Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pragmatic Implications of Belief in Hell

I have on my office door a Dilbert cartoon in which one character asks another, “What happens to the four billion people who don’t know that God loves all his children?”

The answer, of course, is this: “Eternal hell.”

The cartoon always makes me chuckle, but the joke has a bitter taste to it. My laughter isn't of a happy kind. In large part this is because there is so much truth to the cartoon's take-home message.

In most conservative expressions of the Christian view of God, we are told that God’s love is a perfect love that is unconditional, that does not wait on worth but wills the good of creatures for their own sakes…and in almost the same breath we’re informed that the most astonishing horror imaginable is an inextricable part of God’s ultimate plan: those who do not place their trust in this God of unconditional love are fated for the abyss, where they endure a degree of horror that trivializes the suffering of the mother who is raped by a host of enemy soldiers and then forced to watch as her children are killed. While her horror is incalculable for those of us who have not endured its like, it is also finite. But the sufferings of hell, in addition to being the very worst that our souls are capable of containing, also have no end. It is as if we are caught in that moment of utmost horror and never released. This is what God either inflicts (on the older view of hell) or permits (according to the more modern view).

Much ink has been spilled attempting to reconcile this doctrine of hell with a God of unconditional love and boundless mercy. Some very great minds have argued that some kind of doctrine of limited salvation is an unavoidable implication of taking human freedom seriously. It is argued that part of what characterizes divine love is a deep respect for human free agency that does not only extend to our ability to make choices for ourselves, but extends also to our potential to really have what we have chosen to have and achieve what we have chosen to achieve—even when the fruits of our choices are bitter indeed.

Defenders of hell argue that since some persons freely choose to exist in alienation from God, God leaves them to the abominable fruits of that choice. He does so out of respect for their autonomy, which is a dimension of his love. And he does so even though this choice amounts to alienation from what (given Christian theology) is the source of all that is good, all that can give satisfaction to life, and all that can make continued existence anything but utter darkness and despair.

Other defenders of eternal hell argue that it is in some sense impossible for God to interfere with our free choices on this matter, since our freedom is constitutive of who we are in such a deep way that to override our freedom with respect to something so fundamental amounts to our annihilation. God must, in effect, choose between annihilating the damned or allowing them to suffer utmost anguish for all eternity. The only choice unavailable to him is to save them.

I have written extensively against the doctrine of eternal hell, and most of my thinking has focused on the attempts to defend hell by appeal to human freedom. My basic view, in its most oversimplified form, is that no free creature would persist for eternity in rejecting the source of all that is good and satisfying, especially not after experiencing what such a choice is like and thereby coming to see the foolishness of such a choice in its most vivid possible terms. And so, even if God is committed to respecting our freedom, everyone will experience salvation in the end, even if some may have to go through hell to get there.

But recently, I’ve been thinking about the doctrine of hell in a different way. Instead of challenging the arguments in favor of this doctrine, I’ve been thinking about its pragmatic implications for this life.

Any doctrine of eternal damnation, no matter how defensible from an abstract theoretical standpoint, draws as sharp a line between human beings as it is possible to draw—human souls divided by an unbridgeable gulf, on one side the beatific vision, on the other the outer darkness. And even if that divide is held to exist in some eternal realm beyond the strictures of space and time and physical law, it nevertheless cannot help but press its stamp on this mortal existence.

And so this doctrine of separation and division infects the perspective from which its adherents see the human world. How can I embrace this teaching without seeing in each of my fellow human beings their prospects for damnation or salvation? Given that their eternal destiny has a significance in the arc of their existence far more profound than anything that might define their mortal life, how can I refrain from seeing them in terms of that destiny?

The mortal world, then, cannot help but become divided by the imprint of that eternal gulf. And this will be true even if we are reminded about our own inability to judge on which side those around us will fall. We cannot say with confidence who will be saved and who will be damned. But that doesn’t stop us from having our guesses, even our private certainties. Few of us will be so brazen as Fred Phelps—who, with his congregation of relatives, pickets the funerals of gays and lesbians with signs celebrating the fact that another fag is burning in hell. But how easy is it to avoid more quiet acts of pigeon-holing, in which we separate out those whom we just know are doomed from those we’re sure will join us in paradise? As we quietly think of us-the-saved and them-the-damned, and even more quietly locate human beings into one group or the other, it may become impossible to keep the ultimate in-group/out-group division from creating its shadow divisions in this world and this life.

If we believe in eternal damnation, it may be that the psychological costs of resisting such terrestrial divisions are too great to bear. As Schleiermacher argued some two hundred years ago, compassion for the damned is a recipe for pain. To love those who suffer requires attention and empathy—and to pay attention to the sufferings of the damned, and to empathize, is to experience in one’s own soul the most extreme horror that it is possible to endure. To love the damned is therefore to court vicarious torment.

As a father I love my children, and I know the ache I feel when they’re hurt. In recent articles, Thomas Talbott has invited us to imagine what such parental love would feel at the prospect—or the certainty—of one’s child’s damnation. He argues—and I have defended his argument on this point—that no parent who truly loves a damned child can ever experience the unvarnished joy of salvation.

The doctrine of limited salvation therefore cannot help but serve as an impediment to compassion. To truly love those who are doomed, to love them as a good parent loves his or her child (or as Christ was said to love every person), is to forsake the prospect of perfect happiness. It is to put one foot deliberately into hell. And so we create in-groups and out-groups as a form of self-protection, and limit the fullness of our love and compassion to those within our carefully demarcated circle.

The doctrine of hell thus quite naturally gives rise to limitations on the scope of our love. Out of self-protection, we are afraid to get too close, to feel too much compassion and empathy, for those who are slated for unending agony of the very worst conceivable kind.

And the very doctrine of uncertainty that is supposed to guard against this tendency actually worsens it. Since we cannot know the inner hearts of our neighbors and thereby see what fate they court, we are tempted to base our judgment instead on visible markers that we then invest with artificial significance. We protect ourselves from the fear of losing those we love to the abyss by identifying the damned with those who are already outside our circle of loves: the alien, the foreigner, the man or woman who is divided from us by existing social discrimination and stratification.

Instead of breaking down barriers, instead of creating a world in which there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor, slave nor free, the doctrine of hell threatens to reinforce all the conventional barriers that are already in place. Because of existing social realities that divide us, we grow up in a world where our circle of intimacy leaves out those who are not of our class, our race, our nationality or ethnicity or religion. And so it becomes safe to adopt a worldview according to which these outsiders are the ones who are damned.

After all, if its those OTHER people who are damned, the ones we don’t know and love, we needn’t worry about our compassion fundamentally compromising our own salvation.

In short, I think that the doctrine of hell, from a pragmatic point of view, narrows the scope of human love and reinforces patterns of compassion that are artificially narrowed. And so this doctrine is pragmatically at odds with any ethic that calls us to love every rational creature here below.

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