09 November 2006

A Debate Over Hell

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

Some religious doctrines are competitors in the absurdity sweepstakes. Among the contenders is the doctrine of the trinity, which asserts that there are three divine persons each of whom appears to have a separate mind and yet they are still one in some mysterious sense. However, the leader is probably the notion that God sends persons to hell or annihilates them. Hell is an eternity of suffering that God imposes on persons, usually because they are evil or didn’t believe in him.

Hell is just only if persons deserve an infinite punishment. But finite beings, like human beings, can’t deserve infinite punishments. We often think that a person deserves to be punished in a way that is proportional to his wrongdoing. For example, a thief doesn’t deserve ten years in prison for stealing Paris Hilton’s lunch. In general, human beings can’t do acts that are infinitely wrong because they can’t cause infinite harm to others. At most, via torture and killing they can cause significant but finite harm. They might cause infinite harm if they send or help to send a person to hell, but this creates a bootstrap problem since it requires that hell already exist. That is, God would need a reason independent of human desert to create hell.

Because God is invulnerable, he can be at most indirectly harmed. We normally don’t think that punishment is deserved for indirect harm. For example, we punish murderers and rapists for what they did to their victims, not for what they did to the victim’s families and friends. For example, a man who rapes a homeless teenager who lacks family and friends should be punished as severely as someone who rapes a mother of three or a CEO on whom shareholders depend.

The notion that failure to believe in God justifies an eternity in hell is silly. First, the evidence for God’s existence is anything but clear and it is cruel to punish persons for drawing reasonable conclusions from the evidence before them. Second, a person shouldn’t be punished merely for having false beliefs. The feminists can breathe easy on this one. Third, severely punishing persons for not believing in you is something we would expect of very insecure persons. That is, on this view of God he is remarkably similar to Donald Trump, minus the bad hair.

Even if persons deserve to suffer based on having an evil character rather than having done evil, this still doesn’t establish that anyone’s character is bad enough to deserve hell. Persons simply don’t have enough evil thoughts or thoughts of sufficient intensity to warrant infinite suffering. In fact, it’s an odd view to think that persons deserve to suffer for their thoughts. This is good news for the sea of persons who have meaningful lives but who regularly enjoy violent movies and internet porn. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “internet porn, mmm....”

In fact, it’s hard to see why God even has the right to punish others. We usually think that victims have a right to punish their victimizers and that the state gains this right because citizens contract it out to the state (that is, they outsource it). If this weren’t the case, then the state would be like a vigilante. In many cases, individuals haven’t transferred their right to punish to God. I haven’t done so and neither has the Rock.

Even annihilating persons is just plain mean-spirited. We normally think that if one individual can give a benefit to a second without any cost or inconvenience to himself and doesn’t do so, then he is rotten. For example, imagine I’m sitting at a train station with three Hostess cupcakes that I can’t eat because I’m allergic to the chocolate. I can give them to nearby starving children or throw them away. Even though the children don’t have a right to the cupcakes, there’s something wrong with me if I toss them. God can give people an eternal life of ecstasy as easy as I can give out the cupcakes. If you believe that he doesn’t do so, you don’t think much of him. Given his overreaction to not believing in him, this strikes as more dangerous than being near a Kennedy behind the wheel.

The notion of hell also has ridiculous implications. For example, if it were true, abortion and infanticide would be loving acts since they would guarantee that one’s infant doesn’t go to hell. Like going without insurance, this is not a risk that a loving parent would ever take.

In the end, the notion of hell and annihilation makes about as much sense as a meth-using gay preacher who spends his time fighting for traditional values.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 6, 2006

It’s popular to assume that the notion of hell can be dismissed as an implausible and morally perverse fantasy of hate-mongers. But by far the person most responsible for promoting the idea of Hell was Jesus, the most admired man in the history of the world, beloved far beyond the bounds of Christianity. This alone should give scoffers pause.

Consider the “logic” of hell. Suppose that God exists, and that he’ll eventually prevail, so that in contrast to the present, his will will be regularly done in all the earth. Suppose also that he wants people to freely cooperate with him. And add that he takes our freedom so seriously that he’ll allow us to permanently reject him. It follows that God needs some kind of “trash dump"--some place to put those who refuse his love--people for whom he no longer has any use.

Jesus calls the place were God sends his enemies “Gehenna,” which was in his day a smoldering trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Some current thinkers hold that hell is primarily a place of retribution, wherein the wicked get what they deserve. Others hold what they call a “natural consequence” model of hell, where people, given their moral character, are put in the only place suitable for them--a place away from the presence of God and God’s friends. Such people, on this view, simply couldn’t be happy in heaven.

Again, some current thinkers hold that hell is (as the majority tradition in Christianity holds) an infinitely long existence characterized by conscious suffering. In contrast, annihilationists (a minority view within Christianity) hold that either immediately after death, or after some finite period of suffering, God literally destroys the wicked, so that they no longer exist. On any of these options, hell is a permanent, undesirable sentence.

One may object that as we live finite lives, it’s impossible for us to deserve an infinite punishment (either infinitely long suffering or annihilation). This objection may look impressive, but on further reflection, we don’t know that we can’t accrue infinite guilt. Suppose a sexual predator kidnaps, rapes, and murders a fifteen year old young woman. From a human perspective, he causes massive but perhaps finite harm: his victim suffers pain, and then loses of the rest of her natural life. He also deprives her community and family of her presence and love. Now add God into the equation. He loves the victim more than her parents. Being omnipresent and all-knowing, he’s more vividly aware of a murderer’s dastardly acts than any human eyewitness could be, and what’s more, he can’t forget a single gruesome detail. Further, he knows in perfect detail exactly how much human potential was squandered that day--her “line” has been permanently cut off. She might, like Abraham, have been the ancestor of a unique “nation” or people-group, some important “branch” on the tree of humanity--a branch continuing into the infinite future. How long does God bear these “scars”? Infinitely long. Endless suffering or annihilation start to look fair rather than excessive.

