For Christian universalists of my basic type, as well as many other Christians who stray from traditional, mega-nasty doctrines of hell in certain vaguely universalist directions, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has been a godsend.
The “basic type” of universalists in question are those who accept what I call “strong exclusivism,” which goes beyond the claim of “exclusivism” that it is only through Christ that any can be saved to add a condition to the effect that in order to be saved, one must somehow explicitly accept Christ and the salvation he makes possible. The exact nature of the explicit acceptance can be worked out in various ways, but the problem here, of course, is that many people die without having explicitly accepted Christ on just about any way of working out those details. The solution to the problem is to hold that saving explicit acceptance can occur after death.
But while some Christian universalists are thus moved to believe in “further chances” after death (FC), and many other Christians also accept FC for reasons other than that it is the way to square universalism with strong exclusivism, I am still inclined to believe something in the vicinity of what I wrote quite a few years ago in my on-line defense of universalism about the strength with which the opposing doctrine of “no further chances” (NFC) is held in many evangelical circles:
I think no other doctrine can even compete with “no further chances” in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support.
Well, I suppose I can now come up with some serious competition for NFC here–and even one example of a belief that can beat NFC on this score. (And this not so much because the conditions “on the ground” in EvangelicalLand have changed, but just because I’ve become more aware and appreciative of the tough competition NFC faces.) Still, I think NFC scores very high on this measure.
To the extent that attitudes are softened at all toward FC, it seems to be largely through the influence of Lewis’s Divorce, which has been running interference for universalists and their fellow-travelers for years now. Many evangelicals admire Lewis, and that he presents a picture on which there are further chances constitutes for them a reason for giving FC at least some credence–or at least to not react quite so vehemently those who accept, or even just seriously consider, FC.
So I’m working a bit against my own cause here, but still, I have to question whether Lewis is really promoting FC in Divorce. What is largely at issue is how to read this bit from the end of his “Preface” to the book:
I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.
I should say right off the bat that I am very far indeed from being an expert on Lewis. So it’s very possible that–and indeed it would be great if–some readers know about other things he wrote that bear on how to read him here. (Indeed, for all I know, he directly addressed FC in some context where he was writing more straightforward, expository prose.) In fact, I guess this post can be viewed largely as a bleg in this regard. I’m going mostly just by what is in Divorce itself.
But I always assumed that the ability of the characters in the story to move from hell to heaven was in the scope of the “transmortal conditions” that were just an “imaginative supposal.” As such, I took Lewis to be saying that was “not even a guess or a speculation at what might actually await us.” So I was quite surprised to find people thinking that Lewis was promoting FC in Divorce. But, focusing especially on the last sentence above (which is also the last sentence of the “Preface”), I suppose I can see how they might think so: One might think it’s the details of the story that are added for effect as an “imaginative supposal,” while some of the more basic and important features of the story, including the ability to move from hell to heaven, are being presented as features of what will actually–or at least may (well) actually–await us.
So I should say a little about why I thought the further chances in the story were supposed to be among the “imaginative supposals” of Divorce. And I guess I was largely led here by what I took the “moral” or main point of the book to be. I’ve always taken Divorce to be mainly about the various tendencies we have–different ones for different people–to “choose against joy.” These are tendencies we (many of us: again, different ones for different people) have now, and constitute a problem for us now, and so are worth exposing. That account of what Lewis was trying to get at provides an account of why he would include the ability to move from hell to heaven as an “imaginative supposal” of his story, even if he wasn’t even speculating as to whether that will be the case in the afterlife. Sometimes a good way to explain a feature of something is to show how that feature would manifest itself in counterfactual situations. And that’s what I think is going on in Divorce. Imaginatively supposing that folks can move from hell to heaven allows Lewis to make points he wants to make about our current condition. He is saying that we have self-destructive tendencies that are so bad that we can easily get to the point that even if we were in hell but then got to experience heaven and had the chance to stay there, we would choose to return to hell. That the ability to move from hell to heaven could function so well as an “imaginative supposal” to help Lewis make important points should, I think, make us quite hesitant to conclude that that feature of his story was anything more than such an “imaginative supposal.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem…”
I’m taking the phrase “the Hitler types” from a post by Richard Mouw (my former teacher at Calvin College: as if there weren’t enough Calvin connections in this series!). You may want to read Mouw’s whole post, but to set the context for the bit about Hitler, Mouw has stated clearly that he is not a universalist, and in explaining his position, he seems to have indicated that he agrees with Rob Bell that people who choose hell will get it, when he writes:
And I certainly do believe that some folks choose that hell. The Hitler types. The man who kidnaps young girls and sells them into sexual slavery. They are well on their way to hell, to becoming inhuman monsters. To be sure, as the hymn rightly reminds us: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But for those who persist in their wicked ways, eternal separation is the natural outcome of all the choices they have made along the way.
