Friday, September 12, 2014

Hell, Again

A friend recently asked about an argument I had made in the early days of this blog about the Christian doctrine of hell -- I'm against it, it turns out. The trouble is that I seem spiritually -- even somatically -- incapable of just declaring that I am against it and moving on. For me, this doctrine is that eternally festering ideological wound-- the one that every writer or blogger or op-ed hack has a version of (else why would they be compelled to go on saying the same things over and over again?). It's the inner scab that gets accidentally reopened by innocent bystanders from time to time -- and compels one to get on one's hobby horse again and ride the poor nag into the ground.

I'm well enough acquainted with myself by now to know that there must be something psychological at work here, something more than just intellection, else I wouldn't devote so much energy to resisting a doctrine that is so far removed from the world I inhabit. Part of me even realizes as I'm doing it-- as I'm getting purple-faced and wrathful about this issue again-- that it really makes no sense for me to do so. I don't believe in God or in the tenets of Christianity or Islam, after all-- so for me to debate the technicalities of the Christian or Muslim afterlife would seem to be putting the cart before the horse. More aptly, it's like I'm getting into a cart that I don't think has a horse, and still expecting it to take me somewhere.

Other people are not so inwardly divided on this point. I suspect most agnostics or secular humanists would blink bewilderedly at the level of anguish I exude in posts like this one. Even the "New Atheists," not known for their compassion toward their opponents, might accuse me of excessive zeal in this regard. And then there are those liberal Christians. You know the ones I mean-- I'm thinking of the theology professors who would rather die than ever use the male pronoun to refer to God, but who feel no similar qualms about the fact that their tradition taught, for most of its history, that this same God, of whatever gender it might be, would torture the majority of humankind for all eternity. To me this seems inconsistent, but perhaps I am the one who is not being logical. If God, after all, has become for liberal Christians a rather ethereal and metaphorical thing anyways, then debating the justice of God's punishments in any literal sense would be meaningless, whichever side one wants to argue. That's why they don't bother to do it.

So I know I'm wrong. Except for the fact that I'm also right! Because isn't the doctrine of hell, when we really think about it, pretty much the most profound violation of humanist values that has ever been conceived? I mean, lots of people have done terrible things in the world, and lots of people have defended them for doing them. But there was always that qualifier "in this world"-- which is finite. There is some cap, some limit, on the amount of suffering and evil one can inflict on another person in this lifetime. Hellfire, by contrast, is limitless. As Quillen Shinn, one of my favorite 19th century Universalists, declared: it "makes God infinitely worse than Nero, his malignancy transcending that of all the fiends of cruelty that ever lived. If [the doctrine were] true for only one soul, then that soul will receive more pain from the hands of God than the whole human family have received from all the monsters of brutality that have cursed our world; because there is no end to it." And this is the God of love? Spare me, please. Worship the God of hate if you want to, but don't tell me it is the God of love. "Bad air! Bad air!" as Nietzsche would say.

For such reasons, repudiating the doctrine of hell has seemed to me the starting point of all theological decency-- a sort of minimal test of moral sanity. So strongly do I feel this that I find it difficult to take seriously any of the other ethical commitments of Christians or Muslims who endorse this doctrine, even when I can grasp intellectually that they are morally earnest people. How, I always want to ask them, can you sincerely deplore torture or capital punishment or war in this world, with your deepest self, when you regard the eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth in hell as a sign of God's justice? How can you really hate cruelty with all the hatred it deserves if you look favorably on eternal pain? I remember a passage I once saw in the writings of Bartolome de las Casas about the Spaniard's treatment of the Indians. It is especially wrong to take the life of a "heathen," Las Casas argues, because such people are destined straight for eternal damnation as soon as they die-- killing them therefore exhausts their chances for salvation. Baffling. Of all people in history, Las Casas surely ranks among those who have been "morally earnest." Yet there is a profound ethical confusion in his mind-- as there is in the mind of anyone who worships a being from whose infinite cruelty he is simultaneously trying to save people. Why the Christian God should want to eternally punish the same people to whom he also sends missionaries on a quest of salvation is only one of the insanities this doctrine forces to our attention. There are so many more. But to quote Nietzsche again, "Enough! Enough!"

