At the age of 65 actor George Sanders committed suicide. He left the following note:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
Perhaps, as life takes its toll upon us, we may begin to think that our eternal destiny and the possibility of perdition does not matter. Let’s just get life over with. The monotony, the pain, the failures, the losses and tragedies, the indignities of aging, disease and the breakdown of the body—it’s just all unbearable. My family and friends will understand. They’ll quickly forget me and move on with their lives. But of course this is nonsense. My tragedy becomes the tragedy of all who love me.
If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, the eternal torment of the damned will cause a profound problem for anyone who loves them. If I choose eternal separation from God, then not only have I done irreparable harm to myself, but I will have brought terrible suffering into the lives of all who love me.
In my preceding article, “Hell and the Solidarity of Love,” I briefly summarized Thomas Talbott’s argument that the traditional Christian doctrine of hell is incompatible with the gospel assertion that God wills our supremely worthwhile happiness. We cannot enjoy the first and best form of eschatological bliss if we know and love one or more of the lost. John Kronen and Eric Reitan have formulated the argument in syllogistic form in their book God’s Final Victory. They title it the Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed:
1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.
2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.
3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).
4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.
5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).
6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.
7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6). (p. 80)
The first premise is no doubt the most important. Surely all Christians can agree that God intends human beings to enjoy in heaven (substitute “kingdom,” if you prefer) the most supreme and worthwhile form of joy in an eternal communion of love and holiness. All of the saved will, by grace, come to share in God’s universal love for humanity, including the condemned. As K & R note, “The prevailing Christian interpretation of divine love is that it is unconditional, encompassing even the damned” (p. 81). The blessed will love not only each other but also the reprobate, just as God does. Neither second-best happiness nor defective charity makes the grade. The optimal eschatological condition will include “(a) perfect bliss—that is, happiness that is the best kind of happiness a person can know, untainted by any dissatisfaction; and (b) moral sanctification, including being perfected in love such that the saved love as God does” (p. 81).
Perhaps the second premise is the most controversial: assuming that the redeemed share in God’s universal love for humanity, then their eschatological happiness will be diminished if they know that one or more of their fellow human beings are enduring eternal misery. “If we love someone,” K & R ask, “how could knowledge of their eternal damnation not diminish our happiness?” (p. 81). This will be true even if the condition of perdition is freely chosen. Damnation is, after all, not just a tragic outcome for a human being; it is the ultimate tragedy, the worst possible conclusion of human existence.
Kronen and Reitan have advanced Talbott’s argument beyond the love of loved ones (parent for child, lover for beloved, friend for friend) to reflect the universal intention and character of the divine charity. The blessed have been perfected in love. “The degree to which they love the damned will exceed the degree to which we love even our dearest and closest friends” (p. 83). There are no strangers. No matter how evil and corrupt, no matter how possessed of hatred for God and the company of heaven, the reprobate remain persons made in the image of God and therefore remain objects of love and concern both for God and the redeemed. The blessed cannot be indifferent to the awful plight of those who inhabit hell, precisely because they love as God loves. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:33-35).
One might imagine someone setting aside the distress caused by the torment of another if he knew that the torment was temporary; but it is quite another thing to envision that same person remaining supremely happy if he knows that the torment being suffered by the other is interminable and irredeemable. K & R elaborate:
There is a difference between temporary and permanent bad states. Perhaps it is possible for happiness to be undiminished by the former—especially if there is an assurance that the bad state will be redeemed. However, it is something else again to suppose that happiness can be undiminished by the latter, especially if there is no hope of redemption. In the former case, the intentional object of one’s happiness might be the final state that is ultimately realized. Insofar as this state is worthy of unmitigated approval, supreme happiness might be fitting given even passing evils. What is not compatible with supreme happiness is permanent and ultimate tragedy–for in that case the final state is not one towards which an unmitigated positive judgment is fitting. (p. 84)
But didn’t Jesus declare, “If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26)? I can understand Jesus calling his disciples to rightly prioritize loves and loyalties, to abandon all forms of egotistical affection and put service to him and to his Father above all other considerations; but is our Lord actually asking us to renounce our love for family and friends? I remember preaching on this text twenty-five years ago in Highland, Maryland. A distressed mother came up to me afterwards and asked, “Is Jesus telling me that I must stop loving my husband and children?” The young preacher began to hem and haw.