Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Damned Sinners, Part III: Why Think the Damned Would Sin Forever?

This is the third part in a series of posts. If you haven’t read the first two, they can be found here and here.

In these posts I am considering two responses to what I am calling “The Problem of Damned Sinners.” The problem is one faced by traditional vindicatory views of hell, which see damnation as a just punishment for sin. In brief, the problem is that damnation involves alienation from God, and alienation from God deprives persons of a necessary condition for overcoming sin (arguably the necessary condition), namely divine grace. So damnation punishes sin by making sure that sinners can never escape their sinfulness. How in the world is that supposed to erase the negative value of sin and make things right?

In my last post I looked at a response offered by a conservative Calvinist, Steve Hays, and I argued that the response fails to appreciate the force of the problem, and as such faces two difficulties: First, even if its chief premise is acceptable, it fails to undercut The Problem of Damned Sinners; second, its chief premise is not acceptable.

In this post I want to consider a question about the Problem of Damned Sinners posed by Randal Rauser in a comment on his blog. Now Randal seems to understand the problem, and I think he senses the force of it. But he raises an important question: Why suppose that damnation has to involve endless sinning? We might reframe this question as an argument against the Problem of Damned Sinners, as follows:

1. If we adopt a conception of damnation according to which the damned do not endlessly persist in sin, then we escape the Problem of Damned Sinners.

2. There is nothing that prevents us from adopting such a conception of damnation

3. Therefore, we can escape the Problem of Damned Sinners

Now Randal, an astute thinker, already anticipates some responses to such an argument: First, it appears that passages of Scripture naturally lend themselves to interpreting the state of damnation as essentially involving rebellion against God—such that if you view this state as eternal, you will be called upon by Scripture to view the rebellion as eternal, too. (And, of course, to rebel against God is to sin.)

Second, even if we escape the Problem of Damned Sinners by adopting a view of damnation in which the damned don’t sin forever, this solution may generate new problems relating to the justice of inflicting eternal damnation on creatures who at some point stop offending against God. You might end up with a kind of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” response.

I will pursue neither of these responses here. I do, however, think it is important to stress that there has been, over the centuries, a range of conceptions of hell (John and I, both in GFV and in our contribution to The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, provide a kind of philosophical taxonomy of possible species of the doctrine of hell). And it is important to stress that problems that arise for some conceptions of hell may not arise for others.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Problem of Damned Sinners does not arise in relation to more liberal conceptions of hell, such as C.S. Lewis’s, according to which the gates of hell “are locked from the inside” by the autonomous choices of the damned. The interesting question, then, is how extensive the problem is. It would not be very extensive if the notion of ongoing sinfulness were logically and conceptually separable from other things that defenders of eternal damnation have been committed to.

Since my formulation of the problem specifically targeted the coherence of a Calvinist conception of damnation, I will concern myself primarily with that perspective. Unless my grasp of Calvinist theology is deficient, traditional Calvinists believed all three of the following:

(a) The damned are permanently alienated from God as a just punishment for sin
(b) The damned endure eternal conscious torment, again as a just punishment for sin
(c) The damned continue eternally in a state of sinful rebellion against God

If this is right, then I could, in principle, rest my case and simply note that here is a traditional view of damnation that faces the full force of the Problem of Damned Sinners simply by virtue of its affirmation of (c). But the philosophically interesting question is whether one could give up (c) while continuing to endorse (a) and (b). If one could, then defenders of a fairly traditional Calvinist view of damnation could escape the Problem of Damned sinners readily enough, without having to give up too much.

What I want to do here, then, is argue that this can't be done--that, at least within a broadly Calvinistic theology, embracing (a) and (b) requires also embracing (c). If you want to hold to a punitive view of damnation in which God casts sinners away from His presence and subjects them to eternal conscious torment, then eternal sinfulness will also have to be part of your view. And so, the Problem of Damned Sinners will be one you'll need to confront.

I am thus not going to argue here that the Problem of Damned Sinners is a problem for views of hell that give up on (b). For example, one might hold that the damned are eventually so overcome by the horror of their state that they retreat into perpetual unconsciousness to escape their suffering (something God permits). While we could imagine such a view of hell, I will concede for the sake of argument that it avoids the Problem of Damned Sinners as I have been posing that problem here.