But of course, it never is "enough" for me-- the wound keeps getting reopened. Why is it such a wound, for me, and why won't it just heal? I suppose it has something to do with a feeling of intellectual loneliness, where this issue is concerned. Very few people, regardless of their stance toward hellfire, feel the need to talk about it. Yet to me, it is the starting point of everything. When I finally do find those authors who see the matter as I do, I cling to them tearfully, like we are sharing a cabin in a sinking ship. Bertrand Russell, for whom hell was the real and primary reason as to "Why I am Not a Christian." Zitkala-Sa, for whom it was "Why I am a Pagan." Mill would rather go to hell than worship the being that created it. Arthur Koestler compared belief in hell to the moral blindness of Stalinism. It is these people who make me feel slightly less lonely, when something happens to remind me of St. Augustine and Jonathan Edwards and all the other preachers of the hellfire doctrine who brought so much horror into the world. "In spite of all their kind some elements of worth / With difficulty persist here and there on earth," to quote Hugh MacDiarmid. Russell and Mill and the others are among those elements of worth.


Ok, I apologize for all that vomiting up of emotion, but it had to be done. It may seem as if it were an unnecessary prelude, since what I really want to talk about in this post are the more modern attempts that have been made to salvage the hellfire doctrine (usually by people who are plainly too humane to endorse it in its original form, but who also don't want to be universalists, for reasons I don't fully understand). The emotional vomiting is necessary, however, because it indicates the context in which this debate should take place. Modern Christians and Muslims who want to retool the hellfire doctrine to make it more humane, must first begin by repudiating what has been the standard version of it-- the one that has made uncountable millions of people suffer in psychological torment for centuries, afraid that they or their children or their friends might be sent to hell. If they don't start there-- if instead, they try to present a doctored version of the hellfire doctrine in traditional clothes, they are not being honest or taking fair responsibility for the errors of the traditions they represent. I'm looking at you, Ross Douthat.

If you read the article linked here, it is plain Douthat wants the hellfire doctrine to be gentler and more humane than it is in its traditional form. He is willing to grant, for instance, that Gandhi is probably in heaven. (One of the virtuous pagans, I guess.) I also take it, though Douthat is vague on this point, that his notion of "hell" is not the literal fire and torture one. I'm not sure what it is, instead, or why it should be called hell if it is so different from the older notion, but let's suppose it is a spiritual state of alienation from God's love, rather than an everlasting subterranean gulag. Perhaps Douthat would also grant, though again he does not tell us one way or the other, that the soul's journey to God can continue on after death, and the moment of life's end is not the final, irreversible choice that will send you to one everlasting fate or the other.

After all these caveats, though, how much is left over of the orthodox doctrine? Surely very little. Yet this is the same writer who has accused liberal Christians (and modern Americans in general) of being "heretics." Of course, they are heretics, but so is Douthat-- and this is a very good thing too! He would be morally unrecognizable to us if he were not. If he were truly an orthodox Augustinian, his conception of hell would be very different from the one we saw above-- it would have a lot more unbaptized infants in it, for one thing.

Hell, for St. Augustine, (and his hell became the orthodox churches' hell, for a very long time) was manifestly not a spiritual metaphor; it was not a literary motif or a symbol of the fractured nature of the human consciousness. Augustine believed, quite forthrightly, that on the day of judgment, the bodies of unbelievers would be materially reconstructed and sent off to the eternal flame, where these material bodies would be burnt -- again, literally -- for all time, through a "miracle" of God by which they would be rendered indestructible. (See Alan Bernstein, "Thinking about Hell." Bernstein is one of the few 20th-century scholars to have ever done a book-length treatment of the development of the hellfire doctrine.)

