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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Does anyone really want to go to hell?

I've been thinking more about a good God and hell and remembered something written by philosophy professor Thomas Talbot - The Inescapable Love of God. He has a website with some free downloadable chapters from the book.

Free will is often the reason given for why a good God allows people to end up in the eternal torment of hell .... you know, the idea that people are not sent to hell by God, but that they freely choose it, like Milton's Satan. In part I of Talbot's chapter 11, God, Freedom, and Human Destiny, he writes of why he thinks a rejection of God cannot really be freely made, and in part II he writes of why a loving God would not allow that choice to be made by his loved ones, even if they could freely do so, but it's part III that I've posted bits from below, because for some reason I'm feeling that the idea of blaming the existence hell on the free choice of "bad" people is just a little too easy of a way to get God off the hook ...... I think God is better than that. In fact, I also think God is better than Talbot does, because he seems to believe (if I understand correctly) that God uses hell as a kind of purgatory - a temporary yet still terrible place of punishment. I like better the idea that there is no hell at all.

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- from God, Freedom, and Human Destiny, Chapter 11 of Thomas Talbot's book, The Inescapable Love of God


In Part II of this essay, I tried to set forth the positive case for a universalist reading of the New Testament. Let us now examine, more specifically, the Arminian understanding of hell in light of the New Testament teaching ..... According to C. S. Lewis and a host of others, God does not reject the damned; the damned, being successful rebels to the end, reject him. Hence, the gates of hell are closed from the inside; that is, though the inhabitants of hell are indeed free to repent and to vacate this place at any time they choose, at least some of them will never choose to do so. But here we must ask once again: How could anyone who is rational enough to be morally responsible for his or her actions prefer the misery of hell over the joys of reconciliation? What motive, what greater good from the perspective of the damned, would make the miseries
of hell seem like the lesser of two evils?

A popular strategy among Arminians at this point is to suggest that, from the perspective of the damned, hell really isn’t that bad a place to be; at the very least, it is apt to seem far superior to heaven. The first step is to challenge the traditional image of a fiery furnace and torture chamber as overly barbaric and superstitious; the second is to suggest a motive for preferring hell over heaven. According to Jerry Walls, for example, “hell may afford its inhabitants a kind of gratification which motivates the choice to go there.” More than that, the damned may even experience a kind of illusory happiness.

Those in hell may be almost happy, and this may explain why they insist on staying there. They do not, of course, experience even a shred of genuine happiness. But perhaps they experience a certain perverse sense of satisfaction, a distorted sort of pleasure.

Though Walls denies that the damned are genuinely happy, he does not deny that they believe themselves to be happy; to the contrary, he insists that, for some lost souls, the illusion of happiness may endure forever and with sufficient conviction to explain why they never leave their preferred abode in hell.

Those who prefer hell to heaven have convinced themselves that it is better. In their desire to justify their choice of evil, they have persuaded themselves that whatever satisfaction they experience from evil is superior to the joy which God offers.

This line of thought leads naturally to a conclusion that Eleanore Stump has explicitly defended:13 Because God knows that he can do nothing, short of removing their freedom, to induce the damned to repent, he simply employs his omnipotent power to make them as comfortable as possible and to prevent them from harming others. But this entire line of thought also seems far removed from the images and language of the New Testament, which are far more suggestive of a chamber of horrors than many would like to believe. Is it not precisely the New Testament that pictures hell as a “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42) and where people will pray for the mountains to fall upon them (Revelation 6:16)? In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus alludes not to a freely embraced condition, but to a form of punishment, as we have seen; and in some cases at least, the punishment will come as a complete surprise. And in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:16-31), the rich man wants to warn his five brothers “so that they will not also come into this place of torment” (16:28). As depicted in the New Testament, in other words, hell is not the kind of place that even the wicked would freely choose to inhabit forever. For it really is a place of unbearable suffering and torment.

