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.
Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun! 🙂
Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined). In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following: restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:
Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform. It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life. Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state. In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered. If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me. Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either. Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow. However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose. The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil. Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.
Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution. If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose. Thus, in looking at this issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”
Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions. The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?” This is the question I’ll discuss in this post. However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit: “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?” That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.
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.
In which I clarify and expand some notions that I unintentionally left hanging last time.
My thesis there is that sin–or human imperfection, if you prefer more neutral terminology–is much like addiction. An addict, becoming progressively more deeply addicted, becomes less in possession of true freedom of action. Unlike a first-time user, who freely uses nicotine or heroin or whatever, the addict uses it from physiological and psychological need. Even with the realization that what he’s doing is bad for himself and that it may compel him to do other negative things–lying, cheating, stealing, even murder–in order to get the next fix, he is powerless to stop. His freedom of will is mitigated, overlaid, suppressed, all because of the addiction. This is why interventions are often necessary to get an addict on the way to healing. Unable to take the first step himself, he needs a prod from others. He may even need to be forcibly institutionalized.
By analogy, I said sin is like an addiction. We suffer from it as a result of genes, upbringing, society, and so on, and are in its grip from the start (what we could call “Original Sin”). Thus, our freedom is compromised by our sinful tendencies, and we are unable, by ourselves, to take the first steps to overcoming sin. In traditional theology, prevenient grace is God’s “intervention”–the prod he gives us that makes us able to begin the process of spiritual rehab (I should point out that this works in any religious framework. God can, and in my view does, give prevenient grace to non-Christians as much as to Christians. The basic concept here could be re-framed in terms of other religions, too, but in this context I’m using the Christian perspective). Extending this further, I argued that this is not a breach of our free will. My contention was that just as an addict’s free will is compromised by his addiction, ours is compromised by sin. I think a strong Scriptural and theological case can be made for this.
Thus, there is a person’s surface, or “false” will–the will that is wounded and compromised by sin. Just as the addict “wants” drugs, we think we “want” all kinds of bad things. Below the false will is the true will–what we’d really want if cleansed of sickness. Just as an addict, after drying out, realizes he doesn’t really want more drugs, the sinner, after cleansing, realizes he never really wanted to sin. Of course, this rests on my unexamined assumption–that is, that there actually is a “true” will, and that this true will is on the side of the angels–that it really, beneath it all, wants the good and wants to escape addictions, of drugs or of sin. But is this assumption true?
We’ve been looking at different issues interrelated with universalism. In light of some of these, it bears returning to a more fundamental concept: How do people get to hell (assuming they indeed do so), anyway? This seems like a stupid question, but bear with me.
Traditionally, the image is that of Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“: that is, God, in His wrath, casts the damned into Hell. Of course, the unspoken assumption here is that eternal Hell and unending punishment is just. Such arguments usually end in the assertion that God is perfectly just and that since His ways are so far above ours as to be inscrutable, Hell and damnation are therefore just, no matter what we think. Even if it could be argued that it would be unjust for a human to do such a thing (and there are actually people who are working on this), the idea is that God, being above us, is not bound by the same ethic as we are. It seems to me that this is an invalid argument, and I’ve argued, based on Plato’s Euthyphro, that God must follow the same standards as we do in this case.
At this point, supporters of hell try to get God off the hook by the free-will argument. They make the claim that God does not condemn anyone to hell. Rather, He sets certain ground rules as to appropriate actions and the consequences thereof. If a person lives in such a way that the consequences are eternal Hell, this is not God’s fault. The person knew the ground rules and he knew the consequences. Like the person who gets drunk and goes out driving anyway, only to wreck, likewise the damned receives the fruit of his own action. This is what I’ve previously described as going to Hell in a nice handbasket.
In which I try to show that God is better than we are. But of course he is! you say. Let me explain.
I ran across this on Facebook a couple of days ago, and it is certainly food for thought. I was moving in a certain direction with my last few posts on universalism, but this and some other things have induced me to deviate a bit on the way to where I’m going with the series, since pertinent issues keep arising.
One issue with hell that’s often brought up is this: Those in Heaven experience perfect happiness; and yet if some (or many) are in hell, then some of those in Heaven will have friends and loved ones–even spouses, parents, or children–in Hell. This would obviously seem to make heavenly bliss impossible. So how can the saved experience Heaven if some whom the love are in Hell?
In the last post, we saw how both we and God must be held to the same moral standards. If it would be wrong for us to condemn someone to an eternal (or near-eternal) hell, then the same is true for God. Now the typical work-around for this, with those who promote the traditional idea of hell, is that God doesn’t condemn anyone; rather, by their free choices, the damned condemn themselves. The damned were not sent or compelled–they freely chose to listen to the little guy with horns and a pitchfork on the wrong shoulder! I’ve discussed this notion more technically here. What I’m doing in this post is tackling the same notion–that allowing people to damn themselves gets God off the hook–in a less technical and philosophical, and more direct way. This was originally from a blog discussion on universalism that I had awhile back. I didn’t past the context, so I don’t remember exactly when, where, or with whom I had this discussion (though I know the likely candidates for each).
In any case, I’ve put my part of the discussion here intact. I decided not to edit it, and left it as is. However, to give it context for the discussion we’re making here, and to clarify some points, I’ve added this commentary which I’ve put in dark green (I originally did it in red, but decided that’s too hard on the eyes), leaving the original post in black.
