Thursday, March 25, 2010

Second New Book Excerpt: Species of Hell

Over the next few weeks I hope to be posting a number of short excerpts from the early chapters of That Damned Book (the philosophical critique of the doctrine of hell that John Kronen and I are co-authoring). The excerpt I post today comes from Chapter 2, our chapter in which we outline different species of both DH (the doctrine of eternal hell) and DU (the doctrine of universal salvation).

John and I actually revised and reshaped the first section of that chapter into a stand-alone article on species of hell, adding a section in which we identify the main hurdles than each species we identify would need to overcome in order to be defensible within a broadly Christian context. That essay has now appeared in the just-published anthology, The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, edited by Joel Buenting and published by Ashgate. It's a lovely book, comprised of more than a dozen articles requisitioned specifically for the anthology and written by the some of the top philosophers working on the philosophical problem of hell. For those who want a foretaste of some of the main lines of argument we'll be developing in our book, take a look at our contribution to The Problem of Hell (titled "Species of Hell").

The excerpt reproduced here lays out what all species of DH have in common, and then sets the stage for distinguishing different species according to a pair of parameters. The first part of the excerpt (the part before the ellipses) is almost identical to a parallel passage in our essay for this anthology. The second part (after the ellipses) is unique to the book manuscript, although the ideas expressed in it are expressed in different terms in our essay for the anthology. Without further ado, here's the excerpt:

For Christianity, God is taken to be the highest good. This is a claim about what is objectively valuable, and as such imposes an obligation on our subjective values: if we fail to value God above all things, our subjective values are defective—and our moral character is more broadly compromised. When we fail to order our values appropriately, we inevitably fail to behave in ways that display appropriate respect for the inherent worth of things.

On traditional Christian moral theology, then, rational creatures are fully moral only when they make God the object of their highest devotion—in other words, only when they love God above all else. Loving God above all else completes the moral nature of rational creatures. By clinging to God—the sovereign good—and loving Him because of His perfection, creatures are perfected in both intellect and will, so that all their inclinations and actions are in accord with right reason.

But the traditional view here is that this kind of rightly-ordered love of God can only be fully achieved by a direct vision of the divine essence. Thus, Melanchthon asserts that “although the law points out what God is like, such righteousness cannot be in anyone unless God himself dwells in him and gives him his light and glory. Thus the law is entirely fulfilled in us only in eternal life, in eternal righteousness, when we have eternal joy in God, and God has become all in all.”

In sum, salvation in the Christian tradition means a spiritual union with God that brings about both eternal moral perfection and perfect happiness. With this notion of salvation in mind, it should be clear what it means to say that some created persons are never saved. It means that some are never granted the beatific vision, which is the only thing that will fully complete them as rational creatures. Their intellects are thus eternally darkened by false notions of what is true and good, leading to disordered desires that overvalue some things and undervalue others. Not only will they never love God with their whole hearts, they will never properly love their neighbors or themselves…

…the core of DH in all its forms can thus be taken to consist in the everlasting deprivation of the beatific vision and the unending moral and spiritual vitiation which necessarily attends it.

But if this is common to all species of DH, we can see immediately why there is something controversial about DH. To put the point simply, permitting or imposing damnation amounts to either allowing or causing some persons to be eternally confirmed in two evils: not only or even primarily the loss of the joys of heaven, but also, and more significantly, eternal moral wickedness. To be deprived of the beatific vision is to be deprived of the only thing that can wash away sin.

And so the question immediately becomes: Why would a perfect God, a God Who is not only benevolent in his love for His creatures but who hates sin, permit (or bring it about) that some of his creatures are eternally marred by both misery and sinfulness, and so fall eternally short of the end for which He made them? Why would a perfect God allow sin to reign forever victorious over His divine purposes in creation, at least in the souls of the damned?

If God is morally perfect and omnipotent (conceived in the sense of being capable of doing whatever is logically possible), then there must be either (a) some morally sufficient justification for permitting or inflicting these evils or (b) some logical impossibility associated with saving the damned from these evils. Given God’s omnipotence, (a) seems more plausible than (b). Of course, it might be logically impossible for God both to save the damned and to meet some further demand of moral perfection. But in that case, meeting the relevant demand of moral perfection would operate as the morally sufficient reason for God’s permitting (or causing) damnation, and so we have a species of (a).

Nevertheless, we don’t want to rule out (b) in advance. In either case, (a) or (b), there is a sense in which God would be justified in not saving all—either because he has a morally sufficient reason not to do so or because he cannot do so (and so cannot be morally required to do so). In either case, God’s failure to save all would be shown not to be wrong, and so we would have what might be called a “God-justifying reason” for eternal damnation.

