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February 28, 2011



I can't say that I agree with much of your assessment regarding the theories of atonement. But the part that makes this seem more than tenable to most that read this is that most probably have no idea what those theories are (or very little outside of Google or Wikipedia) and that makes you the subject matter expert for them. I think you said at some point you had some seminary training, so that would give you even more creedence.

I disagree with much of Bell's stuff, not so much the variance from orthodoxy (which he tries to be crafty about), but just really bad philosophy. Double that concerning McClaren. Neither of them have much of an idea of what they're talking about in terms of that subject, regardless of their passion. However, Bell seems to be a guy that believes in heaven and hell and really doesn't want anyone to go to hell, which is a redeeming quality, right or wrong.

BTW, I am still trying to get through the other side of work deadlines this week, but I will endeavor to get you a list of some ideas within the week. I'll contact you via FB, if that's ok.

Paul D.

To the extent that any theology makes sense, I've found myself attracted to Eastern Orthodox theology lately. They don't have any real theory of the atonement at all, and one archbishop whose videos I've been watching on Youtube considers substitutionary atonement to be a complete abomination of a doctrine, responsible for more people becoming atheists than any other Christian teaching.


Charles, yes, most who read this blog are ignorant sycophants who rely completely on wikipedia, not philosophically erudite people like you. Do you actually parse what your words mean? Have you read responses from Leighton, Cheek, JJ, Jay, Todd, etc., and seen their level of expertise with theology, mathematics, science, philosophy, ministry, etc.? Most of the people I communicate with here on a regular basis are autodidacts or highly, formally educated people. You might have noticed that the vocab doesn't lend itself to the average reader. As for my credentials, that's adorable. What level of hubris does it take to enter into a technical discussion with someone without knowing their level of education or expertise? I guess the kind that assumes you are the better of Bell and McLaren in philosophy, when it seems your only experience with philosophy is Reformed bullshit. Seriously, you could not be more condescending if you tried, and if you didn't realize it, more's the pity. You'll excuse the angry tone, as I'm more than a little irritated by your willfully or ignorantly condescending assumptions.


Oh, and theories of atonement. I don't expect you to agree. It's more convenient not to. Nevertheless, they are contradictory in many cases, and utter bullshit in most. My degrees are in Biblical Studies (B.S.) and Theology (M.A.), but I'm sure you can help enlighten me as to what I got wrong on theories of atonement.

Trevor Palen

Good Post...cannot wait to see how the fundangelical church replies, and you are definitely right, the proof-texting war games are off. It seems to me Bell has had a huge voice in the evangelical world, particularly with his Nooma videos. I think he'll definitely start provoking discussion amongst the lay people (particularly the young crowd) that should be more constructive than the discussion brought about by events like Haggard's ordeal.

I won't attempt to address the SA issue as a whole, as you've clearly presented legitimate complaints...However, I don't think you're being fair with the statement:

"God is killing Jesus, but Jesus is God, but Jesus is also man, so how is he both..."

There are obviously necessary presuppositions to hold for the incarnation to work, mainly that God is capable of operating outside of the natural world which he created for us to live in. Given that they ARE held, the thought pattern is reasonable:

God is killing (the human nature of) Christ. Christ is (100%) God. Christ is also (100%) man. He is both (human and God) by God's (His) will and power.

"...and how is God killing God?"

God (in His fullness of being) is not killing God (in His fullness of being) but is rather killing a man Jesus of Nazareth. The man (Jesus of Nazareth) is not God, but is man, and God (the Son) is not man, but is God (the Son). Christ is the fullness of both.

Greg Horton

while I appreciate the tone of your post, Trevor, please read the portion of you post following "necessary presuppositions" as if you were an unbeliever. Try to make that tortured "logic" make sense. Reasonable means nothing when you follow it with violations of the principle of non-contradiction. There is also nothing in Scripture to justify your position that god is killing the human nature of Christ. Sounds very close to Docetism or Modalism in fact. I believe I mentioned the absurdity of Chalcedonian Christianity: 100% plus 100% equals 200% no matter how you do the math. Nice try, though.