God has the choice to make or not make any of various possible universes inhabited by intelligent creatures. Free will isn’t really the issue: since He’s all-knowing, He knows exactly what choices these creatures will freely make. Thus, He knows, for example, that in Universe X, containing Joe Schmoe, Joe, as a result of his temperament, the choices that are presented to him in Universe X, and so on, will freely make choices resulting in his eternal damnation. In fact, God knows this with absolute certainty. I’m aware that this last point could be argued–some would say that by definition God cannot know a freely made choice with 100% certainty. He might know it with any arbitrary accuracy short of that; but there would always be room for doubt. For the purpose of the discussion here, though, we’ll let that be for now; I’m looking more in-depth at free will in a separate, though related, series.
Now God makes Joe, his temperament, etc. and also sets the ground rules of Universe X. Thus it seems reasonable to say that God is in a real sense responsible for Joe ending up in Hell. To argue, “Well, it was Joe’s choices that damned himself” seems fatuous. It’s as if I bred a type of dog that is highly disposed to chase cars and then turned it loose in Times Square, then disavowed responsibility for the inevitable moment when the dog gets run over. Yes, arguably the dog doesn’t “make a choice”; but given God’s perfect knowledge, it’s a difference of degree, not kind. After all, God knows with 100% accuracy that Joe, in Universe X, will end up damned, so the for all the difference it makes and all the good it does him, Joe might as well be the dog turned loose in Times Square.
Now one might still say that it’s Joe’s fault because he freely chose; but at this point I think we’re at a metaphysical impasse. I think some want to use “free will” here as a way to absolve God of blame. Yes, He made Joe and every aspect of his personality, and put him in Universe X, where he will certainly be damned, as opposed to Universe Y, in which God foresees that Joe would not have chosen so as to be damned; but Joe is still free, so the fact that God essentially set him up is still not His fault.
This is more or less the argument of “free” as “lacking exterior compulsion or duress” vs. “free” as “able to decide otherwise”. In the first case, God doesn’t “force” Joe to do the things that lead to his damnation, any more than in the dog analogy I “force” the dog to chase the car that runs over it. This is essentially the viewpoint of soft determinism or compatiblism. Many forms of Calvinism tend towards this view. The latter perspective would say that no matter what the biological inclinations and desires, family background, etc. that Joe may have, he is still free to choose options in a real sense. This is the perspective of incompatibilism, which says that pure determinism cannot be reconciled with true human free will.
If this is your perspective, then I guess there’s nothing more to say, since you apparently don’t mean by “fault” or “responsibility” what I do (once more, see the discussion here). I think God is on the hook there, and Joe’s freedom doesn’t absolve Him.
1. God is supposed to be perfectly loving and to desire the salvation of all.
2. Since He can foresee all results, even of free choices, with perfect accuracy, He can be said, in effect, to choose how many will be damned, since He knows the exact outcome of every decision of every being in every cosmos He could create. He knows, e.g., that in Universe C only three percent of the humans will ultimately be damned, but that in Universe D, all of them will be. By choosing to make Universe D, God would be deliberately choosing the damnation and eternal suffering of everyone in it, even if each person freely chose the actions resulting in this.
3. From 1, it would seem that God would choose the universe with the fewest damned. Arguably, He would not choose to make a universe in which any were damned. Of course that gets into “best possible world” stuff–it’s better to have ten million damned and four million saved than to have a world where none are saved–but this is fatuous, and Voltaire did a better takedown of this line of thinking than I ever could. There is no way we can make determinations like that (who says the four million saved is worth the ten million damned, anyway?), not least that since damnation and salvation are eternal, it becomes difficult to put valuations on those states. Anything claiming otherwise is mere assertion.
4. Thus, assuming the traditional view that most are damned (let’s say 95%, just to put a number on it), it seems odd that God would have made this universe, rather than one in which only 50% were damned, or 25%, or 10%, or 0%. My opinion is that He did, in fact, make one in which 0% are damned (not to say they don’t undergo lengthy purgation; I’m talking about eternal damnation). To be explicit, I think He made a world in which 0% are ultimately damned, and that world is this one. We are, after all, discussing universalism.
5. Thus, if you assert otherwise, it seems that either you’re saying that somehow 95% damned is congruent with God’s love and mercy–which is fine, but it’s hard to see how that works; or that you’ve got to say that God couldn’t make a universe with better stats. I don’t see how you prove that; and if God is all-loving, I don’t see why he’d even make such a crummy cosmos in the first place.
I doubt any of this changes your mind, which is fine; but perhaps it puts things in a clearer light in terms of what I’m arguing.
Next: A couple more refinements, followed by a look at the motivating factors behind those with the beliefs against which I argued in this post.
Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)
I died in sin and forthwith went to Hell;
I made myself at home upon the coals
Where seas of flame break on the cinder shoals.
Till Satan came and said with angry yell,
“You there – divulge what route by which you fell.”
“I spent my youth among the flowing bowls,
“Wasted my life with women of dark souls,
“Died brothel-fighting – drunk on muscatel.”
Said he, “My friend, you’ve been directed wrong:
“You’ve naught to recommend you for our feasts –
“Like factory owners, brokers, elders, priests;
“The air for you! This place is for the strong!
“Then as I pondered, minded to rebel,
He laughed and forthwith kicked me out of Hell.
I ran across this on Facebook (art by Greg Staples), and had to run it here. I like Howard quite a bit, and this struck me as appropriate in light of the heavy posting I’ve been doing on universalism of late. Enjoy!