And many have (especially recently) expressed finding it especially difficult to believe that the likes of Hitler (or Tony Soprano, in the case of an odd opinion piece in the NYTimes by Russ Douthat!) might make it to heaven. Why? Well, the most natural explanation for the special problem here would be that these “Hitler types” are especially bad. Picking up on that, together with Mouw’s later-expressed openness to hope that people might be able to accept Christ after death, one colorful comment to Mouw’s post reads:
But then, you do affirm hell to be a real place, sir. Full of those “Hitler types” and pedophiles. As for the rest of us gossips, slanderers, and adulterers of the heart, things are looking up. Turns out, God is a God of multiple chances. In this life, and the next.
I don’t think Mouw’s special problem with Hitler types going to heaven is directly that they are just too bad to make it in. Mouw does after all immediately go on to indicate his agreement with the hymn that even the “vilest offenders” can be pardoned, so if there are chances after death (which I don’t read Mouw as necessarily endorsing, but as at least hoping for and not ruling out), it would seem possible that even the vilest offenders might have a chance. My guess is that Mouw’s thinking is that the “Hitler types” are especially unlikely to turn to Jesus, even if they do get the chance to do so after death: They are very solidly in the “choosing hell” column now, and there’s little reason to think they won’t continue to be so.
And so, certain individuals are thought to be especially problematic for universalism. The main reason for thinking they don’t wipe out hope (or so it seems to me) is that we know already from this life that even the most dramatic turnarounds are possible – and we get a pretty good example of such a turnaround in Acts in the case of Saul/Paul, who seems to have been a bit of a “Hitler type”–the “chief of sinners” to use his own (translated) way of expressing that he was “the vilest offender.” (It is perhaps no coincidence that the best scriptural grounds for thinking that Christ’s act of righteousness actually might lead to acquittal and life for all people are from the writings of one who had been something of a Hitler type himself before being redeemed.) My response in my on-line defense of universalism: “We know that some in this life have been only been moving further and further away from accepting Christ. And some people can be very obstinate. And some have become incredibly evil in this life. But, on the other hand, even in this short life, we all know of instances in which people having all three of these problems to a great degree who were brought around and were saved. So, again, I see no grounds for pessimism that an infinitely resourceful God, who is able to take as much time as He needs, will be able to win over everyone eventually.” Of course, I am here supposing that God’s ability to save people continues after their death, and that God does indeed desire that all people will be saved, but given those assumptions, which seem correct to me, I see little reason to give up hope here. (And without those assumptions, hopelessness seems to spread far beyond the Hitler types, so I’m seeing not much of a special problem in these cases.)
Victims and (perhaps even more so) the loved ones of victims of cruel and horrible evils may find the idea of the perpetrators of these evils ever escaping hell revolting. (And I imagine that some of the loved ones of some of the victims of the worst abuses of Saul’s might have found it difficult to hope for his salvation.) This of course doesn’t apply to all of the victims or loved ones of victims: some are astoundingly gracious about this. (A wonderful example of someone adopting a gracious point of view is given in this account of a 9/11 survivor.) Those of us who hold that or hope that even the perpetrators of the worst evils of this world may eventually be reconciled with their victims & with God should recognize that the resistance some people feel to such a view and to such a hope can be coming from a good place — concern for the victims and for justice — even as we think this resistance is somehow ultimately wrong. And while we may hold that joining God in hoping or desiring that all people will be saved is some kind of ideal, we should at the same time recognize that in our messy world, not all cases of adopting this hope would be changes for the better: For some who don’t hold this hope, some of the nearest versions of themselves who do hold such a hope may do so because they are not as concerned for those who have suffered. We certainly don’t want to encourage them to become such versions of themselves.
I strongly encourage those of an opposite point of view to take a similar attitude. If you for instance think that all who fail to accept Christ before death will suffer eternal conscious torment, and you think that this is made clear enough that in some good sense we should not even hope for a better fate for them, you may think that in some sense not hoping for, say, the wellbeing of a deceased loved one is some kind of ideal. (This way of thinking seems very alien to me, but that’s not surprising: the differences in points of view here are very great.) But you can still recognize that those who hold such a hope may be coming from a very good place, and that in our messy world, not all cases of abandoning such hope would be changes for the better.
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.
Here’s a reason to think not.
Premise 1: A perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever. (I’m assuming here that the “suffering” is to an extent that makes one’s life not worth living.)
Suppose you have a dream in which an “angel” tells you that 99.999999999999999% of the people in Gabon, Africa will end up suffering in hell forever given their background culture and innate personalities. Do you believe it? Probably not, and not merely because you don’t believe God exists. You’d probably think this: “A good God wouldn’t permit there to be a person whose chance of escaping infinite suffering is so terribly slim.” That’s the intuition behind Premise 1.
