Friday, January 23, 2009

Another Open Letter (Sort of) to a Conservative Christian Critic

The other day I received an e-mail from a conservative Christian who'd been reading my book. He had several criticisms, chief among them the following two concerns:

1. You scold those who advocate that God’s goodness is mysteriously compatible with God-imposed judgments (including hell) in the Bible; and you reject their call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue. Yet you defend those who advocate that God’s goodness is mysteriously compatible with God-allowed evil (including horrors) in the natural world—as you call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue.

2. Similarly, you state that the former group cannot be worshipfully devoted to God, especially because he imposes hell. Yet the latter group can be worshipfully devoted to God, even though he allows horrors.

Since I conceived of this blog as, in part, an opportunity to foster discussion about my book, I’ve decided to post here most of the reply I wrote to this critic.

But before reproducing my e-mailed reply to this critic, let me say first that I don’t agree with the characterization of my views as put forward in (1) and (2). With respect to (1), I absolutely do not call for a suspension of thoughtful inquiry into the issue of whether evil can be reconciled with the existence of a good God. That's a misconstrual. What I argue is that even though the problem of evil has not been resolved, terrestrial evils do not constitute such a convincing a case against theism that it becomes irrational to live in the hope that the world’s evils can be an will be redeemed by a transcendent benevolence. But living in this hope is hardly incompatible with continued intellectual inquiry.

In this regard, my position is very similar to one advocated by Richard Dawkins in relation to evolutionary theory. The fact that there remain persistent mysteries that have yet to be adequately explained in neo-Darwinian terms is not a reason to abandon the theory of evolution. Devout Darwinians (if I may call them that without offense) can and should continue their investigations in the hope that a solution to these mysteries is out there to be found if only scientists search diligently enough. But such a message hardly amounts to saying that thoughtful inquiry into the matter should cease. It simply means you can legitimately be a Darwinian even though there remain phenomena which have yet to be adequately explained in Darwinian terms.

With respect to (2), I don’t state that “hellists” cannot be worshipfully devoted to God. The more I think about it, the more puzzled I am about this characterization. I do think that attempts to reconcile the doctrine of hell with the doctrine of a God worthy of devotion are intellectual failures, but this is not a point I develop at length in my book. What I argue in my book is that one cannot be “worshipfully devoted” to a tyrannical God. Under some (but not all) versions of the doctrine of hell, God becomes a tyrant who spitefully smites with eternal hellfire all those who don’t abide by his arbitrary whim.

But many devoted theists believe in a God of universal benevolence, staunchly rejecting this arbitrary tyrant, and yet still endorse some moderated version of the doctrine of hell. My claim with respect to such theists is that their attempts to reconcile hell with the perfectly loving God in which they believe are failures. But insofar as it is a perfectly loving God in which they believe, it is clear that their God is one in whom it is possible to be “worshipfully devoted.”

In my original response to this critic, I didn’t make these points, instead zeroing in on the key issue as I saw it: the supposed parity between the problem of evil and what Marilyn McCord Adams dubbed “the problem of hell” in her wonderful essay, “The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians.” The main thing I want to do is challenge this parity.

What follows is what I wrote in the attempt to make this point:

The issue you put your finger on is one I’ve explored elsewhere and only touch on tangentially in my book. My reasons for finding the doctrine of hell incoherent within a broader Christian theology are spelled out in a series of articles (citations should be available in the references section of my book). In my book, if you read the problem of evil chapter carefully, you will see, I think, the outlines for a response to your concern. Your observations, in my judgment, assume too much parity between terrestrial evil and our responses to it, on the one hand, and the eternal and therefore necessarily unredeemed evil of hell. I can hope that the former are redeemed. As a matter of definition, I cannot hope that the latter are redeemed. Hoping that the former are redeemed is an essential element of the ethico-religious hope, while believing in hell amounts at best to a fundamental truncations of the scope of the ethico-religious hope.

Let me explain these points with greater care. There are important differences between terrestrial evil and hell. First, terrestrial evil is an experiential given. Hell is not. Second, terrestrial evil is finite. Hell (as traditionally conceived) is not. In fact, I don’t have much problem with those conceptualizations of hell which conceive it as a refining fire, a la Gregory of Nyssa, in which the final outcome of enduring hell is that the spirit is purged and ultimately redeemed (there are, by the way, scriptural reasons for interpreting hell in these terms). This latter difference is of utmost importance, because it entails that terrestrial evil (both moral degeneracy and suffering) might be redeemed—if there is a fundamental reality (God) that is on the side of goodness and has sovereignty in at least the Zoroastrian sense (such that God’s will is irresistible in the long run even if there are opposing forces at work which in the short run God cannot, perhaps for moral reasons, simply will away). But the doctrine of hell entails that there is evil which is never redeemed (the moral degeneracy of the damned, for one, and their horrific suffering, for another—that the latter is an evil is something some might debate, but if divine justice is construed as a species of divine benevolence, and if divine benevolence is the ultimate paradigm of goodness, then I think all suffering is evil unless it is redemptive).

