Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Unforgiven

Several members of the Philosophy Department recently attended a conference on heaven and hell at a famous evangelical college.

Here, for discussion, are some thoughts and speculations on the subject of hell and the fate of the damned. (With apologies to Clint Eastwood.)

1. What happens to people who die unaware of, or having consciously rejected, the forgiveness God offers in Jesus Christ? Persons of Christian faith acknowledge the need for forgiveness, the imperative to receive it from God, and to give it to, and receive it from, others. But what of the unforgiven?

Some say that those who die unforgiven go to a place of punishment, that this punishment is extreme, inescapable, and everlasting. Thus hell, as traditionally conceived. Jesus dies to save people from God, who executes implacable divine justice, but this deliverance is conditional upon their choosing to accept God’s forgiveness. To accept God’s forgiveness is to accept Jesus’ sacrificial historical death as substituting for one’s own everlasting punishment. Unless this alternate arrangement is accepted, one receives everlasting retribution.

2. This account is problematic in various ways; most of all because it implies that Jesus’ attempt to save the world God so loved is only a partial success. God wants everyone to be saved, but not everyone is saved. The God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself is in part a failure, his aims thwarted by humans’ failure to believe the good news. A second consideration is that it proposes a separation of God’s love from his justice, so that while God’s love leads to mercy and forgiveness, justice demands punishment. This contrasts with what is to all appearances the Biblical view, which is that God is love, and that God’s justice is properly understood not as an abstract ethical principle about people getting what they deserve, and thus as the source of a demand that can conflict with love, but as God’s relentless commitment to his creatures and the covenant he makes with them. God’s justice (righteousness) is conceived in terms of God’s love, not as an independent, competing principle within God. This account is also problematic insofar as it makes a necessary condition of avoiding punishment something that is not in our control, viz. our having certain beliefs. Further, if, as is traditionally assumed, the punishment is everlasting, and an everlasting punishment is an infinite punishment, then a finite creature is capable of acting is a way that merits an infinite punishment. The tradition has held that we wrong God when we disobey him and that to wrong an infinite being is to merit an infinite punishment. But this is not exactly obvious. At the very least it is hard to see how someone can be guilty of wronging a deity one those not believe exists.

3. For the past generation or so even quite conservative Christians have been abandoning the penal idea of hell in favor of alternative conceptions of the post-mortem existence of the unforgiven. One, which appears to have been legitimized almost single handedly by C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and other places, is that those who die without faith in Christ are “punished,” not by God, but by themselves. “The door to hell is locked on the inside.” No one is denied the joy of God’s presence by anything other than her own choice, a choice that must be continuing if separation from God is to continue. Anyone can leave hell at any time; she merely needs to choose to do so. Anyone who stubbornly refuses to so choose will remain forever in hell. Or, she will remain there so long as she exists. It might be that her sustained choice against God, i.e. against goodness and being itself, will eventually result in her ontological diminution and finally her demise, i.e. a kind of self-annihilation.

4. This, which we might as well call the Lewis view, generally involves a very high conception of human freedom, both in the sense of what it is and how God regards it. It is libertarian free will, i.e. when we make free choices nothing, not even our own considered beliefs and desires, causes them. (Or: they are caused by us, but not by anything that happens in us. This is the doctrine of agent causation.) The metaphysical quandaries that arise from belief in libertarian free will are daunting and, in my view, intractable. (However, the assumption that we possess this kind of freedom, though false, makes little difference to what I want to say about hell.) The Lewis view supposes not only that we have this mysterious freedom, but also that God values it very highly. Indeed, it’s fair to say that God values it absolutely; nothing about a human creature matters more to God than her possession of this capacity for radically free choice. Its value is explained by its being a necessary condition for our responding with love and trust to God.

