Finally! We’ve come to the topic I have been eager for and a topic I feel VERY passionately about: the rationality of believing in hell. Spoiler alert: I don’t think a belief in hell is rational if we are holding to the existence of a Good God, a perfectly knowing, powerful, loving God. But I’ll leave more of that to the end. After about 10,000 of my words on it.
“Heaven and Hell” was written by Dr. Jerry L. Walls, Scholar-in-Residence and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. His field of study focuses on Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and ethics and he has written extensively on the Christian conception of the afterlife.
Quick! GUESS WHERE HE GOT HIS PHD. YOU’LL NEVER GUESS. Yep, Notre Dame. REALLY beginning to think the field needs more diversity in its training and education, as well as in its contributing members.
Walls starts with an overview of how philosophical theology has treated the ideas of heaven and hell. Heaven is not a topic much explored these days, but examinations of the concept of hell has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance, “perhaps” says Walls, “because hell presents more urgent difficulties” than heaven does (493).
Walls outlines the “essential argument” for understanding hell as a form of necessary retributive justice (credited to the Triple As: Augustine, Aquinas, and Anslem, among others):
- Any sin against God is infinitely serious.
- An infinitely serious sin deserves a proportionate punishment, which must also be infinite.
- God is perfectly just.
- Therefore, God must punish any sin that is not atoned for with infinite punishment (494).
The “traditional” view of hell, somewhat modified and reframed, is this:
- Some persons will never repent of their sins, and therefore will not be saved.
- Those who remain impenitent at death will be consigned to hell, a place of consummate misery that is the just punishment for sins they commit in this life.
- There is no salvation after death so there is no end to hell by repentance nor is there an end to it by suicide or annihilation (495).
Recently, theologians have taken issue with various aspects of this argument: that hell must be of the “consummate misery” variety (where is God’s love and mercy here?), and that infinite, consummately miserable hell is a “just” punishment (how is that at all proportionate to sins committed by finite, limited beings?). Yet it is still defended in some circles. Charles Seymour, for example, claims that an infinite and consummately miserable hell is just because people in hell continue to sin in hell so their punishment is never complete (497). If all people in hell continue to sin, however, it seems rather tidy to claim that this a matter of freedom. It seems odd that everyone would choose to continue to sin in hell… that NO ONE would choose to repent… it’s very coincidental that everyone in the exact same circumstance freely chooses one course of action, is it not? It rather suggests that perhaps the circumstances render choice, making it much less free, in which case hell would be unjust. OR it suggests that those who enter hell were never going to do otherwise, therefore it seems cruel for God to have created such doomed creatures in the first place. (Even here some may say their eternal suffering was necessary for the eternal glory of the saved, so perhaps we can get into the difficulties of utilitarian ethics, but on an eternal scale. I’d be down for this discussion.)
While theologians still attempt to defend the coherency of an infinite (I), consummately miserable (CM), just (J) hell, many are challenging it in interesting ways. You could claim such an account of hell is not just (appealing to God’s goodness); you could claim that misery couldn’t be of the “consummate” variety (appealing to God’s mercy). Or you could claim that choosing to be in or remain in an ICMJ hell is not rationally chosen (appealing to epistemic considerations). Some arguments:
- John Hicks argues that given the undetermined quality of human choice and God’s perfect understanding of, love for, and time to work on her creatures, universalism (the idea that all shall be saved) is the only moral possible choice.
- Marilyn Adams argues that giving humans the ability to damn themselves makes humans somehow equivalent to God and does not pay God the proper respect.
- Thomas Talbott argues that choosing eternal torment is “incoherent because there simply is no intelligible motive to explain such a choice” (500). What reasons are there for freely choosing (in the knowledge essential to any notion of “free”) eternal misery?
Walls spends the rest of his section on hell challenging Talbott’s challenge to hell’s eternal misery. Talbott’s argument is that “all persons can be brought freely to repent in a non-deterministic sense under the pressure of forcibly imposed punishment” (502). Talbott defends this by positing an ever-worsening experience of hell, such that each person would suffer increasingly that at some maximally-painful point that they would freely choose not to suffer anymore and be saved. This makes the pain of hell compulsory, argues Walls.
There are two kinds of compulsion: experiential (pain) and epistemic (reasons). Walls doesn’t want to accept that the pain of hell is compulsory, because compulsion undermines the freedom of the agent. A threat is compulsory, but defenders of libertarian freedom would not qualify a decision made under threat to be “free.” Therefore, Talbott’s argument that this scenario would bring about “freely chosen” exits from hell is invalid.
