) or the child's?

How is it at all unwise, either? God could either give us a free will or create us as robots Who followed His commands just like robots do ours. Would you rather be a robot? This very conversation would be meaningless. Once free will is granted, then it makes entire sense to speak of good and bad eternal destinations. Souls are eternal by nature, so the afterlife is eternal (or, I should say, timeless and unending) as well.

It is to say that evil can triumph against God, that God can be faced with an evil which He cannot overcome by means of what is most truly His, namely love, gentleness, compassion.

That's correct. That is the nature of free will. How can God force a free agent to love Him? Then it would no longer be free will. He can't do that, just as He can't annihilate Himself or make a square circle. These are logical impossibilities, not limitations on His omnipotence, which means, "ability to do all that is logically possible to do." This is the proper response for the problem of evil as well.

For who is to say that God will never find a way to lead a soul out of darkness without infringing on human freedom?

He can give a human being every way out of darkness but they have to follow, just as the horse has to drink the water after being led to it, and we can't force it to do so.

So the argument that hell is a necessary consequence of free will seems to me to be unconvincing.

For the life of me, I don't understand why. I never have. Perhaps you can explain to me why you find it to be so, so I can comprehend the objection.

There is no reason why God could not forgive sinners again and again and again, even after death, until they learn and are reconciled to him.

To the contrary, there is no reason why He should be required to exercise mercy indefinitely and not have a cut-off point. If indeed, all men have a more than adequate chance in this life to repent and follow God, then there is no reason whatever why God should have to extend this mercy indefinitely after death. He is under no "moral obligation" to extend mercy at all, let alone indefinitely.

Take the analogy to our legal system again. The judge says that a person can be paroled, given a few (not at all impossible) conditions. This is legal "mercy." But the prisoner fails to abide by these, and so he doesn't gain parole. Now, in your thinking, the one to blame for this is the parole officer or judge, because He didn't exercise enough mercy and should have forgiven the prisoner an infinite amount of times for all his violations. In my thinking, the prisoner is at fault and the judge, not in the slightest, because he was exercising clemency and mercy and the prisoner in his stupidity failed to do the few things he had to do in order to receive this gracious gift.

This would in no way infringe on free will.

It certainly would because it renders free will itself ridiculous, insofar as any acts done with this free will have absolutely no consequences and errant or evil acts must be forgiven an infinite number of times. That makes mincemeat of the very notion of justice and morality as well, along with free will.

The idea that a human being could be rebellious to the bitter end may be possible in an abstract sense, but it seems to me thoroughly unrealistic.

We see it all the time. How is it unrealistic? We see many examples of evil people who never reform, even when given chances to do so. And that is because evil has the capacity to completely corrupt a soul. Your problem is that you are (as presupposed by your argument, if not consciously) soft-pedaling man's evil and rebellion. It's very common, because it is natural man's natural response to being told that he is an evil rebel. We always raise ourselves higher than we are. We don't see as God sees.

Assuming that God did provide for the possibility of purification after death, it is highly implausible to suggest that human sinfulness could win out in the end.

How so? The existence of any moral evil at all in the world, shows that evil men can "prevail" over God, because God allows evil to exist: because of free will.

One Catholic priest I spoke with stated that a Catholic is obliged to believe in Hell only as a logical possibility, necessarily arising from free-will.

He is wrong. Hell is a dogma of the Church and clearly taught in the Bible.

On this priests view, the Church has never definitively stated that any particular person is in hell.

That's correct, but it doesn't follow logically that there is no hell. There certainly is, according to the teaching of Jesus (Who talked about it even more than He did about heaven) and other teachings in the Bible.

More strongly still, this priest stated that strictly speaking a Catholic is not expected to believe that there is anyone in hell. In other words, while rejecting the very possibility of hell is heretical, it is acceptable to believe that hell is empty. Is this an accurate account of Catholic doctrine?

No. We can hope that any individual person will be saved in the end, but the Bible is clear that many people will be damned, and the place of the damned soul is hell. This is what we teach.

Let me say outright that I have no problem with the idea that we have to take responsibility for our actions and that sometimes the only way to correct error and to move forward is through suffering.

Then I think that some of my replies should carry some force with you, because they expand upon your own principles.

My own deeply considered belief is that after death, the soul, freed from some of the deep seated egocentrism of earthly life, and by the grace of God, will be able to see its earthly life with a clarity and comprehensiveness which was impossible earlier. We will see all our failings, all of the hurt we have caused others, the unknown consequences of our actions, and we will have to take responsibility for them, feel genuine contrition, and certainly, in all likelihood, suffer terrible pangs of conscience.

