Traditional commitments about hell
March 16, 2011 — 8:37

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Hell  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 42

Here is a set (no doubt incomplete) of important traditional Christian theological commitments directly about humans in hell:

  1. All human beings in hell will be in hell everlastingly.
  2. No human being in hell experiences the union with God characteristic of heaven.
  3. All human beings in hell deserve to be in hell everlastingly and deserve all of the harsh treatment they receives there.
  4. No human being in hell would have been better off to have ceased existing instead or to have never existed.
  5. 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.
  • Shawn Bawulski

    Thanks for the interesting post! Let me add a few additional comments.
    On your response to the proof-text used against #4 (see also Ecc. 4:3; 6:3ff, and Job 3 for similar statements), I think more could be said. In Matt. 26:24 (cf. Mark 14:21) of his betrayer Jesus says, “It would be better for him if he had not been born.” As you say, Jesus is speaking of a person’s birth, not of his origination, original creation, or his existence vs. non-existence. It could not have been better *for him* if he had never existed, there would have been no *him* to have been better off. Non-existent persons cannot receive benefits. If Jesus’ statement means “died before birth, still in the womb” then his words are unproblematic (although terrifying). Frankly, it is a mistake to say that a person would have been better off if they never existed: there would then be no one to be benefited, and it is confused to speak as if there were.
    This verse clearly states it would have been better *for him* if he had never been born. This is one interpretation of the broader “it would be better if he never had been” intuition (an interpretation that fails, as I have explained). Another interpretation is possible and is commonly levelled against the traditional view of hell: *the world* would have been better if a reprobate person never existed, because there would be one less person in hell. This is a different idea than above, but briefly in response to it I point out that it seems to assume that there is a best of all possible worlds, or at least denies the possibility of two fundamentally good but incommensurately good possible worlds (one with goods invoked to justify the existence of a populated hell). Both of these assumptions strike me as dubious: we need only have a commitment that God must actualize a good world.

    March 16, 2011 — 10:59
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    This is perhaps overly picky, but I thought “hell” reffered to either “Gehenna” or “Hades”, which are temporary stations. I think what you mean to refer to is “the lake of fire” (rev. 20:15)…

    March 16, 2011 — 12:35
  • Shawn:
    I agree that the concept of being better/worse off than not existing is problematic. I guess that helps to justify my not claiming that those in hell are better off than not existing, but merely claiming that they are not worse off.

    March 16, 2011 — 15:11
  • Robert Allen

    “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.”
    It may be that the BV provides such great joy that, though one does not forget one’s earthly existence, memories of it cease to matter? Sort of like no longer thinking about old flames once you are happily married. I should think that my bad memories at least will lose their affect in Heaven.
    “God exists necessarily and couldn’t create a human being who wouldn’t have the beatific vision ….”
    Hell becomes much less theologically problematic if viewed as freely chosen by the damned. If it is not sin per se but unrepentance that entails damnation, God would be merciful in respecting such a choice. Further, one may see the damned, not as being tortured by God, but tormenting themselves over what they have lost.

    March 17, 2011 — 13:37
  • I think memories become better with the beatific vision. It transforms and enriches these memories. It does this especially for memories of suffering and virtue. In regard to memories of suffering, the beatific vision puts them in the context in which the suffering is defeated. But we should also, I think, say that memories of virtuous activity–i.e., of love–are rejoiced in. The earthly life continues, I think, to have significance.
    It is also to be remembered that much of the Christian tradition has thought that the people in heaven are not equal in respect of the degree of happiness, though all are fully happy.

    March 17, 2011 — 15:15
  • “the little girl simply cannot be at a loss for the wicked act of another”
    I don’t see why not. She will have full happiness, her tears will be wiped away, but it does not follow that she will be exactly as well of as she would have been otherwise. Surely we can benefit people by bringing the Gospel to them. If we neglect to bring the Gospel to them, or if we are bad witnesses to the Gospel, then they may very well be the worse off for it–and as for us, it might be better for us to have a millstone about our neck then.
    The earthly life is, I think, quite important. The Incarnation underscores this. Will we not, for instance, continue to rejoice in Christ’s sacrifice of the Cross for eternity? Yet that was in this life. Some events happen in this world but are not events of this world, as they are events that are a part of the life of the Spirit.
    “Does the notion that the damned have freely chosen their state make Hell any easier to understand?”
    Yes. 🙂

    March 17, 2011 — 21:18
  • Keith DeRose

    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.
    I think they are typically thinking of the traditional doctrine of hell as being somewhat different, esp. as not containing #4.

    March 24, 2011 — 18:10
  • Keith DeRose

    I must say I’m extremely skeptical about 4 deserving to be among the commitments constituting the traditional doctrine of hell. Now, I’ve never studied that particular issue. I have long been interested — perhaps to an unhealthy degree — in views of hell, & particularly traditional ones. I swear: I have THE HISTORY OF HELL on the stand right next to my EZ chair, b/c I occasionally read a bit from it — and this not at all b/c of this blog post. That’s just how I am, and have been. Now, I also have to admit: I don’t recall any of the major Christian theologians I’ve read explicitly denying 4, you know specifying that it will be bad for folks in hell to continue to exist there. But I thought it’s generally supposed to be obvious. I mean I have read what a lot of traditional types, going way back, including major Christian theology dudes, have had to say about what hell is like. And it generally sounds like really bad. “Torment” is a common word used (at least in English translation). I’ve looked at a lot of the old traditional Christian art about hell (well, mostly this is photos of that artwork). The folks depicted in hell generally look like they are in torment, and also like their continued existence is not a good thing for them. (& I think it’s safe to say that that’s putting things extremely mildly.) So, you know, for instance, the guy being dragged down to hell in Michelangelo’s THE LAST JUDGMENT (I’m thinking of a particular detail of it that’s on the front cover of the Howard Hibbard MICHELANGELO book that I happen to be looking at right now, but some of the other scenes from that same painting also give similar impressions) sure doesn’t look like he’s starting out a (immensely long) chapter of his continued existence that will be a positive for him on the whole. & you know, my (admittedly amateur) reading around about Michelangelo never gave me the impression that his worries were ever to the effect that, you know, maybe the Pope won’t like this b/c it’s making the fate of the damned out to be too nasty? Now it may be that some, or maybe even (though this is getting hard for me to believe) most of the traditional depictions of hell I’ve been reading/looking at have been by folks who think that, horrific/tormenting as it is, hellish continued existence is a good thing to have — maybe b/c they think continued existence in itself is such a good as to overbalance the disvalue of the horrific suffering, or b/c they hold some privation view on which… But anyway, given all the horrible depictions, it’s hard for me to believe 4 deserves this place without seeing instances of some of the theological big guns of history actually asserting & making a big deal out of something in the vicinity of 4.

