Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 2–Better to Reign in Hell


We’ve been looking at arguments against universalism.  Here, here, and here we considered the traditional view that God damns sinners to eternal hell as a form of retributive punishment, and found it lacking.  Last time, we looked at the notion that the damned actually damn themselves.  From an external perspective, which is what we considered, it seems that such a system paints God in every bit as bad a light as does the notion of His vindictively casting sinners into hell.  There is, however, another, more psychological flavor of the “damned are in Hell because they damned themselves” argument.  I’ve touched on it in the past, but I want to look at it in greater detail now.

The argument is in brief that those who are ultimately lost have not transgressed a rule or set of rules that God has implemented and thus failed to make the cut for Heaven.  Rather, they have made themselves, by their own choices, incapable of Heaven.  To use an analogy:  If I loaf around as a couch potato and don’t go to training sessions, I won’t make the track team.  This won’t be a punishment as such–rather, it’s because I won’t have the ability to run!  Moreover, if I hate track, then to me, being a couch potato is even desirable!  Thus, in a sense, the damned not only have cultivated attitudes and habits that make it impossible for them to appreciate Heaven, but they also get what the really want.  Hell, to them, is perhaps not a punishment, but an actual desire.  This model of damnation is strikingly–and chillingly–described in C. S. Lewis’s classic novel The Great Divorce.

As far as I can tell, this view of hell does not occur before the mid-20th Century.  I believe such a view is the culmination of the slow discrediting of hell ever since the Enlightenment.  After the horrors of the two centuries of religious wars in Europe, with supposed Christians killing each other with abandon, much of traditional Christianity was discredited in the eyes of the philosophers and intelligentsia of the 18th Century.  It is no coincidence that universalism, both as a general doctrine and a specific church, began to spread around this time.  Gradually, as that notion came to the fore, traditional believers–at least the more philosophical ones–began a gradual retreat.  There was a tacit acknowledgement that the Jonathan Edwards view of a wrathful, retributive God was rather savage and unworthy of the God of Love in whom Christians purported to believe.  This put the traditionalists in a tricky position, though–if God didn’t do the damning, how is hell populated?  If the doctrine of hell is to be retained–and in fairness, traditionalists believed on Scriptural grounds that it had to be retained–how to do it?

The logical argument is to say that the damned condemn themselves.  We’ve looked at the exterior version of this argument, and found it to be problematic.  It still puts God on the hook, in that it seems the world is a series of booby traps set by God to entrap people whom He knows ahead of time will spring the traps and go to hell.  Seeing the deficiencies of this model, people like Lewis, I think, went, as a sort of last-ditch effort, to a more psychological view.  The damned do not set off booby traps.  Rather, they make themselves incapable of heaven, as the couch potato makes herself incapable of the track team.  Alternately, or in parallel, the damned want to be damned, in the sense that the couch potato enjoys being a couch potato.

This is a better and much more subtle model.  I think it still has flaws, though.  The most obvious is the paradoxical notion that the damned actually want–perhaps even enjoy–hell.  If this is true, then it is almost like the cynical picture painted by some wags of a Heaven of dour-faced saints sitting on clouds, while Hell is populated by fun-loving partiers–much like Billy Joel’s line “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”  That hardly seems like eternal punishment!  To make this view of hell work–that is, to make it actually hellish–we have to posit some sort of duality–the damned “wants” hell, but doesn’t really want  hell.  This is sort of like the couch potato who is short of  breath and achy and wished he could hang with the people outside having fun but doesn’t have enough motivation to change his lifestyle.  He wants to be a couch potato and hates it, simultaneously.  Likewise the soul in hell.

This raises another problem.  If a damned person’s true will is to be in heaven with God, then why does God permit said person to put himself in hell because it is the decision of his false–or maybe superficial–will?  In fact, it is said that we are all created with an innate desire for God–a “God-shaped hole” in our souls, so to speak.  This puts us in murky waters.  If the damned “choose”  hell, then one of two things seems to be the case:

  1.  The innate desire for God can somehow be destroyed, and the damned really do wish to be in hell, and away from God.
  2.  The innate desire for God cannot be destroyed, and so in a sense the damned prefer hell on the superficial level, while still desiring heaven and God on the deepest level.

