Here is a set (no doubt incomplete) of important traditional Christian theological commitments directly about humans in hell:
- All human beings in hell will be in hell everlastingly.
- No human being in hell experiences the union with God characteristic of heaven.
- All human beings in hell deserve to be in hell everlastingly and deserve all of the harsh treatment they receives there.
- No human being in hell would have been better off to have ceased existing instead or to have never existed.
- Some human beings are in hell and experience on-balance significant everlasting suffering there.
Of these, 1-4 are compatible with an empty hell, but 5 entails that there is at least one human being in hell (maybe even at least two).
I will shortly say something about the details and choice of these commitments, but I now want to say something about why I am listing them. Suppose, for instance, someone argues that annihilation would have to be better than being in hell or that it would have to be unjust for God to put someone in hell forever. If we take the doctrine of hell to be implicitly defined by the important traditional Christian theological commitments about hell, then either they are confused–what they are arguing against is not the traditional doctrine of hell but some other doctrine of everlasting suffering–or else they are offering an argument for the incoherence of 1-5. For it is a part of the traditional doctrine of hell that one is no worse off for being in hell than being annihilated and that those who are in hell are there deservedly. To argue that annihilation would have to be better than being in hell would be like arguing that, necessarily, if soft determinism is true, there is no freedom. If soft determinism is true, then by definition there is freedom, since it is a part of the doctrine of soft determinism that there is freedom. So, to argue that necessarily if soft determinism is true there is no freedom is either to be confused or to argue that soft determinism is incoherent.
I am not saying all arguments against the doctrine of hell are like this. But it is important for those who argue against or who defend the traditional doctrine of hell to be clear on the doctrine’s central commitments.
Moreover, I think 1-5 are actually coherent, and I will discuss this, too.
So, first, about my choice of what commitments to include. Claims 1-3 are obviously central to the doctrine of hell. If we are not talking of an everlasting deserved punishment with no union with God, we are not clearly not talking about hell. Now, claim 5 implies states that hell is non-empty. This is obviously a controversial thesis but it is also clearly a part of the traditional doctrine of hell. Note that in claim 5 I did not say that everyone in hell receives on balance significant everlasting suffering. For there has been significant speculation in the Christian tradition about limbo, defined as a region of hell where people do not significantly suffer other than by lacking the union with God characteristic of heaven. Dante puts the just ancient pagans there. There has also been some speculation–Mivart is probably the best known speculator in that direction–that heaven is a place of on-balance happiness despite lack of union with God, but at least the Catholic Church seems to have rejected that speculation, plus it sure seems incompatible with what the Church Fathers say.
I think the most controversial inclusion in my list is 4. I think most theologians would not list 4 as a part of the doctrine of hell. However, the doctrine of hell is implicitly defined by important and particularly relevant theological commitments. We should accept a kind of holism about Christian doctrines which are all interconnected, and to take a doctrine outside of the particularly relevant aspects of the broader theological picture is to distort the doctrine. Now it is, I think, a part of the Christian tradition that God loves every human being, that God sustains everyone in existence. Arguably, this commits one to the idea that everyone who exists–including any who are in hell–is better off existing. Moreover, Augustine’s account of evil as a privation of good has been widely accepted by the Christian theological tradition, and that account implies that everyone, and hence also any persons in hell, is better off existing than not existing. Similarly for Thomistic metaphysics of existence as a participation in God. So I do think the bulk of Christian tradition–at least in the West, but I suspect in the East as well–is committed to 4. (There is a proof-text that gets used against 4, namely that Jesus said Judas would have been better off not to have been born; but since human existence does not start with birth and since death is not the end of human existence, this does not show that Judas would have been better off not to have existed–he would simply have been better off having died in utero.)