The Church has not ruled out a possible salvation right after death. We simply don't know much about it, from revelation alone. But there is no concept of a "long" time after death or souls going from hell to heaven, etc. Those in purgatory are saved. it is inevitable that they will be in heaven in due course. That's entirely different from the reprobate in hell.

I imagine also, that a soul excessively attached, one might say addicted, to earthly life, pleasure and so on, would also suffer “withdrawal symptoms” of a sort, as it accustomed itself to a new form of existence. In the case of somebody deeply mired in evil, I suppose those pains would be both terrible and prolonged.

That's exactly why we Catholics believe in purgatory. It makes perfect sense. But as I just stated, those souls are saved already, not in the process of being saved. We are saved by Jesus Christ and God's grace, not our works.

So, basically, the only conception of hell that makes sense to me is closer to the Catholic conception of Purgatory, as I understand it.

Good. But you have to allow for hell as well, for those who continue to reject God.

In other words, a period of post-mortem purification, whose duration and intensity depends on the individual. It is not retributive. If it is painful, the pains are not a punishment but the result of a conscience enlightened by God. Unlike the usual conception of hell, which seems to be based on the assumption that no spiritual progress is possible after death ( at least for the damned), my view would be that everybody can make progress, repent and be redeemed and that purification, however long and painful, must have an end.

On what basis do you believe such a thing? You actually want to deny that a person can achieve a state of being irreformably evil and opposed to God? Why would you think that?

I am certain that my views are incompatible with Catholic doctrine in so far as I am familiar with it.

You are correct.

I hope and pray that somebody will be able to clarify the Catholic position on this question in a way which will allow me to reconcile myself with the Church's teachings.

I've given it my best shot (for an "introductory" reply, anyway). I eagerly look forward to further interaction. Perhaps I can persuade you! But it goes far beyond mere persuasion. It requires grace and faith to believe in all the things of the Catholic faith. If you are truly open to God, and willing to follow Him wherever He leads, He will give you this enabling grace to believe these things. And you will see (if you are persuaded) that they don't cast doubt on God's goodness or power or justice at all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brief Explanation of God "Hardening Hearts"

By Dave Armstrong (12-18-08)

Question on the CHNI forum:

2 Thessalonians 2:11 says that those who refuse to accept the love of the truth will be sent strong delusion from God. To what extent do we understand this? It is hard to say that God would be responsible for leading someone to delusion, but is it only because a person has ultimately rejected God's attempt to lead them to the truth? I guess my question is along the lines of if God can only do good, to what extent can He contribute to someone's delusion or the effects of it.

This is a typically pungent Hebraism for God allowing something to happen in His Providence. It really all hinges on free will. Man can choose to follow God and His precepts and commands or not. When we do not, we become more and more hardened. This is a recurrent motif in the Bible: "hardening of hearts" (see nine examples of it). Sometimes it is said that the person hardened their heart; sometimes that God did it. The latter is in the sense that I have described above (from the information we receive by comparing Scripture with Scripture and harmonizing all of the Bible). Man is responsible for his own sin.

God allows such people their freedom to rebel, which in turn entails the devil getting in there and making things worse (just as God allowed the devil to tempt Job). So in a sense to say that "God did so-and-so" when He simply allowed it to take place, is an assertion of God's overall Providence. God is asserting that He is in control. There is also a strong sarcastic element in this sort of biblical concept (that we see in Job and often in the prophets), as if God were saying, "okay; you don't want to follow Me and do what is best for you? You know better than I do about that? Very well, then, I'll let you become blind and deluded. See how well off you'll be then."

Strictly speaking, that isn't how God thinks or acts, but it was an anthropomorphism to help practical, concrete, non-philosophical Hebrew man relate at all to God.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Why the Catholic Mass Can't Possibly be Idolatrous: Quick Proof

By Dave Armstrong (12-15-08)

Protestant writer C. Michael Patton observed (without himself believing this):

[H]istoric Protestantism has often charged the Catholic church with idolatry, believing that they have turned God into an idol of bread and wine, worshiping the elements without, indeed, contrary to, a scriptural basis.
. . . which is an utterly wrongheaded criticism, as I have often argued, since idolatry, by definition, is a matter of the heart and interior disposition. No minimally informed Catholic has ever worshiped mere bread and wine (just as none have been dumb and absurd enough to actually venerate plaster in the form of a statue of a saint). We are worshiping Jesus Christ present in what was formerly bread and wine.

Obviously, other Christians may deny the fact of what we believe in faith to be taking place, but whatever the Mass is, it is not idolatry, which is worship of what is not God and raising something other than God to His sole place of supreme exaltation.

