The Theodicy of Hell

Vicq Ruiz asks a fascinating and very hard question:

I … have noted that one element in which Christianity appears to be unique is the doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelief, and for unbelief alone among man’s sins. And it is that doctrine which stands between me and Christianity like a thousand mile high granite wall. For if it is true, not only are both my (loving, and unbelieving) parents in eternal torment even as I write these words, but I am also to acquiesce – no, to delight! – in the “justice” which placed them there.

Of all doctrines, the one I am least eager and least qualified to defend is the doctrine of eternal damnation, and precisely for the reasons Mr Ruiz adumbrates: nothing seems, at first, to be more absurd, unjust, and sadistic than a benevolent and loving God who would throw the into a furnace the weeping innocent child, His own child, who is guilty of nothing but a reasonable, even inevitable, skepticism.

Add to this the cruelty of asking the believer to rejoice in this divine justice, and you have perhaps the most powerful argument against theodicy imaginable.

It is as bad as if, during a highrise fire or a mine collapse, the fireman who raised the ladder or dug a tunnel to find the dying victims, upon opening the way to escape from the flames or from the darkness, suddenly and arbitrarily demanded to know which of the dying had believed, beforehand and without evidence, that the fire department was coming. After finding some illiterate widow or small child or born pessimist who did not believe, the fireman yanks the ladder back, leaving those who entertained reasonable doubts to burn; or he bricks over the escape tunnel, leaving them to asphyxiate. Certainly we would question the justice, and the sanity, of a fireman who acted by such a standard. It sounds like a horror story worthy of Poe rather than the act of a divine spirit motivated by supernatural and infinite love.

Nonetheless, the evangelist commands that I be ready always (with meekness and fear) to give an answer to every man that asks a reason of the hope that is in me.

The short answer, my dearest Mr Ruiz, is that you are blaming the doctor for the disease.

You are pointing at the sole cure to hell, the escape hatch from hell, and calling it injustice that not all men avail themselves of it.

This answer is perhaps too short, and may unfortunately seem flippant. Allow me to expand on it.

The thing that stands between you and paradise like a brick wall is an emotion, a sentiment, a feeling. You imagine your loving and beloved parents thrown into the cruel and burning torments of a pit worse than a gulag or deathcamp by an arbitrary tyrant. What I ask, for the sake of your immortal soul, is that you put sentimentality aside and think carefully and clearly and rationally. Think as if your life depends on it, for it surely does.

First things first. Let us establish an axiom which, I hope, needs  nothing but the most cursory defense: The world we see around us is one where men, all men, know the difference between right and wrong, and, knowing the wrong, chose to do it anyway.

The nihilist idea that there is no such thing as right and wrong contradicts itself—for if there is no such thing as right and wrong than it is not wrong to say, either ignorantly or deceptively, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. To be ignorant is not sloth and to deceive is not evil and to be deceived is not regrettable.

The Socratic idea is that men do evil only out of ignorance, because they fail to know the good. But the experience both of temptation, and its power, and the history of evils deeds done by evil men for a wide variety of motives, including self destructive motives, makes the Socratic idea seem naive at best, delusional at worst.

While I am willing to discuss the pros and cons the nihilist or the Socratic idea in more detail on some other day, for this discussion, I will assume the reader will take for granted that this is a world where men willingly and knowingly do evil things to others and self destructive things to themselves.

To be sure, not all men do evil in the same magnitude or in the same way, and little babies have no capacity to do evil at all. But that is not the question. The question is whether or not we are by nature selflessly and endlessly abundant in our love for each other and for the world. I take it as a given that we are not. We are all imperfect, each of us. And by imperfect I mean that we do not live up to any reasonable human standards, our own standards we, by our actions, show we expect from others, to say nothing of superhuman standards.

Second, let us define what the options are for the fate of man, given that man is imperfect.

Cruel logic says that there are only three general possibilities of what happens after death: oblivion, reincarnation, and resurrection.

Or, to put the matter the other way, the three options are endless nonbeing, which means the obliteration of human nature; the endlessly continuation of human nature and its flaws; or the endless perfection of human nature.

If those in truth are the only possibilities, then even God Almighty could not design a universe with something other than one of those three results, any more than He can make a four-sided triangle.