But, you may object, didn’t this kind murderer do his victim the service of sending her straight to heaven? In reply, he may have sent her there, but in so doing he prematurely took her from this realm of choice. She’d prefer the risk of hell to having her autonomy cut so short. We all would. That’s why it’s asinine to suggest that belief in heaven and hell legitimizes any homicide whatsoever. (“Just sending ‘em to heaven, Lord!”)

How could God send people to hell simply for not believing in him? He doesn’t. Rather, he sends them there because they deserve it, and/or because he doesn’t want to annihilate them but there’s nowhere else to put them. Would a hell-threatening God be insecure? Hardly--he takes the extreme risk of making people with the freedom to accept or reject him, and takes the latter seriously enough to let them have what they’ve chosen--a head-on collision with an omnipotent and just judge.

In sum, the question to ask isn’t “How could God send anyone to hell?” Rather, each should ask: “Why shouldn’t God send me there, what with my plethora of evil and destructive habits, my systematic rejection of God’s advances, and my ungrateful squandering of billions of his blessings, big and small?” Can I rule out that I’ve inflicted infinite losses on God many times over? If not, what can I do to avoid hell? I’d recommend consulting Jesus on that one.


The Objectivist said...

Note that an infinitely unjust act and an act that causes an infinite amount of bad are not the same.

A person might be only finite blameworthy for an act that causes infinite harm if it prevents the existence of an infinite number of persons.

This might happen, for example, if a pharmicist diluted a woman's medicine as a way to steal a little money and ended up killing the woman and her infinite number of descendants. It is not clear, however, that he would warrant an eternity in hell.

The Objectivist said...

Note also that in killing infants we guarantee they go to heaven and don't affect their preferences since they don't yet have a preference to be autonomous on earth.

Since they end up being autonomous in heaven,it's not even clear we cut short the duration of time in which they are autonomous (which is infinite in any case).

David Schraub said...

The theist also doesn't hit the argument that the harms to God (if that is conceptually coherent) are indirect and thus not really deserving of punishment (or at least, not infinite punishment). Also, on the "take away autonomy" point, most deaths (whether violently imposed or not) are not autonomous choices--indeed, the only ones that aren't are suicides, which are generally considered sinful. So that's not a unique point.

Finally, I don't give God points for taking the "extreme risk" (wtf?) of letting people reject them, especially when He can rest assured that anyone who makes that choice will be tortured for all eternity. It isn't even clear why that's risky, and in anyevent the backstop of eternal hellfire negates any props I'd give regardless. The objectivist is clearly getting the better of that argument--that is insecure (and belies the view that God is a "just judge"--which, by the way, is not something we can presuppose biblically I don't think--Abraham arguing with God, the 10th Plague, all the other plagues where God hardens Pharoahs heart, and the entire Book of Job make that an assumption that simply cannot be fiated).

The Objectivist said...

Dear Mr. Schraub:

I like your points. I don't see how the preference for autonomy works with regard to sending persons to hell. We often think that we should override someone's preferences when they are blatantly irrational. For example, we might prevent a person from driving over a washed out bridge if he refuses to listen to warnings about the bridge.

Even if we shouldn't override it, we make decisions when individuals don't yet have autonomous preferences. This might occur, for example, when they are children or if they are unconscious as a result of a car accident.

At the very least, the presence of hell doesn't seem to warrant killing fetuses and infants out of love.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Mr. Schraub:

I like your second point. God doesn't take a risk with himself since he is invulnerable.

With regard to believers, he takes very little risk since they are guaranteed an eternity of ecstatic life and this is not a bad future.

Only with regard to non-believers does God take a risk on agent's free action. However, they deserve hell, so it's hard to see what the risk is.

In any case, if theists were to admit that hell is as wonderful as heaven (except for friendship with God), this line of attack would be defused.

The Constructivist said...

Somehow hell has gone from a "sobering possibility" in The Theist's title and the "what ifs" and "just supposes" that everywhere are signals to suspend disbelief at the beginning of his essay to the wisdom, indeed necessity, of consulting Jesus on how to avoid going to hell, by the end. What better proof that hell and God are stories we make sacred through our faith in them can there be?

The Constructivist said...

Baudrillard in an interview from the '80s suggested the Manicheans and Nietzsche started a much more interesting debate--and rhetorical/metaphysical strategy--than pro- and anti-theism. He writes:

Nietzsche is not in the least an ordinary "atheist". He is not committed to the denial of the existence of God as an ordinary atheist would be. He is actually denying not that God exists but that God is alive.... [He] challenges the existence of God by issuing a challenge to God. It is just as uninteresting to say "God does not exist" as to say "God exists". The problematic for Nietzsche is completely different. He is challenging the "liveliness", the being, of God. In other words, he is seducing God. (from "The Evil Demon of Images," an interview in Baudrillard Live [Routledge, 1993])

Philosophically interesting to those in the Anglo-American tradition or more French b.s.?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:
Good point about the transition from the possibility of hell to the claim that hell is actual. I think the theist's argument is that sending atheists/sinners to hell is deserved and God must give persons what they deserve. I'm not sure how this fits with God's mercy and forgiveness.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:
I don't see Nietzche's point. It's not clear why it's more interesting to deny God's being alive than his ever existing. Also, it seems that he misidentified the issue since if God exists then he exists necessarily (at all times and under all possible scenarios). Hence, it's hard to see how Nietzche's thesis is plausible.