As one might expect, hellists have historically proposed a variety of “God-justifying reasons” for damnation, and these alternatives correlate with different species of DH, especially in two key areas: the nature of the evils endured by the damned, and the causes of damnation. In effect, God’s reasons for permitting or imposing damnation will lead to different ideas about what the damned endure. If, for example, one thinks that God is justified in imposing damnation because of the demands of retributive justice, then one will be likely to think that the damned suffer from an array of torments inflicted by God as a punishment for sin. If, by contrast, one thinks that God is justified in permitting damnation out of respect for the free choices of the damned, one will be less inclined to think that the damned have suffering heaped upon them by God and more inclined to think that the suffering is nothing more than what in some way naturally accompanies alienation from God.

Likewise, alternative views about God’s justifying reasons for damnation will generate different accounts of its causes. If one thinks God’s justifying reason for permitting damnation is respect for the free choices of the damned, one will think that hell is a kind of self-imposed prison, that damnation’s “impelling cause” is the free choices of the damned. If, however, on thinks God is justified in imposing damnation for retributive reasons, one will think that damnation’s impelling cause is God’s choice to righteously smite evildoers.


  1. Eric:

    Even though the dominant idea is that hell is basically a state of separation from God, there is also the idea that one cannot be separated from God because God is everywhere. According to this idea one can experience the presence of God in different ways, and the way the damned experience God is as painful fire, or perhaps as cleansing fire.

    Another idea is that heaven and hell do not so much denote places or states of being, but rather directions, or ways of being, so that heaven and hell are real in our life even now. The idea is that loving and trusting in God, or moving towards God, or becoming like Christ - *is* heaven, and the opposite *is* hell.

    Both these ideas can be combined in this way: That reality is such that if one moves away from God one will experience life in an increasingly painful way which can ultimately be compared to being burned by fire. (By “life” here one must understand our eternal life way beyond the first step we are taking now on Earth.)

    Finally I have an observation on this bit you write: “salvation in the Christian tradition means a spiritual union with God that brings about both eternal moral perfection [snip] Isn’t it the other way around, namely that moral perfection brings about spiritual union with God?

  2. Dianelos:

    Your first point is important. In fact, given the orthodox Christian assumptions we are using as our framework for this book, being preserved in one's existence really isn't a different act from divine creation...which means that existence in hell (or anywhere else) requires the ongoing creative work of God bestowing being on the creature. In other words, complete separation from God amounts to annihilation.

    As such, any doctrine of hell (rather than a doctrine of annihilation), to be consistent with this orthodox view, must maintain that the creature's separation from God is not complete. In fact, on the most fundamental level--the level of one's being--the damned are not separated from God. And so their separation has to be understood in a different way--a separation on level of will or understanding, perhaps (they are striving to escape God, or are consistently directing their attention away from God, or are mired in self-deceptions that lead them to experience God's love for them as an attack on them).

    In any event, our working definition of the doctrine of hell isn't in terms of total separation but in terms of being permanently deprived of salvation, where salvation consists essentially in being granted the beatific vision, or perhaps in the onset of a process whose inevitable culmination is the beatific vision. (By "the beatific vision," we mean the immediate and unclouded experience of God in all his infinite love and majesty).

    Whether we should identify "not-yet-saved" with being in hell is an interesting question. One might prefer to say that one is in hell when one begins to experience the extent of one's alienation from the source of all goodness as painful--something that would inevitably happen if one were constantly "moving away" from God, or if one were so wedded to one's own sinful character that the inescapable presence of God-- which would illuminate the true nature of sin--would be experienced as a burning condemnation of who one IS rather than as a loving attempt to liberate the true self from corrupting powers.

    But I also tend to agree with Marilyn Adams that ANY alienation from the only thing that could sustain our interest eternally would, EVENTUALLY, amount to utter misery ("hell").

  3. As to your final comment, we are here following the orthodox view that "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves," and that our full moral sanctification therefore depends on the inflow of divine grace. We are purified of sin not through our own efforts, but through the work of divine love within us. And the ultimate purification only comes with the fullest experience of the divine.

    Now this orthodox view admits of variations, especially in terms of the degree to which human agency plays a part in sanctification. The Augustinian view is that we play no part in our sanctification at all: it's all God. The Arminian view is that we play a part insofar as we are free to accept this grace or not--but here, our sanctification is not the result of this free act of acceptance, which is merely a necessary condition for the inflow of grace. It is, again, the grace of God that cleanses us of sin. The orthodox Lutheran view falls somewhere between these two. Nothing WE do plays any role in our moral sanctification, because our moral sanctification results when we are passive in the face of divine grace. But we are free to reject God--to unplug ourselves, if you will. In that case, the lights go out.