Clearly, Catholics aren't doing that, which is simple to see in the literal meaning of the word transubstantiation: "change of substance." Think about it for a moment in this light: how does the following "logic:" of our anti-Catholic critics make any sense?:
1) Catholics believe in transubstantiation. 
2) Transubstantiation means, literally, "change of substance." 
3) In this instance the substance change involves bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. 
4) Therefore, Catholics believe that bread and wine are no longer present; only the Body and Blood of Christ. 
5) And the adoration of the host and eucharistic worship takes place after the consecration and change of substance in the Mass. 
6) Nevertheless, we will accuse Catholics of worshiping bread and wine instead of Jesus Christ, which is gross idolatry, and no part of legitimate Christianity.

Obviously, #6 doesn't follow, based on the premises of #2-#5. So how is it we get accused of idolatry, when the very word that describes the practice being so critiqued proves that it is not taking place at all? If anything, Lutheranism would be more open to this accusation, on the grounds that they might conceivably confuse the elements with Jesus (I would not make the charge myself, I hasten to add, but I am making an observation based on anti-Catholic premises).

But that is not true in our case, by the fundamental definition of a complete change taking place, as we believe. So again, one can disagree with what Catholics (with virtually unanimous patristic support) believe in faith to be occurring, but it is ludicrous -- utterly illogical and emptyheaded -- to accuse us of idolatry in the Mass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Counter-Reply to a Protestant Take on John 6 and the Eucharist (vs. C. Michael Patton)

By Dave Armstrong (12-4-08)

This is a response to Calvinist evangelical C. Michael Patton's article, Why I Don't Buy the Roman Catholic Interpretation of John 6 in Defense of Transubstantiation (6 June 2008). His words (cited in their entirety) will be in blue.

* * * * *
Catholic apologetics is more robust today than it has been in the recent past.

I completely agree!

Since Rome has given more freedom of exploration and discover[y] along with the encouragement for Catholics to study the Scriptures,

For well over a hundred years (at least since Pope Leo XIII: 1878-1903), the Church has encouraged intense personal Bible study; it's nothing new. G. K. Chesterton died in 1936, and he was known to do some apologetics. The influx of converts into the Church after Cardinal Newman's conversion also gave impetus to lay apologetics: and that is 150 years ago. But I don't want to quibble too much . . .

there have been many Catholic apologists preparing Catholics to defend the faith. Despite our temptation in today’s world to let bygones be bygones, the engagement between Protestants and Catholics must go on for the differences are still relevant.

I think it can be done in a brotherly manner: an "in-house dispute": as opposed to a struggle between good and evil, or light and dark, or Christians vs. unregenerate pagans and idolaters, as our anti-Catholic Protestant brethren would have us believe it is. That's what I appreciate about the exchanges I have had with Michael. He does apologetics the right way. Though we often have honest disagreements, I have great respect for that and for him as a person.

One of the key differences between Protestants and Catholics through the years is the view of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Catholics, along with the Orthodox Church, have traditionally believed that the Eucharist represents the centerpiece of our worship to God.

So would Lutherans and Anglicans and (I think) Methodists, as well. C. S. Lewis, for example (Anglican), would have affirmed this.

Catholics call the celebration of the Eucharist “Mass.” They believe that when properly administered, the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. This is called “transubstantiation” because the “substance” of the elements “transform” into Christ’s body and blood. Most Protestants rejected this view of the Eucharist opting for either a memorial view or a spiritual view of the Lord’s supper (Lutherans believe in a somewhat mediating position called “consubstantiation”).

Luther's and Lutheranism's view also holds that "the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ." The only difference is that they think the bread and wine are present alongside the Body and Blood. But it is still Real, Substantial Presence. The fact that the founder of Protestantism continued to believe this (as well as several other brands of Protestants) shows that it is not simply a "Catholic thing." It is a dispute that runs across various strains of Christendom. I never fail to point that out, just as a matter of fact.

Why is this important? Because historic Protestantism has often charged the Catholic church with idolatry, believing that they have turned God into an idol of bread and wine, worshiping the elements without, indeed, contrary to, a scriptural basis.

. . . which is an utterly wrongheaded criticism, as I have often argued, since idolatry, by definition, is a matter of the heart and interior disposition. No minimally informed Catholic has ever worshiped mere bread and wine (just as none have been dumb and absurd enough to actually venerate plaster in the form of a statue of a saint). We are worshiping Jesus Christ present in what was formerly bread and wine. Obviously, other Christians may deny the fact of what we believe in faith to be taking place, but whatever the Mass is, it is not idolatry, which is worship of what is not God and raising something other than God to His sole place of supreme exaltation.