But making this concession requires that I pause to draw a distinction between what I am doing here and what John and I do in our book. As I noted in the previous post, the version of the Problem of Damned Sinners that John and I develop in GFV is a bit different from the version I’ve been considering in these posts. In GFV, we argue that a perfectly good God would not will sin, but that by imposing eternal alienation as a punishment for sin, God would be willing sin by withholding from the damned what is necessary to avoid sinning.

This problem would not disappear, even if we conceded that the damned eventually fell into a state of permanent unconsciousness. My argument here, then, is that there is a further problem confronted by those who want to say, not only that being cast away from God is a just punishment for sin, but that those who are justly cast away experience eternal conscious torment. By including the traditional idea of eternal conscious torment in their view of hell, they thereby commit themselves to the idea that the damned keep sinning forever—that the very offense which warrants the punitive response is endlessly propagated by the punitive response. And it is hard to see how the negative value of an offense can be erased by a response that propagates the offense.

One thing to note up front is that much of the Christian theological tradition (not just Calvinism) has been committed to (c), that is, to the idea that the damned are eternally mired in a state of extreme sin. John and I, in our book, look at why the tradition has done so. In briefest terms, if damnation involves being preserved in a state of permanent alienation from God, then damnation involves being preserved in existence while being forever cut off from the only thing that can (given Christian theological assumptions) result in a non-sinful reorientation of our values. At the very least then, we should conclude that the damned will never succeed in overcoming their fundamentally disordered values and the sinful dispositions which accompany them.

Some might challenge the strength of the case for this conclusion, and I invite those who do so to look at what John and I say in GFV. But that invitation aside, it would be hard for a Calvinist to challenge our view on this point, given their theological commitments. Calvinists hold that we are lost to sin without divine grace, and they hold that damnation means being cut off permanently from divine grace. My original argument was directed to a Calvinist theology, and it’s pretty clear that on such a theology the damned could never overcome a sinfully disordered value system.

Even so, a Calvinist might claim that, while the damned never cease to have sinful dispositions, they do stop sinning actively. When Randal says, “But the doctrine of hell doesn’t require that we view the final state of the lost as consisting of ongoing active rebellion,” we might view him as gesturing to a rebuttal along these lines: The damned, while surely doomed to a state of eternal sinfulness given Calvinist theology, needn’t be construed as actively sinning against God for all eternity. Could the problem posed for Calvinist theology be escaped if we see the damned as (eventually) pushed into a passive state in which they are unable to act on any of their intolerable dispositions?

Let me approach the question this way: It seems to me that essentially every theological tradition that embraces some variant of the doctrine of hell holds that the damned hate God. And hatred of God is, of course, a grievous sin in any remotely orthodox theological tradition. But when it comes to something like hatred, we might reasonably ask whether we can meaningfully distinguish between actively hating God and simply possessing a hateful disposition. At least some might wonder whether, when it comes to an "attitudinal sin" of this sort, such a distinction can be drawn. If you “harbor” hatred for God but don’t have the opportunity to “do” anything about it—not even shake your fist at God, or curse God in your thoughts, or gnash your teeth—is your hatred any less actual?

In other words, there's a difference between merely having the potential to hate God if certain conditions obtain, and actually hating God. And surely the damned actually hate God. And so, it might be argued, they are actively hating even when they can't act on their hating.

Again, we’re assuming a view of hell in which the damned endure eternal conscious torment. In other words, they’re conscious. And they hate God. And they are in torment because of the rejection of this God they hate. Even if they’re not doing anything about their hatred—even if they’re not making active choices in which hatred is the motive—wouldn’t the hating itself nevertheless be active under those conditions?

But let’s set that worry aside, and imagine that this distinction can be made. What would prevent the damned from actively hating God, given their disposition to do so? The only answer I can think of appeals to eternal conscious torment itself: The damned, we might imagine, are so caught up with their subjective suffering that all their attention is focused on it, leaving them no time to “act on” any of their sinful dispositions, even their dispositional hatred of God. There’s still a sense in which they hate God here, but they aren’t “actively” hating him because they’re too fixated on their suffering.