Trevor Palen

Hypostatic Union looks a lot less like addition and a whole lot more like multiplication, if we're going to analogize the concept with math. a + a = 2a is LESS asymptotic than is (-a) x b = -ab, and, I think, therefore shows the problem with conceiving the issue mathematically (especially additionally), particularly when the addition contains defined values given the fact that at least one of those values is indefinable, if not inexpressible.

To attempt to describe the event linguistically:

The wholeness of the being Christ contains the fullness of the man Jesus of Nazareth and the fullness of Logos.

the man Jesus of Nazareth was killed by God (The Father, but we'll say by extension of definition, Logos as well). The wholeness of Christ experienced the pain and death of Jesus because Jesus' fullness at all times remains in the wholeness of Christ. Simultaneously and cohesively the fullness of Logos carries out His responsibility in the Atonement. Now before you accuse me of Modalism, these are intrinsic indwelling natures within the fullness of Christ. They do not exist outside of Christ, but rather within Christ.

The reason God is not committing suicide is because it is the unique human attributes of the Jesus indwelling Christ that enables Christ to die, yet the unique deity attributes of Logos indwelling Christ allowing him to endure wrath and raise Christ from the dead. Christ is still operating out of the fullness of his wholeness. Christ is not operating out of one and not the other, but Christ is operating out of his unique nature.

Greg Horton

Wow, that is really pretty talk, if I felt compelled to believe in Trinity, but since I don't, it just sounds like a really wordy attempt to justify an unjustifiable concept that clearly violates noncontradiction. Theologically, you have managed to separate the man Jesus from Christ, a move your Bible never makes, nor does any Council of which I'm aware. Trevor, it seems you've become a heretic. Welcome to the club.


One of the reasons I bailed is that there just is no end to this type of debate. If the Bible is "literally" true and "God's word", maybe be a little more clear? If I am to believe the debaters, then what's at stake in their debates about the nature of redemptive work is nothing less than billions of people's eternal souls. Yet there is no clarity or consensus on who gets in and who fries. And there never will be.


Lurking while wondering if Occam's Razor is the best approach for all of this. I think I fall in line with Zoss. If you have to use verbal calculus to justify an incalculable entity, you've already lost.


Might I ask what you mean to reference by your use of 'philosophy' above? Is it a methodology, a subject-matter, a practice? I'll admit that I've never read anything by Rob Bell, so I don't mean to defend him. Just curious in a self-interested way about the invocation of my discipline.

...And going ahead and making the mistake of entering into a conversation regarding arguments I haven't read, given the quote Greg cites, I can see a fairly straightforward argument that would not seem like "bad philosophy" to this professional philosopher:

1. God exists
2. If God exists, the s/he has the power to do any possible thing or cause any possible circumstance to obtain (possible here to be understood as logically possible).
3. God is loving.
4. If God is loving, then s/he will work to bring about the best possible life for all whom he loves.
5. God loves everyone.

Now, those premises get you to the conclusion that God works to bring about the best possible life for everyone. The only ways to stop that logical freight train from chugging right over the cliff of universalism are to get very crafty in the definitions of some terms that don't prima facie warrant it (i.e. stipulating that somehow the best lives of billions of people end in their eternal damnation) or to argue that it is somehow logically impossible for God to prevent the damnation of billions of people. Someone determined to maintain the doctrine of hell might construct any number of such arguments, but I doubt any of them could be built without premises that many or most people (Christians included) would find pretty distasteful.

Trevor Palen

Maybe and probably I am a Heretic, but then again, I think anyone attempting to even talk about the Trinity or the Nature of Christ is doomed to sound like one. I'll appeal to Barth quickly and then make one final statement:

"So new, so unheard of, so unexpected in this world is the power of God unto salvation, that it can appear among us, be received and understood by us, only as a contradiction"

I agree with that, but I do think that God in his revelation to us is capable of filling in the gaps in language with voids in thoughts such that consistency is not found in clear articulation but in meditation.

Finally, I would suggest that logic is being applied one-dimensionally in this discussion (and most all discussions for that matter). Maybe logic is itself one-dimensional, I don't really know. So I don't think Reason and Logic go hand in hand, especially within the context of English language.

I only said that I don't think you're being fair because I think you're knowingly employing a one-dimensional, linear lens to view that which should only be attempted at viewing through a multi-dimensional, non-linear lens. Given the latter, while still unknowable, the concept is not rendered so unreasonable as when applying a reductionist lens.