God’s ultimate aim for his human creatures is for us freely to respond to him with genuine love and trust, and this implies that we do so freely. Yet, in the nature of the case, this aim is precarious and, it seems, cannot be guaranteed, even by an omnipotent God. For if God were to force a human being to choose to respond favorably to him, to accept his love and forgiveness, then her choice would not be free. Even an omnipotent God cannot force someone freely to choose something. The attempt to do so would be self-defeating. Because of this, for all we know hell might be everlasting for some individuals, for it would be everlasting—leaving aside the possibility of self-anihilation—for anyone who freely persisted in the choice to remain there. Libertarian free will, if real, is a dangerous gift, for because of it we might find ourselves in the outer darkness, beyond even God’s help.

I want to challenge the assumption, one that appears to be common among proponents of the Lewis view, that everlasting damnation is for this reason likely for some. It seems to me that it is at best a rather remote possibility, and not at all probable.

5. First, it seems obvious to some, though by no means to everyone, that there are true subjunctive conditional propositions about human freedom. Consider the statement, If a student were to offer Randy $1000 for an A in Logic 202, then Randy would give him the A. Suppose this statement is counterfactual, i.e. Randy never was offered, is not being offered, and never will be offered such a bribe. Assume too, that it is possible for a student to offer Randy this bribe, and for him to accept it. Does omniscience include more than knowledge of what’s actual and what’s possible? That is, does God possess middle knowledge of free human choices? If God has this sort of knowledge, then it seems fairly clear that, contrary to the assumption made above, it is possible for God to ensure that he gets what he wants. He can guarantee that all his human creatures ultimately freely choose to accept him. Prior to creating anyone, God can survey all possible persons and know what each would ultimately freely do were he to create them and give them the choice between accepting and rejecting God. Knowing that, God, wanting creatures to choose him freely, and not wanting anyone to be everlastingly damned, would choose to create only the human creatures that would, if created, freely choose for God and against final damnation or self-destruction. God would not create persons knowing that they will be eternally damned or annihilated. Contrary to first impressions, God can guarantee the outcome he wants: universal salvation freely chosen. (Note, by the way, the damage this sort of consideration does to free will theodices more broadly. Why didn’t God create only the free creatures he knew would freely choose only good rather than evil?)

Proponents of the Lewis view who accept that God has middle knowledge of free human choices face what might be an insurmountable obstacle. However, not everyone believes that God has knowledge of this sort. If they’re right, when God creates a creature with libertarian free will, then it might be impossible for God to know what she will actually do in the future. For if her free choices are not caused by her desires or beliefs (or any other antecedent states or events), then they cannot be inferred from knowledge of them. Assuming (as we should) that God is himself everlasting in time, not timelessly eternal, and thus has no immediate epistemic access to the future, it appears that when, e.g., he chose to create Adam, he could not have known what Adam was going to freely choose to do. Under these assumptions, the defender of the Lewis view is, perhaps, justified in holding that for all we know many will endlessly freely choose against God, and those endure forever in hell or finally self-destruct there.

6. However, this is a less than compelling conclusion. Discussion of these matters very often implicitly supposes that God faces an either-or choice: Either the self-defeating strategy of stepping in to force the wayward creature to accept him, thereby violating her freedom, or stepping back and letting her do as she pleases, even when this results in her everlasting damnation or self-annihilation. This is a false dichotomy. God has options that lie between these extremes.