While Walls says this is ultimately a game-ender for Talbott’s whole argument (and I don’t disagree), what struck me here is that in order to avoid being compulsory, God would have to tailor the experience of hell to be just painful enough to induce suffering but not draw people to her. So she would be imposing suffering without a good or redemptive purpose. OR, to avoid epistemic compulsion, she would have to provide some reasons but not enough for definitely demonstrating her reality to doubters. This feels rather grotesque, and like it violates God’s goodness and justness. Even if there is a line between “compelling enough” and “compulsory”, why wouldn’t a truly-loving God give all the reasons she could to those she wants to see saved, in heaven, avoiding eternal torment, etc.? What possible good does freedom add (recognizing that the libertarian idea of freedom is fatally flawed and incorrect) that would warrant (if not necessitate) the restraint of God to doing all she could to save all humans? It makes infinitely (stupid joke) more sense to me that if there is a heaven, all humans will eventually be there, based on the extreme limitations of our knowledge, power, and freedom and the supposed perfection of God’s love, knowledge, and power.
And in a number of pages that reflects the comparative stakes, Walls closes his chapter with 2 pages on heaven. He outlines a couple of arguments for the compatibility of heaven with a hell of eternal misery, answers to the question: “How can anyone enjoy heaven knowing that so many suffer eternal (and possibly consummate) torment?”
The one objection I almost physically recoiled from was the claim that “the saved will see the nature of evil with such perfect moral clarity that they will not be disturbed by the reality of damnation” (507). Ok. Ok ok ok. So this claim assumes that humans can be SO EVIL that the torment of damnation does not bother them. This claim assumes that humans can be so perfectly evil, with all their evil acts coming from perfectly free wills without an ounce of weakness or pain or trauma or chance circumstance or chance constitution leading them astray that eternal torment will seem so just that we, as perfect heavenly creatures, will have no empathy for these people. I recoil from this notion that we lose empathy for humans, or that humans in hell somehow become non-human to those in heaven. It appeals to the worst of our existing xenophobic tendencies as humans, and I refuse to believe that perfect humans enjoying eternal bliss would be xenophobic as part of their perfection.
This also suggests that God, the ultimate Perfect Creature, is somehow loving but without empathy — not caring about suffering. Nope. Not into it. How is it that we see a lack of empathy on earth as a moral failing, or a sign of brokenness (in the case of psychopaths) but in a heavenly creature it’s considered a perfection? Are all heavenly creatures psychopathic?
The other objection I thought interesting, in part because it was explored in absolutely beautiful and poignant final episodes of The Good Place, was Bernard Williams’ idea that “an endless life would be a meaningless one, and that we could have no reason to living eternally a human life” (qtd pg. 507). Would heaven be boring after a while? We humans don’t seem suited to perfection, but is that a product of our flawed and limited nature, something that would be “fixed” in our perfected heavenly forms? It seems to be a losing game to try to understand or even argue what it would be like to be perfect in a place of perfect bliss when that is so foreign to our existence and experience on earth. I honestly don’t think it’s even an interesting question once we realize that answers and comparisons are not epistemically available. But Williams is a philosopher par excellence, so I was thrilled to see him quoted here!! Bringing the “philosophy” into philosophical theology. More, please.
Because so many of the arguments for hell depend on the rationality of libertarian freedom, I can’t help but come back to the predominance of chance in our circumstances. We don’t choose ourselves, we don’t choose our minds, we don’t choose our circumstances. So even making residency in an eternal hell a choice doesn’t mean it is an entirely free choice in the way Christians tend to assume of freedom. There are still loads of constraining factors and things out of our control that help determine our choices, such that to say someone freely chooses hell, and continues to choose or deserve hell when in it (an argument put forward by Seymour) still does not make hell just.
Ultimately, I cannot find a good, logically sound reason to accept both a Good God and an infinitely miserable hell that is punishment for wrongs done and choices made out of ignorance and limitation. Depending on the day, I am either a full-throated, passionate universalist or a shoulder-shrugging annihilationist. For really, even if it comes down to the freedom to choose eternal damnation, and we agree that that is a rational, fully-free, fully-informed choice, then why would God create those persons? Why would she, in her Goodness and Love, create beings she knows will suffer forever? That seems to me to be the cruelest choice of all.
Rather than ending on a favorite quote, I couldn’t help but include the scene from The Good Place, a poignant peek into how gorgeous and therapeutic Buddhist spirituality can be, perfectly set to my favorite piece of music, by Arvo Pärt. Pure beauty.