    March 25, 2011 — 21:45
  • Keith DeRose

    Just to give the depiction given by one big gun, that I’ve now found easily & freely available on line, in the Summa Theologica (available here: ), Aquinas seems to have the super-scary grandmother’s picture of hell, writing that (quotes are taken from the source I give the link to above, so just search the text for these exact words) “it is the same fire which torments the
    damned in hell and cleanses the just in Purgatory” and saying this about what the suffering in Purgatory: “the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life.” Given how bad some of the pains of this life are for some, this is super-nasty, I submit.

    March 26, 2011 — 0:37
  • Keith:
    Good points. So for those who don’t accept the Augustinian/Thomistic view that it’s always worthwhile to exist, the traditional depictions of what goes on in hell do seem contrary to 4. Agreed.
    But a lot of the tradition does accept the Augustinian/Thomistic view.
    However, it may be that I took my proposed holism about doctrine too far in the argument that 4 is a commitment of the traditional doctrine of hell. It is true that much of the tradition is committed to things that entail 4, but you might want to argue that they fail to recognize the entailment.
    In the case of one big gun, though, I think my point is easier to defend. Given the sorts of things Augustine says in Book III of the On the Free Choice of the Will about pain and suffering, it seems pretty plausible that he’d affirm 4. I think he thinks the phenomenon of pain is a good thing because it is a manifestation of the striving for bodily integrity.
    Maybe, though, you could try to make this case: We need to distinguish the question of what features of x are intrinsically good from the question of what features of x are intrinsically good for x. I don’t buy the distinction, but if you do, you might evaluate the data differently.
    By the way, here’s a claim weaker than 4:
    4′. Some of the people in hell are not worse off than if they did not exist.
    I expect that most of the people who accepted limbo and who thought that limbo was a part of hell (Dante represents this tradition) would have accepted 4′–it’s better to be in limbo than not to be at all. For my purposes 4′ is too weak, though. But at least 4′ would show that it is not a part of the concept of being in hell that one is worse off than if one did not exist.

    March 26, 2011 — 8:20
  • Keith DeRose

    Thanks, Alex. I don’t doubt that some major theologians (incl. esp. Augustine) held views that would push toward 4. But I have my suspicions (other than the explanation that, insofar as they held super-nasty views of hell, they also held positions that imply 4’s opposite) as to why it might be hard to find one actually asserting 4 (I just don’t know whether any big guns have gone that far; all I can say is: not in my admittedly limited experience), and certainly hard to find one making a big deal of it. Take an even broader holistic view of the Christian theological tradition: one that takes in not just Christian doctrines as an interconnected body of views, but also such things as what broader purposes these positions served within the church (or parts of the church in which they were held). It certainly seems that one of the main purposes traditional doctrines of hell were used for was to scare people into staying in line. (For instance, the sense I took away from my amateur reading around about the life of Michelangelo was that a major force behind THE LAST JUDGMENT — for why a depiction of that, rather than some other important scene, went up in S.C. — was that, with the Reformation raging, there was a desire to play up the dangers of hell that were incurred by leaving the one true Church.) Insofar as a main purpose the traditional doctrine of hell was scaring people into line, that provided a motivation for it to be as nasty as possible — and also a motivation not to include anything like 4. In individual theologians that served the tradition, this could play out either as a reluctance to infer the likes of 4 from aspects of one’s view that might push in that direction and/or a reluctance to publicly assert anything like 4. That’s one of the reasons I take the apparent (just so far: very ready to hear otherwise) lack of actual assertions of 4 to be potentially very significant.

    March 26, 2011 — 10:01
  • David Alexander

    Perhaps the depictions of hell that we find in Augustine and Aquinas and others need to be evaluated by taking into account that they are offering us these depictions from their vantage point (which they of course take to be analogous to the divine vantage point). Thus, when A or A or … tells us all sorts of nasty things about hell they are saying that those nasty things are what is really going with the agent, and this despite the fact that the agent may very well not perceive those things as nasty or all-that-nasty or….
    When I consider my life prior to coming to Christ I see lots of darkness and misery that I did not see at those times. So in one sense my pre-Christ life was dark and miserable and lonely and …. But in another sense it was not, at least from the inside or phenomenologically speaking.
    I need to think about this more but maybe some such distinction will help alleviate some of the tension we might find between some depictions of hell in A and A and other positions they clearly held.

    March 26, 2011 — 23:32
  • wj

    Re: Augustine and #4 above. I’m not sure that Augustine’s position is finally opposed to the annihilationist position. Paul Griffiths has an interesting article in Pro Ecclesia demonstrating the compatibility of annihilationism with Augustinian theology, while acknowledging that Augustine himself doesn’t pursue this option.

