I Want Your Love and I Want Your Revenge: Hell
In the last few posts we’ve looked at several aspects of universalism: whether Hell is compatible with God’s mercy, how the saved view the damned, whether people can be said truly to choose Hell, and what this implies for our personalities.
Now as I noted here, one can argue for the traditional view of Hell (TVOH) on Scriptural or philosophical bases; and as I also noted, it doesn’t seem as if the TVOH can be defended purely on Scriptural bases. In any case, I can understand arguments of this sort even if I don’t agree with them. If one believes that a doctrine of hell is necessitated by Scripture or by philosophical reflection, I can respect that. What I’m more interested in here is motivation. In short, what is the motivation that energizes one’s belief? More to the point, what is one’s attitude towards one’s belief? Let me unpack what I mean.
Suppose I go to the doctor and he says I have cancer in my leg, and that this will require amputation. Now there are three things involved here. One, the matter of actual fact: that is, do I actually have cancer? Second is the treatment: is it necessary to remove the leg, or are there other viable treatments? Third, how do I feel about having the leg removed? Obviously, I’m going to want to establish the first two: I’m going to want to be damn sure that I do have cancer and that amputation is the only option. If these are established, then there’s no help for it. The thing is that I’m not going to be happy about the amputation per se. I’ll be happy if it rids me of cancer, because I’ll be happy to live and to have my health (other than in my leg) restored. However, I’d be a lunatic to cheer on the amputation as such. Even more so, if my doctor seemed to enjoy amputating limbs, I’d be very hesitant to have the operation done, at least by him. To be happy to help someone live by surgery is very much different from getting off on amputation in and of itself.
This is where, in discussions about hell, I find the attitude of supporters of the TVOH very much interesting. I can understand that one might, in light of one’s study of Scripture and of philosophy, feel compelled to believe in hell as traditionally understood, just as an oncologist, on the basis of his expertise, diagnoses cancer. I can also understand that there can be differences of opinion among equally skilled experts. Just as one exegete might argue for the TVOH and another against, so different doctors might disagree as to whether the leg, in the above hypothetical, actually needs to be amputated, or whether some other treatment might work. What I don’t get is the attitude. If my doctor said, “Good news! We gotta take the leg!” it would be grossly understating it to say I’d be taken aback and appalled. However, this cheery, positive attitude seems to be the exact attitude of many who support the traditional view of hell. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “cheery”; but they do invest much emotional energy into supporting hell.
By contrast, the surgeon might argue strongly for the amputation not because he wants to do it, but because he wants me to live. He’s arguing not for a positive good, but a tragic necessity. It would seem to me that this would be the appropriate tenor of one defending hell. That is, he’d argue for it not because he likes it, but because he’d see it as the tragic result of unrepentant sin, and he’d want to help as many people avoid it as possible. This was the position of C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce. He said upfront that Hell was the one doctrine he wished he could dismiss, and he was very clear that he viewed it as a horribly tragic idea. He even went so far as to acknowledge that in a sense it was the defeat of God, in that the free will of the damned thwarts the will of God, who wishes for all to be saved. In short, Lewis was the metaphysical analogue of the oncologist; that is, he was delivering unpleasant news that he himself found equally unpleasant, not out of any sense of joy, but rather for the spiritual benefit–even salvation–of his audience. This I can understand, and respect.
So what’s at work here? I think a big part could be expressed by the title of this post–we want God’s love, but we also want His revenge against those who are not towing the line. The first part is that we want God to love us not unconditionally but because we’ve been good little boys and girls. I have actually seen people say (I think this was in a letters to the editor column in First Things or some such–the thing they did before Internet discussions) that they would do all kinds of things–lie, cheat, steal, chase wild women/men/both, you name it–if it weren’t for their belief in Hell. It’s all about brownie points from God, and fear of getting sent to the eternal corner. This strikes me as a rather immature perspective. If one refrains from something only because of fear of punishment, they are functioning like a child who fears punishment from a parent. One ought to refrain from X because X is wrong, not because of feared punishment or anticipated reward. Of course, few of us are able to do what is right purely and solely because it is right, with no fear of punishment or desire for reward; but an emotionally and morally mature person, by and large, doesn’t cheat on his spouse or on his taxes not because he’s afraid of being caught by the spouse or the IRS, but simply because such cheating is wrong.