This picture strikes me as problematic on a number of fronts. First, it seem that the perpetuation of dispositional hatred of God, even if the person is prevented from activating it, is an orientation of the self so opposed to God that it would constitute an ongoing affront to God’s majesty whether it could be actively expressed or not. Why think that futile gnashing of one’s teeth against God is an affront, but it isn’t a comparable affront to harbor a hatred that would result in such futile gestures were one not screaming in agony?

But I won’t develop that argument here. Instead, consider the following. If we are supposing that the damned are in a conscious state of suffering, one in which they are so fixed on their suffering that they cannot attend to God enough even to actively hate him, it follows that their attention is fixed wholly on themselves and their own misery. Let’s call this the self-fixation of the damned.

I would argue that, on an essentially conservative theology of sin, attention lies at the heart of sin. Those who hate God do so because they are not attending to God as such (were they to see God as He is in Himself, there would be no room for anything but love). They are instead focused on themselves and “seeing” God only through the filter of that self-absorption. They have made their (confused) self-seeking desires the object of their fixed attention, and when they think of God at all, it is in terms of the imagined effects of God on the satisfaction of these desires.

Because, of course, they see enough to recognize that God challenges the single-minded pursuit of their subjective desires. What they don’t see is that, were they to attend fully to God, those subjective desires would be displaced by desires that would truly satisfy them (in a way that the attainment of their existing desires simply can’t). They don’t see that God’s opposition to their subjective desires is an opposition to what harms them. Because they are so fixed on their own self-seeking impulses rather than on God, they are fundamentally confused about both their own good and about God. This is the heart of sin—it’s root, if you will: Sin as an act of misdirected attention, attention that focuses more on the self than on the Ultimate Good.

And the self-fixation of the damned, whereby their attention is so focused on their own suffering that they can pay attention to nothing else, seems to be nothing but an intensification of the misdirected attention that is the root of sin. And attending is something we do. To attend is active. And so the damned would, it seems, be actively sinning.

Of course, we are assuming that their suffering is so overwhelming that it’s impossible for the damned to focus on anything else. God has brought this about, imposed upon them suffering that (given their psychologies) totally consumes them. But if that’s right, mightn’t someone argue that, since they haven’t chosen to attend as they do, their attention isn’t active?

Let me make two points here. There is a difference between potentially attending to something and actively attending. Surely the damned here are actively attending to their suffering. In that sense, it is clear that their attention is active whether they chose it or not. Second, the idea that their attention can’t be something they do because they couldn’t have done otherwise rests implicitly on the assumption that an action isn’t an action unless it is free in the libertarian sense.

And this is something that conservative Calvinists have to deny. Following the biblical claim that sinners “are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves,” Calvinists (and not just Calvinists) insist that, in the absence of divine grace, our sinfulness is entirely determined. Hence, Calvinists have to believe that our sinful actions remain actions even though they are determined. More broadly, I would suggest even those who believe in some kind of libertarian freedom aren’t committed to the view that only libertarian free acts are acts. Even if there are cases in which, in doing something, one could have done otherwise, it doesn’t follow that when one couldn’t have done otherwise one is no longer doing anything.

In any event, Calvinists have to believe in actions that, even though determined, are still actions. And so no Calvinist could coherently insist that, because it wasn’t freely chosen in a libertarian sense, the self-fixation of the damned isn’t actively sinful.

In sum, then, the point is this: Human consciousness attends to things. As such, so long as the damned are conscious, they are active at the level of what they attend to.

Hence, if damnation is characterized by eternal conscious torment, the damned (being conscious) would of necessity be committing sins of attention—unless, of course, they attended wholly and purely to God, in which case their attention wouldn’t be sinful. But in that case, they wouldn’t be damned, either.

It seems to follow that the only way to avoid the conclusion, within a broadly Calvinist theology, that the damned actively sin for all eternity, would be to deny that they are eternally conscious, and so to deny that they suffer eternal conscious torment.


  1. God will not put any child no matter what their sins into a hell fire. I would like to invite you to read http://minigoodtale.wordpress.com where the true word is delivered and proven.

  2. Umm...I agree with that conclusion (although I'm open to the idea of a metaphorical "purifying" fire that culminates in redemption). In fact, I co-authored a book in support of universalism--although I'd never say of my book that it is "where the true word is delivered and proven."