    March 28, 2011 — 14:30
  • Keith:
    A. Here’s a thought that doesn’t address the question of 4 directly, but connects with some of your remarks. The tradition has been clear that the bigger punishment of hell is not the fire and brimstone, but the separation from God–the fire and pitchforks are unpleasant icing on the terrible cake. However, when someone is tempted to commit adultery or theft or drunk driving, chances are that the fire and brimstone will seem worse than separation from God–indeed, separation from the God who commands one not to commit the sin may seem just dandy. So there can be good pastoral reason (depending on culture, the sensibilities of the flock, the prevalent local temptations, and general theological views) to focus preaching on the fire and brimstone, emphasizing these elements more than the privative element of separation. Certainly, I’ve on some occasions found the physical pain aspects of hell helpful at motivating me to stay away from particular sins.
    B. One reason to be careful with adding the “it’s still better than not existing” codicil to warnings about hell in preaching, is that people who think (or think that they think) that it’s better to non-existent than to have all the comforts of life will incorrectly conclude that hell isn’t that terrible.
    C. Bracketing questions about the tradition, I hope that you and I agree that 4 is true–that God wouldn’t put anyone in an everlasting hell such that it would be better to fail to exist than to be in it.

    March 28, 2011 — 20:16
  • David:
    I am not sure. I kind of think that an important part of the eschaton is that the hidden is revealed. No more self-deceit. And that can hurt, either forever or until purgatory has been completed. (I am not saying all the pain is psychological. Physical pain may help fight the self-deceit.)

    March 28, 2011 — 20:18
  • Keith DeRose

    Alex: C: Yes, I certainly agree about the truth of 4.
    A-B: And also that the reason you cite may be a good one for not trumpeting 4.

    March 29, 2011 — 19:01
  • Keith DeRose

    David Alexander: I don’t think your suggestion will pan out, at least in the case of Aquinas. He’s pretty clear that the suffering (well, in Purgatory, but he also seems clear that similar points wd hold of life in hell) includes physical pain and that this physical pain will be worse than any suffered here in this life. So, since pain gets to be truly horrendous in this life, well, we can only imagine (well, probably we can’t) how bad it will be in the next (on Aquinas’s view). Given how horrible the physical pain will be, I think it’s doubtful that anyone’s going to be enjoying it or that it will be less-than-truly-horrendous from the sufferer’s point of view. Here’s a bit more of the passage on suffering in Purgatory from the Summa:
    I answer that, In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire. With regard to both the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life.

    March 30, 2011 — 10:54
  • Ralph Wedgwood

    As a fervent (but not militant) atheist, I’m quite intrigued to skim these discussions. In my view, it really is worth your while to try to solve these problems with traditional Christian theology.
    When I was a teenager (say, around the age of 14 or 15), I came to the conclusion that the very idea of eternal punishment in hell for the damned was morally monstrous in the extreme. (I remember coming to the conclusion that it was simply a sick joke that Dante imagines that the inscription on the gates of Hell proclaims that they were created by “Supreme Wisdom and Primal Love”.)
    This conclusion led directly to my abandoning Christianity completely, since the doctrine of eternal damnation seemed to me too deeply rooted in the Christian tradition for me to have any desire to retain any allegiance to that tradition. (I tried to be a kind of deist for the rest of my teenage years until embracing the kind of Platonistic atheism that I still subscribe to in my early twenties!)

    April 1, 2011 — 15:24
  • Gordon Knight

    RW: If you have to be an atheist, its better to be a Platonic Atheist, in my view.
    I also rejected Christianity in part because of the belief that eternal damnation was central to it, but have since returned. There is a long minority tradition of universalists in the Christian tradition, including gregory of Nyssa and Origen and probably as Keith says, St. Paul.
    I have actually written a bit on Hell not because its deep or metaphysically important, but because I think it is pernicious, really a doctrine that can have a corrupting influence on the human mind.
    Thomas More by all accounts was a very gentle soul, yet he tortured those he thought were heretics. If we really take seriously the doctrine that unbelievers are to be eternally tortured, what are a few earthly days on the rack to compare, if they can prevent the damnation of others?
    How are we to sincerely strive to follow the injunction to love all without distinction, when we also hold to the us and them mindset that the doctrine of eternal damnation inclines us towards?

    April 1, 2011 — 15:43
  • Keith DeRose

    I certainly see your point, Ralph. As you can see here, I’m deeply suspicious of traditional Christian theology on this point. I guess my hope is based on the thought that, while super-nasty doctrines of hell are the traditional views, they really don’t fit in well with other stuff even more central (God, I hope!) to traditional Christianity, and so really should get pushed out, even by forces internal to Christian theology. These views have indeed long been insisted on, often vehemently, but not I think b/c they’re central in any sense that has to do with the other important doctrines being tightly intertwined with them. Rather, they’ve always been a bit of a misfit. But that’s no doubt largely based on my views about what the important Christian doctrines are & how things fit together, or don’t.