At root, my differential approach to terrestrial evil and hell is motivated by my understanding of the nature of faith, as the decision to live in the hope that there is a fundamental reality decisively on the side of goodness (a hope most fully realized if there is a personal God who cares about the good and has the capacity to act decisively to preserve the good). The decision to live in this hope involves, I believe, living in the hope that all evil will be redeemed. Hence, it entails that we should hope for the redemption of all terrestrial evil. The problem of evil poses an impediment to faith only if it succeeds in dashing this hope. I argue that, even though the problem of evil hasn’t been resolved, it hasn’t dashed the hope of redemption.

But the decision to live in the hope that there is a fundamental reality decisively on the side of goodness does not merely entail that we should live in the hope that all terrestrial evil is redeemed. It entails that we should live in the hope that all evil is redeemed. But the doctrine of hell is, in my judgment, inimical to this hope. The doctrine of hell is precisely the doctrine which holds that some evil will never be redeemed. On the liberal doctrine of hell (which holds that the free choices of the damned confine them to hell, and that God would save them if only they would change their mind, but they never do despite God’s best efforts), the implication is that in God’s war against sin, in the souls of the damned God will confront a final and ultimate defeat. As I put it in a forthcoming co-authored article, “Despite all of His infinite resources, despite infinite time in which to work, despite His perfect knowledge of every nuance of the souls of the damned, despite His unrelenting love, His efforts will be for naught. At least in some human souls, sin will prove more powerful than God.”

To avoid this blasphemous conclusion, we might go with the classical version of the doctrine of hell, according to which (again quoting from my forthcoming article) “God’s salvific aims are truncated such that they simply don’t include the damned.” The reason for this truncation is usually taken to be some demand of justice, such that the damned do not deserve salvation. Quoting again: “On this view, God prevails over sin in different ways: in the saved, it is through their attainment of blessedness, which includes their sanctification; in the damned, it is through their punitive expulsion from the goods of heaven.”

But, as my co-author and I argue at length in our forthcoming article (“Species of Hell”), to be deprived of salvation is to be deprived of the beatific vision, which is to be deprived of a full understanding of the good and hence of any real capacity to order one’s values in conformity with the good. The doctrine of grace is precisely this: that it is only when God dwells in us, when God’s will becomes our will, that we can be good. So our moral sanctification requires the infusion of divine grace. Without it, we are irredeemably corrupt.

“And so,” (quoting again) “on the classical doctrine of hell, the damned are punished for their wickedness at least in part by being confirmed in wickedness for all eternity.”

I close out this line of argument with an extended quote:

“To see the full magnitude of the difficulty here, it may help to reflect for a moment on exactly what is so bad about sin. Sin at its heart is a failure to value things according to their objective degree of value. It is a failure to appropriately express, in actions and dispositions, due reverence for the inherent worth of things. The most significant element of sin, on classical theology, is the failure to do this with respect to God. God has infinite inherent worth, and thus ought to be valued above all things. To fail to do so is an objective affront to the divine majesty, akin to the sociopath’s failure to properly value his victim but magnified in severity by the infinite worth of God.

“According to the classical doctrine of hell, God responds to this infinite affront against His dignity by deliberately acting to ensure that this affront to His dignity continues for all eternity. While He could stop it from continuing, He chooses instead make sure that this most intolerable of all evils persists forever in the souls of the damned by deliberately withholding the necessary condition for bringing it to an end.”

This picture doesn’t sound to me to be compatible with the hope that all evil will eventually be redeemed, any more than does a picture of hell in which sin remains forever victorious over God in the souls of the damned. Hence, if I choose to live in that hope, I must reject the doctrine of hell in either of its versions. Fortunately, I can do so, since the evidence for the truth of the doctrine of hell is hardly decisive (even were I a biblical fundamentalist, I would have to face conflicting scriptural evidence). And so, my ethico-religious hope isn’t dashed. And—again fortunately—the evidence against theism posed by terrestrial evils is not decisive, since there is nothing in experience that precludes the possibility of grander orders of reality within which these evils might be redeemed.

Put simply, if I knew that hell were real, that would be a decisive defeater for my ethico-religious hope. But I do not know this (in fact, I have little reason to think it true), so I can keep on hoping. I do know that terrestrial evils are real, but their reality is not a decisive defeater for my ethico-religious hope. Hence, I can keep on hoping.

Now it is certainly possible that I am mistaken in my thinking about hell. But the fact is that I simply cannot see how any version of the doctrine of hell can be made compatible with the ethico-religious hope. And given this truth about me, were I to believe in hell I would cease to believe that the ethico-religious hope had been fulfilled. Hence, were I to believe in hell I would lose my faith in God. I don’t know about you, but I think God would rather that I trust in Him than that I believe in hell.

And there are very many people who are very much like me on this issue—and many of them have been so steeped in the doctrine of hell that they see it is as an inextricable piece of theistic belief—and so lose the ethico-religious hope altogether. In this respect, I am absolutely convinced that the doctrine of hell is anti-evangelical. It is bad news that drives people away from faith in God. Part of my aim in my book is to invite those people back.

1 comment:

  1. For those who doubt the truth of his last sentence--it is what drove me from Christianity in the first place when I was only a child, time and time again. Anyone who explicitly tells a child that they are "going to hell" will forever change the way that person thinks about religion and God. Believe it.