    The purpose of this post is to step into a theological framework which DOES think God throws some of his children into hellfire as a punishment for sin...in order to expose what I take to be a problem with such a framework.

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  4. As a universalist it is by no means in my interest to defend any doctrine of hell, but for the sake of philosophical reflection, I have a few comments. You critize the objection that those in hell no longer sin because they no longer can act on their sinful dispositions by pointing out that their hatred and self-attention would still be sins, but what if the state of those in hell are purely receptive? Maybe those in hell no longer have any active existence whatsover, not even the ability to fix their attention on anything or to actively will anything. Is feeling something an action? If not, maybe they can feel the punishment for the sins they committed in this life without committing any new sinful acts.

    Another way to resolve the problem of the damned sinners may be to point out that, even if those in hell continue to sin, the only ones they hurt with their sins are themselves (asuming that God and their loved ones no longer care about their well being). Maybe what makes sin in this world an intolerable problem is it's destructive consequences for the well being of both the good and the bad, the elect and the non-elect indiscriminately. But when the non-elect are separated from the elect forever and the sinners no longer can harm anyone but themselves, maybe sin no longer is a problem for God?

    There are a number of theological, philosophical and ethical problems with the premises of these arguments (that God does not care for all his creatures, that eternal torment is a just punishment for sin and the dualistic separation of the world into the elect and the non-elect) but assuming that these premises are correct, what are their effect on the problem of damned sinners?

  5. Saldakordos,

    Good questions. I think the first question is the more significant, and pushes up against what is most controversial about my final argument in this post.

    Here's how I'd answer it. It seems to me that human consciousness is characterized by attention, and that attention is active, not merely passive, EVEN IF I could not have done otherwise than attend to what I am attending to.

    Complete subjective passivity, in which one is MERELY the subject of stimuli, strikes me as a mode of subjectivity in which consciousness in the fully human sense is gone. One is experiencing pain, perhaps, but not attending to it and so not affected by it in the same way. SUFFERING, it seems, involves attending to one's pain. And so, without attention, one cannot suffer.

    A helpful analogy here might come from certain pain relievers that function, not by actually reducing pain, but by making you CARE less about it. If you don't care about the pain, you don't suffer the way that you would if you did care. But to care is an intentional mental act--one bound up with attention. Total passivity would seem to involve ceasing to attend or to care. And so, were the damned to be rendered utterly passive, they wouldn't care about the evils which afflict them. And if they don't care about the evils which afflict them, they don't suffer.

  6. As to your second line of argument, it is one that I can't accept for numerous reasons (among other things, it supposes that God and the blessed cease to care for the damned utterly--even ceasing to care that the essentially good created nature of the damned is being vitiated).

    But part of what's at issue here is whether someone with radically different theological beliefs than mine could invoke this line of reasoning to show that an apparent contradiction in their theology is ONLY apparent.

    To answer this, I think we need to think about retributive justice. Why is it that sin warrants punishment in the first place? Why does sin warrant DAMNATION? What does the punishing of sin in a fitting way achieve? HOW does punishing sin set right what sin puts wrong?

    With respect to these questions, the only plausible account of retributive justice that I've found which can be invoked in the service of the fittingness of eternal damnation is one according to which the affront of sin is that it involving valuing things less than their intrinsic worth calls for, and that the disparity between the real value of something and the valuation expressed in sinfulness needs to be forcefully repudiated with a punishment that conveys the extent of the error. Since God is infinitely valuable, sin in relation to God involves an error of infinite scope and so demands a response that expresses this infinite gravity.

    I don't see how one could adopt such a view and hold that the ongoing sinning of the damned ceases to be a problem. And I have yet to encounter an alternative conception of retributive justice that could actually underwrite the view that finite sins in this life can warrant ETERNAL damnation.

  7. I would reject my own hypothetical arguments for the same reasons you do. Even if the idea of a purely receptive existence of utter suffering were a coherent idea (and you might be right that it's not) it would be so pointless and sadistic as to be beyond belief. No matter what the damned were in the past, they would certainly no longer be anything resembling moral agents anymore so I don't see how any idea of justice, not even retribute justice, could be applicable. But of course, as we all know, anything God does must be just simply on account of the fact it is God doing it.
    That last one was a joke.