    April 1, 2011 — 21:46
  • Keith DeRose

    I’ve recently found a paper by Kelly James Clark, “God is great, God is good: medieval conceptions of divine goodness and the problem of hell,” Religious Studies 37 (2001): 15-31. The below portion of the paper, which includes a potentially very helpful quotation, is directly relevant to the issue of the relation of Aquinas’s theory of hell to 4. I myself have some questions about how to interpret the embedded Aquinas quotation, but will just post the whole bit from Kelly here:
    The annihilation of the damned is rationally preferable to their continued existence. Aquinas himself concedes that there are some goods that result in a reduction in being. Indeed, those good are just those involved in the relief of the suffering of the damned. He writes:
    *Not to be* may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus *not to be* takes on the aspect of good, since *to lack an evil is a kind of good* as the Philosopher says (*Ethic*, v. 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy… . In this sense the damned can prefer *not to be* according to their deliberate reason. (*Summa Theologica* Suppl. Q. 98, art. 3)
    Aqinas contend that although *not to be* is (prima facie) evil because it is a reduction in being, it is also a good when it reduces unhappiness. Hence, *not to be* may be rationally preferable. If *not to be* may be rationally preferable in certain circumstances, then surely those who are suffering in hell are in precisely such circumstances. Hence, their continued existence alone, unless outweighed by another good, is not sufficient for God to be good to them. (pp. 25-6)

    April 1, 2011 — 22:04
  • Keith DeRose

    Kelly also has this on the views of hell of A&A:
    Medieval thinkers typically viewed hell as an eternal torture chamber, perhaps with God himself as the torturer….Augustine contends that the tortures of the damned are both physical and spiritual and that the damned, though consumed by physical fire, are kept in existence by God himself. Aquinas rejects the notion that the damned are tormented solely by fire, arguing that a variety of tortures will be employed. The term ‘fire’ is prevalent in Scripture to describe the intensity of the pain, not the specificity of the torture. Eternal suffering, likened to the horror of being burned, is inflicted by torment ‘in many ways and from many sources’ and without respite [S.T., Suppl.Q. 97, art. 1]. Indeed, hell will be so arranged ‘as to be adapted to the utmost unhappiness of the damned’, and there will be, he argues, just enough light to perceive ‘those things which are capable of tormenting the soul’ (S.T. Suppl.Q. 97, art. 5). One will, for example, see the corporeal fires and smell their stench as they burn one’s corporeal body. This never-ending fire, Aquinas believes, is sustained not by fuel but by the very breath of God.

    April 1, 2011 — 22:44
  • Keith DeRose

    The world’s worst human torturers have always been limited by the fact that when they make things too bad, victims have this annoying way of passing out or even dying. I guess Aug’s and Aquinas’s God wouldn’t suffer such a limitation.

    April 1, 2011 — 22:48
  • Thanks for bringing this passage up–someone also reminded me of it on my blog.
    The author of the Supplement (I understand that the exact degree to which we should attribute the ideas of the Supplement to Aquinas is a complex question) is not saying that the damned should prefer not to be, but only that they can, in “deliberate reason” (whatever that exactly means–I am no Aquinas scholar), prefer not to be.
    On Aquinas’ view of human freedom, whenever you have two alternatives neither of which dominates the other (i.e., two incommensurable goods), it is possible for you to choose either one. To show that A (e.g., existence in hell) doesn’t dominate B (e.g., non-existence) it suffices to show that A is better than B in some respect. The respect Aquinas picks out here is that of lack of pain/suffering. In that respect, B is better than A. But I think Aquinas is also committed to saying that A is better than B in various other respects.
    Aquinas says something similar at S.Th. 3 in regard to the passage about it being better for Judas not to have existed. He obviously reads that as talking of Judas’ non-existence rather than stillbirth. He then says: “Non-being is desirable, not of itself, but only relatively–i.e. inasmuch as the removal of an evil, which can only be removed by non-being, is desirable. Now the removal of an evil cannot be desirable, except so far as this evil deprives a thing of some being. Therefore being is desirable of itself; and non-being only relatively, inasmuch as one seeks some mode of being of which one cannot bear to be deprived; thus even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good.”
    Again, this only supports the claim that there is a respect in which it is better for Judas not to exist rather than the claim that it is better simpliciter for Judas not to exist.
    By the way, it’s a little tough for me to understand the 3 text. It’s a deep commitment of Aquinas, evident in parts of this this passage, that in general an entity has many ways [kinds?] of being, and the ways of being of an entity are the entity’s goods. Aquinas expressly says in the passage that an evil is then something that deprives that entity of a way of being, and then he says that non-being is “relatively” desirable, and I think he means by that something like that it’s desirable merely as a means to ending that evil. But if the evil is the deprivation of the good, then ending existence would seem to deprive one of all the other goods, so what does one gain? Let G be the good the deprivation of which is pain. How can one rationally desire to lack all goods so as to avoid being deprived of G?
    Maybe the thought is this: If one doesn’t exist, one lacks G but isn’t deprived of G. To be deprived is not just to lack–it is lack something that should be there. So if one doesn’t exist, one gains in that one is no longer deprived of G, but one merely lacks it (by not existing at all). I think Aquinas is mistaken here for reasons Augustine gives, I think in _On the Free Choice of the Will_. Augustine seems to think that we can analyze evil as deprivation of a good, and that “x is deprived of G” can be analyzed as the conjunction of two claims: x lacks G and x is of such a sort that it should have G. I think Aquinas is probably committed to the same analysis. Augustine (as best as I remember, and this may take a bit of exegesis to defend) argues that the individual that is deprived of G is still better off than the individual that lacks G but that is not of such a sort that it should have G. For being of such a sort that one should have G is itself a positive feature of x, and hence a good. Thus, it is better to be an irrational human than a non-rational beast: neither has actual rationality but the human at least has the positive feature of being the sort of entity that ought to be rational. I think Aquinas is probably committed to the conjunctive analysis of “x is deprived of G” and is also committed to the idea that “x is of such a sort that it should have G” is a good for x, since it’s presumably a positive feature of x’s nature. If so, then Aquinas cannot consistently say that it is in any respect better to not exist at all than to exist in pain.
    All that said, Aquinas says only that it’s better in some respect not to exist than to be in hell, and that’s compatible with 4 (though it may not be compatible with his larger metaphysics I am right).