Clearly, Catholics aren't doing that (and note that Michael is not himself making this charge, but reporting that it has often taken place), which is simple to see in the literal meaning of the word transubstantiation: "change of substance." Think about it for a moment in this light: how does the following "logic:" of our anti-Catholic critics make any sense?:
1) Catholics believe in transubstantiation.
2) Transubstantiation means, literally, "change of substance."
3) In this instance the substance change involves bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
4) Therefore, Catholics believe that bread and wine are no longer present; only the Body and Blood of Christ.
5) And the adoration of the host and eucharistic worship takes place after the consecration and change of substance in the Mass.
6) Nevertheless, we will accuse Catholics of worshiping bread and wine instead of Jesus Christ, which is gross idolatry, and no part of legitimate Christianity.
Obviously, #6 doesn't follow, based on the premises of #2-#5. So how is it we get accused of idolatry, when the very word that describes the practice being so critiqued proves that it is not taking place at all? If anything, Lutheranism would be more open to this accusation, on the grounds that they might conceivably confuse the elements with Jesus (I would not make the charge myself, I hasten to add, but I am making an observation based on anti-Catholic premises). But that is not true in our case, by the fundamental definition of a complete change taking place, as we believe. So again, one can disagree with what Catholics (with virtually unanimous patristic support) believe in faith to be occurring, but it is ludicrous -- utterly illogical -- to accuse us of idolatry.

Catholics, on the other hand (and this is important), have elevated the celebration of the Mass and the belief in Transubstantiation to an essential of Christianity.

Just as the Church fathers and Jesus and the apostles did . . .

In other words, according to Catholic dogma, if you do not celebrate the Mass as they believe it to be understood, you are in great danger of the fires of Hell, since missing Mass without a valid excuse is a mortal sin.

For a professed, formal Catholic, yes. It is incorrect to contend that we would say of any Protestant that they are in "great danger" of hell for not going to Mass, because that only applies to practicing Catholics. And that also has a lot to do with the notion of the importance of corporate worship, or the "Sabbath principle" as well as the overriding importance and supreme honor of receiving our Lord in the Eucharist, just as Mary received Him in her womb and the world received Him in the Incarnation.

With the recent rise of modern Catholic apologetics, Catholic lay people are being trained to answer some of the more difficult objections to their faith that Protestants bring forward.

Yep. I would flip the challenge back to Michael, too, by turning the tables:
With the recent rise of modern Protestant apologetics, Protestant lay people are being trained to answer some of the more difficult objections to their faith that Catholics bring forward.
I simply can't resist: I recently replied in great depth (six parts) to Michael's series defending sola Scriptura, but haven't heard a peep back from either Michael or any of his regular blog commenters. So that works both ways. Protestants (not just we Catholics) have lots of "difficult objections" to Protestantism to adequately defend and explain as well (and often they take a pass from doing so). Sola Scriptura is very much one of these.

The two primary areas that Catholic apologetics is centering on are issues with the canon of Scripture and the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

I don't know if they are primary to the exclusion of other things. But the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is receiving a vigorous defense; that's definitely true.

We are focusing on Transubstantiation here. Not only this, but I want to focus on one particular argument that is being put forth more and more in defense of Transubstantiation that comes from John 6.

Here is the passage:

John 6:48 “I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

The Basic argument is this: If Christ was not speaking literally when He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” why did they respond by saying: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” If Christ was only speaking symbolically about feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood (as most Protestants believe), then it is not really a “hard saying,” just a misunderstood saying. According to the Catholic apologist, if Christ was speaking symbolically, Christ could have—indeed would have—corrected them and said, “This is not really hard. You must understand I am only speaking symbolically of eating my flesh and drinking my blood.” But He did not. He let them walk away. The Catholic apologist will often emphasis this fact and declare it to be incontestable evidence that Christ was speaking literally about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. Thus, this becomes a primary defense of transubstantiation and the necessity of partaking in Mass for eternal life.

That's a fair description, yes. But there are many more sub-arguments beyond this bald presentation of "literal" interpretation. I will get into some of those as I answer, and as opportunity arises.

Karl Keating, a popular Catholic Apologist and President of Catholic Answers, [link] says:
“There was no attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct misunderstanding, for there were none. His listeners understood him quite well. No one any longer thought he was speaking metaphorically. If they had, why no correction? On other occasions, whenever there was confusion, Christ explained what he meant. Here, where any misunderstanding would be catastrophic, there was no effort to correct. Instead, he repeated what he said” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988], 233-234).
Amen! Preach it, Karl!

While I respect and appreciate the attempts of some very fine Catholic apologists to defend difficult positions and believe this to be a good argument on the surface, I believe it is seriously flawed. I believe that it is taken out of the context of the entire book of John and bears a burden that it cannot sustain on exegetical and theological grounds.