Greg Horton

Trevor, as concisely as possible because it's late, your third paragraph is complete sophistry. I will understand the inexplicable by meditation? Seriously? Nonsense. You can't fill in the gaps of language with meditation, because all concepts are hopelessly wrapped up in language. Time to read some Wittgenstein and Austin, sir. Second, no idea what logic being applied one-dimensionally means. It sounds like you don't like the way it's being applied because of the way logic treats metaphysics. Well, that is the danger of metaphysics. You can say anything, and as long as it's not falsifiable, you can be equally right and wrong. This isn't to say that all statements must be falsifiable to be epistemically honest, but it sure as shit helps. Reason and logic absolutely go hand in hand. To claim the contrary betrays some sort of lovely naivete, and I'm not mocking. Why you insist the limitation is only for English is even funnier. Is Spanish or Dutch better at pairing reason and logic? This is a weak attempt to explain a doctrine that is more than bizarre to anyone except those who feel compelled to believe it. And please, for the love of fucknuts everywhere, give me an example of a view of God through a multi-dimensional, non-linear lens before I scream "Bullshit." Multiplying words to sound more certain often has the opposite effect, especially when talking to people who care about the actual meaning of words. Again, time to read some Wittgenstein, or maybe even some Foucault. Deconstruction is good for the soul when applied to actual meanings.


Just wanted to pop in quickly with a pro-meditation viewpoint, though this isn't a disagreement with Greg. It's also my experience that meditation does make things clear and coherent in ways that aren't expressible in words. But I claim that this is due to the nature of meditation, rather than any particular thing being meditated upon.

I do think there are subjects or experiences that are not served well by trying to reduce them to language; otherwise a good chunk of my life is inexplicable. But in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, the best way to approach things you can't adequately talk about is--well, not to talk about them. Or at least don't wrap them in assertions and dogma and try to make it seem like an essentially political doctrinal compromise is a uniquely privileged window into the secrets of the universe. I think from a mystical perspective it probably is a window, but hardly a unique or necessary one as far as finding clarity through meditation goes.

I much prefer the Eastern Orthodox method: what is God? "We don't know. We can say quite a lot about what he isn't, but not about what he is." That puts the mystic uncertainty exactly where it should be, in "God," rather than in secondary descriptors like "nature" and "fullness" and "wholeness" and "indwelling" that (1) have clear meanings elsewhere in language, but not in trinitarian theology, and (2) are usually used in apologetics as though they were clinical terms rather than mystical references. If you're going to use language at all, I think it's better to use it consistently.

Trevor Palen

First off, thanks to both of you for entertaining my posts. More than anything, I read and post here so that I can A) Learn from differing opinions and B) "Practice" articulating my beliefs. I was challenged in Greg's class two summers ago in a way that I had not been in quite some time.

I will admit it is foolish to attempt to justify "a doctrine that is more than bizarre to anyone except those who feel compelled to believe it." By the same token, I don't think the attempt is so much justification as it is an appeal to empathy.

Leighton, you say "But in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, the best way to approach things you can't adequately talk about is--well, not to talk about them."

I agree to an extent, but I don't think critiques of the language which envelops the "things you can't adequately talk about" should be left off the floor. If it be foolish of me to defend metaphysical beliefs with language then it would also be foolish to dismiss metaphysical beliefs with language, such as done in the majority of Greg's blog posts. Like Greg says, deconstruction is good for the soul.

Greg, how is the third paragraph sophistry? Is it not a simple metaphysically based assertion? Being a non-falsifiable statement I don't see the use of fallacious arguments intending to deceive you. At best, I can see wariness of the clause "consistency is not found in clear articulation but in meditation"

I don't understand near as much about logical argument as do you, hence I downplayed my own assertion. You are certainly right here, the idea of one-dimensional logic is ridiculous.

Also, I should rephrase my statement "Reason and Logic don't go hand in hand". What I should have said is that Logic is an expression of Reason not an express form of Reason. Logic is grounded less in Reason and more in language and is therefore measurable and able to be manipulated. I see Reason as a state of mind, rather than a measurable fact.

