Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God. Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another. Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.
First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall. To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment. That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls. Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment. Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection. Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good. It is also important to point out that in this model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form. Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).
C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:
I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it. And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.
In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God). Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation. Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos. In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present. Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.
Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak. We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.
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.
This entire series, obviously, is an extended argument in favor of universalism. In order to argue for something, though, one has to understand the arguments against it. Over the years I’ve had many conversations about universalism on blogs and elsewhere. In doing so, I’ve encountered some contra arguments that I take seriously. However, I’ve encountered many more arguments that are weak or problematic; moreover, it tends to be the same hoary arguments repeated again and again. Thus, I’m taking a break from actively analyzing universalism and building a case for it, and instead looking at some of the common arguments I see being made against it. In short, instead of an FAQ (frequently asked questions), I’m putting up a list of FMA (frequently made arguments). That way, I’ll have a place to refer back to as a time-saving device in the future.
There are three categories of anti-universalism arguments I want to look at. The latter two, which I’ll deal with in later posts, are more serious in that they actually address the relevant issues. Here, though, I want to look at arguments–or I should say “so-called arguments”–that actually fail to address the actual issue of universalism, instead resorting to logical fallacies or irrelevancy. There are five specific arguments that I’ve often heard that fall into this category in one way or another. The first two are examples of ad hominem arguments, more specifically the genetic fallacy. I’ll number these arguments as I go, dealing with each after describing it.
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.
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.