God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Eleven
Horrendous Evils and the Problem of Hell:
Recently, discussion of the problem of evil has turned to more specific versions of the problem and, in some cases, to more specific kinds of solutions. Marilyn McCord Adams has challenged the assumption that the theodicy project must provide “global and generic answers” to the problem of evil, arguing instead that, in some instances, at least, the resources of a specific religious tradition must be marshaled to address the problem adequately. Adams argues that such resources are found in Christianity, the incarnation’s doctrines, and Christ’s passion. The need for nongeneric resources is especially apparent. Adams thinks, in the case of horrendous evils, which she defines as “evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.”
Evils qualify as horrendous when they are “so destructive of meaning within in individuals’ life that they seem to render the individual’s life, on the whole: not worth living. Adams lists some examples of such evils: “the rape of a woman and axing off of her arms, psycho-physical torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality, betrayed of one’s deepest loyalties, child abuse of the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, child pornography, parental incest, slow death by starvation, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas.”
Horrendous evils stretch traditional theodicies to their breaking point, Adam thinks because such theodicies rely so heavily on the “greater good” principle that we discussed. How could any evil that is so destructive of a person’s life possibly serve any good that is great enough to justify God’s allowance of it? Adams insists that any answer that appeals to “global goods”-for example, God actualizing the best of all possible worlds-will not do; only a solution in which the horrendous evil is “engulfed” and “defeated” in the life of the individual who suffers it will suffice. Evils are engulfed when the quantity of good vastly outweighs their quantity in a particular person’s life. In that same person’s life, evils are defeated in a person’s life when their existence is logically related to some greater good that the person experience. Such that the good could not have come about from the evil.
Adams does not explain precisely the kinds of individual experiences that would bring this about. It is a part of her view that God’s resources for defeating evil are beyond our compression or ability to even imagine-but thinks that it could only occur “by integrating participation in horrendous evils into a person’s relationship with God.” She suggests further that we find “possible dimensions of integration within Christian soteriology.” Most importantly, perhaps, is God’s act of identifying with human horrors in Christ’s voluntary submission to death on the cross: an event that invests all human suffering-no matter how horrendous, with significance and meaning.
It is clear that because many victims of horrendous evils die before such “engulfing” and “defeat” of evil are achieved in their lives, Adams’s theodicy requires the existence of an afterlife in which such things will come to completion. She contends that God must employ incredible divine ingenuity and resourcefulness to mend these broken souls in their postmortem existence. To mend them to the extent that these victims of horrendous evil, looking back on their “antemortem careers,” will not regret or wish away even their involvement with horrendous evil. More controversially, though, Adam’s Solution also requires a doctrine of universalism: the view that no one is eternally consigned to hell. It cannot be that anyone experiences eternal torment in hell, Adams thinks, for this would be a paradigmatic example of an undefeated horrendous evil. The requirement of universalism is, for many Christians, an unacceptable cost of Adams’s solution.
The doctrine that some (perhaps many) experiences in the afterlife, the “second death” of eternal separation from God-whether, involves annihilation or a state of conscious suffering without end-is a deeply ingrained part of traditional Christian teachings. It is considered one of the New Testament’s central themes and an integral part of the gospel message. They are abandoning the doctrine would have severe repercussions for other vital doctrines, including the doctrine of incarnation, salvation, and atonement. From what is one saved if not from hell? If there is no hell, why should the matter of accepting Christ be so important or so pressing? Most orthodox Christians have judged it more reasonable to retain the doctrine of hell and wrestle with its implications rather than not abandon it and try to answer a question such as these.
Yet, the traditional doctrine of hell presents enormous theological and philosophical difficulties—Hell is near, by the definition-the worst thing that any person could experience. If any evil could befall a person such that it would make one doubt whether that person’s life is, on the whole, a great good for him, it is undoubtedly the evil of being eternally consigned to hell. Thus, if hell is a genuine possibility, it constitutes the most serve version of the problem of horrendous evil. Moreover, suppose Adams is right that, in general, horrendous evils are the most difficult evils to reconcile with God’s goodness, then, for those who endorse it. In that case, the doctrine of hell constitutes the single most challenging version of the problem of evil.
Furthermore, endorsing the doctrine of hell prevents one from dealing with the problem of horrendous earthly evils in the way that Adams does. Suppose universalism is denied, and the traditional doctrine of hell is upheld. In that case, one needs an alternate theodicy to explain why God allows some people to suffer to the point that (it seems) it would have been better had they never been born. Thus, hell is both the paradigmatic horrendous evil and that which undercuts an otherwise promising solution to the problem of horrendous earthly evils.
The two problems are, it seems, reciprocally exacerbating. How can the orthodox theist meet these challenges? Two solutions that have been prominent in recent discussions are (1) the doctrine of annihilationism and (2) the mild hell doctrine. As the name suggests, the former is the view that God, in his mercy, annihilates those who make a final decision to reject him. Variations of the annihilationist view are possible. For example, one might hold that God annihilates the lost immediately (or soon after) their earthly deaths. Alternatively, one could hold that the lost are annihilated after suffering for some finite period in hell (perhaps as punishment for their sins). Also, God needs to be conceived as exerting some power to bring about the annihilation of a thing to cease sustaining it, for nothing possesses the power to sustain itself. The annihilation of the lost is viewed as mercy on God’s part. Because, presumably, the only alternative for one who is finally and irrevocably separated from God would be an eternity of conscious suffering.