I didn't insist that the limitation only applies to English, but okay, remove the modifier. That being said, every language has its inability to communicate concepts. This is why translation is a taxing experience for those who engage it.
Furthermore, this is why music (particularly as the Romantic thinkers saw it) is so powerful: because it conveys concepts without the limits of language. In fact, all art does this to some extent. So, I'll agree to disagree with your assertion that "all concepts are hopelessly wrapped up in language"

As per the multi-dimensional, non-linear lens...Go ahead and scream "Bullshit". I am nowhere near able to give you such an example, though maybe I could attempt to tell you what it is NOT.

I'll order some Wittgenstein. Where would you recommend that I start?


"But in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, the best way to approach things you can't adequately talk about is--well, not to talk about them."

I'm not sure I can go with you all the way here. I might grant you this principle in the face of concepts or phenomena which are truly and demonstrably ineffable, but I'm not sure how we could demonstrate ineffability. Plus, it turns out that many of the phenomena we can't describe turn out to simply represent lacunae in our conceptual mapping of reality. As such, the limited descriptive functionality of particular language games is often simply a matter contingent on the conceptual frontiers of a given society. So for example, the concept of sexual harassment did not exist until relatively recently in our society, and so, obviously, there were no words with which such behavior could be described. However, the behavior and its consequences for the professional and psychological flourishing of thousands of women existed undiscovered but profoundly efficacious. It's hard to see how we could ever come to understand such phenomena without torturing the language a bit to force it into previously verboten conceptual permutations.

I'm not sure what the similarities are between our concepts of these types of phenomena and our concepts of supposedly ineffable religious facts, but I do think it is too much to say we shouldn't talk about them. I especially think so in the face of concepts like trinity which are prima facie incoherent. It might be that there is some truly ineffable fact that accounts for the coherence of such concepts, but if so, it stands to reason that there would be other, more conceptually accessible phenomena which should help us draw more and more precise lines over the phenomenological landscape. I do, of course, completely agree with your suggestion that such concepts should not be included in dogma prior to they're being conceptually excavated, so to speak.


You might be careful with the term 'concept'. It seems as though you are using it differently than the rest of us. The unique, subjective experiences delivered by various art forms are probably better described by the word 'phenomenon' than 'concept'. Minds experience phenomena of various sorts and then map concepts onto those experiences, and yes, these concepts tend to be linguistic or partially linguistic. That's not to say that language is necessary for conceptualization, but it is certainly the most common conceptual mechanism used by human minds. Further, even if you can conceptualize a certain variety of experience, it's hard to see how that could matter to anyone by you if you were completely unable to give any verbal account of it. Concepts are most useful because they allow us to give generalized accounts of our experience, first to ourselves and then to others in our community. Those accounts might only be metaphorical, which is fine so long as you aren't ad hoc about which parts of the metaphor apply and which parts don't.

Trevor Palen

Cheek, thanks for the heads up.

I do like Phenomenon better as the general term for the reception of art, but it leaves me wondering what to make of the process of creating art? I'd love to hear your initial thoughts on the creation of art as it pertains to concepts and phenomena, particularly because I'd love to juxtapose the philosophical outlook on the issue with my experience in the field, as I perceive that my experience in the field is informing my statements about dimensionality and language.



No kidding? You, irritated? No way.

Since when did you suddenly get irritated with ignorantly condescending assumptions?




That syllogistic-type of argument doesn't necessarily lead to universalism or derailment when considering freedom as a higher good, although it would mean some reject Him.

God doesn't have the power to do any possible thing. He can't do anything contrary to His lovingness, righteousness, etc. So, that premise is false. In terms of freedom, if that freedom reflects more of His kindness than His creating us as automatons, then a world where people freely reject Him isn't contrary to His nature, in those terms.

With regards to McClaren, he believes that absolute truth cannot be attained. If it can't be attained, then his belief can't be an absolute truth or else he's wrong, because its an absolute truth claim.

It sounds very groovy to deconstruct ideas and conclude that objective truth is impossible, psychological and rational objectivity in knowledge impossible, etc. But you have to end up appealing to objective trth and a percieved psychological and rational objectivity in order to even claim that. It's a dog eating its tail.

McClaren does some good things. Theorizing about knowledge isn't one of them.


Cheek and Trevor,

I'm sorry that I was imprecise with that one comment, which both of you have rightly criticized. These days I don't often get a chance to post without multitasking, and my clarity is suffering for it.