7. God has powers of persuasion. When we want someone freely to choose a particular course of action, we sometimes can figure out how to motivate her freely to make the choice we want her to make. Human beings sometimes persuade other human beings to make certain choices, and do so without violating or infringing on their freedom. If Randy convinces you to sign up for Medieval Philosophy by providing you with what you on reflection recognize as excellent reasons, and because of this you choose to take it, your choice is free. Indeed, given this course’s obvious contribution to overall cognitive excellence, this persuasion will in all probability enhance your status as a free, rational agent, not diminish it. Further, the more one knows about the workings of another’s mind, and the greater the disparity of intellect, experience, and resources between the prospective persuader and persuaded, the greater the opportunity to persuade. Wise and loving parents sometimes find that they can persuade a stubborn child to choose what’s good for him even when doing so is contrary to his initial inclination. No doubt, persuasion gradually trails off into manipulation, which is, I take it, persuasion that proceeds without due regard for the personal integrity of its target as an informed, rational agent. Yet even manipulation only infringes, and does not completely remove, freedom. Manipulation in turn approaches coercion in the form of threats and this in turn at last takes the form of simply forcing someone to do something. Since what’s at issue here is an individual making a particular choice in favor of God, this final stage is not at issue. The ultimate insult to freedom in this context presumably would not be God forcing people to love and trust him despite their choices to the contrary, but God causing them to choose to love and trust him, i.e. not overriding their choice, but producing it by directly intervening in their minds. (While in this context, we should pause to note the oddity of the claim that God wants us to make a free, uncoerced choice for him, but also that God threatens us with endless torture if we choose against him. If that’s not a coerced choice, it’s hard to imagine what is.)

I submit that, in light of God’s superior knowledge and wisdom, including his profound understanding of the individual’s habits of thought, and of his reasons (or rationalizations) for rejecting God, it is plausible that God can persuade even the most recalcitrant of the damned to repent and freely choose God and salvation. If, as I am supposing here for argument’s sake, humans possess libertarian free will while God lacks middle knowledge of human freedom, there is no guarantee that whatever means God chooses to try to persuade someone will suffice. We cannot, perhaps, eliminate the sheer possibility of God’s will being finally thwarted. Yet given the prima facie disparity between God’s powers of persuasion, and human powers of resistance, it seems that we can be confident that that horrible possibility will, at the end of the day, be no more than a possibility, and that God will win in the end. To suppose otherwise is drastically to discount the difference between Creator and creature.

8. Someone might fear that this is too sanguine a view of God’s ability to persuade, given his lack of knowledge of what a human creature will freely choose in a given situation. For on the libertarian assumption, a free choice cannot be subsumed under natural law, and thus cannot be foreknown by an inference from those laws together with the current state of the individual’s mind. However, human minds need not be governed by casual laws for us to be able reliably to acquire beliefs about how they will freely choose. Inductive inference from knowledge of a person’s preferences as manifest in past free choices often is a trustworthy guide to their future free choices. If, e.g., Brian offers Randy the $1000 bribe for an A, we can be highly confident that he will turn it down; we can reasonably discount the possibility that he will accept it, not because there is no such possibility, but because given what we have seen of him so far, it is too improbable to take seriously. The possible world in which he accepts the bribe is exceedingly remote from this actual world. This belief about what he will freely choose is warranted because of what we have already observed of his good character. When this warranted belief turns out to be true, as it usually does, it is revealed as an instance of knowledge of future free choice. We must assume that whatever observational and inferential capacities we have along these lines are far outstripped by those of God, and that God’s knowledge of what even radically free creatures will do far surpasses our own.

Even if for some reason God lacks these powers of prediction, it might not much matter. If a human being is free with respect to a particular choice, then it is possible for her to make that choice. If it is possible for her to make a choice, say the choice to accept God’s forgiveness and be delivered from hell, then there is at least one possible situation, call it C, such that, if it were to occur, she would freely choose to accept God’s forgiveness. Were C to occur, she would find herself with persuasive reasons to choose God. If God could not know exactly which possible state of affairs C is, he would still know that there is some state of affairs such that, if it were to occur, the person in question would freely choose to accept God’s forgiveness. Given unlimited stretches of time, God could bring about various states of affairs in the hope of hitting upon the one in which the person freely chooses to be saved. Presumably, reasonable assumptions about the kind of things relevant to human choices in general, and to this agent’s choices in particular, would significantly reduce the number of possibilities that would have to be explored before the damned human is persuaded to choose for God and against hell.