So thank you for being a heretic, Douthat, it is a source of great relief to me.

But there are still other ironies where this heresy/orthodoxy business is concerned. For instance: the standard anti-universalist line in modern apologetics is to invoke "free will" in defense of damnation. If we will all eventually be saved, the argument runs, then how can we have any real freedom of choice? Could it be that hell is God's way of giving us an option, apart from salvation, and thereby respecting our dignity as free beings?

I admit, there is a paradox in the heart of Christian universalism, so long as it affirms both free will and universal reconciliation. Let me point out, however, that it is no more insoluble a paradox than any other dilemma of "free will" posed by belief in an omniscient God (for instance: how can God exist outside of time, and therefore know in advance everything that we will do, while also granting us "free will"?) It is not very fair or honest of "orthodox" Christians to only notice or be troubled by such paradoxes when they can be found in the arguments of their opponents.

More to the point, meanwhile, it is pretty specious to invoke "free will" in defense of Christian orthodoxy, when of course it was heretics like the Unitarians who first brought free will in any form into the churches during the 19th century. As Walter Kauffman has pointed out, it wasn't until Kant and the German liberals that anyone entertained the notion that free will was "essential" to Christian doctrine, and such thinkers were hardly beacons of orthodoxy. The notion that "free will" is a Christian teaching would have horrified Augustine and all who wrote in his tradition, as well as Calvin and all who wrote in his tradition-- such "orthodox" thinkers unerringly opposed free will with all the arguments and epithets at their disposal.

The modern, attenuated version of hellfire, then, is not "orthodoxy" -- it is a product entirely of recent history. It is the result of efforts made, more specifically, by ministers and theologians in the 19th century to preserve a doctrine that was plainly outrageous to their feelings as modern people, but that they couldn't seem to let go of. There is a character in John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lillies-- a 19th century mainline Protestant -- who attempts to give a "free will" defense of hellfire in one of his sermons, and suddenly finds himself gasping for breath. As he later diagnoses himself: "My very voice rebelled today, against my attempting to put some sort of good face on a doctrine I intellectually detest." Such a scene did not just originate in Updike's literary imagination. Read Geoffrey Rowell's Hell and the Victorians to see how much people really did struggle in those years to reconcile their conscience to something that they found intuitively abhorrent. As Rowell makes clear, it was in this era, and not in any earlier one, that the modern, gentler doctrine of hellfire was born. It was likewise only then that hell was defended on grounds of "free will," "human dignity" and other concepts that had little to do with Augustinian tradition.

What I don't understand is this tenacity of the hellfire doctrine, in face of the real and evident feelings of the people who espouse it. Why not just renounce it? It can't be out of a desire to defend orthodoxy, since modern apologists have often preserved hellfire even at the cost of absorbing other heretical beliefs (such as human agency, the capacity to turn toward God after the end of this life, the salvation of righteous unbelievers, etc.).

I will never understand the source of this desperate urge -- this proprietary feeling toward a doctrine that surely no one really wants or can even stomach. Whence the intensity of this aversion to what is so obviously a more kind and merciful a teaching-- that all people are saved?  Isn't the latter more "Christian" a doctrine, in all the best senses of the word?  Doesn't it alone do justice to the image of God in us all? Doesn't it alone vouchsafe to God an ultimate victory over evil-- a victory worthy of an omnipotent being?

But let us at last take the "free will" argument for what it is. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of accusing universalists of "paradox," when all of Christian doctrine is paradoxical. Leaving aside the fact that 19th century Protestant and Catholic churches alike would have banished Douthat and the other modern apologists on the grounds of heresy if they preached their version of hellfire (I mean this literally-- there were heresy trials in the mainline churches in those years over precisely these questions: the salvation of virtuous unbelievers, etc.-- see Gary Dorrien: The Making of American Liberal Theology). Leaving aside everything except for our new, attenuated, modern notion of hellfire, is it so fundamentally objectionable?

Well, what exactly is this notion of hellfire? What does it actually look like? No one wants to tell us very clearly, so we have to guess. Perhaps it is something like this: after we die, if we have been bad or non-Christian, we will exist in some state of spiritual alienation from God, while God makes every effort at his infinite disposal to turn us to him, opening up the gates of heaven for our entry whenever we please, yet allowing us the option not to enter, if we have no wish to do so.

Such a doctrine is obviously pretty innocuous, in comparison with what has gone before it. Equally plainly, however, it has nothing at all to do with "hellfire," by this point. There is no fire in it, for one thing, nor any hell. It leaves us to suppose that we unbelievers and sinners, once we die, will simply be left standing outside the gates of heaven, free to enter at any time, our arms folded in front of us and refusing to step forward, while an infinite being does everything possible to coax us inside. No torture is to be visited upon us, apparently, apart from the torture of not being Christian, which many of us manage to weather on a daily basis already.

Innocuous, I say-- but is anyone really so blind as not to realize that this is entirely a modern doctrine, created as a compromise with agnostic and heretical Christian critiques of hellfire? Is anyone really so indifferent to the truth to think that this is what is meant by such Bible verses as Mark 9:44, which warns of "hell[...] the unquenchable fire, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched"" Are such Biblical verses a "metaphor" for what I described above? When the Bible tells us to fear God, who can "destroy the body and the soul in hell," were those words written with the image of God in mind I sketched here?

Plainly, what is really going on here is that the modern apologists are rejecting hellfire. And they are doing it for the reason that the rest of us rejected the doctrine long ago: because their reason and their conscience are revolted by it.

I suppose the only reason they are doing it in a rather dishonest way, rather than forthrightly, is because they fear that if they reveal to themselves too clearly that they are exercising individual reason and conscience, and not simply repeating orthodoxy, then where will it end? Might they not go on questioning until they end in a state of unbelief?

Maybe so. But what does it say about a belief, if it can't be talked about honestly? If one is afraid to exercise one's reason and conscience with respect to it? Surely, if Christian doctrine is true, it will withstand whatever scrutiny one can apply to it. If it doesn't withstand it, is that not rather a mark against the doctrine, rather than the scrutiny?


Having gone through these arguments again, I wonder why the wound still festers and does not heal. If I were sent to hell, surely this will be a part of my sentence-- to write these posts over and over again and never feel that I've managed to say what I mean. Clearly, there is some sin I am trying to expiate by always going over this ground, though I can't figure out what it might be. Until I unearth it, I am bound to feel that the philosophical and theological arguments I make on the subject are superficial, and provide only a temporary relief. They don't get at whatever it is that really makes the wound run.

 All I know is this: there are still large numbers of people in the world, clustered especially in the evangelical and Catholic churches, who sincerely believe in the traditional version of hellfire -- and hold this belief without suffering hourly panic attacks and crushing melancholia and a perpetual sense of horror at the ghastliness of the universe. How is this possible?

The only way I can explain it is to suppose that such people are incapable of comprehending why people commit terrible crimes or do terrible things, so they can conjure in their minds a notion of hell that would be populated exclusively by people with whom they have no imaginative sympathy. Such a hell is for "bad people," so it need not concern them, because they are not among the bad. I suspect many of the people who think this are the same people who favor capital punishment and who think that it is okay to torture people so long as they are "terrorists."

In some ways, I envy them their incomprehension, as well as this mysterious confidence in their own goodness. Because I can never seem to read about a crime or an atrocity in the news without feeling as if I had done it. Very few of the terrible things people do seem utterly incomprehensible to me. Indefensible, certainly. But rarely incomprehensible. 

What none of us likes to remember, but which is plainly true, is that people who hurt others do so out of pain. This does not make their actions in any way justifiable. But it makes it very difficult, for me at least, to wish further torments on them after death. There is enough suffering already in each human life-- especially in the lives of people who do evil things. Said Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Earth is too harsh for Heaven to be / One little hour in jeopardy." (I can even comprehend St. Augustine, I think, and wouldn't wish any torments in the next life on him either.)

