“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I know this declaration makes great drama; and I know that ever since Milton composed Paradise Lost we cannot but think of Lucifer’s fall from grace as anything but a prideful, almost heroic, assertion of personal autonomy. But Paradise Lost is fiction. In fact, we know very little from the biblical revelation about the nature of angelic beings or of their experiences and temptations, and we know even less about Lucifer’s motivations for rebelling against God. Angels are not human beings, and it would be a mistake for us to pretend that we understand them.
But what if a human being were to speak Lucifer’s words? Would they make sense to us? Yes, of course. We can well imagine Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Khan Noonien Singh choosing to rule in a kingdom of their own. We can imagine them doing so because not only do we know all too well the kinds of people who like to wield power but we know within ourselves the desire for power and autonomy.
But do the words really make sense? Let’s assume that our wannabe Satan is given a clear, unambiguous, and comprehensive vision of God’s infinite love and goodness and of the painful consequences of rebellion and alienation. He is then asked to make a definitive, irrevocable decision. Can we imagine a rational, psychologically healthy human being freely choosing eternal damnation? Thomas Talbott thinks we cannot, if we analyze this question sufficiently. We can certainly imagine someone making such a decision, but we cannot imagine him doing so freely, reasonably, soberly, judiciously.
In his various writings Talbott proposes several necessary conditions for rational freedom:
The person must qualify as a rational agent. This includes possessing “an ability to learn from experience, an ability to discern reasons for acting, and a capacity for moral improvement” (“Universalism,” p. 452). Those who lack the minimum degree of rationality, such as small children, severely brain-damaged individuals, paranoid schizophrenics, and so forth, do not qualify as free moral agents and are thus incapable of making a rational and mature decision on a matter of such momentous significance.
2) Sufficient information
The person must be fully informed. He needs to know who his Creator is. He needs to know that his Creator genuinely wills his good and happiness. He needs to know that God created him for glorious and joyful communion in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. And he needs to know the consequences of separation from his Creator, that apart from him he will only experience unbearable misery, despair, and loneliness. In other words, he needs enough information to avoid buyer’s remorse.
3) Freedom from deception
Obviously we are not concerned here by any deception on God’s part. He speaks only truth and is the truth. But it is certainly possibly for human beings to be deceived by others or by themselves. “C’mon in, the water’s fine,” my best friend yells, inwardly delighting in the shock I am about to experience. “Go ahead, eat the apple,” the serpent whispers. “It won’t kill you.” Our rational freedom is diminished to the degree that we make choices under conditions of deception.
The most powerful and destructive deceptions are the ones we inculcate within ourselves. Let’s call them delusions. If I truly believe that I can fly like Superman, my decision to jump off the building is not free—I have acted under a delusion. If I believe that I contain within myself all meaning and power, then my decision to reject God and rule in hell is not free—I have acted under a delusion.
4) Freedom from exterior and interior compulsion
If a terrorist takes my family hostage and then instructs me to commit a crime, which I then proceed to do, is my action free? I think we would all agree that it is not. I will have acted under duress. If an evil scientist uses a new technology to take control of my body and compels me to steal a million dollars from the local bank, are my actions free? Of course not. The scientist causally determine my actions. I was but a helpless pawn.
Disordered desires and interior compulsions likewise diminish our freedom. I may recognize that continued drinking is destructive to my well-being, to the happiness of my family, and to my work performance; but given the addiction I may not have sufficient will-power to stop my drinking once and for all. My psychological and physical need for alcohol is too great. Addictions and interior compulsions reduce and limit our personal liberty.
We now return to our wannabe Satan. Is it coherent to describe his rejection of God and the embrace of eternal perdition as a freely made decision? What rational motive would he have to deliver himself into everlasting torment and misery? Talbott elaborates:
Let us distinguish between two senses in which a person might reject God. If a person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does not rest upon ignorance or misinformation or deception of any kind, then let us say that the person has made a fully informed decision to reject God; but if the person refuses to be reconciled to God and the person’s refusal does rest upon ignorance or deception of some kind, then let us say that the person has made a less than fully informed decision to reject God. Now no one, I take it, would deny the possibility of someone’s making a less than fully informed decision to reject God; it happens all the time. … But what might qualify as a motive for someone’s making a fully informed decision to reject God? Once one has learned, perhaps through bitter experience, that evil is always destructive, always contrary to one’s own interest as well as to the interest of others, and once one sees clearly that God is the ultimate source of human happiness and that rebellion can bring only greater and greater misery into one’s own life as well as into the lives of others, an intelligible motive for such rebellion no longer seems even possible. The strongest conceivable motive would seem to exist, moreover, for uniting with God. So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then that person … would seem to display the kind of irrationality which is itself incompatible with free choice. …
Far from illustrating a fully informed decision to reject God, then, Milton’s Satan in fact illustrates the essential role that ignorance, deception, and bondage to unhealthy desires must play in any intelligible decision to reject God. But ignorance, deception, and bondage to unhealthy desires are also obstacles to free choice of the relevant kind. If I am ignorant of, or deceived about, the true consequences of my choices, then I am in no position to embrace those consequences freely. Similarly, if I suffer from an illusion that conceals from me the true nature of God, or the true import of union with God, then I am again in no position to reject God freely. I may reject a caricature of God, or a false conception, but I could hardly reject the true God himself. Accordingly, the very conditions that render a less than fully informed decision to reject God intelligible also render it less than fully free; hence, God should be able to remove these conditions over time – remove the ignorance, the illusions, the bondage to unhealthy desires – without in any way interfering with human freedom. (The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 186-187)
“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”—as I said, it makes great drama. But does it make rational sense?