9. However, the apparent possibility of self-annihilation forces us to worry that God does not have unlimited time in which to persuade the sinner to repent. If self-destruction is a genuine possibility for damned human creatures, then God is in a race against time, trying to persuade the human to repent before her free choices so psychically damage her that she is no longer capable of making that choice, or simply ceases to exist. Perhaps self-annihilation is a possibility for human creatures, but so far as I can see we have no reason to assume it is. Quick acceptance or rejection of this possibility requires a confidence in speculative eschatological psychology to which, I suspect, we are not entitled. The imagined conditions of post-mortem existence are so remote from ordinary experience that we have little basis for making any strong claims about how human minds would function there. Suppose faithless Marvin expires and goes to hell where, after a month, or 900 billion years, or whatever, he will self-destruct. Probably, the arrival of his end will be hastened or delayed, depending on the free choices he makes, so not even God will know precisely how long he’s got, but we may plausibly assume that God would have some idea of how long this individual is likely to last. But it might be that God—and his creature—runs out of time and this lost soul is extinguished before he can be reclaimed, even by God’s best efforts.

However, I suspect that most of whatever attraction the idea of self-annihilation has comes from the assumption that sin, the failure to trust God, is properly understood as a matter of morally wicked behavior. It is, perhaps, plausible that a life devoted to moral wickedness does deracinate the human personality, so if entrenched rejection of God were a moral matter, self-annihilation might be likely. However, it is much more likely that intractable rejection of God takes the form not of moral misbehavior, but of an ingrained self-righteousness manifest in a keen concern for moral propriety that seeks to justify itself with no need of a gracious and merciful God. This should be totally obvious but is not, thanks to many centuries of Christian moralism subverting the gospel. As we know from the Gospels, it is the well-behaved Pharisees, not the tax collectors and whores, who are at greatest risk of finally rejecting God.

10. Now I want to challenge a fundamental component of the Lewis view, the claim that God values human freedom so much he prefers either the human individual’s everlasting damnation, or her annihilation, to violating it. At face value, this is extremely implausible. If you love another human being, you place a great value upon her freedom. You respect her right to choose even when you disapprove of what she chooses. But you do not love her freedom more than you love her. That’s why, if you see her making a self-destructive choice that will have disastrous consequences, you will—and ought to—intervene, even when this means violating her freedom.

God cares about freedom for the sake of persons, not persons for the sake of freedom. If God knows that if he violates a creature’s freedom now, later, when she is in the new situation this interference brings about, she will see things differently, and she will then freely choose to love and trust God, and to continue in that state, or merely that his doing so is necessary for this, then it is hard not to think that is what he would do. If God does so, she will be grateful to him for loving her enough temporarily to undermine her freedom. If the alternative is to permit her to continue on in endless misery, to proceed toward an existence in which genuine freedom diminishes and disappears, or to self-destruction, it seems an absurd misevaluation of freedom to regard it as too important to subvert. One simply does not allow those one loves to throw themselves off into the abyss.

Taking the Biblical narrative as a guide, it appears that while God cares about our freedom, and desires us freely to choose him, he is perfectly capable of forcing himself upon us when it suits his purposes. For instance, it seems that when Saul, on his way to Damascus in pursuit of Christians, encountered the resurrected Christ, he was not being given an opportunity freely to choose for or against Jesus. He simply saw Jesus for who he was and was thereby compelled to believe and obey. (“Every knee shall bow.”) Yet Paul later freely chose to love and trust God, if anyone did.

11. There is also the possibility that an individual’s continued free choice to reject God eventually results in a self so constituted that any intervention that changes this is tantamount to a destruction of this person. If there were such persons, God’s acting so as to subvert their freedom would be self-defeating. Such a person, like the proverbial Vietnamese village, could be saved only by being destroyed. How serious to take this worry? Even if (as seems unlikely to me) a person could not survive the abrupt radical change of being forced to see God for who he is and to choose and act accordingly, there is no apparent reason to think he could not survive a gradual process of relatively minor interventions that incrementally push him in this direction. In any event, this sort of concern relies on untenable essentialist notions of personal identity through time. At least it seems to me that if x is a person at an earlier time and y is person at a later time, and the right sort of spatio-temporal and psychological continuities exist from x to y, then x is the same person as y, no matter how radical the ways in which they differ psychologically. There actually is such a thing as Christian conversion and it is survivable. The born-again person is a “new creation,” but numerically identical to the original.

