To Hell in a Nice Handbasket

We’ve been looking at the underlying logic of the Traditional View of Hell (TVOH) and trying to tease out some things that often are not spoken of publicly, or perhaps not even consciously realized.  We reached the following conclusions there, given the TVOH:


1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or

1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.

Regarding people who hold the TVOH, and thus necessarily (if implicitly) one of the above,

2.  a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.

2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned.  In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve!  Justice is served!  God is not mocked!”

2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.

2. d)  As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves.  In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain.  As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.”  To me, this is clearly the subtext of Shrum’s statements, which I’ve noted before.  In short, it is (at least on a subconscious level) not about becoming a better person as an end in itself or or becoming more loving or decent or getting closer to God.  In short, it’s not about personal transformation–it’s about personal preservation.  That is, it’s about keeping the rules sufficiently to get picked to go to the head of the eschatological class.

Now as I’ve said, there are people out there willing to defend all of these points except perhaps 2. c) and d), though some come awfully close to that, too.  I notice, however, that even among the theologically traditional and conservative, relatively few are willing to state things quite that baldly or without, as my grandfather used to say, “qualifications and reservations”.  That’s a good thing in the long run, for reasons I’ll discuss in a future post.  However, it still leaves some notions that, while buried and obscured, are still problematic–more so, perhaps, since in the cases discussed last time, at least it’s all out in the open.

A good example would be a tentative move among many religious conservatives, towards soft universalism (the idea that we may hope that all may be saved, but that we can’t be sure, since Hell is a real possibility).  That sounds very progressive, and in many ways, especially given the often conservative nature of the people who hold this view, it is.  Nevertheless, as I pointed out here, this view is really as problematic as the traditional one if you really think about its implications.  As I pointed out before, the problem with this seemingly progressive viewpoint is that it does not question the justice of the basic set-up.  In short, it tacitly assumes that eternal damnation indeed is either just or God’s arbitrary prerogative to mete out.  It merely hopes that God will be a nice enough guy not to actually implement said damnation.

To use a somewhat nasty but, in my mind accurate, analogy:  it’s as if someone during World War II had argued that the best way to stop the Holocaust was to prevail upon Hitler to show the Jews mercy.  As if the Endlösung, the Nazi state, and the anti-Semitic policies themselves weren’t the problem!  As if the issue weren’t anti-Semitic policy, but just getting the Führer to be a nice guy and not actually send anyone off to death camps!  No need to fool around with all that nasty D-Day, invasion, war, liberation of the death camps kind of stuff!  On a more serious note, I realize that this is a bit sharp and harsh; nevertheless, I think it is a devastatingly accurate analogy.  A God who sets a policy of eternal damnation is just as bad whether or not He actually implements it.

There is an “artful dodge” that is related to this.  A commonly-heard theological bromide (and God knows, it’s come out of my mouth more times than I’d like to admit) is, “God doesn’t send anyone to Hell; anyone who goes there sends him/herself.”  Analogy:

There have been numerous cases of people who set shotguns rigged to shoot at anyone who entered the homeowner’s house, resulting in injury or death for intruders.  Generally, this has been held to be illegal.  Now the counterargument is that the homeowner didn’t kill the person; he merely set the contraption up, and the intruder, by his actions, brought the results on himself.  However, whether or not one agrees on the legality of this, one can hardly say the one who rigged the gun in the first place bears no responsibility for the shooting.  Likewise, to say that God, having rigged the shotgun of Hell, has no responsibility for people who “damn themselves”, seems equally fatuous.

Thus, to return to our numbered list of ways in which we are trying to state things as they are, no implications left implied:

3. a) Soft universalism does not mitigate points 1. a) and 1. b) above.  The rarely stated implication is still that somehow eternal damnation, at least in principle, is just.  The only difference is that there is now a hope that God won’t implement it.  This has no logical bearing on the morality of God setting up such a policy in the first place.

3. b) The belief that God damns no one but that any damned have brought damnation upon themselves by their sole fault also does not mitigate 1. a) and b) above, nor is it logically coherent.  God has created intelligent beings and established a universe and a milieu in which they can damn themselves; and thus ultimate responsibility still resides with Him.

3.  c) It seems that the main appeal of soft universalism is that i) it does not deny traditional doctrine, thereby assuaging the fears of those who hold it of being thought by others or by themselves to be heretical  ii) it assuages believers’ discomfort with the concept of eternal damnation by positing that maybe God saves most or all  iii) it “lets God off the hook”–by positing that all people might be saved, and that if that doesn’t happen, then it’s purely and solely the fault of the damned themselves, God is absolved of all responsibility in the matter.  Thus we can continue to think of Him as all-loving and all-benevolent while still allowing, at least in principle, the existence of Hell.

I’m pretty sure that 3. c) is an accurate portrayal of the (admittedly good) motivations and psychology of those who hold it.  Certainly it’s true for me, when I was a soft universalist.  In short, as the title of this post indicates, soft universalism is an attempt to make the handbasket in which the damned go to Hell a nice one.  Given 3 a) and b), however, I don’t think that soft universalism is able to achieve what its proponents wish to achieve.  There are, though, some more sophisticated attempts to salvage some form of the TVOH, with or without the possibility of universal salvation.  That’s what I want to look at next, with an assist from John Scottus Eriugena.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 03/11/2012, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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