    April 1, 2011 — 22:58
  • Keith DeRose

    Alex: That’s the kind of worry I had about how to understand the quotation. Kelly seems to take it as a prima facie / ultima facie thing: reduction in being would be p.f. worse for the damned, but this is overcome. Or maybe I’m misreading Kelly? Anyway, it was reading to me like a bad-in-one-respect-good-in-another claim, with no sense of weighing these against each other. Turning to 4, I guess that wd mean that in the one respect, it would be better for the damned to cease to exist, but in the other, not.

    April 1, 2011 — 23:13
  • Keith:
    Right. I think Aquinas is saying that it’s both p.f. worse and p.f. better for the people in hell not to exist, but that the p.f. worse claim is somehow more absolute.

    April 3, 2011 — 8:05
  • By the way, here’s an argument:
    1. Everybody at every time at which she exists owes thanks to God for existing at that time.
    2. No one owes thanks to God for existing at a time at which she would be better off not existing.
    3. So, nobody at any time would be better off not existing then.
    (Bibliographic note: This argument is inspired by a remark that that the people in hell still owe thanks to God. That remark wafted to me from another table at a restaurant near the central APA–I didn’t know any of the people at that table. Nor did I hear much of the context of that conversation, but I think the view was being attributed to somebody in a past century.)

    April 4, 2011 — 8:50
  • Shawn Bawulski

    Thanks for continuing a fascinating discussion in these comments.
    In support of 4: I strongly suspect it is latent in much if not most of the tradition- although, as you say, it is often not directly stated. Certainly many of its implications are present.
    It is worth noting a strain of thinkers within the traditional view that does stress this point. To name a few: T. R. Birks, Samuel Garratt, James Orr, Langton Clarke, and (more recently) Henry Blocher have all variously defended views of eternal punishment that, while varying a bit between them, are united in arguing that the reprobate’s continued existence is not only objectively good but also subjectively preferable. Eschatology realities will be such that even a subject experiencing punitive suffering will recognize and affirm the value of her continuing to exist. (This view is my current research subject, for whatever that’s worth.)
    Anyway, should a traditional view of hell include 4? Absolutely.

    April 4, 2011 — 10:00
  • Gordon Knight

    Another argument:
    (1) Everybody at everytime that she exists owes thanks to God for her existence at that time
    (2) But if someone is experiencing everlasting torment she would not owes thanks to God for her existence at that time.
    Therefore, no one experiences everlasting torment.

    April 4, 2011 — 11:25
  • Gordon:
    I think (2) is not logically necessary. Surely it’s logically possible to have goods in addition to moderate torment such that on balance one still owes thanks to God.
    Here’s something that’s just occurred to me. I think it should be fairly uncontroversial that for any human x and any time t during x’s earthly life, x owes thanks to God for existing at t. But there are many people who suffer torment in this life. Hence, owing thanks to God for existing at t is compatible with suffering torment at t. Moreover, plausibly, some who suffer torment in this life are vicious. Hence, owing thanks to God for existing at t is compatible with (a) suffering torment at t and (b) being vicious at t.
    Does everlastingness change matters? Maybe, but it’s not clear.
    Very interesting. I would be more interested in Church Fathers and medieval figures myself, though.

    April 4, 2011 — 19:34
  • Gordon Knight

    I agree that there are goods that can outweigh suffering, but in cases of intense suffering, those good are not realizable. I understand the torment traditionally ascribed to those in hell to be quite different from that of Mill’s disatisfied Socrates. Its not like I am building character, becoming a more loving person, or appreciating beauty, goodness, or philosophy when I am up to my eyebrows in boiling blood.
    Severe pain inhibits the exemplification of these goods (the same is true for extreme psychological distress)
    There might just be a class of intuitions here. Even if existence itsself were a good, I can’t really evwould be so good such that it overrode the badness of eternal torment.
    But here is, maybe, a way of making the point. If existence itself is a good no matter what else (e.g eternal torment), then a deity who created a world that just had eternal torement would have increased the net good in the universe. It would always be better to create than not, and the creatures created solely for a life of suffering should express thanks to their torturer God.
    I think everlastingness does matter. I can be happy and grateful that I exist even while haing my leg amputated, but I am hardly going to be happy and grateful for the slide of my life that includes just the experience of an unanaesthesized leg amputation (though such an experience may be instrumnental to other goods that I am thankful for, in addition to my further life)

    April 5, 2011 — 8:08
  • Gordon:
    “Its not like I am building character, becoming a more loving person, or appreciating beauty, goodness, or philosophy when I am up to my eyebrows in boiling blood.”
    Maybe the people in hell, though, are gradually becoming less vicious, and coming to appreciate ugliness, evil or ignorance less? (Which does not imply that they will ever actually be virtuous.)
    In any case, your remarks show that your argument depends not just on the premise that hell includes torment, but on further premises about what sort of torment that is and what goods hell does not include, premises that may not be required by Christian tradition.
    Parenthetically, I think this is in general false: “Severe pain inhibits the exemplification of these goods”. The person who is suffering severe pain rather than reveal the whereabouts of innocents that she is hiding exhibits some of these goods precisely because she is suffering.