As to the second part, we want God’s vengeance on those who are not good little boys and girls. A phrase very popular with these people is “God is not mocked.” What that often tends to mean is something like this: “I am so sick and tired of being Mr./Ms Goody Two-shoes and seeing no-count, dirty rotten so-and-so’s like that get away with everything and just sashay down the street as bold as brass and pleased as punch! That makes me SO DAMNED MAD! It’s OK, though, because when they die, they’re gonna get theirs! They’re gonna BUUURRRN, and, by God, they’ll deserve every bit of it!!!”
Back here, I quoted this post from this blog. I should point out that the author is an atheist and that I disagree with him in that and on several other points. Nevertheless, he makes some great points which are well worth quoting. Anyway, I won’t re-quote the same post, but this one, which I also linked to but did not quote, is worth quoting at some length here, my emphasis in bold:
All the same, I’m skeptical that heaven is really about loving and hopeful consolation.
One reason why I’m skeptical is the curious fact that almost all people who believe in a pleasant afterlife also believe in a nasty afterlife. Christian and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist hells (just to mention a few) are fascinatingly disturbing. Even folks with fuzzy notions of “hell” as just a separation from God make sure to remind you that such separation is not supposed to be pleasant. If heaven is about one’s own wish-fulfillment, why do people also want to believe in hell? Conveniently, hell is not for you, it’s for other people.
Consolation is lovely for you and people you care about. But religious believers don’t really want everybody to be consoled. Believers want to be reassured that other people won’t ever be consoled. Believers imagine hell because they like to imagine certain people in hell…. [B]elievers don’t really want everyone in heaven. What believers really believe is that everyone should accept that some are getting heaven, and some are getting hell. And the people going to hell the fastest are those who don’t believe in this lovingly fashioned plan.
Heaven and hell are more about enforcing moral retribution upon everyone, and not about loving consolation for everyone. I said earlier that religion personally is largely about private wish-fulfillment. But at the social level, religion is mostly about imposing a public moral system. And not just any moral system – religions with heavens and hells have moral systems about obedience, vengeance, and retribution. With heaven and hell, private wish-fulfillment nicely pairs up with public moral-expectation. God delivers love to us because we feel deserving of that love. God delivers vengeful retribution upon others because we wish we could do it to them ourselves.
When believers say, “My God is all about Love!” what they are actually saying is that God really loves them and doesn’t love others. These are the kind of people who can’t feel truly loved unless someone else doesn’t get that love. Such a childishly selfish attitude, barely tolerable from the three year-old pushing the older sibling away from the parental lap, is entirely despicable from adults. Yet religious societies take this to the public level, effectively frightening members into obedience, and warning outsiders not in that good company that they will suffer for it. Join our religion, the message rings out, or else you’ll get hell for it!
Obviously, I don’t think religion is about wish-fulfillment, nor do I agree with many of his other remarks on religion. I do think the quoted section makes a valid point that is accurate for many believers of a certain type. Also, I am not accusing everyone who disagrees with me–those who believe in a populated Hell, the non-universalists, the proponents of the TVOH–of being childish, immature, moral imbeciles. It is apparent that some people can believe in Hell, a hell which perhaps contains the majority of humanity, while still being mature, responsible adults who do the right thing for the right reason. Either they have never thought it through, or have compartmentalized it, or have a perspective (one I admittedly fail to understand) that does not see these beliefs–that is, that God is love and that nevertheless vast numbers of people are punished in Hell eternally–as being contradictory. What I am saying is that the framework, if not the individual, seems lacking in maturity and compassion.
Thus, in summary, I think that much of the energy behind the traditional view of Hell, for those who hold it, is based in a sense of inferiority that seeks God’s love at the expense of others; and a desire for vengeance against others who, in actuality or perception, are not measuring up to what are considered to be God’s standards. I should stress once more that I do not claim that all believers in the TVOH, or even most, necessarily have this perspective. Rather, such a belief is very much conducive to such a perspective, and perhaps originally arose from it. The need for revenge is especially interesting in this regard, but it’s something I’ll return to at a future time. Second, even if the traditional view of hell is supported by many for these reasons, that in and of itself doesn’t make it false. This whole series is dedicated to showing why I think the TVOH is, in fact, false; but to point out the problems with the emotional underpinnings of such a belief is not in itself an argument.
While the attitudes of some may not make the case against what they profess to believe (I’m sure someone could do an armchair psychological profile of me and why I espouse universalism), such attitudes may be problematic. They should be noticed, made explicit, and not be allowed to interfere with proper arguments. In short, fear of hell is not a valid argument for universalism, and wanting the smug guy who gets away with everything to burn in hell is not a valid argument for Hell. In this respect, we should keep our emotions out of it. That can be overdone, too, though; which is the topic of the next post.
Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell)?
Also part of the series The Lady Gaga Project.