    The point of my arguments was to see how your problem of damned sinners would fare against the arguments of a true five-point calvinist. A five-point calvinist does not believe that God or the blessed care for the well being of the damned. In light of my understanding of divine and human love, this is completely incoherent, but they have a different understanding of love which may stand up to purely philosophical scrutiny. This is what I wish to test. I agree with you that retributive justice, especially purely retributive justice, is without meaning or purpose. It is evil for the sake of evil, thinly disguised as justice. But there are many retributionists who see an inherent worth in retribution I simply cannot see (probably because it's not there, hehe). Retribution is for them an essential part of justice. It's not supposed to achieve anything, but when justice is done, this is good for it's own sake, like beauty or joy. It's hard to argue against these kinds of intuitions, although I don't understand them.


  8. How could a calvinist answer your objection to my second hypothetical calvinist-argument? Well, something similiar to Steve's answer. You attack this in part two of this series of posts, but I don't think you really grasp Calvinist logic here. That is a very good sign. The few times I'm close to understanding it I lose most of my faith in mankind. This may be a caricature, but in Calvinist theology the only thing God really cares about is his own glory. He wouldn't really care if most of his creatures was trapped in sin, so long as he could balance out the negative effect sin has on his glory. Punishing sin apparently adds the same amount of glory to God sin has taken out.
    So, he deprives the damned of the only chance they have to stop sinning, so what? According to this logic, God does not care that some do not give him glory freely (in a compatibilist sense) so long as he can take it from them by punishing their sin. Actually, he prefers that some continue to sin so that both the quality of his mercy and the quality of his "justice" are in effect for all eternity. Hence, an endless hell of unrepented sinners suffering for their sin poses no problem for God. Hurrah!

    My point in all this is probably to point out the futility of arguing against a theology that involves the idea of a God whose values and reasons are by definition arbitrary. I think you would do better to argue against the very foundations of the theology of five-point Calvinism instead, as you do so very well.

    - Øystein Evensen (Saldakordos is my google-name)

  9. Eric, thanks for your thoughtful engagement. My apologies for being late in a response. Life has been busy busy busy.

    I find myself in the interesting position of defending a view in which I don't have a particular interest. But that's okay. Here goes:

    You close by summarizing your argument: "As such, so long as the damned are conscious, they are active at the level of what they attend to.

    "Hence, if damnation is characterized by eternal conscious torment, the damned (being conscious) would of necessity be committing sins of attention—unless, of course, they attended wholly and purely to God, in which case their attention wouldn’t be sinful. But in that case, they wouldn’t be damned, either."

    So the question is whether a conscious person who is suffering is necessarily going to be guilty of the sin of attention. I don't see that you've established this at all.

    Picture a case of extreme suffering: a person being skinned alive over a period of ten minutes. Is it plausible to think of that person as being guilty of any sin of attention during that ten minutes? On the contrary, it seems to me very plausible to think that the individual's suffering would be so extreme that he/she would not even have the awareness that it is he who is suffering. He might be completely consumed by a conscious awareness of pure pain.

    Likewise, why not think that a damned person is in a state of such extreme suffering that he/she is consumed by pain and thus is incapable of sinning, even in the modest sense of attention that you describe?

    Let's begin by noting that the suffering of ECT, if it exists, is a unique

  10. Oops, disregard the closing sentence fragment.

  11. Randal,

    Thanks for this. I concede that seen through the lens of your analogy of the skinned-alive torture victim, my final argument seems counterintuitive. But I'd make two points about this.

    First, I think what makes it counterintuitive is our intuitive allegiance to an implicit premise about agency that the Calvinist would have to reject. If I'm right about this, then your response says more about the limitations of Calvinist theology in relation to our intuitions than it does about my final argument.

    Second, my argument from attention is inspired by my reading of Simone Weil's writings--and these writings also provide the foundation for challenging the adequacy of our intuitions in the skinned-alive case.

    Unfortunately, I find myself with no time to fully develop either point right now, given work commitments and the final rehearsals for the local theatre production of the musical I'm doing the violin part for. I might devote a post to both points later in the week when some of the work stuff (our department is doing two faculty hires) lets up.