12. While contending against some components of the Lewis view, I share its assumption that hell is not a place of punishment. On the contrary, Jesus died for the sins of the world, and he took upon himself all our punishment. Not everyone will be happy with the idea that no one gets punished. The same concern will arise in regard to the prospect of a final emptying of a non-punitive hell. One may wonder whether, for example, Hitler simply gets off the hook, reaping neither punishment, nor obliteration, nor even endlessly self-inflicted separation from God. Lest anyone think that to reject the notion that the free choices of the damned might lock them forever away from the God who pursues them, or, for that matter, to reject from the start the idea of hell as punishment, lacks the ultimate seriousness appropriate to these matters, I propose a fate that is, in important ways, worse than punishment or annihilation.

We are sinners. Sinners need forgiveness. Judgment is the revealing of the need for forgiveness. God in Christ forgives. To refuse forgiveness, either the need to receive it or to give it, is to be damned to live into a closed, Godless future rather than one in which there is a place for oneself, in communion with those one wronged, first God but all the rest too, and with those who have wronged you. (Such refusals are the small damnations of daily life, even for those of us who confess the forgiveness God gives us in Christ. For now, the border between heaven and hell lies within each of us, not between us and them.) It may well be that those who leave this life rejecting God, with characters pervasively formed in the denial of the need to be forgiven and to forgive, will, to say the least, not have an easy time when facing the prospect of forgiveness. To draw such to forgiveness, is, perhaps, a task too great for any but the crucified God who descends to the dead. This is the work of reconciliation that remains after we have done our best.

Christian doctrine asserts that when he died, Jesus descended into hell, and Christian tradition has it that in doing so he harrows hell. One way we might take this is that the damned, the cursed of God, those who have found only a God who judges, condemns, and abandons, will at last come face to face with God himself, cursed, judged, condemned, abandoned—and forgiving: Jesus in hell. Therein, we trust, reside powers of persuasion far beyond the feeble ones we in this interim time have been privileged to exercise to the glory of God and for the benefit of our fellow human beings. And thus some who are saved will be saved, “though as by fire.” For imagine that Hitler, freshly resurrected from the ashes of the Berlin Fuhrerbunker, defeated and broken but still replete with rage and pride, confronts head on the divine insistence that he plea for forgiveness from and—surely worse, receive forgiveness from—each and every Jew he insulted, harassed, tortured and murdered: I have no difficulty thinking he’d readily prefer everlasting punishment or simply ceasing to exist to this, of all things. It is in significant respects worse than any penal retribution we might devise. The ‘coals of fire’ thus heaped upon his head are drastically worse than any imagined flames of punitive retribution. We know he chose the real flames merely to avoid being captured by the Red Army. I take it for granted that he already always has the forgiveness of the crucified God, that Jesus’ words from the cross are efficacious, unqualified, and unconditional: “Father, forgive them!” There is forgiveness even for rejecting Jesus. Hitler languishes in hell not because God does not forgive him, but because he hates the idea of being forgiven. This his entrenched pride cannot endure. In relation to the crucified God, the unforgiven are not unforgiven in reality, but only in their defiant and despairing hearts. Only accepting the reality of that need releases him, enables him to choose to leave and be with the all-forgiving God who gave himself for him. So let us say that being in hell simply is being in the state of finally confronting the implacable divine imperative of forgiveness received and given, not as something one freely and joyfully embraces, but as an alien demand. My view is that we can reasonably hope that this demand at last overwhelms everyone’s defenses, even the strongest. “Defeated in our last refusal” (John Crowley, Little, Big).