Perhaps a real part of my obsession with this issue stems, then, from a selfish concern: I always assume I am of the guilty party, in any situation, and certainly in any version of the hellfire doctrine that could be conceived.

I have known throughout my life the sort of people who would not be among the guilty party-- the ones who would be saved. The ones who can write off the denizens of hell as entirely outside the range of their sympathy. I am not one of them. Moreover, I would not especially relish their eternal company.


  1. A few quick thoughts (as you no doubt expected):

    (1) I think you've explicitly said as much in the past, but isn't there a tension between supporting retributive justice of any kind and opposing cruelty that's pretty similar to the tension between belief in hell and opposition to cruelty? Obviously the duration of punishment in hell makes a big difference but it seems like there's still a similarity. I bring this up because belief in retribution in some form, unlike belief in the Christian/Muslim hell, is extraordinarily widespread, such that it could be an objection to your position that it makes what most people see as two really basic moral intuitions (retributive justice and opposition to cruelty) seem unintelligible in combination. I'm playing devil's advocate here since I also find retributive justice incomprehensible, but the fact that I find it incomprehensible troubles me for something like this issue so I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

    (2) Very minor Ross Douthat fairness policing: he thinks many politically conservative Christians - believers in the prosperity gospel/Christians who effectively reject their tradition's suspicion of wealth, supporters of torture, those who make an idol of American exceptionalism or conservatism - are also heretics, and devotes a large chunk of Bad Religion to attacking them.

    (3) If God is outside time, why does that imply that He can know what we're about to do before we do it? My (quite likely mistaken) understanding of the idea that God is outside time was that He doesn't experience things as happening in succession like we do, but rather experiences everything as the same eternal present. This seems consistent with our acting freely in that present to me.

    (4) I'll defer to you generally about the Christian tradition and free will, but a few caveats/exceptions, which you probably have explanations for, leap out at me: (a) Didn't Augustine affirm a fairly radical form of free will early in his career as a theologian, in, e.g., his On Free Choice of the Will? Has that aspect of his thought always been deemed heretical? (b) I have a vague notion that Aquinas wrote a lot about the centrality of the state of the will to morality, though perhaps in a way that doesn't presuppose free will. (c) I've obviously read much less of the Bible than you, but arguably Jesus's exhortations to trust in him before it's too late throughout the Gospels lend fairly strong implicit support to the idea of free will.

  2. (continued)

    (5) Your argument that the rehabilitated hell wouldn't be that miserable doesn't take the idea of original sin seriously enough. It seems to me that (small-o) orthodox Christianity is committed to the idea that people a non-Christian would describe as basically decent, if flawed, are in fact profoundly warped and damaged by original sin and that this damage can only be removed by (at a minimum) becoming a Christian. If this is right, then hell could be understood as a combination of feeling this damage in a way that you don't in your ordinary life and knowing it'll continue forever unless you repent, which is very difficult since (in most cases, if you're an ordinary, sort-of-decent person) you've spent your whole life entrenching the damage to your soul by committing all the ordinary sins most of us do. You might reject the doctrine of original sin, but I think the modern quasi-orthodox effort to rehabilitate hell rests on it and can't be evaluated in isolation from it.

    (6) Obviously people have lots of reasons for wanting to save the doctrine of hell, but knowing at least a few Christians who want to somewhat well I think they have different, and at least somewhat more sympathetic, motivations than you suggest. One (which I don't find especially sympathetic) is that the binding force of morality depends in some way on the existence of eternal punishment for unrepented wrongdoing. The other, which I do find somewhat sympathetic, is just a desire to be faithful to a book that they sincerely believe is the word of God and find profoundly meaningful and valuable in a host of other ways. Again, my knowledge of Christian scriptures pales in comparison to yours, but I feel like Jesus's repeated, specific mentions of hell in the Gospels are significantly harder to explain away than many of the other things Christians typically explain away. Presumably you would say that this is a good reason to reject the Christian scriptures, and that's perfectly fair as an intellectual point, but it seems to me that people who otherwise feel deeply attracted to those scriptures and want to salvage their authority are nevertheless sympathetic figures. You appear to feel empathy and compassion for 20th-century left-wingers who minimized the Soviet Union's crimes for a long time, even as you strongly disagree with them, and this seems to me like (at worst) a somewhat similar phenomenon.