    There are other variations, but orthodoxy has consistently insisted that, at the most, our role in moral sanctification is to COOPERATE with the sanctifying power of grace. The big disagreement between Catholics and Lutherans was not over this, but over whether we were JUSTIFIED in God's eyes prior to the completion of God's work in sanctifying us, or after. The Lutherans thought, as I understand it, that not only did justification in God's eyes come first, but that by virtue of being justified WHILE remaining sinners, we were liberated from the impulses to resist God's grace that come from the fear of admitting guilt.

  4. Eric:

    It is difficult to speak of the orthodox Christian position, for there is no agreement about this. Many Christians, for example, might argue that the orthodox position is that most people will be sent to hell to suffer terribly for ever. The deeper question is how a Christian should decide which beliefs are true, and hence “orthodox”. I think the safest way is to follow Christ’s admonition of considering what bears good fruit. And I think that from the Christian perspective it is clear what the “good fruit” is, namely to become like Christ. And we all know how Christ is, both because our innate sense of personal perfection, and from reading in the Gospels about how Jesus was. In short I suggest that the safest ground on which to base one’s Christian beliefs is that which proves to be more useful for us to follow Christ. Therefore Christian ontology should be centered on Christian ethics. For, on theism, it is inconceivable that truth may be such that the more we know of it the more difficult it will be for us to do what God asks of us.

    In the context of our discussion about hell, the relevant question then is this: Which of the two doctrines motivates us more to follow Christ: the doctrine of hell or the doctrine of universal salvation? Or, similarly, which of the two doctrines makes God more lovable, and indeed more lovely? Or, similarly, which of the two doctrines motivates us to do what Christ asks of us, such as to pray for our enemies? I think the answer is obvious. So, it seems to me, the defense of universal salvation can be based not only on intellectual grounds, but also on pragmatical grounds: on the consequences that embracing or else rejecting this belief has for our ethical life.

    So, as a future reader of your book, I’d prefer you discussed all views about hell and salvation without naming “orthodox” one or the other. It would be interesting though to read about which Christian denomination expounds which view and why, i.e. read something about the historical or epistemic background which explains how this particular belief came about.

    Further, you write that the orthodox position is that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves and that our full moral sanctification therefore depends on the inflow of divine grace”. Now it is trivially true that we cannot free ourselves from sin on our own accord; after all we cannot even exist on our own accord. It is also true that we need the gift of divine grace for building our souls, in the same way that a potter needs the gift of possessing hands in order to build a pot. But this does not mean that possessing hands is sufficient; the potter must after all use them in order to build the pot. When I read the Gospels I see Jesus incessantly call us to do this and do that because it will profit us, and not to simply sit back and accept the free gift of divine grace. At best I would say that to follow Christ and to do what He asks of us, *is* what “accepting divine grace” means. I cannot help but think how Jesus lamented: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not what I say?”

  5. Dianelos,

    I agree with much of your methodological perspective. I am very much a pragmatist on these matters. In fact, my personal attraction to a rather strong doctrine of grace--a doctrine which holds that our overcoming the vices and imperfections which most plague us is less likely to happen when we tackle the problem with an air of fierce independence and devotion to "saving ourselves," and more likely to happen when we acknowledge an incapacity and open ourselves up to the help of a higher power--is drawn from an observation of the pragmatic fruits of the latter, as exemplified in twelve step programs. But it should be clear that what is going on in these programs isn't passive waiting for God to fix one's addiction. There is, if you will, a kind of positive feedback loop that kicks in between the will of the creature and the transforming power of the transcendent when the creature "hands over" his or her problem to God.

    I shoudl also note that I share your pragmatic assessment of the relative inspirational capacities of the doctrine of hell and universalism.

    The appeal to orthodoxy is related to the argumentative strategy of the book--and it occurs to me that I should include in one of these new book posts an excerpt laying out our methodology.

    In brief, our argumentative strategy is to look at what is implied by the broader doctrinal commitments of those traditional Christians who embrace the doctrine of hell, and to see whether the doctrine of hell really IS the best "fit" with these broader commitments. That is, our argument is dialectical in Aristotle's sense: it adopts the assumptions of those whose views we are challenging. One of our main purposes is to show that universalism does not merely make more sense from a more progressive Christian perspective that is willing to broadly rethink the tradition in a range of ways, but that it also makes more sense from an ORTHODOX perspective.

    This is not to say that DH isn't part of the broader orthodox perspective. It clearly is, and in THAT sense is orthodox. What we want to show is that if we compare the cases that can be made for and against DH with the cases that can be made for and against DU from WITHIN the pervasive orthodox assumptions about the nature of God, the nature of human beings, and the nature of the human relationship to God, DU comes out looking much more compelling.

  6. Will your argument require assumptions that you feel a progressive should not assert? Or are you merely excluding the progressive commitments that an orthodox Christian would be likely to reject?

    Despite that your target audience for this book seems to be orthodox Christians, I predict that your actual audience will consist far more of progressives. Will your progressive audience walk away with anything personally constructive?

