Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The doctrine of Hell-- by which I mean the ancient teaching that God condemns a portion of humanity after death to eternal torture-- has been pretty much retired by mainline and liberal Protestants (and it has even begun to face challenges in Evangelical circles).  Over the course of the last two centuries, there has been an extraordinary sea-change in the moral sentiments of Christians regarding this issue, such that John Edwards (a pillar of New England Orthodoxy in his day) could write in the eighteenth century without raising any eyebrows that God would “crush” the sinner “under His feet without mercy,” “stain all His raiment” with the sinner’s blood, and so on-- and yet these very lines would strike a Congregationalist writing on the same subject in the 1870s as a "revolting image."  

This change, however, was effected more or less unconsciously.  The mainline churches, by and large, never changed their official creedal stances on the subject of hell, although some simply struck out any mention of it from their documents.  More than any outright repudiation of hell, we got a tacit conspiracy of silence surrounding the whole issue.  As Martin Marty put it in the laconic title of a 1985 article: "Hell Disappeared.  No One Noticed."

This has been a thorn in the side of theological conservatives and would-be moralists ever since, who see in it the tell-tale jiggle of moral flabbiness.  The assumption of many of them, predictably enough, is that most people's objection to the hellfire doctrine was born out of a selfish desire to escape God's judgement.  A Congregationalist minister, more unimpeachably orthodox than the soft-hearted fellow quoted above, wrote in 1875, "Let, now, that great suffering be endless: let it be a penalty [….] And it is not strange […] that a large part of the race would, at all hazards, resist both the fact and the announcement."  More recently-- as in two years ago, Ross Douthat lamented in the pages of the New York Times that: : “belief in hell lags well behind [other Christian doctrines], and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. […] The problem is that this move […] threatens to make human life less fully human.”

At the risk of getting polemical, I would simply beg to differ with the conservatives that the moral pluses are all in the damnation column.  For instance, we might share the traditionalists' conviction that the status quo on this doctrinal controversy betrays signs of moral infirmity-- but for precisely the opposite reasons.  In other words, we might be concerned not by the fact that so few people still explicitly worship a God which tortures its creatures for an eternity, but rather that so few feel the need to explicitly reject the idea, perhaps because they don't mind it so much when its imagined victims are notorious serial killers or people who live in distant countries.  As the great historian Phillippe Aries put it: “[By] the nineteenth century, people scarcely believe in hell anymore: except half-heartedly," and then adds significantly: "—and then only for strangers and enemies."

We might say, in short, that if there is moral liposuctioning to be performed, it should start with Ross Douthat, and anyone else who can write with equanimity from his air-conditioned office the words "A Case for Hell"-- a phrase, it seems to me, which should be up there with "A Case for Auschwitz" in terms of unutterable blasphemies.  This may sound like an overstatement, but think about it.  If we are to believe the doctrine of hell as it was taught for millennia by the Christian church, then we are forced to believe that a perfectly good and merciful Being has concentrated more malignity and cruelty on human persons than any dictator or genocidal tyrant in history-- and that we are supposed to worship this Being unquestioningly.  The fact that we ourselves do not believe in hell, whereas we do believe in the existence of Auschwitz, should not mean we treat Douthat's invocation of it with less seriousness.  If it is real to him, then the moral consequences of his defense of it are the same as if it were real to all of us.  Viewed in this light, I hope it's clear that there are few things one can believe about the universe as morally reprehensible as the doctrine of eternal punishment.  As Arthur Koestler once remarked in his autobiography, whenever he was profoundly disturbed by the fact that he had once been an apologist for Stalinism, he took solace from the fact that he is not alone in having held inexcusable beliefs: “[E]ven in our day many approve of the idea that ninety per cent of their contemporaries are designated for an eternal super-Auschwitz by their loving Father in Heaven.”

Okay, so having made my own feelings clear by this point, I'll try to step back and assess a bit more coolly why, if this doctrine is so appalling, it was ever propounded in the first place, and why today it won't die the same sort of death which eventually met the belief in human slavery or that "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," which also have biblical precedents.  I will try to dispense quickly with the psychological explanations, as they are not very interesting.  In the case of a Luther or an Augustine, the focus on damnation probably stemmed in part from some pathology or neurosis leading to an attitude of unremitting hostility and vindictiveness toward the world-- important in the psychoanalyst's office but not when one is seeking philosophical or religious truth.  Similarly, the conspiracy of silence surrounding hell today probably stems from no more complicated factor than that most liberal Christian denominations are not even sure whether they believe in God, and until this question is settled, that of hellfire seems rather secondary.

But having given due weight to all of these mundane and ideological considerations, is there an argument from the basis of philosophical truth to be made for the hellfire doctrine?  Ross Douthat seems to think so, and so do a few others, so let's swallow our bile and give them our attention.