One is problematic for two reasons.  First, it seems unlikely that the Image of God can be destroyed or overlaid so much that the desire for God with which we’re created is totally obliterated.  Second, it seems to make Heaven and Hell indistinguishable.  The saved are in Heaven, and want to be there; and the damned are in Hell and want to be there; so everyone is happy.  Not really a coherent view.

On the other hand, two posits that the damned are like the child who is denied something he wants or made to follow a rule, and then pouts, saying, “I’d rather be mad!”  Even if he is later offered the thing he wanted, he stubbornly rejects it since it’s not on his own terms.  The “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” of Milton’s Lucifer is essentially a highly literary version of such a snit.  Such snits are childish, though of course even adults do this–all of us can probably think of examples from our own behavior, and I must admit to my shame a tendency towards that myself.  So would God allow souls to go into eternal snits, suffering endlessly while trying to deny they are suffering?

My series on free will attempted to answer the question of whether a person could indeed remain obstinate eternally.  Alas, I had to end it inconclusively, as I seemed to be running up against an antinomy of pure reason.  Perhaps a person could be in a snit for all eternity.  But is God likely to create a universe with such eternal pouters in it?  One might use the argument from the last post that a God who creates a universe in which He knows some will be damned (from exterior rules or interior psychological processes) is ultimately at fault Himself.  As I gave in the analogy from the previous post,

A father of several children calls them together and tells them how much he loves them.  He continues by saying that he has buried a number of land mines on the property.  He doesn’t tell them the exact number or location, but says that there are several dozen, and he gives vague instructions (one’s near the garden, some are over in the wooded area, etc.).  He firmly enjoins them to stay away from these areas, saying that if they love him as he loves them, they will obey him.  Finally, he closes by saying that if anyone goes poking around and gets blown up, while he will grieve, the destruction of one of his own children, whom he loves more than anything, will not be his fault.

Of course, it would be his fault.  Ditto, I think, in the case with God in this case.

More deeply, though, is an eternal snit even really sane?  And if not, is eternal punishment for the insane just?  As I said here,

If that choice [to be damned] comes from the damned person’s truest, deepest self; if that choice is a true and unalterable expression of that person’s mind; if that is really, truly what the damned person wants eternally; then it would indeed seem that God Himself is unable to do anything about it.  To do so would involve forcing the person’s free will; which would involve changing who that person is.

But that begs the question of what the “person’s interior free will” actually is.  After all, if I take a loaded gun away from a very young child who is playing with it, he may be very upset and frustrated since he doesn’t understand the danger.  His will is based upon an incomplete understanding.  If I take drugs away from an addict, he may take strong objection to my actions.  Even though he is capable of understanding why I’m doing it, he is in the grip of the addiction and will fight against removal of drugs despite his knowledge that getting off them is the right thing to do.  His will is clouded and compromised by the drugs.  A similar analysis could be given for the treatment of a mentally ill person.  Maybe he hallucinates a horrible danger and thinks that my attempts to help him are going to unleash horrible things.  He doesn’t object to being helped; it’s just that his perception is warped by madness.

I submit that most people would agree that in none of these cases is the appropriate action…a matter of breaching that person’s free will.  Moreover, the appropriate treatment (in the last two cases [involving drugs or mental illness]), while it will definitely affect the person’s mind and personality, is not destroying or overriding that personality, but healing it.

So, is God going to leave the those in a literally damned snit stay so forever?  Or like a good parent, will He eventually be able to snap them out of it?  Or as a perfect psychotherapist, will He ultimately be able to heal them without damaging their free will–their true free will, not the false one?  I think the answer to these questions are no, yes, and yes, respectively.

Now in fairness I’m least complacent in this post compared to the previous ones.  I’m pretty confident God does not retributively cast sinners into hell out of Divine wrath.  I’m pretty confident that He does not set us a set of ethical booby traps just waiting to send us to hell.  I think–I have reasonable confidence–that He can heal even the most recalcitrant sinner, given enough time.  The interim would be hellish enough for the sinner, but the end result would be salvation.  Still, the mystery of our free will and the recalcitrance we see in this world sometimes must give us at least a little pause.  Let us be confident; but let us not prefer to reign–or even pout–in Hell.

Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)






Posted on 22/06/2016, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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