What I should have said was not that people shouldn't talk about things that are hard to describe, but rather they shouldn't base things like dogma on things that are hard to describe, where the consequences of affirming or denying things that are never really clear in the first place can have social consequences that range anywhere from criticism to death. There's also a secularist premise that could be decoupled from that claim--namely that people shouldn't be ostracized or killed for mere beliefs, regardless of whether they're clearly defined. But I think even beyond this general principle, people and relationships benefit from a recognition that as-yet-unclear experiences should not, by themselves, serve as the basis for social sanctions or ethical decisions or epistemic claims about the outside world. I think this is in line with your second comment, Cheek.

I think this is relevant to conversations about trinity because of a particular pathology that apologists (not just Christians) can fall into, where they somehow get the idea that the subjective experiences of people who disagree on a doctrinal statement are qualitatively different than their own; that they must experience lesser clarity or joy or sense of purpose or something along these lines. What I've learned, partly from practicing the kind of meditation best described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is that this is entirely untrue; the quality and quantity people's subjective experiences don't have any predictable connection with the things they believe.

Greg Horton

charles, as to comment one, this is why people call you an asshole. as to comment two, your second paragraph is utter horseshit according to the Bible. He lies, murders, and seeks revenge. So what exactly is contrary to His lovingness? Ha. That's hysterical. Hey, world, I just killed thousands of babies in a flood. It's called love. Just thought you'd want to get your definitions straight. Signed, YHWH. As for rejecting him, that doesn't require the presence of hell, so your whole automaton argument is bullshit in light of the fact that he could have created a world where those who reject him are destroyed, not tortured for eternity. Looks like the JWs score one on the Protestants there.

I don't know what McLaren believes about absolute truth, and I'm pretty sure the term is a bit ridiculous. I've read nearly everything he's written, and he seems pretty comfortable with truth. Perhaps you and Geisler can put your heads together and define "absolute truth." Your fundy undies are showing here.

As for you last paragraph, yawn. It's nice to live in a world where you get to define everything and it conveniently ends up sounding like the world you prefer. I've read that argument before too, and it fails the linguistics test. I'm not sure anyone here has actually said "objective truth is impossible." I don't know that I've used the phrase, except maybe to make fun of it. Why not leave the strawmen alone. They're a little weary of you chasing them around with that crucifix in your hand.

This is the kind of shit you do that leaves me thinking a "debate" with you is only one more chance for you to play "smartest guy in a small church." I'll pass. You seem not to read what is actually written, and prefer to demand your categories as defined by you, all the while constructing strawmen of what was actually written. Time to put the J.P. Moreland down. What he's doing is cute, but it ain't philosophy, and by the way, that Reformed shit is rotting your brain. Welcome to the world where the first premise is "God is," and no one is supposed to notice that the premise is built in thin air.

Greg Horton

Trevor, sorry. You may not know the background here. I see most non-falsifiable statements from the realm of metaphysics as sophistry, of a sort. Since I'm free to claim anything I want in metaphysics because all the claims are non-falsifiable, they are all equally possibly true and equally possibly false. Which is to say, they have zero epistemic content. I could say that meditation has helped me understand that god is a dead 10th century Viking warrior whose spirit lives in my garage and with whom I communicate via a horned, Viking helmet. The bowl of the helmet is where we hear each other. The horns are where we speak. It's impossible to falsify the statement, so it's as probable as "Once upon a time, a serpent in a garden talked to a woman named Eve..."

So paragraph three ends up sounding to me like Ahura MazdaBuddhaJesusZeusSetMarduk said... All those sorts of claims are nonsensical to me. None can be demonstrated. None can be verified. I'm just supposed to trust you that that's what god said. By extension, I'm now supposed to trust the known and unknown authors of the Bible (or any sacred text) as to their assertions. You'll understand my skepticism.