  7. Jarod--Good questions. I think one of the outcomes of the book for progressives MAY be a kind of "rehabilitation" of certain orthodox teachings--that is, a demonstration that these teachings, which progressives frequently reject because of their perceived pernicious implications, may not actually have these implications at all.

    One of the themes we introduce early in the book is that religious doctrines tend to be conceptually ill-defined--that is, the sentence expressing a doctrine does not so much refer to a particular proposition but gestures in a rather vague way to a cluster of similar propositions. This fact makes disputes such as the one we intend to pursue rather slippery: If we simply show that DH is incompatible with certain core doctrines about God, the defender of DH can often propose an anternative meaning to the doctrinal assertions than the ones which generate the problem for DH. Making headway therefore calls for a more systemic look at the entire web of doctrines.

    One can almost imagine a SUDOKU puzzle here. Just as, in such a puzzle, one attempts in the light of a set of given values to assign values to the undetermined squares which "fit" with every other assigned and given value, we need to assign a precise meaning to each doctrine that offers the best fit with every other assigned and given meaning. In a way, our argument will be that this can be more adequately accomplished if we take a version of DU as a given than if we take a version of DH as a given. That is, adopting DU creates a SUDOKU puzzle that can be solved, whereas adopting DH does not.

    But the puzzle that can be solved (the one that adopts a species of DU) assigns to other orthodox doctrines meanings that are more congenial to progressive Christianity than to fundamentalism.

    In short, our enormously ambitious aim is to show that the only fully coherent form of orthodox Christianity is universalist and (in important respects) progressive. Whether we will actually succeed in showing this has yet to be seen.

  8. Ah, cool! I'll be looking forward to this one.

  9. Eric:

    This sounds like a complex project. It is also a very important one: The doctrine of hell is the single worse and most unfruitful theistic idea there is. To show that it does not cohere will be very significant.

    Have you thought of writing this as a dialogue? Or perhaps have a knowledgeable theist who does believe in hell respond to your ideas - for I have always wondered how a thoughtful Christian could possibly believe in such an absurdity. Incidentally, what would you say is the best defense of the traditional sense of hell? I have found the book “The Problem of Hell” by Jonathan Kvanvig, but this one seems to expound an idea similar to Swinburne’s, so it’s not about hell as traditionally understood. Another book, “The Problem of Hell” is an anthology edited by Joel Buenting. I also found “Four Views on Hell” by William Crockett. Do you know these books? Can you recommend them, or suggest any better ones? Given the dominance that the idea of hell has on the current theistic mindset it is surprising that serious books on this issue appear to be so rare.

    A final point about nomenclature: Perhaps it’s my Greek background, but your use of “orthodox” sounds strange to me, and closer to what I would call “conservative”. The word “orthodox”, it seems to me, can only carry a positive connotation. If one believes that the Holy Spirit is still at work there can’t really be any tension, never mind opposition, between “orthodox Christianity” and “progressive Christianity”.

  10. Dianelos,

    Yes--the project is ambitious. In fact, it is really too ambitious to expect that we will fully accomplish it. It's probably better, therefore, to say that we aim to clearly define the project and the issues at stake, and then offer a vigorous effort to pursue it, one which will hopefully be compelling enough to shift the burden of proof to the defender of DH. If we do our job, the defenders of DH will be scrambling to develop a compelling reply.

    Kvanvig's book is one of the classic contemporary philosophical defenses of what John Kronen and I call "the liberal doctrine of hell," which happens to be the version of DH most popular among Christian philosophers. The other important book-length defense of this liberal doctrine is Jerry Walls' HELL: THE LOGIC OF DAMNATION. Swinburne and Eleonore Stump have important essays or book chapters defending this liberal species of DH.

    Buenting's anthology is the one that just came out, in which John and I have an essay, "Species of Hell." It contains several essays defending DH, but mostly in its liberal form. Another recent anthology, UNIVERSAL SALVATION? THE CURRENT DEBATE, was released by Paternoster Press (in the UK) a few years back and through Eerdmans a year or two later. I have an essay in that, but there are also some able defenders of DH represented.

    Recent philosophical essays defending DH in a more conservative form have come from William Lane Craig, Michael Murray, and Charles Seymore. It would be nice if these were collected in a single anthology, but as of now they are scattered in various philosophy or religion journals (mostly RELIGIOUS STUDIES and FAITH AND PHILOSOPHY) and books (such as REASON FOR THE HOPE WITHIN, edited by Murray).

    And yes, I'm afraid "orthodoxy" has come to have several meanings in English discourse: first, "true teaching" (whatever that happens to be); second, the set of traditional teachings that have been dominant in the history of Christianity, that cut across denominational lines, and that take the creeds as doctrinally normative.