Hell, Salafis, Philosophers, and Playing the Odds
I never asked much of Hesham El Ashry, and Hesham never asked much of me. All I wanted was some conversation about religion and Egyptian politics with someone who had strong views on both. All Hesham wanted was one more chance to describe in grotesque detail the fate that awaited me and everybody I loved: Our skin would thicken, not with callouses but with soft, thin, tender layers, each more sensitive than the last. Eventually the accumulated layers would be miles deep. And then God—not my god, or the god of the vast majority of so-called Muslims, but the one true Allah, worshiped by Hesham’s fellow Salafis—would burn off those layers individually, savoring the pain until he reached flesh. Then Allah would restore them again, like Prometheus’s liver, so he could blister and rip them away for eternity.
“Do you feel that?” Hesham asked me once, gently handing me a scorching glass of Lipton, poured straight from a whistling kettle. He never missed a chance to illustrate a point. My fingertips burned, and I recoiled a little, losing a splash of the tea. “You feel why Allah chooses heat,” he said. “Because it’s the worst torture there is.”
Hesham is a squat little guy, 52 years old and usually smiling, as guys who think a lot about hellfire and how they are surely going to avoid it often do. Though he is not rich, he spends his time and money freely in an effort to convert new Muslims, and for the last year, I have been a special project. His goal is as much spiritual as hygienic—a quest to purify Islam and the world of heresy and disbelief.
Every couple months, I visited his tailor shop in downtown Cairo for instruction in the narrow, rigid take on Islam known as Salafism. As a Salafi, Hesham explained, he is concerned not only with replicating the ways of the prophet and his companions, but also with erasing all religious “innovation” (other Muslims might call it “development” or “progress”) that has perverted Islam since the eighth century. He always greeted me cheerily, with a “Salaam” and a handshake. Eventually, we achieved a sort of unconventional friendship. “I hate you,” he told me in August, with a smile. “I hate all Jews and Christians, anyone who is not a Muslim.”
This, I think, is a very pure statement of the opinion that God saves only those–likely a minuscule minority of humanity–who believe explicitly the exactly correct beliefs taught by (fill in the blank). The Feeneyite attitude towards extra ecclesiam nulla salus is hardly different from the above, except for the religion in question, Father Feeney having been a Catholic priest. A periodic interlocutor of mine at Vox Nova and elsewhere has likewise described his opinion that part of the joys of the saved in Heaven will be observing the torture of the damned. In this context, he said he expected to rejoice, when he reached Heaven, at the eternal torment of his unsaved loved ones, including in all likelihood, he said, his own father. Disgusting, barbaric, revolting, nauseating–words fail for how I feel about this, but there it is. Perfectly intelligent, thoughtful, articulate people in 21st Century America still think such things.
On a more subtle plane, there are what you might call “nice” extra ecclesiam types. They’ll say that God damns no one; the lost damn themselves by their choices; and that while it’s true that no one outside the Church is saved, well, heck, people who are benighted and invincibly ignorant but otherwise decent are really part of the Church without knowing it and can probably be saved, because God is nice like that. Or they’ll quote the famous line from the Orthodox Fathers that God is a burning love perceived by the saved as love and by the damned as fire. And so on.
The problem boils down to this: you’re still saying, no matter how you sugar coat it, that God knowingly and intentionally created a universe running by a set of rules according to which He knew perfectly well, in advance, that the vast majority of the intelligent creatures He has created, and whom He purportedly loves infinitely, and of whom He purportedly wants all to be saved, will nevertheless fail to be saved, and therefore spend all eternity burning in horrible agony in Hell. The sugarcoating and philosophizing of it makes it all the more revolting. At least the horrendous preaching of a Hesham has a certain terrible simplicity and purity to it.
Several years back I read the book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. It’s fascinating in a sort of train-wreck sort of way. The author essentially argues on philosophical and theological grounds that the traditional doctrine of Hell–right down to real, literal flames and physical punishments for Eternity–are not only correct but can be logically supported. It’s not a fun read by any means, but I give the author this: given his premises, he argues with absolute logic and consistency.
1. God wishes to create beings with free will, since he desires creatures who will love and choose Him freely, not mere puppets.
2. Given the nature of free will, it is logically impossible even for God to create creatures the He can know ahead of time with full accuracy will never sin. In short, it is inevitable that in any possible world God might create, at least some creatures with free will inevitably will reject Him.
3. Since God respect His creatures’ free will, once they have made the irrevocable choice to reject Him, He respects this choice–the choice for Hell.
4. From 2 and 3, it is therefore inevitable that in any possible world, there will be a certain proportion who will be damned eternally.
5. God, being perfectly good, will create the best possible world.
6. It is better to have a world in which some sentient beings with free will are eternally saved than one in which there are no sentient beings with free will.
7. Therefore, even if it is true that the majority of the human race is to be eternally damned, this still must be the best of all possible worlds. In any other world, even more–perhaps all–would have been damned. Moreover, the goodness of the salvation of the elect outweighs the suffering of the damned. Therefore, this is the best of all possible worlds, and the damnation of many–perhaps most–is an integral part of that goodness (since a world in which no one is damned is also one in which no one is saved).
There you have it in all its relentlessly logical and appalling grandeur. Of course, as Chesterton said, the problem with a madman is not that he’s not logical; it’s that he’s only logical. The syllogism above is perfectly constructed, logical, and airtight so long as one accepts the premises.
As I’ve discussed before, I’d agree with premises 1 and 2 above. As I’ve also discussed, I think the idea of irrevocable choices is mistaken. After the thought I put into the last post, I’m even more sure of that. An attitude of irrevocable choices that lead finite creatures who have committed finite evils to infinite punishment seems not to reflect God correctly. Therefore, I reject premise 3 above. Since 4 and 6 essentially follow from 3, I reject them, also. On 5 I’m agnostic. I agree with 7 to the extent of agreeing that God can’t create a universe containing truly free intelligent beings without that universe containing a relatively large amount of suffering; I disagree with the posited outcome (i.e. large numbers damned).
In short, this thinking casts God as playing at a cosmic roulette table. He looks at the odds in all universes, and picks the one with the least damnation and makes it–because you can’t make a proper universe without damnation.
Einstein famously said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. I don’t think He plays roulette, either. That brings us to my next post.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Posted on 24/10/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged afterlife, Catholicism, Christianity, God, Graeme Wood, heaven, Hell, Islam, Legends of the Fall, life after death, religion, Rod Dreher, Salafism, salvation, Squirrel Nut Zippers, The American Conservative, The New Republic, theodicy, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.