    April 5, 2011 — 8:27
  • Gordon Knight

    Alex: Just to be clear I think pschological pain is also often quite crippling, But I can’t make the case any better than MM Adams does,in _Horendous Evils and the Goodness of God_ (which deals with earthly suffering, but I think the point generalizes)

    April 6, 2011 — 17:20
  • Keith DeRose

    A position that seems to have some claim to being part of the traditional Christian view of hell is this view about the nature of the suffering in hell:
    SHT: Surpassingly Horrific Torment: the suffering of the damned in hell, including physical pain, will be greater than any suffering people undergo in this life
    Even if you don’t think this belongs in “the traditional view of hell,” it was certainly held by many big-gun traditional Christian theologians. It’s part of many traditional view*s* of hell. Aquinas, for instance, seems a pretty clear case. (I’m thinking of how he writes He writes that “it is the same fire which torments the damned in hell and cleanses the just in Purgatory” and says this about what the suffering in Purgatory is like: “In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire. With regard to both the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life.”)
    One has to take a good look at some of the suffering that has been undergone in this life to appreciate the horror of this view. (As it happens, that’s another grim interest of mine.) I know this may hurt the feelings of some, and that some may have harsh things to say or at least think about anyone who writes this about a traditional view, but I think this needs to be said in the spirit of getting it out there, since I know I am far from alone in thinking this way. So, here goes. SHT is a shocking and appalling view, which, from the point of view of many of us (rather non-traditional types) constitutes a great slander against the character of God. Combined with other components of the traditional view of hell (here I’m thinking of positions on who goes to hell), SHT has such implications as that many of the most sympathetic victims of the most horrific deaths-by-torture in this life then faced only worse suffering upon their deaths. I would tend to think (& Ken Himma has a paper arguing for something like this) it (together with some very common other features of the traditional view) also leads to such conclusions as that it is a very serious wrong to bring children (who might suffer this fate) into the world. But really, beyond any further implications it might have, SHT, together with even quite weak views (relative to traditional views) about who will be damned, paints a bleak view of human existence that is sharply at odds with what seems to many of us (again, non-traditional types) to be the proper Christian outlook.
    Anyway, while I agree that 4 is true and that it is/would be a good thing for it to be part of the traditional view, it seems the big thing is to get rid of anything like SHT. If you keep SHT and add 4 to it, the result is to my thinking completely beyond belief.
    Beyond SHT is
    THT: Transcendingly Horrific Suffering: the suffering of the damned in hell, including physical pain, will be *vastly* greater than any suffering people undergo in this life
    Aquinas seems a reasonable candidate (but I haven’t seen enough to call him a clear case yet) for someone who holds this view. I’m thinking of when he writes such things as that hell is so arranged “as to be adapted to the utmost unhappiness of the damned.” Esp. if it’s God who’s doing the arranging — and it sometimes seems that on Aquinas’s view God is intimately involved in the torturing of the damned — this looks like it’s tending toward THT.

    April 7, 2011 — 0:32
  • Keith:
    a. SHT probably wasn’t meant to apply to all who are in hell, since it presumably wasn’t meant to apply to those in the limbo of children. (Dante is clear that limbo is a part of hell. In the S.Th., Aquinas argues that the limbo of the fathers is not a part of hell, but he doesn’t seem to address the question about the limbo of children.)
    b. It won’t surprise you that I think that nobody in this life suffers so badly that it would be better for them not to exist. If they did so suffer, they would probably not have the obligations of gratitude to God that everybody has. So SHT may actually be compatible with my 4.
    c. In this life, severe suffering makes many valuable activities impossible. One can’t prove complex theorems or compose epic poetry while suffering the worst that humans suffer. Moreover, few people in this life appreciate the intrinsic value of retributively punitive suffering. Suppose that in hell there is suffering which is just as severe, but one does not suffer from similar limitations. Then it logically could be that x suffers in hell more than anyone suffers in earthly life, but nonetheless x is no worse off, and in some sense better off, than some earthly sufferers. I am not endorsing the claim that great mathematics or poetry is done in hell, and that those in hell are glad at receiving just punishment. I am just saying that greater severity of suffering is compatible with being better off.
    d. I don’t think we get the picture from Dante that the physical sufferings in hell are always worse than the worst that happens in this life. Even bracketing the first circle, physical sufferings of greater intensity happen to people in this life than many of the things Dante describes. And I don’t know of anybody who accused Dante of being heterodoxly lenient (but an argument from what I don’t know of medieval history is very weak). So I don’t endorse SHT.
    e. The Tradition endorses the claim that no one suffers more in hell than they deserve. (There are even indications that at least some suffer less in hell than they deserve.) If that claim is incompatible with SHT, I’ll go with the justice claim. I am inclined to think that it is possible to deserve everlasting physical suffering greater than any that occurs in this life. The reason for this is that very, very grave sins are possible. For instance, for just about any cardinality K that one can conceive of (and there are some pretty big infinite cardinalities humans can conceive of), it is possible to (justifiedly? I am not sure it matters) believe that uttering a magical curse will cause K innocents to die and suffer everlasting torment, and it is then possible to utter that curse with that end in mind. (I take it that ceteris paribus attempted murder calls for the same retributive punishment as murder, though we have good pragmatic reasons to punish attempted murder less severely.)

    April 7, 2011 — 8:54
  • John Inglis

    As examples of the common conception of hell as involving everlasting torment of at least SHT, consider:
    The Westminster Larger Catechism consigns sinners to the “most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hellfire forever . . .”
    In his Institutes Calvin writes, “Many persons … have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire by which the wicked will be tormented after judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture that it is a metaphorical expression … Let us lay aside the speculations, by which foolish men weary themselves to no purpose, and satisfy ourselves with believing that these forms of speech denote, in a manner suited to our feeble capacity, a dreadful torment, which no man can now comprehend and no language can express.”

    April 7, 2011 — 11:51
  • I looked at Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma, the standard reference work on papal and conciliar statements, and there was nothing there about SHT. There was stuff about everlasting punishment, and some of them talk of fire (the texts don’t say anything that would settle whether rapid oxidization is literally involved), and words like “torment” are included, but no comparisons like those in SHT are given.

