Through Christ Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, God the Father will perfect in love all who come to him in faith and repentance. Because they will then love the enemies of God as God loves his enemies, their happiness and joy will be necessarily diminished because of their knowledge that the damned suffer eternally and hopelessly. Because the Father wills the supreme and best form of happiness for the redeemed, he will therefore save all. This, in capsule, is the Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed, advanced by John Kronen and Eric Reitan in their book God’s Final Victory.
In response to this argument, William Lane Craig has conjectured that God will keep the blessed ignorant of the sufferings of the damned, perhaps going so far as to alter their memories of their loved ones who dwell in hell. I confess that when I first read about Craig’s proposal I immediately rejected it as a silliness incompatible with the God who is Truth. The Father of Jesus Christ would never build his kingdom on a lie. Even assuming that the blessed forever remained in their state of amnesia, they still would not be enjoying perfect happiness, as Kronen and Reitan explain:
However, can we truly say that they are eternally blessed if they are erroneously happy—eternally living a life of bliss that they would judge inappropriate if they knew the truth? If you are joyously celebrating your child’s college graduation, the truth that your child has actually failed college—even if you are unaware of it—renders the celebration a kind of farce. Craig, in effect, asks us to imagine God presiding over an eternal farce. He asks us to believe that this farcical celebration has the same worth as one that responds to a truth worth celebrating—a highly implausible view. (p. 86)
Not only implausible, I would add, but ridiculous.
But perhaps there’s another way to think of the blessed as enjoying perfect happiness, despite their knowledge of the torment of the damned. Let’s go back to the story of the Tragedian and his wife in The Great Divorce. Recall how the Tragedian disappears from the scene:
“Where is Frank,” she said. “And who are you, Sir. I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”
“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place … Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:
“The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.” (chap. 13)
In “Hell and the Solidarity of Love” I suggested that the Tragedian’s disappearance expresses Lewis’s belief that the damned lose their personhood and, in essence, become their sin. Consider this exchange between the narrator and his guide:
“I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She’s isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”
“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.”
“I should have thought there was no doubt about that!”
“Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
“But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?”
“The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (chap. IX)
Once a person becomes his sin, Lewis suggests, he ceases to be an object of love and pity, for there is no person there to love and pity. There are only remains, detritus. This, I think, is how Lewis wishes us to understand the indifference of the Lady. But another reading of her indifference is possible and perhaps equally plausible: because the Lady is experiencing the bliss of the kingdom, she has become oblivious to the torment of the damned. They are no longer her concern. As long as there was a chance for her husband to repent, she was eager to summon him to repentance and welcome him into heaven. But once he makes his irrevocable decision to remain in his sin, to become and be his sin, he becomes invisible to her sight. The glory and ecstasy of the beatific vision effectively engulfs her awareness of his infernal sufferings. As Craig puts it, “The experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell.” The fate of the reprobate is unfortunate, terribly unfortunate indeed, but the ascent up the mountain is so satisfying and the vision of God so consuming that attention to anything else is rendered moot.
I suspect that this is how most Christians who confess a traditional notion of hell think about the problem of the suffering of the damned. That is certainly how I thought about it, if I ever thought about it at all. We all know what it is like to become so absorbed in a movie or concert or book that we lose touch with the rest of the world. For those brief moments, it’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist.
I am reminded, though, of the Star Trek episode “Cloud Minders.” The intellectuals and artists live in the beautiful cloud city of Stratos. They rarely give any mind to the rest of the population who toil below on the planet. The situation, of course, is not strictly analogous, as the Stratosians are also exploiting the Troglytes who mine the precious Zenite that supports the privileged life of the city dwellers. Yet like the blessed in heaven, they do not attend to the sufferings of those below. Their happiness has limited both their consciousness and compassion.