Premise 2: If a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever, then a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Think about it this way. The difference between 99.999999999999999% and any other percent is FINITE, whereas the consequence is always INFINITE. How could there be a percentage that permits risking infinite suffering but a finitely different percentage that doesn’t? Or think about it this way. For every percentage p, either p is worth the risk of infinite suffering, or it is not the case that p is worth the risk. None of these terms are vague, so if Premise 2 is false, then there’s a p, such that a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has p chance of suffering forever but would create someone who has a slightly smaller chance of suffering forever. Why should a slight difference in chance warrant an INFINITE difference in the conseqence that may be risked? It seems it shouldn’t.
Therefore: a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Objection: what about the value of free will?
In the 13th and final chapter of his book, Sobel discusses Pascalian wagers. According to Sobel, there need not be anything wrong with the practical reasoning involved in a Pascalian wager. In addition to defending this controversial claim, Sobel must explain how, if the Pascalian reasoning is correct, he can be justified in holding on to his atheism. As the chapter unfolds, both contentions are defended as a package. In general, for reasons to be explained below, I disagree with Sobel’s approach here. However, I do agree with him on one thing: religious faith is more a matter of practical than of theoretical reason. In this post I will explain Sobel’s approach and my reasons for disagreeing with it, and in the next I will lay out my own view of the interplay of theoretical and practical reason in religious faith.
Pascal’s original wager went something like this: if you believe in God and you are right, you gain eternal bliss. If you believe in God and you are wrong, you lose little or nothing. If you don’t believe in God and you are right, you gain little or nothing. If you don’t believe in God and you are wrong, things will go very badly for you. (According to Sobel, Pascal himself regards heaven as infinitely good, but hell as only finitely bad.)
Now, the first problem we face is that we can’t just decide to believe things.For now, though, imagine we could. It seems, in Pascal’s case, that it would then be practically rational to believe in God, as long as we think that there is even the slightest (epistemic) possibility of his existence.
Traditionally, Christian theology has held that something imporant changes at the moment of death. (Other monotheistic religions may also make similar claims, I just don’t know. And I should also note that I’m bracketing certain forms of Calvinism according to which ‘once saved always saved’, as the phrase goes.) Prior to death, it is possible for a person who is not justified to chose to accept God’s grace and be justified. Similarly, it is possible for a person who is justified at a certain point to sin away that justification.
But traditionally, it’s been held that after death, this kind of change isn’t possible. Those who are in hell are unable, in some sense, to choose for God; those in heaven are unable to choose against God. I know that there are many contemporary philosophers of religion and theologians who deny this claim, or reject that this claim is traditionally held. But I’m interested in what kinds of philosophical arguments are (or could be) given for the truth of this claim. What is it about death that changes whether or not one is able to turn towards or away from God? Candidates or references to help alleviate my ignorance would be greatly appreciated.
That said, if you want to argue against this claim, you’re welcome to do that as well in the comments.
The view that a contingently existing thing cannot explain everything is mistaken. For all that I, or anyone else, knows the proper logic of metaphysical possibility is S4. The characteristic thesis of S4 is Lp –> LLp. S4 does not include the thesis that MLp –> Lp. Consider whether there is a metaphysical model in which a contingent God explains everything. Suppose every possible world is accessible from every other possible world, except for the worlds W0 and W1. W0 and W1, let’s suppose, are accessible from every other world, but they only have access to themselves and each other. Call these *Hell Worlds*. The hell worlds W0 and W1 are *metaphysically nihilistic worlds*: these are worlds that include no concrete objects and so no God (abstract objects only).
It is true in the hell worlds W0 and W1 that concrete objects necessarily do not exist and so, it is true there that *necessarily God does not exist*. Since God exists in every world except W0 and W1, God is contingent. Nonetheless God explains everything there is to explain including himself. We have all of the following true.
1. *God is necessarily co-contingent*: God must exist in any world in which there are any contingent objects at all.
2. Why do contingent objects exist? In every world in which there are contingent objects, God creates every contingent object.
3. Why doesn’t God exist in every world? Any world in which God does not exist is a hell world. It is true in hell worlds that God necessarily does not exist.
4. It is possible that, necessarily, God does not exist, since hell worlds are possible worlds.
5. We can construct a model in which there are some concrete objects in hell worlds: these are concrete beings for whom God is inaccessible. For such beings, it is necessary that God does not exist.
6. The S4 models including hell worlds preserve the distinction between necessarily existing objects and contingent objects while having an explanation for every contingent object.
To continue the recent discussions of hell, let me ask the wise folks of PB for their collective wisdom.
I was reading a recent article by Wilko Van Holten entitled “Can the Traditional View of Hell be Defended? An Evaluation of Some Arguments for Eternal Punishment” in Anglican Theological Review–not a journal I normally read, but I figured “What the hell?” (Ok, no more bad puns in this post, I promise).
Rest below the fold: