3) “The free will theist’s understanding of hell is, in any case, utterly inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about hell” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 171).
God does not damn, we damn ourselves; God does not cease to love and tender his unconditional forgiveness, we reject his forgiveness and alienate ourselves from his eternal fellowship; God does not inflict eternal suffering, we bring this suffering upon ourselves through our obdurate impenitence. This is the critical contention of what has become the dominant understanding of eternal perdition in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. It is known as the free will defense of hell and was popularized in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce (for a succinct presentation of the basic models of damnation see Thomas Talbott, “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought“). It is difficult to know when to date the initial appearance of the free will model in Christian reflection. Nicholas Loudovikos names St Maximus the Confessor and St John of Damascus as proponents of this model, perhaps even St Irenaeus of Lyons; but further documentation and analysis is needed.
Thomas Talbott suggests that the free will theodicy of hell is inconsistent with the New Testament’s terrifying imagery of Gehenna in two ways:
First, the biblical imagery argues against the suggestion that eternal perdition is a freely-embraced condition. Eschatological condemnation is typically presented as a judgment by God of sinful deeds, and for some, this judgment will come as a complete surprise: “‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? (Matt 25:37-38). Yet if the judgment comes as a surprise, then it can hardly be described as an outcome chosen and accepted by the condemned. Moreover, Gehenna is presented as a place of intolerable suffering and anguish: “The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 13:41-42)—not a condition one might freely and irrevocably choose. Equally clearly, the rich man in Jesus’ parable hardly displays a preference for his condition. He begs Father Abraham to warn his five brothers, lest they too find themselves in that “place of torment” (Lk 16:19-31). One might argue that the rich man had fair warning of the consequences of his neglect of the poor and homeless, but having now experienced those consequences, he is desirous of being delivered from them. His attitude may not count as genuine repentance—not yet—but perhaps, like Ebenezer Scrooge, he would avail himself of a second chance, if given the opportunity. “Indeed,” writes Talbott, “insofar as the whole point of the New Testament imagery is to provide a warning and a motive for repentance in the present, it makes little sense to suggest that some people might prefer a hellish condition over a heavenly one” (p. 182).
Second, whereas Scripture presents Gehenna as a place of intolerable suffering, the advocates of the free will model often seek to minimize the suffering of the damned. That they do so is understandable, for the more intense the suffering, the more incomprehensible the eternal rejection of God becomes. Philosopher Jerry Walls, for example, speculates that “those in hell may be almost happy, and this may explain why they insist on staying there. They do not, of course, experience even a shred of genuine happiness. But perhaps they experience a certain perverse sense of satisfaction, a distorted sort of pleasure” (Hell: The Logic of Damnation, p. 126).
Walls’s suggestion strikes me as initially plausible. I imagine that we have all experienced this kind of degenerate self-satisfaction. Talbott rightly notes, however, that the biblical image of torment excludes all such pleasure. Perhaps the Lucifer of John Milton’s imagination initially thought he would find the experience of ruling hell superior to service in heaven, yet as the poem unfolds, his despair grows and intensifies:
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
Does Lucifer come close to repentance? Milton cannot entertain this possibility, given the received doctrine of the eternality of damnation.
Walls acknowledges that the “happiness” of hell is ultimately based on self-deception. The damned have convinced themselves that their infernal satisfactions must be greater than whatever joys heaven offers. “They must take some corrupt pleasure,” he reflects, “in choosing evil because it is evil. Perhaps such a choice represents the epitome of self-assertion and independence from moral norms. Maybe it gives an illusion of complete autonomy that no other sort of choice does. It is admittedly hard to conceive of such a choice, but if real perversity is an option for free persons, it must be possible to see some advantage in choosing evil because it is evil” (p. 129). But is it really possible to choose evil because it is evil? I am reminded of this passage from Herbert McCabe:
To do good is to choose the highest good; but to fail to do this, to sin, is not to choose evil. Nobody chooses evil, it cannot be done. When we sin what we do is choose some trivial good at the expense of God’s friendship. Sin is sin not because of the thing we positively choose: the human satisfaction, the pleasure or the power. It is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we sacrifice for the sake of a minor good. Sin is sin because we have opted not to grow up to our flourishing, our happiness which is life in God’s love and friendship. (God Still Matters, p. 185)
In his pride and egoism, Milton’s Lucifer thought he could choose evil for the sake of evil (“All good to me is lost;/Evil, be thou my Good”); but this declared intent only reflects the depth of his delusion. What happens when all creaturely goods are withdrawn from the damned and they find themselves deprived of all sources of pleasure, including the pleasure of tormenting others? What happens when they are abandoned to the outer darkness in the anguish that must inevitably deepen and intensify? Here is the fatal vulnerability of Walls’s position, however we understand the psychology of demonic beings. He acknowledges that it is not within the power of human beings “to endure ever-increasing misery. We do not have the constitutional strength or capacity to absorb ever greater amounts of torment” (Walls, p. 133). As the CIA operative in Zero, Dark Thirty says when he is torturing a detainee: “In the end, everyone breaks. It’s biology.” So why do the damned not break? Because God will not allow their suffering to reach the critical point. “To be sure,” Walls explains, “if God added such pressure, the person would be forced to see that sin causes misery and would find it impossible not to submit to the pressure. But the choice to submit under these circumstances would not qualify as a free choice” (p. 132).
In other words, the Arminian God steps in to prevent the person from achieving salvific insight, and he does so out of ostensible respect for the libertarian integrity of the person. Like the lawyer who always walks through the door just at the moment when his client is about to buckle under the pressure of police interrogation and confess his crime, so God intervenes to protect the damned from the full consequences of their sin, thereby interrupting the process of illusion-demolition and thus allowing them to do irreparable harm to themselves and to all who love them. How is this authentic respect for freedom? How is this love? A.A. insists that every alcoholic must hit bottom before he will be ready to begin the road to recovery, yet apparently Walls envisions God as inhibiting the downward disintegrating spiral precisely to prevent the sinner from ever reaching his bottom. At this point the moral and theological power of the universalist position becomes evident:
We can appreciate, of course, why many free will theists would reject the barbaric picture of an eternal torture chamber in which no repentance and no escape from unbearable suffering is even possible. For an eternity of such suffering would seem utterly pointless, and a “god” who would actually inflict such suffering on someone forever would be unspeakably barbaric, even demonic. But here, I would suggest, the universalists are in a far better position to accept the images and language of the New Testament than are the Arminians and other free will theists. For the universalists can regard the misery of hell as both an inevitable consequence of sin and as a means of correction for it; that is, precisely because they reject the idea of a freely embraced condition, they have no need to water down the New Testament image of unbearable suffering. (Talbott, p. 183)
Might it just be possible that Gehenna is God’s last resort to reconcile humanity to himself?