If oblivion is our fate, there is neither hope nor justice in this world, for every suicide bomber, or successful criminal, or bloodthirsty tyrant, who died comfortably in bed mocks even the idea of a just retribution.

Justice is not even possible, for if the victim of murder cannot be made to live again, then the injustice of murder is as infinite as the span of nonexistence into which the murderer plunges his victim. The murderer himself, when he dies, whether on the scaffold or comfortably in bed, is placed in the same dreamless oblivion as his victim, as all heroes, no matter how heroic, as all villains, no matter how wretched, as selfless saints and sadistic madmen, all, all, all come to nothing in the end.

In this worldview, all human fears and ambitions and hopes and wars and commotions come to nothing and mean nothing. Life is hopeless, and the best one can hope for is a certain small amount of personal comfort and selfish pleasure, a love affair or a temporarily happy family or a little money before it is spent or a fame before it fades, and then everything is swallowed by the dragon of nothingness.

If we were beings other than we are, that is to say, if we were robots or Houyhnhnms or creatures of pure and dispassionate logic, then we could live without hope and die without regret, killing ourselves with the dignity of Cato of Utica whenever our schedule made it convenient.

But, being creatures as we are, creatures who need hope to live and who go mad and turn wicked and perish without hope, the hopeless universe where oblivion is our common fate cannot be a place in which a loving God would place us.

If reincarnation is our fate, then there is no end of suffering.

This case can be subdivided there are two possibilities: the first one, along the lines of the Myth of Er, or certain New Age writings, suggest that we selected our lives and their miseries, and select again between lives; the second is that some divine force, a Karma or a cosmic judge assigns rewards and punishments due to our merits, and that misery in this life is a penalty for evil we did in past lives.

Let us look at these two worldviews, the world of Er and the world of Karma in turn.

In the world of Er, there is freedom, for each life is ours to choose, but there is neither justice nor hope, for in the world of Er, we each of us chose to live the life I described above: one where we know the difference between good and evil, and we chose evil. Nor will we ever be punished or corrected in the world of Er, because all lives we live are merely our own choice, and no man can judge his own case and condemn nor reward it appropriately.

In the world of Karma, there is justice, at least of a mechanical and relentless sort, but no freedom and no hope. You see, a cycle of endless reincarnations of beings who know the difference between good and evil and still chose evil means an endlessness of punishment, of lives that are inflicted like jail sentences. In effect, reincarnation is hell.

That leaves the only remaining possibility, which is resurrection. In the resurrection, there is a final stopping point, a last judgment, a judgment after which no further judgment is needed or possible, and human suffering comes to an end.

Only this last possibility makes an end to human sorrow possible; only this last possibility opens the gates to the gardens of endless joy.

There are logically only three possibilities after a last judgment: Nirvana, Hell and Heaven.

In Buddhism, this last judgment is after countless infinities of reincarnation, when all living things arrive at perfect enlightenment, and achieve nirvana. Until then, they just keep suffering. In Christianity, this last judgment comes once at the end of this one life we know, and all those not fated for paradise are consigned to the torments established for Satan and his angels, called hell.

Whether the last judgment is after one life or many seems to me to be a minor issue, for, when compared to the eternity of timelessness that follows, any lifespan, long or short or multiple lives, dwindle to a speck. Any finite number, compared to infinity is as nothing.

The difference between the three options may be summed up this way:

Buddhism sounds like one of those forgiving teachers who keep letting you re-take and re-take the test until you get all the answers right. To the best of my admittedly limited understanding, that is not what Buddhism says.

I am assuming here that the possibility that mankind will find perfection after a sufficiently large number of reincarnations, and know the difference between good and evil and choose the good, to be too small a possibility to contemplate. No one familiar with the natural selfishness of human nature, the indifference, the lack of charity, the hate, infinite human capacity for self-adoration and self-deception, will be so sanguine as to think a few billion kalpas of extra lives will allow us all to learn to live as saints.

Again, this is not my field, so anyone more well studied in the teachings of this ancient and profound theology is welcome to correct me—but Buddhism speaks of the annihilation or absorption of human nature back into the original godhead. Nirvana is not paradise, but an undisturbed state indistinguishable from oblivion. The word means ‘no wind blowing’ that is, the unruffled.