Are 1-5 coherent? I think so. But I see three sources of worries about the coherence of 1-5:
i. Nobody could deserve an eternity of suffering, i.e., 3 and 5 are incoherent.
ii. God exists necessarily and couldn’t create a human being who wouldn’t have the beatific vision, and so 1, 2 and 5 are incompatible.
iii. One is better off not existing if one has an everlasting life of on-balance significant suffering, and so 1, 4 and 5 are incompatible.
There may be other arguments against the coherence of 1-5, but these seem to me to be the major ones.
Ad i: This surely depends on the magnitude of the punishment and the gravity of the crime. It plainly is possible to deserve significant suffering, and the claim that there is an eternity of suffering does not entail that there is on-balance an infinity of suffering. Furthermore, it is possible to commit a crime with infinite gravity. Here are four examples. First, we have Anselm’s famous idea that sins against the infinite God have an infinitude to them–one is giving God infinitely less than he deserves if one sins against him. Second, it is logically possible to commit infinite attempted murder, at least morally speaking. Suppose I believe, correctly or not, that there are infinitely many innocent rational persons in the universe, and that by performing a magic spell I could kill them all. I perform the magic spell. In so doing, morally speaking, I commit infinite attempted murder. (Why only morally and not legally speaking? Because the law has a doctrine of impossible attempts, and so the law wouldn’t convict me, because magic is well-known not to be an effective means of killing people. But that magic is well-known to others not to be effective does nothing to affect one’s moral culpability here.) Third, suppose I am morally obliged to save an infant’s life, but fail to do so. Let us grant that the infant goes to heaven. Nonetheless, it could be that had the infant lived, her infinite joy in heaven would have been greater by an infinity. For had the infant grown up, she would have lived through all sorts of morally significant encounters of a sort that can only happen in this earthly life, which she would then be able to remember over all eternity. By killing her, I rob her of infinitely many acts of remembering these encounters, and hence even though she is infinitely joyous, I have taken an infinite amount of joy from her. For my moral culpability it doesn’t matter whether this is in fact so–all that matters is that I believe it to be so when I act. Fourth, suppose I believe, correctly or not, that there is an eternal hell and that it involves an infinite amount of suffering, and I tempt you into sin so as to bring it about that you go to hell.
Ad ii: I simply do not find it plausible that God couldn’t create a human being who wouldn’t be united with him. The union with God is an act of super-added grace–it is something that God does for us which he does not need to do. God owes no one union with him.
Ad iii: If hedonism is the right theory of human well-being, then argument iii succeeds, since then if on balance one suffers, one is on-balance badly off. But hedonism is not the right theory of human well-being. I think it is possible to suffer on-balance and yet be on-balance well off. There are many goods whose value is not dependent on pleasure or the lack of suffering. For instance, there are intellectual goods, such as the goods of scientific investigation. There are moral goods, such as the goods of moral improvement (and while 3 may entail everlasting moral corruption, 1-5 are compatible with the claim that the degree of moral corruption is eternally decreasing (this suggestion does not imply it is tending in the limit to zero)). There is the good of artistic creativity. There are the goods of the operation of the body and of the body’s sensory apparatus (and I think even pain is a good thing in that respect when the pain is veridical, but I do not need this for this argument). There is the good of being a part of a good work–the work of cosmic justice. There is the good of existence, and the good of human existence, as such. And there may well be additional goods not dependent on pleasure or the lack of suffering that we do not know of (sceptical theists at least cannot deny this). The presence of all of these goods is compatible with significant and just punishment–we think it is a good thing, for instance, for justly imprisoned criminals to receive these goods. And it is quite possible that there should be enough of these goods in a life of on-balance significant suffering for that life to be worth living. And if one can do it for a finite amount of time, why not an infinite one? (Perhaps the length of it would weigh too heavily? But we need not say that those in hell have perfectly clear memories!) With Augustine
, I think the mere good of existence is sufficient to make eternity in hell worth living, so I do not need to posit these other goods. But even if one does not accept the Augustinian view, 1, 4 and 5 are compatible because of all the other goods that can be present.