That's a great question about which I wish I knew a lot more. There's a fantastic aesthetics scholar in my department whom I now want to talk to about this very thing. As far as my own thoughts on the question go, I'd say I'm probably in a similar place to you. All my understanding of the artistic process stems from writing, a creative process, it seems to me, that can be described by a fairly straightforward application of concepts and phenomena. What I try to do in telling a story is take clear concepts derived from my own experience of an event (or type of event) and convey those concepts clearly in prose. Now, these concepts are sometimes linguistic, but more often narrative, something like the "click" that David Foster Wallace describes feeling both in the solving of a difficult logic problem and the perfecting of a piece of narrative. Of course, the goal is not for the reader to experience my concepts conceptually. If the writing is any good at all, then she experiences them phenomenally, leaving her open to map her own experience of the work with any conceptual scheme that works for her and coheres in the text. All of this comes right out of the reader response theory of literary criticism, though I've described it in strictly philosophical terminology. There is no strict creation/consumption dichotomy on this theory because in consuming the work, the reader is required to conceptualize it herself, creating her own meaning from the experience. As such, it wouldn't make much sense to talk about art in this sense as conveying concepts at all. Instead, it is better to think about it as a medium, derived conceptually from the experience of the creator, experienced phenomenally by the consumer, and then, should the consumer care to devote the energy, re-conceptualized in her mind. I'd be interested to hear how well this jives with your own experience.


I'm not sure you got the purpose of my laying out that argument. It was not meant to demonstrate the truth of universalism so much as to show how easily the argument can be constructed in a philosophically sound way. You can obviously argue about the truth of the premises, but the fact that I include a premise that you think is false doesn't make it bad philosophy. I might be wrong, but then, that shouldn't shock anyone given that we are discussing deep philosophical issues. (I think I'm picking up some scorn in your description "syllogistic-type of argument." I'm interested in what other types of argument you think would be better suited to the material. In my experience, deductive argument is just what philosophers do, at least whenever possible. Papers that don't contain clear premises and conclusions tend to be seen as "squishy.")

Regarding your comments on McClaren, I'll have to take your word for it that that's what he says, though I would suspect there to be more nuance in his view. Ever since Plantinga's well-crafted argument against a certain statement (not actually the mainstream statement) of evidentialism, the charge of self-referential incoherence has popped up in the arguments of Christian philosophers everywhere. I'm not sure it's appropriate to use it here, though. If what McClaren wants to deny is that we can know the absolute truth about metaphysical claims, then there are a number of coherent ways to do that. (Not being too clear on what 'absolute truth' is meant to denote, I'm going to be shooting in the dark a bit here, so please forgive any misfires.) If he just mean to say that the ground of substance is imperceptible, then this is a pretty common claim among metaphysicians with a long and venerable philosophical history. Now, I think it's kind of silly, but that doesn't make it incoherent. More charitably, we might take him to simply be denying the possibility of certain knowledge. That claim just has to be right. I'm not claiming to have certain knowledge that certain knowledge is impossible, but I'm afraid that given the many pitfalls of our epistemic processes in mundane experience, I find it utterly implausible that our knowledge of deep metaphysical realities could be any better. If someone wants to fly in the face of evidence and deny that, fine, but I'm pretty much finished arguing at that point since it's clear that the person either lacks the capability to think honestly about the topic or just has no interest in doing so. I have less than no interest in engaging apologetics philosophically since it's stated aim (the defense of claims that are pre-established to be true) is anathema to the philosophical method in which the truth value of all claims must be laid on the table eventually.


Could you tell me how you think Ransom and Christus Victor are antithetical to each other? They seem pretty close to me and variations on the same theme: Jesus giving himself over to death/evil/sin which cannot hold Him, and then being Victor over 'the dark side'. I would say that both are antithetical to Penal substitution...

Greg Horton

Bram, they're antithetical in different ways, and you are correct on the last point as well. However, for Ransom and CV, what is at issue is the nature and character of God. In Ransom, god is actually held hostage by the devil, but overcomes the devil's claim on humans by means of deception. It's fine if we understand it as purely mythical with god being the archetypal trickster, but it makes for bad theology. CV shows a god who eschews violence (and deception) in favor of obedience and sacrifice. The Christ event becomes a moment where the powers of darkness are defeated, not through deception, but by a straightforward revelation of what they are and where the power truly originates. By killing the righteous one, the powers are shown to be opposed to "the good," and the power of God is revealed in the resurrection, thereby rendering the powers powerless to exact an ultimate penalty over humans. I prefer that sort of narrative to the former, in which god looks like one mob boss among many trying to sort out a way to clear his ledger.

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