If the oblivion of Nirvana is not real, then a second option is to suffer last judgment and receive condemnation, that is, damnation.

Damnation is described, at least among the theologians I have read, as the withdrawal of all of the good God has bestowed, or, in other words, the withdrawal of all the blessings we have from God which we take for granted, such as our capacity for love and pity. It means the destruction of human nature, which therefore implies endless existence without joy or hope or rest.

Some phrase this by saying that Hell is the absence of God; others depict the torment as an outer darkness filled with wailing; others speak of flame. Myself, I suspect a situation which is unimaginably worse than Dante’s imaginings of a vast funnel of carefully organized tortures or Milton’s lava bed ringed and coped by black fires.

The third option is the perfection of human nature, that one thing which we all implicitly or explicitly desire: to be as we can somehow tell we were always meant to be.

We only have weak and watery metaphors for this state, since it is something as far outside our experience as the life of a grown and happy adult would be to a feral child raised by wolves. The metaphors we use involve kingship, glory, perfection, and, for children, the images used for these include golden streets or walled gardens or winged beings sitting on clouds playing harps.

The closest thing we have in this life to such sublime moments is the ecstasy of love when man and bride embrace in the throes of sexual passion intending to have a child. For those of you unfamiliar with nuptial bliss, sexual acts while attempting to prevent sexual reproduction are of necessity incomplete and unfulfilling, slightly or wholly selfish, and lack a certain zest of adventure. I use the example here of fruitful copulation in order to emphasize the drowning sublime surrender of total unselfishness, total commitment, total passion. I realize this metaphor may prove more of a distraction than a help for any modern thinker drilled and conditioned to false-to-facts neurotic reactions when the topic of sex comes up.

Unfortunately, the other examples I can think of — the ecstasy of saints and martyrs, the transports of aesthetes beholding sublime nature in her most majesty soul-filling beauty, the culmination in sport or art or science of some perfect performance at the top of your game as the result of a life of devotion, and promising even greater triumphs and glories to come — all these other metaphors refer to things even more remote from the daily life of men than natural nuptial bliss.

But each of us has had moments of pleasure, happiness, bliss, and joy, at least to some degree. Each of us has had a day when we were at our best, and use all our energies and talents to the utmost. Most of us have yearned for such days to continue without end: to be free from fear, weakness, bad habits, anger, guilt, sorrow, disappointment, pain and despair.

Most of us have suffered days of grief or disease, toothache or pain or some painful duty to be endured, and know what it is like when the pain subsides and health returns.

We cannot picture a perfect man very clearly—the staggering lack of such depictions in world literature is a clue that we cannot—but we know what flaws are, what pain is, what disease and death and sin are. So in theory we can imagine, if only in a negative way, what a man without flaws and full of power and benevolence and joy would be like.

We also know what such a paragon would suffer if he fell into our hands. If we met the perfect man, we would crucify him.

Therefore we can imagine what would happen if we were thrust into the company of beings full of joy and entirely without flaw. If unable to crucify them all, we would throw ourselves into a lake of fire to escape them. Without the comforting morphine and half-sleepy stupidity of clamoring distractions, and the self-pity and self-deception in which we blanket ourselves, meeting perfect beings, walking among them, seeing what was in their hearts and knowing they could see what was in ours, we humans would be unable to hide from the grotesque foulness of the errors and crimes and dark thoughts boiling within us, the perverted desires, the small sadisms, the pettiness and envy, the greed, the anger, the lust, and, above all, the pride.

I am not speaking of men guilty of enormities, of Hitler and Stalin and Mao and men whose hearts were even more vicious than this, but who lacked the power to command genocides and mass murders. I am speaking of ordinary men, all men, men not worse than myself and many a good deal better.

I can tolerate my corrupt and horrid human nature because I am among men like myself, because I am benumbed by self-esteem and because I do not condemn my own flaws with half the fervor I use to condemn others; and because my mind is dark, and I cannot see clearly, with perfect, pristine, stark and inescapable clarity, all the harm I have done in my life, or the good I have failed to do.