This is, of course, a terrific affront to justice in anything like human terms, but such is the justice of God, which has everything to do with God getting what he wants and nothing to do with any of us getting what we deserve.


Blogger Gunner said...

Don, this is the longest post ever. =)

I wish I could have gone to Wheaton with all of you; the topic sounds like it was an interesting one.

Here are my thoughts from skimming this blog (I'll re-read it more in-depth when I have more time):

1. The "Lewis" view is crap, because there is no such thing as free will. You know how much of staunch determinist I am. I can agree with the idea of "hell" as self-chosen, yet the question remains: why does a person choose hell? Because they can? Well, that's pretty obvious. But that still doesn't answer the why...

2. Being a determinist, I don't think that anyone is going to a place of fire and brimstone when they die. If people can't help what they do, why be held responsible for our actions? Thus, either we all go to Heaven or we all become worm food when we die.

I'll explain more once someone points out the holes in my statements (and they are there)

1:01 AM  
Blogger randy jensen said...

Note to students: Don is correct to say it's highly improbably I'd take the bribe. $1000 dollars will only get you a C.

9:37 AM  
Blogger wacome said...

Does determinism (or the weaker, but more plausible, view that our choices are caused by our desires and beliefs) imply that people can't help what they do? If I can't help doing x, then I do x whether I want to or not, whether I believe it's worth doing or not, whether I choose to do it or not. But when I deliberate about what to do and the process of weighing my desires and beliefs causes me to choose to do x, it's often the case that if my desires and beliefs had been different, or if my process of deliberation had gone differently, I would have made some other choice. It's almost always true as well that I would not have done x if I had not chosen to do x. Our practical reasoning and choosing is fully integrated into the causal order of nature, and this implies that certain concepts of moral responsibility fail to apply, but it doesn’t imply that we are fated to choose as we choose and act as we act. We are not fated, only caused, to choose as we choose and act as we act, so we maybe retain a diminished but kind of responsibility that is nonetheless genuine.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Gunner said...

I would say that the way a person deliberates, i.e. if they're logical or rash, as well as the length of time that they deliberate (or if they don't, i.e. they do what Malcolm Gladwell in "Blink" describes as "thin-slicing" where a decision is made almost instantaneously) is also causally determined. And no, we are not fated, but we are causally determined. With that said, I don't think that there is even a shred of responsibility left save for the face-value responsibility that society slaps on us.

9:29 PM  
Blogger wacome said...

1. Amen. I want to say that even if we are agent causes and deserve everlasting punishment in some ultimate sense the God we encounter in Jesus forgives us.

2. Right. Determinism doesn't imply that we're fated, but are the implications for responsibility just as bad? Well, what determinism implies, and fatalism denies, is that our desires, beliefs, deliberations, and choices matter, i.e. that they make a difference to what we do even if they and our actions were all "in the cards" from the beginning. (I imagine we can't deny this without saying that determinism means there is no such thing as causal efficacy, a position that's at least problematic for the view that all events have sufficient casues.) Even if determinism is true--I assume it's not but so far as this context goes might as well be--some creatures are, and others are not, responsive to reasons, inhabiting a normative realm in which choices and actions can be justified, and in which behavior can be influenced by rational considerations. The fact that reasons are causes doesn't change this, contrary to another famous CSL view that should be rejected. We sensibly can be called upon to explain and defend our choices. It's reasonable to seek to influence the behavior of such creatutes by appeal to their reasons, and by supplying them with reasons, including the threat of sanctions for certain kinds of unjustifiable choice. I don't know that much rides on whether we want to apply the term "responsibility" to reasons-responsive creatures such as we are, but it seems to me that we remain entitled to much of the practice traditionally justified by appeal to the fact that we are responsible. I suspect we do lose a certain notion of culpability, and the retributive punishment that goes with it, but that's something we should happily abandon.

12:25 PM  

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