Okay. Now we will see how the counter-argument stands up under scrutiny. That is the intellectual challenge that I love about apologetics. Our views can assuredly withstand scrutiny, again and again. I see it daily in my work, and that is one reason I never flee from challenges to the Catholic faith from intelligent, cordial Protestant critics like Michael Patton. I welcome them. Bring 'em on! The more the merrier . . .

Why? For two primary reasons:

1. Jesus is always being misunderstood. John rarely records Jesus’ correcting the misunderstanding of people.

To the contrary, there are indeed instances of this in John. One occurs in John 10:1-19. Jesus gives a parable of the sheep and the good shepherd (10:1-5). Then in verses 6 and 7b we read:
This figure [paroimia; "parable" in KJV] Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So Jesus again said to them,. . . (RSV)
Then Jesus goes on to expound and clarify and elaborate (10:7b-18). He doesn't merely repeat for emphasis, as in John 6. Therefore, this is a counter-example. Another one is the entire chapter 16 of John, where the disciples did not understand, and Jesus explained at length to clarify, and then they did understand:
[1] "I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away.[2] They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. [3] And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me. [4] But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them. "I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. [5] But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?' [6] But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. [7] Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. [8] And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: [9] concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; [10] concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; [11] concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. [12] "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [16] A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me." [17] Some of his disciples said to one another, "What is this that he says to us, `A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and, `because I go to the Father'?" [18] They said, "What does he mean by `a little while'? We do not know what he means." [19] Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him; so he said to them, "Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, `A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? [20] Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. [21] When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. [22] So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. [23] In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. [24] Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. [25] "I have said this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father. [26] In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; [27] for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father. [28] I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father." [29] His disciples said, "Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure! [30] Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God." [31] Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? [32] The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. [33] I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
This is, then, a second counter-instance of Jesus explaining to His disciples when they didn't properly comprehend or were confused or troubled. With an entire chapter devoted to such an instance, we can hardly deny that the Gospel of John contains this motif. Jesus would explain things to His disciples (if not always to the masses or the hyper-skeptical Pharisees). And in John 6 it was disciples who were questioning:
[60] Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" [61] But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, "Do you take offense at this?. . . [66] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.
Yet there Jesus did not explain; He merely repeated with more "in your face" force. And it is the only recorded instance (other than Judas) of any of His disciples ceasing to follow Him. The plausible reason is because He knew that they were questioning and would not have accepted any further explanation anyway. We know this from the hard evidence of John 6:64:
"But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
This theme appears elsewhere in John, too:

John 8:27, 43-47 They [the Pharisees] did not understand that he spoke to them of the Father. . . . [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God."

John 12:37-40 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; [38] it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" [39] Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, [40] "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them."
In other words, Jesus is emphasizing that some people don't "understand" because they don't want to: they lack faith; they can't "bear" His word, and they are burdened with undue skepticism and led by the devil, the father of lies. This is what happened in John 6 with those disciples who left Him. It is a theme in the Synoptics as well:

Matthew 13:13, 19 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. . . . When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path.

Luke 5:21-22 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, "Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?" [22] When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, "Why do you question in your hearts?"
A third instance in the Gospel of John of Jesus explaining something in greater detail, that was misunderstood (which Michael thinks is rare) occurs in John 3:1-15: the incident with Nicodemus regarding the meaning of "born again". Nicodemus asks: "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (3:4). Jesus explains His meaning (3:5-8). Nicodemus, still baffled, again asks: "How can this be?"(3:9). Jesus replied: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?" (3:10) and then proceeds to explain some more (3:11-15). He explained because He knew that Nicodemus was truly seeking. When someone wasn't seeking or open in their spirit, He usually (if not always) would not do so, as in John 6.
But John is not the only account of Jesus' life and teachings; we also have the three synoptic gospels, and they record more instances of Jesus explaining to His disciples when they didn't understand something (or descriptions of same):

Matthew 13:36b, 51 And his disciples came to him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." . . . "Have you understood all this?" They said to him, "Yes." 

Matthew 15:10-20 And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: [11] not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." [12] Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" [13] He answered, "Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. [14] Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." [15] But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us." [16] And he said, "Are you also still without understanding? [17] Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? [18] But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. [19] For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. [20] These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man." [cf. Mark 7:17-18]
Matthew 16:5-12 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. [6] Jesus said to them, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad'ducees." [7] And they discussed it among themselves, saying, "We brought no bread." [8] But Jesus, aware of this, said, "O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? [9] Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? [10] Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? [11] How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad'ducees." [12] Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sad'ducees
Matthew 17:9-13 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead." [10] And the disciples asked him, "Then why do the scribes say that first Eli'jah must come?" [11] He replied, "Eli'jah does come, and he is to restore all things; [12] but I tell you that Eli'jah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands." [13] Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. 