What I see in the world around me suggests that other men are a great deal more tolerant of their own sins and failings than I, not less. Perhaps it is merely my experience as a bartender, or a newspaperman covering the crime beat, or my work in a law office, but the men I see go to greater lengths than I do, not less, and some go to elephantine lengths, to hide from themselves from the burning and pitiless light of the conscience.

It is popular these days, with philosophies like moral relativism and Freudian nonsense, for men to destroy their capacity to condemn themselves by destroying their faculty of judgment and reasoning, or by pretending it has no authority.

I am not worthy of life in paradise, not I as I am constituted now, weak as I am and subject to temptations, passions, folly, moments of weakness, and my pathetically small supply of love and zeal and joy. This is not because my life is particularly wretched, indeed, compared to nine tenths of the human race across nine tenths of human history, my life is a fairytale of bliss and triumph, free of guilt and death and pain, or relatively so. I have never been in a war nor spent a night in jail. I have an abundant richness of blessings beyond my ability to count. And yet I say I am not fit for paradise.

Not on my own merits. Not burdened with a corrupt human nature.

Now, perhaps you feel you are worthy. There are only two possibilities: you are a fool or you are a saint.

Paradise is not a walled garden; nor a city of streets of gold bright as a looking glass. Paradise is a condition where all human capacities operate at the peak of performance, and superhuman selflessness and shockingly reckless love, and overflow of absolute love, informs all our actions and every nuance of our words and deeds. The idea that paradise properly so called could be occupied by beings like me without friction, despair, violence, or sorrow is simply and starkly impossible.

It is illogical to say that sinners would be happy in paradise, for we would bring our sins with us, and create our own unhappiness. Look at the way your neighbors live, or your ancestors, if you have not the strength of character to look honestly in the mirror. Human nature does not fit us for happiness.

So the only possibility for paradise is that something changes us from within, something which perfects our imperfect human nature.

Many cycles of reincarnation could perhaps achieve such a thing, if a divinity were within us and aiding us, or many years of purgatory, or perhaps an all-powerful God could accomplish such a transmogrification in a single moment of time.

Could an all-powerful God accomplish such an act of self-transformation or apotheosis upon the leprous soul of a sinner who did not wish it, who was not contrite, and who was lacking in repentance and remorse?

Could the gift be given to one who rejected the gift with scorn?

I will leave it to theologian subtler than I to answer that question. All I would say for myself, speaking as an ex-atheist, is that I would have preferred death and damnation to some sort of change from sinner to saint being imposed on me by force, and against my will. You may have a gentler disposition than I, or be less prone to the sin of pride. Whether it is possible for any god to impose salvation on the unwilling, (which I gravely doubt) I will say only that it would be unwelcome if it were possible.

So. The possibilities are (1) oblivion, which is a universe without a particle of justice or hope in it; (2) reincarnation, which is either (2a) the world of Er, which has freedom but no justice and no hope or (2b) the world of Karma, which has justice but no freedom and no hope; (3) resurrection to a last judgment, which is either (3a) self-obliteration by absorption into the godhead, which seems to have neither freedom nor justice nor hope or (3b) the evisceration of human nature called hell or (3c) the perfection of human nature called paradise.

This perfection is either imposed or freely accepted. If imposed, it lacks freedom. Only if it is freely accepted, is the universe one where freedom and justice and hope, not to mention other good things like mercy and joy, imaginable. In all other possibilities they are unimaginable, that is to say, not logically possible.

Logically, if the only possible universe where human beings, given what we know of human nature, can be brought to paradise, which we define as a condition where all human faculties are full and fulfilled and perfect, must be one were paradise is freely offered and freely accepted.

This means it can be refused.

Since free will is one of the faculties of man we are assuming must be perfected to achieve paradise, a paradise into which one was compelled or constrained or mesmerized or browbeaten into entering would be a prison rather than a paradise, for the human faculty of freely making the correct choice would not be allowed to operate.

Let us turn now to the heart of the question: Suppose we reflect upon some beloved kin or friend, who is no murderer nor rapist and is guilty of nothing aside from the normal human traits of selfishness and pride and indifference to suffering of any others.