We can appreciate, of course, why the Arminians might want to water down the New Testament picture of hell as a place of unbearable suffering; an eternity of such suffering would be, after all, utterly pointless, and a god who would actually inflict such suffering forever would be unspeakably barbaric. But here, I would suggest, the universalists are in a far better position to accept the images and the language of the New Testament than the Arminians are. For the universalists can regard hell as a genuine form of punishment or correction, rather than a freely embraced condition; hence, they have no need to water down the New Testament image of unbearable suffering. Perhaps a period of such suffering is just what a Hitler or a Goebbels needs; and for that matter, perhaps it is just what they began to experience during the final days of their earthly life. So if, as John Hick has suggested,14 hell is but the continuation of the purgatorial sufferings of this life, then we have no reason to reject the language of unbearable suffering. Nor even to reject the image of a fiery furnace, which is as good a representation of God’s purifying love as there is. When people deceive themselves and beat their heads against the hard rock of reality, they suffer and sometimes suffer unbearably. They may not choose to suffer any more than Hitler chose to be defeated in battle, but their suffering is an inevitable consequence of their misguided actions. And in the end, the unbearable nature of their suffering will shatter their illusions and reveal to them the error of their ways.

One reason that some Arminians reject the New Testament language of unbearable suffering and the image of a fiery furnace is this: If the consequences of living a sinful life include unbearable suffering, at least over the long run, and if unbearable suffering will, in the end, successfully shatter those illusions that make a sinful life possible in the first place, then no one is truly free to live in sin forever. As Jerry Walls puts it, “no finite being can continue endlessly to choose greater and greater misery for himself. So in the end, the knowledge which makes impossible the choice of damnation is not acquired through free choice, but is itself impossible to avoid.”15 That is correct. But consider the alternative. The only alternative would be for God to protect people forever from the consequences of living a sinful life and to do so for the purpose of sustaining the illusions that make such a life possible. That, it seems to me, would be incompatible with God’s moral character. Suppose that I should act upon the illusion that I can benefit myself at the expense of others. If God should protect me forever from the bitter consequences of such actions, then in a very real sense I would not be acting upon an illusion at all. I would be right on the most important matter. For I could indeed act selfishly with a degree of impunity. It is as if I should bring my hand near to a flame and God should protect me from the excruciating pain of the flame. In that event, my belief that I could so act with impunity would not be an illusion.

The fact is, moreover, people have their illusions shattered against their will all the time. A man who, upon entering into an adulterous affair, makes a total mess of his life may in time learn a hard lesson, one that he in no way chose to learn; and having learned his lesson, he may be utterly unwilling to repeat the experiment. And similarly for Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus: As I read the account in Acts, Paul in no way chose to have his illusions shattered; and neither did he choose to receive a revelation that would in a very brief time transform this “chief of sinners” into a Christian missionary. Indeed, his own experience on the road to Damascus probably explains why Paul consistently regarded redemption as no less a work of God than creation itself. But Pauline theology in no way excludes human freedom and moral responsibility altogether. For even if redemption is a work of God, free choice and the correction of wrong choices could still be, as I believe it is, an essential part of the process whereby God reveals his true nature to us and teaches us the (occasionally hard) lessons we need to learn as we travel the road to redemption.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Cura Animarum said...

A good post Crystal. He makes some good points and I must admit, I have yet to find a fully satisfying theology of Hell. (Honestly, how can any theology be really satisfying right?) I personally tend towards a 'Salvation for all' theology but get stumped on the 'How' of it.

I still get hung up on the whole forcing thing. If God is just going to make me love Him in the end anyways, then what's the point of my conversion now?

Also, is it really love if I have no choice? I know Talbot seems to suggest that the two are not mutually exclusive but I can't seem to wrap my mind around that. We certainly don't call it love in our own lives when someone tries to force their affections upon another. We have a whole bunch of words for that, but love isn't really one of them.

It'd sure be easier of God would just tell us outright how these things worked. ;o)

CS Lewis tackles this same question in the last Narnia book in a very creative way. Maybe I'll put something from that up at some point...if I manage to remember. ;o)

3:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Post something about CS Lewis - I'd like to read that. I have an audio book of a few of his non-fiction books from the library but haven't got to it yet.

when someone tries to force their affections upon another ...

But what if it isn't God forcing himself on us at the end but just revealing himself as inescapably loveable .... what if he's just irresistible? When you see something beautiful, you don't feel forced because you find it attractive - you are not made against your will to appreciate what is good, your emotion is evoked but not forced. Maybe seeing God is like that?

