Damnation: Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Continuing with the project of rectification of names regarding Hell–that is, saying things as they are, and bringing out  hidden implications, let’s review what we’ve got so far, and then move on to some metaphysics.


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.”

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.  Adding to my original phrasing of this point, it is sometimes said that “Hell exists, but it’s empty.”  Not only does this fail in the way we’ve already described, but it’s not even intelligible.  As most theologians and the late Pope John Paul II have said, Hell is not a place, but a state of being, an eternal alienation from God.  A possible state that is not implemented doesn’t even exist.  It’s like telling my child that there is a time out, but it’s not inhabited!

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, and 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.

This seems reasonably unassailable to me thus far.  Now, let’s add some insights developed, though not stated as bullet points, in the last post.

4.  a)  Hard Universalism (HU)–that God with 100% certainty will save all–can be rejected, since it assumes things we’re unable to know.

4. b)  So-called Soft Universalism (SU)–that God might save all–admits of various degrees of probability, to such an extent that it is not readily distinguishable from what I call Optimistic  Universalism (OU), loosely construed; that is, the idea that all will in high likelihood be saved, though we can’t know this with certainty.

4. c) It is not evident that OU is

i. heretical

ii.  an invalid perspective for a Catholic to hold

iii.  morally problematic

iv.  intrinsically presumptuous

Any claims to this effect must be demonstrated; and this has not yet happened, nor do I see how it can.

The last issue on which to get things explicit and clear is another argument I’ve run across in discussing heaven, hell, and  universalism.  That is the intrinsic argument.  Essentially, the idea is that Hell-as-punishment–a state to which God condemns you, or into which you put yourself, is not really an extrinsic state.  It is not something outside yourself that you are “sent” to or that you “put yourself in”.  Rather, it is one’s own exterior state when one separates oneself from God, the Source of Meaning.  Hell is literally what you make of yourself, not a place or a state to which you are condemned.  Thus, according to this, it is merely a refection of your true self, rather than something “prepared” for you by God.  In this view, there is no injustice of God creating a horrendous state of punishment into which to throw people (or to let the cast themselves).  Instead, rather than hell being other people, as Sartre would have it, hell is actually oneself.

This does sound more promising, and somewhat more sophisticated.  Moreover, it does seem to remove the blame from God.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it works as advertised.

Such a view implies a fundamental option view of sin and salvation.  That is, salvation and damnation are not states to which you’re condemned because of certain actions, as such.  Rather, they are states that are slowly developed over time by the sum total of one’s choices in life.  Thus, going to the gym once doesn’t make you toned and athletic, any more than eating a candy bar while watching TV on the couch once makes you flabby; athleticism (and flabbiness) are the ultimate result of the cumulative total of thousands of individual actions leading to an athletic (or couch-potato) lifestyle.  Likewise, heaven and hell are the ultimate states of resulting from habitual rectitude or habitual vice, respectively.

However, Pope John Paul II explicitly rejected this view in his encylical Veritatis Splendor, arguing for the older idea that individual actions can determine damnation or salvation regardless of one’s overall orientation.  To me, that’s rather problematic, but be that as it may, it seems hard to reconcile an intrinsic view of damnation as separation from meaning with the standard Catholic teaching on the matter.  Even from a Traditionalist perspective it seems to fail, since like or not, traditional teaching is more extrinsic than intrinsic.  To put it another way, it seems hard to see how, for example, deliberately eating meat on a Friday in Lent once is somehow tantamount to a vast rejection of God as the Font of All Meaning.

I think the intrinsic model has deeper problems, though.  Recall from way back when, how we described the Pleroma–the “Fullness”, or realm of the God and the spirits (angels or Aeons) that He created.  In this realm, there is no “time” as we think of it, “time” being a feature of the created material cosmos.  Everything is, for God, the eternal Now.  Given this, one can say that, from all eternity, long “before” we were created, we were in God’s mind.  Everything about us was, in a sense, latent in God before we ever were.  Now I wouldn’t take this quite as far as the Hindu notion of our soul as indistinguishable from the Atman (God).  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate, even from an orthodox Christian perspective, to view our very selves as in a real sense “sparks” of God.

To the extent that we consider this the case, Hell becomes even more puzzling. If it is indeed a sort of intrinsic “turning away from Meaning”, then it is in a real sense a part–a small part, but a part indeed–of Meaning turning away from itself.  This seems perplexing and contradictory on all levels.  How can God “emanate” or “spin off” parts from Himself which parts never return?  How can the All-Encompassing cease to encompass all because of the actions of a renegade spark, so to speak?  It is true that Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom we’ve spoken of many times lately, posits that Christ himself is totally disconnected from the Father on Holy Saturday; that he experiences true separation from God in the nadir of his self-emptying (kenosis).  This is a powerful and profound paradox.  But, in Balthasar’s reading, Christ does this as part of a process that goes from ultimate intimacy to ultimate alienation, and then which returns to ultimate intimacy.  Christ descends to the ultimate depth to meet us and the fallen world there, and then returns, with us, to full communion with the Father.  He empties  himself so that he may become full–and make us full–again.

Now this doesn’t mean that we can’t nevertheless posit that for whatever reason, God makes beings–beings said to be made in His “image and likeness”, beings whom He is said to love infinitely–which are capable of separating themselves from Him and never returning.  In short, it is possible that God, in a sense, sheds part of Himself.  The very Meaning itself allows Its own creations to choose Meaninglessness.  That is a coherent view that doesn’t seem to lead to any obvious contradictions.

However, how well does this fit in with the view of a God of love, who in Christ descends to the very depths of being, who descends, as far as is possible for very Being itself, into non-being, for the sake of His creatures?  Does this seem like the kind of God who will ever give up, who will not find a way to restore His creation?   The God who, in the end, will be “all in all”?  Admittedly this is somewhat subjective, an intuitive, gut instinct as to which version of God seems most plausible.  Nevertheless, the God of love revealed in Christ does not seem to me to be that kind of God.  I think that ultimately, in the words of the title of the currently popular book, “Love wins.”

Thus, I’d add these points to those above:

5. a)  The only effective way to argue against a universalist position (hard or soft) seems to be to argue a sort of internal, “fundamental option” on the part of the damned to reject meaning (since God is the source of meaning) and retreat, in a sense, into meaninglessness, into madness.

5. b)  Since our individual meanings are emanations or derivatives or subsets of the ultimate Meaning, this would mean that on some profound level, part of Meaning negates itself.

5. c)  This doesn’t seem obviously to be impossible or contradictory; but it doesn’t seem completely coherent, either, and at best it’s debatable.

5.  d) Ultimately it comes down to one’s intuitions about God; and following Balthasar and others, my intuition is that ultimately all meaning–us–is restored to Meaning–God.

5. e) Once more, given that universalism in general (except arguably HU) cannot be heretical, it seems to me that the views developed in point 5 here are not heretical, either, and are a real possibility.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 06/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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