Apart from the question of whether annihilationism is biblical, an issue that will be put aside for the present purpose-cities object that the view implies, that indeed remains finally undefeated in the world. At the very least, a person’s evil is being annihilated, but perhaps also any horrendous evils that person may have experienced before being annihilated. However, proponents of the view may respond that for all we know, such earthly horrendous evils may be defeated in other ways. And the evil of a person being annihilated could be defeated because it is necessary to avoid a worse evil (an eternity of conscious suffering). A second solution, the mild hell doctrine, is essentially a version of the free-will theodicy. It holds that hell is something freely chosen by its inhabitants (its human inhabitants, at least); rather than something to which God consigns the damned against their wills. The greater good served by hell is preserving human freedom: God respects each individual’s choice to reject him if the individuals so choose finally.
Once again, the view comes in various forms. Still, a prominent feature of most is that the damned prefer existence in hell to both annihilations and, surprisingly, even existence in heaven. The damned prefer hell to heaven because they have rejected all external authority, including their Creator, in their pride. Alternatively, they have acquired a wicked and vicious moral character that experiences the presence of a holy God as torturous (or both). C. S. Lewis expresses the view well he writes, in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”
Lewis elaborates elsewhere in The Problem of Pain: I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to go out of hell, vaguely wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy. But they certainly will not even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy the horrible freedom they have demanded and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become freer and freer through all eternity. In this view, not only are the damned sent to the hell of their own free choice, they remain in hell of their own free choice. Presumably, though, individuals could make a fully informed decision to reject heaven and embrace hell in the manner only if hell does not consist of a literal lake of fire or medieval-style torture chambers. These ideas have found their way into popular versions of the traditional doctrine of hell. (Mild hell thus stands opposed to the traditional view, sometimes termed “grim hell.”) Hell is a “place” where those who have rejected God are allowed to continue to exist (presumably, a good thing in itself) and where they want to be apart from God.
One might ask whether mild hell is hell in the traditional sense since it does not involve literal physical torture, constant burning, and so on. The answer depends on whether one takes an objective or subjective view of the people’s state in hell. Perhaps, from the subjective view of those in hell, who prefer to be there, hell may not seem too terrible from the point of view of those who enjoy true bliss in heaven, knowing God, and being part of the community of those who love God and the good. Those in hell’s fate are genuinely dreadful, one aptly symbolized by the biblical picture of hell as a place of torment. Moreover, those in heaven must have an accurate view of such matters. Part of the misery of hell may be that those in hell do not even realize how miserable their condition is because they have lost the capacity to appreciate genuine happiness. A main criticism of the mild-hell solution is that it places a high premium on human freedom, especially in light of human frailty and cognitive limitations.
The solution implicitly assumes that God’s relation to us is analogous to parents to their adolescent or adult children. That is, it assumes that we are capable, if we so choose, of making rational decisions informed by a whole (or at least adequate) understanding of the consequences of our actions. However, in other contexts, traditional theism assumes that our relation to God is more analogous to that of very young children to their parents. Compared with God’s minuscule and myriad confusions and conceptual distortions, our knowledge of the world likely impairs our understanding of the world. How can we then be entrusted to make a decision that carries such enormous and irrevocable consequences?
Critics allege that God doing such a thing would be morally equivalent to a parent who places a bowl of poisoned candy in the middle of a room for three years old, with a stern warning to the child not to eat the candy. The parent then leaves the room to allow the child to choose whether or not to obey. Marilyn Adams argues that, in this kind of scenario, if the child disobeys, thereby bringing about his death, then “indeed the child is at most marginally to blame even though it knew enough to obey the parent. At the same time, the parent is both primarily responsible and highly culpable. Adams concludes to justify God’s allowing creatures to make decisions that bring about their own final, irrevocable ruin. Adams thinks that human agency is a developmental trait shaped over time by many forces. Moreover, the agency of many individuals is stunted, impaired, or even rendered dysfunctional by factors beyond those individuals’ control (e g., traumatic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse).
In response, advocates of the mild-hell solution must insist that freedom is so important that it justifies God’s allowing even the most extreme of its misuses, namely, an agent’s final rejection of God and the consequent willingness of her damnation. Further, they must claim that many people specifically, all those whom God holds accountable for their choice to finally accept or reject him-possess all that is required for them to be responsible for such a choice: they know what they are doing, are not coerced, understand well enough the consequences of their actions, and so on Perhaps if they do not possess what is required for a responsible choice in this life, some kind of illumination beyond death may be given that makes possible a genuinely free choice.
In response to Adams’s point that many individuals’ agency is stunted or impaired by factors beyond their control, proponents of mild hell may argue that God takes such factors into account in assessing the responsibility-and final judgment of each individual. That points to a more general response that all proponents of the doctrine of hell may adopt. There is much that we do not know about hell in any detail-including its specific character and who will and will not be in it-so, we should be cautious in the specificity of the conclusions we draw. But since we know that God is a God of love and mercy as well as justice, we can be confident in the character of God. We should then outweigh our confidence in our theories about hell, especially concerning the details which God, in his wisdom, has chosen not to reveal to us in the Bible.