Mark 4:33-34 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; [34] he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything
[therefore, He would have in John 6 if a misunderstanding were involved, rather than a hardhearted disbelief, brought on by the influence of Satan] 
Luke 8:9-11 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, [10] he said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. [11] Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 
[Jesus continues to explain in 8:12-15] 
Luke 9:46-48 And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. [47] But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, [48] and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great." 
Luke 24:13-27 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma'us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, [14] and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. [15] While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. [16] But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. [17] And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. [18] Then one of them, named Cle'opas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" [19] And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, [20] and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. [21] But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. [22] Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning [23] and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. [24] Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." [25] And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?"[27] And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
The people in John 6 were looking for Christ to provide for them like Moses did and they were not interested in His talk about belief and eating his flesh. Some naturally thought that he was being literal about his statements. It is true, Christ did not correct them. But this is a common theme in the ministry of Christ.

I think the scriptural data highlighted above shows this to be a false statement. He often explained and corrected His disciples Who misunderstood and who were willing to listen. Therefore, John 6 makes sense only in terms of interpreting it as an instance where it was not an innocent misunderstanding (mistaking a supposed figurative discourse for a literal one) , but a deliberate refusal to believe (understanding but not accepting). These were disciples who would have had the teaching explained to them in greater detail if only they were willing. They were not, and the difficulty of this teaching was enough to make them split for good. Many Protestants today believe the same thing that made these former disciples forsake the following of Jesus.

As Peter demonstrates, it is only those who stay with him that get the answers for eternal life (John 6:68).

But this simply proves my point. They left precisely because they refused to believe Jesus. If it had been a misunderstanding, Jesus certainly would have explained to them, had they been open. His not explaining proves that it was a refusal to believe what was made quite plain (His literal Body and Blood in a eucharistic context).

Often Christ would speak in parables and not tell any but those who were His true followers (Luke 8:10). The rest He let go in their ignorance since he knew all men and he was not committing himself to them.

I agree. That interpretation was incorporated into my argument above; therefore has no effect in supposedly defeating my argument.

John presents this side of Jesus more than any other of the Gospels when he says: John 2:24-25 “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” He did not entrust himself to his listeners.

This passage is referring specifically to those who believed because "they saw the signs which he did" (2:23). The passage that immediately follows is the one with Nicodemus inquiring about being "born again." Nicodemus was, I suppose, a "follower" but not a disciple. He was a Pharisee.

Why? I suppose some wanted a king who would provide literal food for them like Moses did in the wilderness and they left when it became clear that He was not going to do the same. Some thought that He was speaking about actually eating his flesh and blood, [in] violation of the Mosaic Law, and they left. But why didn’t He simply correct their misunderstanding in this case? For the same reason He does not throughout the book of John.

But I have already provided three examples (including the entire chapter 16) where Jesus did indeed correct misunderstandings or explain further. I provide three additional ones below, for a total of six prooftexts in John. And we know this was His standard practice also from eight passages in the Synoptics that I presented above. That makes a total of 14 examples in the four Gospels. So Michael's argument is based on a false presupposition or premise.

He often says things that are open to misinterpretation and then leaves His listeners in their confusion. Notice these examples

a. John 2:18-21 “The Jews then said to Him, ‘What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”

Notice, Christ was not being literal here yet He did not correct the misunderstanding. This misunderstanding eventually leads to His conviction and death.

Exactly; because they did not want to believe Him. These were probably the scribes and Pharisees, because it was at the temple. This proves my point again, because my argument hinges on the clear distinction (which Michael himself has noted) between how Jesus talked to open-minded and closed-minded people, and between how He talked to disciples and the masses. As I wrote in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (p. 88):
. . . Jesus often put people "on the spot" and demanded decisive, self-denying allegiance (e.g., Matt. 10:34-39; 12:30; 19:21).
Here are those passages:
John 10:34-39 Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. [35] For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; [36] and a man's foes will be those of his own household. [37] He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; [38] and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. [39] He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

John 12:30 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

John 19:21 Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
Catholic apologist Bertrand L. Conway elaborates:
We must remember that Christ, like every good teacher, made two sorts of answers to men who objected to His teaching. If they did not understand His meaning, He explained His doctrine more fully. In this way He explains . . . the possibility of the rich man being saved (Matthew 19:24-6), the fact of Lazarus' death (John 11:11-14), the idea of freedom (John 8:32-4; cf. John 4:31-4; 8:21-23). When His hearers understood His teaching but refused to accept it, He repeated His teaching with even more emphasis. Thus, He insisted upon His power to forgive sins, when the Scribes accused Him of blasphemy (Matthew 9:2-7), and insisted on His being Eternal, when the Jews said He was not yet fifty years old (John 8:56-8). 
(The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929, 251; cited in my book: A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, pp. 88-89)
Here are the first set of passages, also, for the convenience of readers:

Matthew 19:24-26 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." [25] When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" [26] But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." 
John 11:8-15 [8] The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?" [9] Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him." [11] Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, "Our friend Laz'arus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep." [12] The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, "Laz'arus is dead; [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 
[a fourth instance in the Gospel of John, of Jesus explaining His meaning to the disciples, who had misunderstood Him] 
John 4:31-34 Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, "Rabbi, eat." [32] But he said to them, "I have food to eat of which you do not know." [33] So the disciples said to one another, "Has any one brought him food?" [34] Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. 
[a fifth instance . . .] 
John 8:21-32 Again he said to them, "I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come." [22] Then said the Jews, "Will he kill himself, since he says, `Where I am going, you cannot come'?" [23] He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. [24] I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he." [25] They said to him, "Who are you?" Jesus said to them, "Even what I have told you from the beginning. [26] I have much to say about you and much to judge; but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him." [27] They did not understand that he spoke to them of the Father. [28] So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. [29] And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him."[30] As he spoke thus, many believed in him. [31] Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
[a sixth instance . . .]
b. John 3:3-4 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

Notice again, Jesus does not correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (although, like in John 6, it is obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally).

I don't understand this claim. Jesus did explain things to Nicodemus. No less than eight verses in the chapter are devoted to Jesus elaborating on his meaning, as I mentioned above. Yet Michael says that "Jesus does not correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding." Nor is it "obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally" with regard to John 6. It is so non-obvious that the entire mass of Church fathers believed in the Real Presence just as Catholics do, based partially on the evidence of John 6. It's "obvious" to evangelical Protestants only because they have been taught over and over that the chapter is parabolic and not literal, and to not believe in the Real Presence in the first place. So "obvious" is quite a relative term: highly dependent on background thought, teaching, and presuppositions.

c. The disciples want Jesus to eat: “Rabbi, eat” (John 4:31). Jesus answers: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). “So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought him anything to eat, did he?’” (John 4:33).

This time Jesus does correct his disciples, but in frustration because they cannot see the symbolism behind it. In other words, they should know enough by now to interpret His words symbolically since this is the way He always spoke.

Again, this works at cross-purposes to Michael's argument regarding John 6 because if this shows how Jesus reacts to misunderstood symbolism, then it supports the Catholic argument, since He would have also likely acted the same way towards the alleged misunderstandings of His words in the John 6 discourse. But He did not. He simply reiterated His teaching in even starker, stronger terms. So this proves nothing for Michael's case against literalism in John 6. Other times, He is silent, as before Pontius Pilate (for the most part), or concerning the misunderstanding when He said He would raise the temple (John 2:19-21).

Nor did Jesus always speak symbolically. That's too silly of a claim to even spend any time on. It's assuming what is trying to be proven, which is circular reasoning, or begging the question.

Now we come to John 6. John’s readers should know by now that Christ speaks symbolically in such statements as these. We should understand by now that Christ is always being misunderstood by “outsiders.” They also know that sometimes Christ corrects the misunderstanding (especially with true followers)

I have shown 14 such instances.

and sometimes he does not.

He doesn't (every time) when He knows that people do not believe! It's so manifestly obvious by now! Therefore, I contend that this was the case in John 6. They understood it and rejected the teaching; they didn't merely misunderstand it. If that had been the case, Jesus would have surely corrected them, because He would have known their heart, and would know that they misunderstood, just as He did on these other 14 documented occasions.

It's beyond ludicrous to think that He would have allowed them to stop being His disciples based on a misunderstanding of supposed figurative or symbolic language for literal. He would have corrected them and the problem would have been resolved. But instead He chose not to. That makes no sense. But not explaining because He knew it would be futile, makes perfect sense, is consistent with His behavior in other such scenarios, and is far more plausible than the alternative.

Therefore, it would be irresponsible for the reader to take Christ literally in John 6.

Would Christ have corrected the misunderstanding of unbelievers whose heart he already knew?