  3. Hi Ajay-- insightful comments, as always. I suspect you're mostly right, particularly with regard to the motives of people who defend the hellfire doctrine-- and since one of the main thrusts of my critique of that doctrine is that we should exercise imaginative sympathy even with people who do things that at first seem inexplicably dreadful to us, I should probably do a better job of inquiring more compassionately into such motives. But believe it or not, the version of this post you read was rather less dripping in vitriol and sarcasm than draft #1, so I do learn.

    Two quick bones of contention though: 1) Augustine and Free will. My understanding is that Augustine, when he first converted to Xianity from Manicheanism, did so because he rejected the latter's determinism and wished to uphold free will. However, he became increasingly hostile to free will as his career progressed, and by the time of the Pelagian controversy he was pretty much entirely opposed to it. Admittedly, I haven't read the primary sources on this-- my impression comes from various secondary materials, lectures from my professors here, etc. But my understanding from them is that Pelagius was the one who has actually willing to grant roles both to divine grace and to the human will, which makes the choice to accept grace. Augustine was opposed to leaving any space for the human will in this scheme.

    2) I still think there is a logical problem with an omniscient God, who must know everything about what we regard as "past, present, and future," who also grants us free will. But even if you do not agree with this, would you agree that there are various other paradoxes in orthodox Christian doctrine (the trinity, the Christology of "fully divine/ fully human," the problem of theodicy, etc.) that are just as insoluble as the universalism / free will paradox?

  4. Thank you!

    (1) My main source on the Augustine-Pelagius debate is Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A Cultural History, which takes the opposite view from yours, but I'm not qualified to comment any more.

    (2) I don't have an especially strong opinion on this, but I'm going to try out some lines of argument which could be used to show that universalism/free will is different from these other paradoxes. One fairly simple one is that the other paradoxes you list issue from sources that are binding on Christians (Scripture, valid ecclesiastical authorities, church tradition) while the universalism/free will paradox doesn't. You could perhaps argue that because God has given us the gift of reason and generally intends for us to use it, there should be a presumption against any contemporary interpretation that involves paradox, but paradoxes that are clearly revealed through a proper channel overcome that presumption.

    A more interesting (to me) argument, which I've mentioned to you before, rests on differences between concepts that fallible humans can reasonably expect to grasp and those we can't. One could argue that the nature of an infinite being, which is implicated in the first two paradoxes as well as the paradox of omnipotence ("can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?"), is something that you would expect to seem paradoxical to a creature with a finite mind, or at least one which hasn't been fully perfected by divine grace. In contrast, free will is a concept we acquire through the use of our own reason and which we have to be able to understand (roughly) correctly for other important aspects of Christianity (moral requirements, sin, repentance, etc.) to make sense, so we should trust our conceptions of it more and so be more skeptical of a paradox generated by a tension between those conceptions and other ideas.

    The second thought doesn't apply to theodicy, but the solution to that one that I think Christians should adopt is a combination of the preexistence account of original sin we've talked about before and the idea of the Incarnation as an expression of God's hatred of suffering which I laid out in the comments to "Gandhi, Theodicy, and Humanism." I know you don't agree with this proposal but I don't think it's paradoxical in the same way. I'm not hugely familiar with how the paradox of theodicy is presented in historical Christian thought but I'm open to the possibility that there are people who accept formulations that prevent them from consistently objecting to efforts to reconcile universalism and free will and will defer to you on this point.