As soon as the matter is drawn as sharply as this, we intuitively recognize that the blessed can never be indifferent to the torment of the lost. That would imply that theosis had effectively diminished their capacity for love, compassion, and pity, not enhanced it. As Thomas Talbott writes:
It is possible that the beatific vision will drive all knowledge of the lost from the consciousness of the redeemed (without obliterating it altogether) only if it is possible that the beatific vision will make the redeemed less loving and thus more calloused. But it is not possible that the beatific vision should undermine supremely worthwhile happiness, and neither, therefore, is it possible that such a vision should make someone less loving or more calloused. It is not possible, therefore, that the beatific vision will drive all knowledge of the lost from the consciousness of the redeemed. (“Craig on the Possibility of Eternal Salvation“)
But perhaps the infernalists have a counter-argument: if the blessed love as God loves, may this not imply that we share, in a creaturely way, in the divine impassibility? Of course, it might be helpful to first know what “divine impassibility” means. Thomas Weinandy offers the following explanation:
Negatively, God is immutable in the sense that He does not change as do creatures, but He does not change for positive reasons as well. God’s immutability radically affirms and profoundly intensifies the absolute perfection and utter goodness of God, who, as Creator, is the one who truly lives and exists. Because God’s love is unchangeably perfect and so cannot diminish, He is then the eternally living God who is unreservedly dynamic in His goodness, love, and perfection. Similarly, while the divine attribute of impassibility primarily tells us what God is not, it does so for entirely positive reasons. God is impassible in that He does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states, nor can the created order alter Him in such a way so as to cause Him to suffer any modification or loss. Nor is God the possessor of negative and sinful passions as are human beings, with their susceptibility to fear, anxiety, dread, greed, lust, or unjust anger. For the Fathers, to deny that God is passible is to deny of Him all such passions that would debilitate or cripple Him as God. Almost all the early Fathers attributed impassibility to God in order to safeguard and enhance His utterly passionate love and all-consuming goodness, that is, the divine fervor and zealous resolve with which He pursues the well-being of His cherished people. Origen, for example, while ardently upholding God’s impassibility, can equally speak of His “passion of love” for fallen humankind. Even God’s anger was not conceived by the Fathers as a separate passion or intermittent emotional state within Himself, but as constitutive of His unchanging perfect goodness and providential care in the face of sin and evil. (“Does God Suffer?“)
Divine impassibility has been vigorously discussed and debated throughout the modern period, and the literature is vast. Many (including K & R) find the doctrine flawed, given the biblical portrayal of a living, acting, and feeling God. I am not presently inclined to dispute the classical doctrine, however, as it seems to me that its principal function is to maintain the clear distinction between Creator and creature and to prevent the inappropriate projection of creaturely characteristics upon the deity. For purposes of our discussion I will simply affirm the divine impassibility. God is the fullness of being and love. He does not act out of insufficiency or need. The joy and happiness shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not lessened by the pain and sufferings of his creatures. At no point can God ever be held hostage to the sin and misery of his creatures. Nor should divine impassibility be seen as in any way compromising the love of God and his commitment to bring his creatures into the life of his kingdom. “God is absolutely impassible,” Weinandy writes, “because He is absolutely passionate in His love.”
Okay, now what? Do the blessed share in the impassibility of God, and if so, in what sense? I do not know how to proceed forward at this point. Kronen and Reitan touch on this question only briefly. Focusing on just one aspect of divine impassibility, let’s assume that God does not have emotions (the authors call this the doctrine of impassivity). Does this mean that through their resurrection in Christ by the Spirit human beings also become impassive and emotionless? K & R are worried by this suggestion:
Our emotional responsiveness—the fact that we are angered by wickedness and grieved by suffering—seems essential to our human nature. While it may be a flaw that we have emotional responses unfitting to the circumstances, this is overcome by rendering our emotions more fitting, not by their elimination. If we cease to feel fear in the state of blessedness, it is because fear does not fit with the security that fellowship with God involves. However, would we have attained blessedness if we did not feel safe in God’s bosom, because we had stopped having feelings altogether? While this might qualify as blessedness for, say, Vulcans, it does not sound like human blessedness. (p. 82)
If we attribute impassivity to the redeemed, state K & R, then “eternal blessedness ceases to be the perfection of our human nature (as Christians have historically believed), and becomes instead the swapping out of our human nature for something else” (pp. 82-83). Would Orthodoxy, with its maximal understanding of theosis (though some Eastern construals are more maximal than others), disagree?