Douthat bases his case chiefly on the idea that the only two options available to us (supposing we are theists and Christians-- I am neither, but let's put that aside for the sake of the argument) are radical universalism or eternal punishment.  In other words, either everyone goes to heaven immediately and forever, or some incorrigibles are condemned to hell for an eternity.  Douthat appeals to the hit HBO drama The Sopranos: “The [series] is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase [the creator] made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out [….] Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

The point, presumably, is that our sense of justice should be outraged by the idea that Tony Soprano is in heaven, despite his refusal to ever mend his ways.  Let us suppose this is the case: it still does not mean that "hell" is the only alternative.  The Christian tradition which Douthat claims to represent has never been so black-and-white.  Douthat does not acknowledge the possibility of "annihilationism"-- whereby the souls of unrepentant sinners simply cease to exist upon death.  Though associated most prominently with the Seventh Day Adventists, this is no fringe Christian belief.  Even John Calvin, whose followers became the most remorseless proponents of the doctrine of hellfire, once cryptically wrote that "eternal death" was a more apt expression for the fate of the damned that "eternal punishment."  This solves the problem without ever resorting to hellfire.

Of course, this whole line of argument rests on a primitively retributivist theory of punishment.  Pain must be repaid with pain, otherwise justice has not been served.  In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Supposing he will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for [the sinner]?  Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is … should be confirmed forever in his present happiness …?”  (Quoted in Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, 120).  It might interest Douthat and Lewis to learn that the Universalist church in its earliest incarnations did not teach that everyone goes straight to heaven, but that everyone would eventually be reconciled with God-- emphasis on eventually.  This meant, disturbingly enough, that someone like Tony Soprano would probably be tortured for a few millennia to repay his sins before being admitted to the company of the saints.  How appalling, you say!  Well, a few millennia are still an eternity short of eternity, so however cruel that teaching was, the teaching of the orthodox was infinitely crueler.  But the point here is simply that even if Douthat's and Lewis' sense of justice is not satisfied by the idea that Tony Soprano goes straight to heaven alongside Mother Theresa and Little Nell, we have to wonder whether it would still not be satisfied, even on the most brutally retributivist theory, by Mr. Soprano suffering in hell for, say, a million years, rather than an eternity.  No doubt Mr. Douthat does not really believe in such a literal form of punishment, but the fact that he doesn’t feel any need to spell this out, or to explain what in fact he does mean, is itself an intellectual failing.  

All of this is of course a moot point if we no longer believe that “justice” is a question of being rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad, so I believe we may put this particular argument for eternal punishment to rest.

The second argument, however, also invoked by Douthat, is more substantial.  It is concerned with the question of moral agency, and whether humans can still be said to possess free will if God forcibly rescues them all from sin.  Do we possess true moral agency if we are not free, in the final analysis, to refuse our own salvation?  As Douthat frames the argument:

[T]o believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. […] In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. […]  The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.”

This appears, moreover, to have been roughly the line of thinking which persuaded the historian Geoffrey Rowell of the philosophical absurdity of Universalism.  He approvingly paraphrases the Russian theologian Nicolas Berdyaev to the effect that “to believe in hell is to believe in man’s spiritual freedom,” and is the only way to “to save man from being forced to be good and compulsorily installed in heaven.”[1]  And indeed, the rhetoric of the 19th century Universalists would sometimes seem to confirm this suspicion about the deterministic nature of universal salvation.  As Quillen Shinn put it: “We believe God will make all his bad children good; he wants to, and he can.”[2]

The image of hell that emerges from this line of argument is therefore not an eternal penitentiary populated by murderers and Unitarians, but rather a state of radical alienation from God attained by the individual’s own willful refusal of divine grace.  It is not God’s punishment, but simply “the absence of any action of God upon the soul,” in Rowell’s words,[3] which has turned away from the deity.  As Jonathan Kvanvig puts it: “Those in hell are there because of their determination to avoid the company of the redeemed and the God who redeems.”[4]  

This line of argument has the advantage of reflecting somewhat less poorly on God’s character, but it is such a softened doctrine that one wonders if it is really a “hell” at all.  In fact, it is not clear how the state of God’s absence Rowell and Kvanvig describe would be different from that in which non-believers already abide in this life, which we do not always find intolerable.  And perhaps the loss of the company of the redeemed only seems grave to those who consider themselves among their number, and would not be greatly regretted by the non-believer.

In all seriousness, however, I believe I have quoted enough from the Rowell-Berdyaev-Kvanvig school of thought by now to show the view of humanity it presupposes.  The ultimate question seems to me to have to do not with whether or not it is possible to imagine people so irredeemable and wicked that they would simply lose their souls utterly in sin, and turn entirely away from the good within them, but whether or not such people actually exist.   Ross Douthat seems to believe they do, and that murderers and mafia dons at least are among them, though he appears to also include investment bankers and penny-pinchers on further consideration.  

The faith of the Universalist, in contrast, is that there are no such people—that no one, in short, is truly and completely lost.  It is a faith which maintains that evil can flow from human bings, but that no human soul is so utterly corrupted that it itself becomes evil, through and through.  Obviously, this has implications which are extremely difficult to accept.  It implies, for instance, that all people, even Hitler, Stalin, and Tony Soprano, departed from this world with some kernel of goodness and humanity within them, however deeply buried it may have been beneath a mountain of evil and cruelty.  This has not and never will be an easy faith to maintain.  We can echo the crusty old Congregationalist above, but from the opposite side of the doctrinal spectrum: "[I]t is not strange […] that a large part of the race would, at all hazards, resist both the fact and the announcement."

[1] Rowell, Hell and the Victorians, 217.
[2] Shinn, “Affirmations of Universalism,” p. 68.
[3] Rowell, Hell and the Victorians, 218.
[4] Kvanvig, Problem of Hell, 158.

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