He is a normal and therefore an imperfect fellow, no saint, but he has done nothing to merit an eternity of torment without the possibility of parole or reprieve.

He is guilty, if that is the word, only of disbelief in God. His only crime, if it is a crime, is not freely to accept the paradise offered.

But, of course, that is not the word. Using the metaphor of judicial condemnation is misleading. The fireman analogy is misleading. Both are misleading to the point of parody, a straw man argument.

Why would oblivion seem any more fair? If we discovered that we lived in a universe where God, or, if there is no God, the laws of nature, have arranged matter such that all men are obliterated upon death, and that the human race itself will one day die, and, soon after that as astronomers and geologists count time, no trace of man will be preserved in any record or memory, the universe shall be just as if we, and our loved ones, and everyone you or I loved or hated or admired or heard of only as rumor, simply had never existed.

Come, we all here believe in evolution, do we not? We all believe that life can arise from nonlife by some unintentional natural process or unlikely accident. Suppose it happened once upon a time on our nearest planetary neighbor. But suppose it did not take. Some seeds blown from dandelions do fall on stony ground and die, do they not?

If one spore of living matter existed for one hour on the planet Mars. It is a single single-celled organism who perishes before it divides and reproduces. The natural process or lucky accident which produces life from nonlife never happens again. There is no species of this one Martian spore, but it is solitary. The red and rusty sands of the dead world stretch in all directions, and overhead is a dim sun, one-fourth as bright as when seen from Earth.

A desolate image. And yet that spore which lives and dies in an hour, and never encounters a single other living thing in its whole globe is, from the point of view of the vastness of the universe, no less desolate than a single world, Earth, which flickers into and out of existence, the only living globe in the desolation of an empty galaxy.

And even if the galaxy is teaming with life, it too shall pass away, and be no more significant than that Martian spore which respired for an hour, then expired: compare to infinity, everything is merely a speck.

In such a universe, a universe of appalling emptiness where all life ends in oblivion, talk of justice and injustice is meaningless. No one and nothing is condemning the living things to become nothing, because there is no possibility of immortality. Entropy makes than certain. In a world were death is oblivion, our loved ones simply are gone, and there is no one to save them.

In a world of endless cycles of reincarnation, there is again no meaningful talk of justice and injustice. No one and nothing condemns all life to endure endless lifetimes because there is no beginning.

Talk of justice only enters the picture if we speak of a last judgment. Human nature being what it is, perfection and paradise are not an option. This is not a condemnation for a crime in the way we normally mean those words, it is merely a fact, if not the fact, of human nature.

We cannot be worthy of paradise without becoming gods, nor could we tolerate paradise if we do not become divine. We cannot become divine by any effort of our own, not an effort of will, not a clever system of education, not with psychoanalysis, nor with wise laws.

We can become gods only if there is a God who loves us and enters into our spirits and sustains us and changes us. This cannot be done against our will, or, if it could, it should not be.

And consent alone is not enough; we would have to love God with all our heart and strength and mind. It is not like signing a contract; it is like engaging in marriage.

What, then, becomes of those who reject the love of God? Logically, they must be excluded from paradise, or they exclude themselves, which is much the same thing.

It is the hardest doctrine of all Christian doctrines to accept, and to this day I still pray that on the last judgment day, all men will be judged worthy of mercy, and all soul be lead to enter heaven.

But what does one do, if one if the fireman, who comes to save the victim from a burning building, and raises the ladder, and climbs it, and puts out his hand, and yet the victim does not believe? He does not believe the building is on fire; or does not trust the fireman; or does not think the ladder will hold; or he is not willing to let go of the handle to his closet where his stash of stolen money and precious collection of drugs and alcohol and pornography is kept. He won’t leave the burning building; he will not escape the city of destruction.

I am asking a very practical question. In the physical world, where we have physical bodies, the heroic fireman can club a hysterical woman over the head, and throw her over his shoulder, and drag her bodily down the ladder and away from death. But even God cannot make an evil soul into a good one without that soul’s cooperation. There is no clubbing over the head for immaterial realities, because the danger is spiritual, not physical.

