Friday, March 23, 2007

The Nature of Hell:

If anyone is so interested, I debated the nature of Hell on this post on World Mag's blog. I had two basic claims. The first is, because all men's sins are finite, it would be fundamentally unjust to impose eternal punishment on anyone even Hitler or whatever evil incarnate you may imagine. Imposing it on the mass of humanity would be the worst case of cosmic injustice or the punishment not fitting the crime. Even in the Christian religion, there are alternatives. For instance, the Catholic notion of purgatory -- where individuals are temporarily punished -- purged of their sin -- and then eventually redeemed. (Our key Founding Fathers -- the "theistic rationalists" -- believed in something similar. Though, unlike Catholics who elevate works more so than orthodox Protestants do, the theistic rationalists believed that works were more important than faith in determining salvation. They argued God cares more about what you did than what you believed.) The notion of temporary, proportionate punishment, eventual salvation is far more "rational" and "just" than eternal damnation. But both orthodox Christians and atheists would instruct me that just because something sounds nicer doesn't make it true.

John Adams said the following, in his letter to Jefferson dated Sept. 14, 1813, one of the many times he denied eternal damnation in his writings:

God has infinite wisdom, goodness, and power; he created the universe; his duration is eternal ... his presence is as extensive as space. It is said that he created this speck of dirt -- the earth -- and the human species for his glory. And then, the orthodox theologians say, he chose to make nine-tenths of our species miserable forever, for his greater glory.

Now, my friend Jefferson, can prophecies and miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created and preserves for a time, innumerable millions, only in the end to make them miserable forever, and for no other purpose than his own glory? Wretch! What is glory? Is he ambitious? Does he want promotion? Is he vain, tickled with adulation, exulting and triumphing in his power and the sweetness of his vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these awful questions...but I believe no such thing. My adoration for the author of the universe is too profound, too sincere. The love of God and his creation -- delight, joy, triumph, exultation in my own existence -- are my religion. The Calvinist, the Athanasian divines ... will say I am no Christian. I say they are no Christians, and there the account is balanced.

Keep in mind that Adams, though he fervently worshipped God as he understood Him, to our best knowledge died a fervent unitarian, which according to the "orthodox theologians" would make him in Hell right now.

The second claim I made on the discussion thread was that the first claim -- that eternal damnation is fundamentally unjust in all circumstances -- depends on what Hell is really like. In studying the issue, I've noted that orthodox Christians don't at all agree on this matter. Some have said it's eternal separation from God (the most common claim I'm now hearing); some say no, Hell is torment because God is there, not because He's absent. Some say Hell is just annihilation of the soul -- the very same "grave" that atheists believe we all go to. I've seen one theologian argue for temporary punishment and then annihilation.

The "Hell is separation from God" crowd often makes what sounds to me like Arminan arguments for Hell, that this is place where people choose to go because they reject God. Or CS Lewis' famous line about the doors of Hell being locked from the inside.

One fundamentalist minister, Rev. John Rankin, with whom we at Positive Liberty debated in the past made an argument for Hell that actually caused me to rethink the fundamental unjust nature of it: that Hell is place where people voluntarily choose because they are happier not in God's presence. Though Christians deny that non-believers have true happiness, there are plenty non-believers here on earth who genuinely seem to claim happiness. If eternal separation from God means people can basically continue such separation that they are happy with here on Earth, the justness of such a concept, and why people would voluntarily choose to be in such a place, seems more understandable. If in Hell, we can be with our fellow unsaved loved ones, play pool with our buddies, listen to Howard Stern, philosophize with Jefferson and Voltaire, make music with Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Frank Zappa, drink, tell dirty jokes, continue to have the "unbiblical" sex that we enjoy here, etc. etc., well it sounds like Hell wouldn't be such a bad place to be for many folks (perhaps most folks would prefer such a place).

Most of the folks on the blog, even those who initially claimed that Hell wasn't eternal torture, just eternal separation from God -- balked at this notion. One person went so far to argue that because everything "good" comes from God, including our five sense and our ability to enjoy life using those senses, eternity in Hell means not just eternity alone, but devoid of all five senses. Sort of like God sentencing people to be Helen Keller for eternity but instead of the loss of two sense, we lose all five. I couldn't imagine a worse form of torture. And anyone who would impose this on a single soul, much less the majority of the human race for eternity is a cosmic sadist who would impose punishments which exceed the crime in the grossest way. (As I noted it would be the worst form of cosmic injustice, ever.) You don't chop someone's foot off for speeding; you give them a reasonable ticket. Hence, this can't possibly be true. Even were I an orthodox Christian believer who ended up in Heaven, were masses souls eternally tortured, I would remonstrate with God everytime I saw Him and beg for the eventual release of all souls from Hell.

And if Hell is a place where the doors are locked from the inside no one would choose to live in eternity like Helen Keller but devoid of all five senses, instead of two.

My own beliefs, more specifically: Who knows what comes next (though, the mere existence of time/space/matter and energy makes the notion of a supernatural creation of existence just as rational a belief as a self-existing universe, with no original creation)? But if there is something, I can't imagine it being unjust or unfair. Cosmic justice can't be achieved here on Earth. But if there is a hereafter, that's where such a concept comes into play. Asking me to believe the mass of humanity -- all the people who die not believing in the "right" religion -- are in Hell tortured in eternally misery -- would be like asking me to believe those 19 highjackers who crashed into the World Trade Center possessed the right theological answers. It's something to which I've closed my mind. I'm not buying it, ever.

1 comment:

Leo said...

Good thoughts as always. You have me thinking on that one. I cannot recall the quote exactly from Jonathan Edwards, or perhaps his modern disciple John Piper that took the issue of damnation away from the realm of simply breaking a "law" to the perspective of offense against an infinitely holy God that put one in hell. I thought the old Puritan had a great point in support of his argument.