Perhaps part of our problem of thinking of the redeemed as having emotions is that in this life emotions can be so erratic and irrational. We forget that they express judgments:
Emotions clearly have a cognitive dimension, even if we do not take emotions as nothing but a species of judgment. … Emotions are about something—that is, they have an intentional object, and they involve an evaluation of their object. The intentional object of happiness is the state in which one finds oneself, and the evaluation involved is a positive one. Persons who are happy approve of the state in which they find themselves, and are more or less happy depending on how much they approve and how unmixed their approval is with elements of disapproval. Of course, different people have broader or narrower conceptions of what constitutes their ‘state’, depending on how broadly they incorporate the good of others. However, those who are universally loving would identify with all persons, and so would be supremely happy only if they approved of the state of condition of all. Barring the Thomistic argument [that the blessed rejoice in the punishment of the reprobate] …, it seems that anyone possessing perfect love would not approve of a state in which some of God’s beloved creatures are eternally damned. (p. 82)
However we understand the emotional state of the saints in heaven, it does make sense to think of them as being able to assess their condition and express their approval or disapproval. If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, will they be disappointed that the lost are not sharing in the joy of the kingdom? If so, this would imply that the blessed are compelled to accept the second-best form of supreme happiness. Maybe that’s just the way of things.
Yet let’s not forget one important point: damnation is the ultimate tragedy for a human being, a catastrophe of infinite proportions. We cannot wave the impassibility wand and make the question posed earlier in the authors’ discussion disappear: “If we love someone, how could knowledge of their eternal damnation not diminish our happiness?” (p. 81). And the more we personalize the question, the more compelling it becomes. Those who truly love another cannot imagine an eternity without them. Those who truly love another, who have made the good of the other their own good, must surely experience the eternal damnation of that other as intolerable. At least that is the intuition shared by Talbott, Kronen, Reitan, and myself. Yes, the loves and desires that we experience in this life are disordered and twisted; but let’s not go so far as to also deny their goodness and truth. We do not exist as monads. We discover and form our personal identities in community, hopefully a community of love. And the more we truly love, the more important the needs of the other become to us. The other becomes constitutive of our being—not in a pathological way but in the mode of personal communion. If we think of salvation in purely individualistic terms, perhaps we may entertain the possibility that we will able to achieve in heaven a dispassionate detachment from the sufferings of the lost. And if that still sounds too abstract, then let’s make it as personal as we can. Who do you love? Can you envision yourself blithely accepting their everlasting torment?
The strength of Kronen & Reitan’s Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed is that it accords with the intuition that the saints, because of their purification, transformation, and sanctification by the Spirit, will feel more, not less. Emotion is purified, healed, re-ordered, transfigured, not obliterated. Does this not result in the problem of emotional blackmail described in The Great Divorce? No, replies the universalist. He believes that the sufferings of hell, as terrible as they are—and precisely because they are as terrible as they are—will ultimately shatter all illusions of the damned and convert them to God. The universalist is therefore free to entertain the temporary diminishment of the happiness of the blessed.
The infernalist, on the other hand, believing that hell is an eternal, everlasting reality, must insist on the immunity of the blessed to all suffering, pain, distress, dissatisfaction. God wills that the saints enjoy supreme and perfect happiness in his trinitarian life. One way or another, therefore, he will see to it that the blessed transcend the torments of the lost. The misery of the damned cannot be allowed to corrupt the joy of heaven. The infernalist is correct to insist that all natural affection and love must be crucified in Christ and raised into new and glorified existence. As Lewis writes, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried” (chap. XI). Here is the hard ascetical word that perhaps Thomas Talbott and his supporters need to hear.