Again, suppose the rescue team breaks into the cave where the miners are trapped. But during the hours of their imprisonment, as their air was getting low, they come to believe that this cave is all there is, and the world outside is a fantasy, a fiction, and a trick from greedy con-men. So they dismiss the rescuers. They don’t believe in them enough to leave the black pit which is they now believe to be their only home.

Who has punished or condemned the dwellers in the suffocating darkness in that case?

Is the Rescuer to blame, if the skeptic erects a thousand mile high granite wall, and blocks out all air and light?

Or, are you to blame?

If your parents died in their sins, Mr Ruiz, lulled into pleasant numbness by the opiate of disbelief, where were you? Did you lift a finger to save the souls of your parents from the fires of hell? You cannot tell me they were not warned, or did not know the Christian message, and the intoxicating good news we bring. Did you pray for their conversion?

My question is unfair. You tell me you do not believe in hell. Perhaps you do not believe in prayer. Clearly there is no reason for you to pray to a God you dismiss as a myth to save men from a hellfire you dismiss as hallucination.

I will ask another question instead. Did you lift a finger to save the souls of your parents from the coldness of the grave? Everyone knows he is going to die some day.

Everyone who speaks English anywhere on Earth knows that we Christians claim, at least, to have the cure for the grave, an escape, a salvation. It behooves anyone who takes death seriously, or is haunted by the strange promise of eternal joy, to investigate those claims with considerable sobriety and care. At least one should show the same level of curiosity a man who learns he is dying of a disease to seek out a doctor who claims he can cure it.

If neither you, nor your parents, no matter how much you loved them, could bestir yourself to save yourself or them from death (a danger which you did not need us to warn you about) and did not bestir yourself to save yourself or them from damnation (a danger which we have warned you about, many times) then you have no ground to throw this back at us as an accusation that we did not do enough to save you, or them, or that the results of disbelief are a punishment of an unjust judge rather than a consequence you bring upon yourself.

If there is any injustice there, it is on your part, for lacking hope; and if you live a hopeless life and go to a hopeless death, what do you expect God to do to save you? Grant you hope as a grace? Why, so He will, if you ask Him.

In effect, you are condemning as unbelievable a God in whom you do not believe for failing to rescue your parents from a danger you deem imaginary. But if the danger is imaginary, you cannot condemn God for failing to rescue them from it; and if it is not imaginary, then your disbelief in God, and the disbelief of your parents, builds a thousand mile high wall between yourself and the one person who can rescue from that danger.

Or, in other words, your complaint is that you cannot believe in a God who requires that you believe in Him before He grants you the blessings that follow from belief.

You don’t believe in God because you find it unbelievable that He wants you to believe in Him. That is absurd.

The doctrine that disbelief leads to damnation is not unique to Christianity. It is not unique to matter of life and death.

It is absolutely ubiquitous. In nearly all things, from mountain climbing to listening to the weatherman, if you don’t believe the warning, and the danger comes to pass, your disbelief is to blame.
There are some cases where a man can be saved against his will, but these are all physical dangers. You can indeed haul a hysterical woman out of a burning building or inject a stubborn patient with the antibiotic to save his life. These cases are rare emergencies; and just because one can impose salvation on the unwilling, does not mean one ought.

Any benefit where free consent is required cannot be bestowed upon those who, for good reasons or bad, rational or not, do not believe in the offer or the benefit, and do not trust the offerer.

What would you like God to do to prove to you the danger is real and His offer is good? Send a free sample? Perform a demonstration? Raise a man from the dead?

Would you have preferred God make a universe where His existence if perfectly obvious, and man and woman could see Him walking in the garden in the cool of the evening? Why, He did exactly that, and we left Him.

And we still live in that universe. To a mind unclouded with pride and folly and sin, or so I have been told, the existence of God is perfectly obvious, perfectly logical, perfectly intuitive.

If we cannot see God because of a willful blindness our sinful nature imposes on us, whose fault is that?

He has done all He should have done and more, far more, and still your eyes are blind and your ears are dull.

It does not work the way you are asking it to work. You cannot love skeptically. You cannot love and wait to be convinced. Either you love or you don’t. God is not a math proof to be solved by logic and not a experiment to be performed and observed. God is a person.

For those who disbelieve, if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.