    April 7, 2011 — 12:03
  • Kenneth Himma

    Alexander: A couple of comments about b above to Keith. I realize this was a brief comment that you probably weren’t intending to debate, but I have a certain history that makes this a very important issue for me. I hope you will forgive some unsolicited and probably unnecessary (or off-point) dissent.
    First, I would suggest you talk to pediatricians about some of the terminal illnesses that newborns sometimes come into the world with. Some of these cases involve physical suffering so bad, they cannot even be held for comfort. Lifespan in such cases ranges from 3 or 4 weeks to several months.
    Of course, if such children go immediately to heaven, I suppose you can make the case, although I don’t find it plausible, that such suffering was just a step along the way to endless joy.
    But I take it that what you have in mind is to defend the claim that, considering only our life here, it is not true of anyone that it is better not to exist. I think a case can be made not only for infants in the condition I described above but some adults as well.
    I have struggled with mental illness for 30 years in the form of a panic disorder, clinical depression and chronic anxiety. The anxiety is (or was until we finally found a med that worked) continuous. The panic disorder and clinical depression is sporadic.
    The lows that are associated with clinical depression are more painful than you can possibly imagine if you have never experienced it. Fortunately, my panic disorder and depression have been properly medicated since last September. Even so, I have rarely gone through a week without having the thought “I wish I had never been born.”
    In any event, there are plenty of people whose depression is untreatable — and I’ve seen cases where the disease begins in early adolescence. I know of people who have struggled for years with suicidal ideation requiring multiple hospitalizations that result in only the briefest of respites. Some have attempted suicide on multiple occasions.
    I should be careful to say that I am not saying that their lives are not worth living or lack moral worth or something like that. What I am suggesting that there might be cases where it is true that it would have better not to have been brought into existence.
    Now if you assume that everyone owes a debt of gratitude to God, then no empirical evidence will convince you that this life is not necessarily a blessing for everyone. While my life, on balance, has been quite interesting and rewarding, this is not true for everyone. A disinterested look at the empirical evidence will at least make plausible the idea that life may not be a blessing for all.
    This is not to say that I disagree with your view. I apologize if I have made too much of a comment that was intended to be casual and not to really express deep views about this. For me, though, this is an issue that resonates deeply emotionally — and I think the philosophical problem is more difficult than many mainstream Christians realize. If you will forgive me for citing Lil Wayne: “I’ve been to hell and back; I can show you vouchers.”

    April 9, 2011 — 16:38
  • Kenneth:
    Thank you for this note of realism. Having had a very comfortable life (largely due to the great sacrifices of others), there is an awkwardness to my talking about these things to people who have suffered much. Still, I am primarily relying on revelation in this thread, and revelation comes from him who bore our stripes.
    I wasn’t claiming in this thread to be able to argue on non-theological grounds that nobody’s life is such that it would be better for them not to exist. The context of the thread is what the implications of a particular Christian doctrine are, and given some sort of a holism about Christian doctrine, it makes sense to evaluate that doctrine in the contexts of other Christian commitments. And indeed there are Christian doctrines that are such that were they not revealed to us, we would have little reason to believe and maybe even we would on balance have strong reason to disbelieve. For instance, transsubstantiation or the possibility of an immutable God becoming human or the existence of a simple being who is three persons. It could, I suppose, turn out to be that the doctrine that everybody owes thanks to God is like that.
    I do think we have a cultural tendency when evaluating whether a life is worth living to focus too much on the conscious features of that life. Human beings essentially have dignity, and their dignity is of great worth, since it makes the difference between being and not being such as to call for respect. I do not have an account of dignity, but I do have an argument that it is independent of conscious features: no combination of conscious features is essential to a human being (since I continue to exist while unconscious) while dignity is an essential property. The latter claim is, of course, somewhat controversial. And I do not claim to have an analysis of dignity. I do suspect that that x has dignity is necessary and sufficient for x’s being in the image of God, but since I have no account of what it is to be in the image of God, this doesn’t help much.
    In any case, this means that when a human being is in horrible torment, I have good reason to think that she also has a mysterious essential feature, dignity, that is of great worth. I think everybody should say this, even those who think that it would be better for this human not to have existed. Now the question is whether this mysterious essential feature is such as to make it be the case that it would not be better for this human not to have existed (sorry for all the negations). Bracketing revelation, I do think we can at least say this much: it can be rational to think the feature does make it be the case that it would not be better to for the human not to have existed.
    For instance, I can imagine the following thought experiment. I come to be convinced that dignity is only a contingent feature, and that there is some way I can choose to lose it permanently. Someone who shares this false belief about the inessentiality of dignity tortures me horrendously (but no greater than has in fact happened to someone) in order to persuade me to shed my dignity. It surely can be rational to say: “I’ll hold on to my dignity no matter what I suffer”, and hence it can be rational to believe that the disvalue of the torments is not greater than the value of dignity. (Because of incommensurability worries, I do not say that dignity’s value is greater than the disvalue of the torments.)