3:58 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

See I can get that. I mean, that's kind of how I see God as being...inescapably lovable. But I would think there would still have to be some conscious decision on my part to desire to be a part of that. I don't think the love relationship God invites me into is a passive, 'no investment on my part' kind of thing.

Given that, I'm still left with the need for myself to have a real choice I can submit myself to the irresitableness of the Divine Lover, or, as remarkable as it may seem, say 'no thanks' and walk away (figuratively of course). I'm at the point where I can see the need for the choice, but can also accept that it would be next to impossible to imagine someone choosing otherwise.

4:48 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Talbot mentions how we have no free choice about being born or the circumstances of our birth, and he says (I think) that maybe that's true of death too. Maybe the only place where free will matters is here on earth?

But I do see what you mean.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Meg said...

I like the idea of the irresistable love. But the deadliest sin is Pride and I think we all know people who will cut off their nose to spite their face (as my grandmother would say!).

Imagine Hitler facing God.

G: Adolph, my beloved, here you are at last, see Me and the Truth.

A: OMG! You mean it's TRUE? I was wrong??? Burning Jews was NOT the way to perfection?! No. I refuse to believe it. I refuse to accept the reality of this Truth (or any punishment that might accompany it -- not too sure aobut this part)

G: But you see Me, you can feel My love! Come to ME!

A: I refuse. I turn my face away. I will not accept that my entire life was wrong/evil/whatever. I refuse to accept my fate (a zillion years in purgatory) or Your love. I'd rather be alone in my aryan superiority. Leave me be a big duck by myself in this little pond (or in Hell with other losers) than a little duck in the infinite pond of Your love.

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My image of hell is like that -- God loves all, forgives all -- but only if WE choose it, if we WANT forgiveness. If we accept His grace. We can choose to reject it.

And Hell in my mind is the complete absence of God -- closing that door behind you so completely that you can't hear or feel God begging you to come home. Rejecting all offers.

It's kind of a simplistic construct, I know, but when I think that Jesus taught us to see God as parent, it works for me.

The only people who are in Hell (be it a state of being or a place) are the ones who want to be there - who refuse God's love.

8:30 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Meg,

magine Hitler facing God.

Ha :) Actually, I read a homily in Fr. Marsh's archives that did have Hitler asking for forgiveness and going to heaven.

The guy I mentioned in the post, Thomas Talbot, says that he doesn't think anyone, once they know everything and see God, would choose eternal misery and I think he's right. The idea that someone would choose that out of pride, like Stan in Milton's Paradise Lost, just seems unbelieveable to me.

I can't help thinking that this idea that people themselves choose to go to hell, rahter than God making them go there, is a way to have a loving God but still keep hell, which seem two inconsistant things (a loving God and a place of ternal suffering).

11:09 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

I can't help thinking that this idea that people themselves choose to go to hell, rahter than God making them go there, is a way to have a loving God but still keep hell, which seem two inconsistant things (a loving God and a place of ternal suffering).

Hmmmm.

I don't want to keep Hell--- I want to keep free will. Hell is just the only way I can imagine it. And that's why I imagine it as the absence or refusal of God, because I don't think a lovign God would make a Hell -- but we humans seem to make them for ourselves all the time. Maybe Hell is a miserable soul sitting in a corner of Heaven with his eyes shut, covering his ears and shouting "I can't hear you I can't hear you" to drown out God's voice.

Ultimately, I recognize that no image of mine will compare with the reality -- I just make them in order to try to understand passages in Scripture that require a belief in Hell to make sense.

I'm happy with a God who is full of contraditions and paradoxes (it's a God, no, he's a man! a spirit!).

Let's face it, if I can understand it, it is not God. God is beyond human imagining or understanding.

:)

1:14 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Let's face it, if I can understand it, it is not God. God is beyond human imagining or understanding.

Yeah, for me too. It's hard not to speculate but it will probably be a big surprise, hoefully a good one :)

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Zaria said...

I don't believe that God 'Forces us' to do anything. I also don't believe in hell. We are all eternal souls, so if we came from heaven to earth, wouldn't we want to return home when we die? Maybe we only think some people would choose to turn away from God because we have forgotten what his unconditional love truly feels like.

I hope that makes sense...

4:57 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Zaria,

Yes, I like to think of God as loving us unconditionally too :)

7:08 PM  

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