Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of universal salvation. In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either. Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option. Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.
I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues. I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though. This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post). At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.” My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.” In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.
Pure mathematics consists entirely of assertions to the effect that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is, of which it is supposed to be true. Both these points would belong to applied mathematics. We start, in pure mathematics, from certain rules of inference, by which we can infer that if one proposition is true, then so is some other proposition. These rules of inference constitute the major part of the principles of formal logic. We then take any hypothesis that seems amusing, and deduce its consequences. If our hypothesis is about anything, and not about some one or more particular things, then our deductions constitute mathematics. Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true. People who have been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics will, I hope, find comfort in this definition, and will probably agree that it is accurate.
–Bertrand Russell, Recent Work on the Principles of Mathematics, published in International Monthly, Vol. 4 (1901), courtesy of Wikiquote
To which I can answer only, “Beats me.” I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see. I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.
I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos. I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity. In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t. Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge. In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer: God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.
Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:
- Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
- If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
- Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?
Here I want to look at 1 and 2.
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.
Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just. Our answer to that was, “No.” Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question: Is retributive justice itself truly just?
In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:
- Restitution seeks to redress a loss. For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
- Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again. If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
- Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place. If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
- Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
- Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.
All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious. Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face. Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious. It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.
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.
Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,
In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue. I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.
Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions: that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just. In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself. After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”. These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve. First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.
For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.
–Motto of the work written by Hesse, and attributed to an “Albertus Secundus”; The Glass Bead Game; courtesy of Wikiquote