    April 11, 2011 — 9:58
  • Isaac Wiegman

    This has been a really interesting discussion. Thanks so much for staying engaged and making a strong case for traditional commitments (as this definitely helps make the discussion interesting).
    Nonetheless, I have some misgivings about what you’ve said so far (and forgive me if they wander a bit off topic or if they’re not as clear as they ought to be). If a good God exists, it certainly is plausible that everyone ought to be thankful to God for their life-as-a-whole. However, I find it implausible that everyone ought to be thankful to God for their life at every given moment (a view I think you’ve expressed in the comments). I think this is a much more controversial commitment than you’ve let on; I’m skeptical that it is explicitly found anywhere in Christians scripture; and there is something less than compelling (at least in my estimation) about a religious view that undermines the legitimacy of peoples’ feelings when suffering. On this last point, there seem to be several Psalms where the Psalmist is very honest with God about his feelings, where he does not feel thankful toward God and does not seem to suppose that he owes God thanks. I realize that this might seem like an argument from silence, but it’s at least straightforward evidence that gratitude need not always be one’s attitude toward God. Moreover, these Psalms seem to lend some evidence to the idea that we cannot always be grateful to God, and it might follow from this that it’s not the case that we always ought to be grateful to God. (Though, the Psalmist usually settles on an attitude of trust. Perhaps trust that his life-as-a-whole will end up alright?)
    Another point you made is that in Hell, it might be the case that people are continually being made less vicious. However, I think if there is no possibility of becoming virtuous, then there is some asymptote beyond which someone’s moral development cannot go. But where there is an asymptote, there is decreasing marginally returns on one dimension (in this case moral worth) relative to another (in this case time). So it seems obvious that there will be some point at which the moral improvement of a damned person is so marginal as to not warrant further suffering on their part. Unless you think that infinitesimal amounts of moral worth are always worth more than considerable torment.
    And now for some neo-Kantian misgivings centered around respect for persons. First, Kant has it that certain kinds of punishment (for instance, drawing and quartering) exhibit a vicious lack of respect for rational nature. One might think that eternal punishment without hope of exhibits such a lack of respect because it reveals a regard for someone as being unable to change in response to the reasonable demands or expectations of others. This kind of regard might be thought to be a prerequisite for considering someone to be a member of the moral community. Thus, on this view, if anyone is punished everlastingly without hope of redemption, they are being treated as if they are not a member of the moral community. If they are, they shouldn’t be so regarded, but if they aren’t, then why punish them? Second, there’s a general worry about using someone’s tormented existence to instantiate a good that they don’t themselves consider worth the torment. This looks a lot like treating someone as a means to an end (one that they may not even be committed to on pain of irrationality). I suppose both of these are just instances of a general worry that punishment should be constrained by a person’s innate dignity and that everlasting torment without hope of redemption seems to stand in tension with this constraint. I suppose this is a bit off topic, but in any case, I’m curious how you’d respond.

    April 14, 2011 — 16:09
  • Isaac:
    These are tough questions, and I don’t have answers to them all.
    1. In the case of biblical assertions, the traditional doctrine of biblical inspiration tells us that the assertions are all of truths. It is a fascinating and difficult question what the doctrine tells us about other kinds of speech acts contained in scripture and endorsed by the human author. Maybe minimally that the speech acts are not inappropriate given the human author’s subjective circumstances? This is particularly difficult in regard to the psalms, where much of it is not assertion, especially since many of us do not wish to endorse some of the violent attitudes of the psalmists. It might be enough to say that they were appropriate in their context, and may not be appropriate in our context. But perhaps more can be said. I think there is room for an excellent book on the implications of a strong doctrine of inspiration for biblical speech acts other than assertions.
    In any case, there are people whose lives are short and involve such a great amount of suffering that if they ought to be thankful for their earthly lives overall, then just about everybody else ought to be thankful for every moment of their earthly lives. Maybe.
    2. I think the view that hell involves asymptotic moral improvement would come along with a view that the suffering in hell asymptotically decreases as well. I do not know if this view is orthodox, and while I find the view mildly attractive, I will deny the view if it’s shown not to be orthodox.
    3. I don’t share the Kantian preoccupation with the person’s own endorsement of her ends. I think that the ends that matter most in our lives are all ends that we do not set for ourselves, but that derive either from general human teleology or from particular vocation. Ends that we set ourselves, if there are any such, are more like hobbies and should not take over a life. I think a Kantian focus on autonomy sometimes borders on autolatry (a species of idolatry, unless one is God). Kant is right about the need to respect others’ central ends, but he is wrong in thinking that what makes our central ends be our ends is that we have chosen or endorsed them.

    April 14, 2011 — 16:31
  • Isaac Wiegman

    Regarding 1, here’s what I meant by “life-as-a-whole”: something that includes life on earth and the after-life as proper parts. The idea is that the after-life is supposed to complement life on earth and make it something that we should be grateful for even if every moment of it was so intolerable as to make gratitude impossible. I find it plausible that if a good God exists, then everyone should end up being thankful for their life-as-a-whole so conceived. Sorry for being unclear. I wonder how this would change your response. At present, I’m left with the question, “why believe that everyone (especially those who live short and painful lives) should be grateful to God for every moment of their earthly life?” This is definitely one of those things such that if it hasn’t been revealed to us, then we have little reason to believe it. So I guess I’m asking what reason is there to believe the stronger claim (concerning every moment of our earthly lives) over and above the weaker claim (concerning whole lives).
    Regarding 2, this is a really interesting view of Hell. One worth thinking about.
    Regarding 3, I can see why someone might be skeptical about whether a person needs to endorse their own ends, but there’s something else I was trying to get across regarding respect for humanity. Maybe I should just drop the Kantian terminology and say how I really feel. I feel like a lot of angst about the traditional conception of Hell might derive from intuitions about respect. From certain points of view, condemning someone to eternal conscious torment would seem to be an expression of utter contempt (rather than love or respect). It’s not clear whether or when such contempt is justified toward moral agents. It’s also not clear what kind of punishments are consistent with respect for humanity, and the traditional doctrine of Hell seems to be relatively permissive about what kinds of punishments are okay in this regard. To be all too flat-footed, we seem to believe that it would be wrong to punish a torturer by torturing him. So what is different about God’s relationship to those he punishes (or allows to suffer) that makes it okay (and consistent with his goodness) for him to inflict (or allow) immense (perhaps infinite) amounts of suffering? In other words, one could take your point about punishment being intrinsically good but still wonder what kinds of punishments are capable of being intrinsically good. It simply can’t be right that a good God is capable of doing just anything he wants with his creations. If this were true, I don’t think I would even know what it means to say that God is good.
    I suppose I’m just registering a complaint and trying to point to where further work might be beneficial. Sorry if this is getting off topic.

    April 15, 2011 — 12:19