These were "disciples." Of course, since they forsook Jesus at this point, Michael, according to the dogmatic dictates of His Calvinism, has to believe that they never were Christians or disciples, or else they wouldn't have left. But that doesn't fly, because Judas left, and he is described in Scripture as an apostle and a disciple (and as chosen by Jesus Himself: John 6:70). In fact, the very notion of "betraying" Jesus wouldn't make sense unless He had really been His disciple. That is the betrayer. The disciples were constantly misunderstanding Jesus, and He corrected and educated them over and over. Why should this be any different, if in fact it were a misunderstanding?
But another way of looking at it would be to say that they were true disciples, who were stumbled by this particular teaching, since it was a difficult one (as all admit), and it made them turn hostile out of disenchantment. We know that Jesus knew this about them because of what He said: "Do you take offense at this?" (John 6:61; meaning, of course, that they did, because He knew their hearts and was asking a pointed, provocative question). And isn't it interesting how their questioning is described?:

John 6:64 But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
Language of not believing and betrayal is not applicable to misunderstandings. Therefore, it makes no sense to think that He let them stop being His disciples based on a misunderstanding rather than hardness of heart.

“For judgment I came into the world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39).

“For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them’” (John 12:40).

It does not seem so. This was not His modus operandi.

That's why He didn't explain it to them. Michael's making my case again . . .

2. Another important factor that Keating and other Catholic apologists fail to take into account is that John does not even record the central events of the Last Supper at all. Obviously if we took the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and believed John included this passage to communicate that believers must eat the literal body and blood of Christ in order to have eternal life, you would expect John to have recorded the events that it foreshadows. You would expect John to have a historical record of the Last Supper, the inaugurating meal of the Eucharist. But John does not. What an oversight by John! In fact, John is the only Gospel writer that did not record the Last Supper. Therefore, it is very unlikely that in John’s mind, a literal eating and drinking of Christ body and blood are essential for salvation. Remember John wrote the only book in the NT that explicitly says it is written for the purpose of salvation and he does not even include the Lord’s Supper.

This is a foolish argument. John records the Last Supper, but he doesn't have the description of eating what was formerly bread and wine, that became the prototype of the Mass. This happens all the time in the Gospels: one will record something that the other does not. That's how God designed it. Thus, not every detail has to appear in every book. But what we have in John 6 is prefectly consistent with the eucharistic realism of the Last Supper passages in the Synoptics and with what St. Paul writes about the same doctrine.

Michael first denies that "the central events of the Last Supper" are in John. If by this he means the words "This is My body," etc., he is correct. But then he seems to get over-ambitious and sloppy and makes a greater claim:
John is the only Gospel writer that did not record the Last Supper. . . . Remember John wrote the only book in the NT that explicitly says it is written for the purpose of salvation and he does not even include the Lord’s Supper.
The book clearly refers to the event that was the Last Supper, as it was a Passover meal. It refers to "the Passover" being "at hand" (John 11:55). The desire of the "chief priests and Pharisees" to arrest Jesus if He went to Jerusalem for the feast is noted (11:56-57). He was at Bethany "six days before the Passover" (12:1). It's referred to again in 13:1. The "supper" is mentioned in 13:2 and 13:4. 13:26 details the incident with John, showing him who would betray Him. Judas then departs from the Last Supper; "the table" (13:27-30). John then records lengthy discourses by Jesus at the Last Supper (John 14-17). 18:1-12 (right after the words spoken in chapters 14-17) is about the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus' arrest.

In John 13:37-38, Jesus predicts that Peter would deny Him, just as He does in Luke's Last Supper passage, at Luke 22:33-34. Judas departs the meal at Luke 22:3-4, just as he does in John 13:27-30. He goes to the Garden in both accounts, etc. So there is no question that John is writing about the Last Supper. He just doesn't include all the details. He doesn't have to, because his Gospel is only one of four. He records the discourse that the Synoptic Gospels do not include.

John 20:30-31 “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Why did they walk away? Because, like all other unbelievers, they expected something of Jesus that He did not come to provide and they misunderstood His teachings and intentions. A very common theme in John and a very common mistake today.

The only problem is that this is not how Jesus Himself interpreted their actions. It is in direct contradiction to what we know about that:
John 6:61, 64 "Do you take offense at this?" . . . But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
Neither Jesus nor John in giving details communicated in terms of "you do not understand" (a problem of comprehension or the mind), but rather, He said they "do not believe" and John says He knew who "would betray him," which is referring to the will and faith and lack of belief in Jesus: very different things indeed.

In short, before you start paddling across the Tiber, set an anchor and think seriously about the exegetical and theological viability of the Catholic interpretation of John 6.

I hope readers will do so by comparing my account with Michael's. I'm confident that they will see which scenario is more plausible. And if my arguments are so shoddy, I'm sure Michael will correct them with a powerful counter-argument. Truth has that power to withstand the utmost scrutiny.

I praise and thank God for His clear gospel message and also His plain, manifest eucharistic, sacramental message in Holy Scripture.