If damnation is a matter of self-exclusion from the kingdom of Christ rather than retributive punishment for unrepented sins, and if we are truly given optimal grace to choose the joy of heaven over the misery of hell, why would anyone choose hell? The burden of providing a convincing answer to this question drives Jerry Walls’s reflections on eternal perdition in his book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.
Early in the first chapter on heaven, Walls quotes the great English preacher John Wesley:
Do you not still wander to and fro, seeking rest, but finding none? Pursuing happiness, but never overtaking it? And who can blame you for pursuing it? It is the very end of your being. The great Creator made nothing to be miserable, but every creature to be happy in its kind. (p. 21)
Every human being desires happiness, strives for happiness, and cannot help but want to be happy. Eternal communion with the Holy Trinity is the fulfillment of this fundamental desire, yet if the doctrine of eternal perdition is true, some, many, or even most human beings will definitively choose separation from God rather than the supreme happiness that is his infinite life. How can this be? Does it make sense?
Walls turns to fellow philosopher Thomas Talbott as his principal dialogue partner. As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy may recall, Talbott believes that the claim that a fully informed person might rationally choose eternal misery over eternal happiness is incoherent (see “Rational Freedom” and “Rejecting the Good“). We can easily imagine people choosing lesser goods in the mistaken belief that these goods will bring them true and lasting happiness. People do it every day. But eventually reality must disprove all such mistaken beliefs and shatter all illusions. Nothing less than the Supreme Good for which we were made can satisfy our deepest needs and desires, whereas rejection of this Good can only bring us inanition and torment. How can the damned avoid finding themselves with the prodigal son in the pigpen, overwhelmed with regret for their past foolishness? Regret may not yet be genuine repentance, but it may be a start toward it. Walls summarizes Talbott’s position as follows:
The heart of [Talbott’s] case is that there simply is no intelligible motive for anyone to choose eternal hell. So the idea that persons might freely choose to remain in hell forever is utterly incoherent. It makes no sense at all if carefully examined.
Now this does not mean that we cannot choose evil in the short run, for obviously we can. But Talbott thinks there is a fundamental difference between choosing evil in the short run and doing so forever. We can choose evil in the short run under the illusion that it will make us happy. The prodigal son in Jesus’s parable, for instance, might serve as an example of this. He enjoyed his sinful lifestyle for a while.
However, the inevitable result of choosing evil is that it will make us miserable. The illusion that sin can make us happy will eventually be shattered, as it was for the prodigal son when he found himself broke and alone, feeding the pigs. Everyone will eventually realize it is better back home with our heavenly Father and will return to him, just as the prodigal returned to the welcoming arms of his father. (pp. 76-77)
Walls agrees with the general principle that sin produces misery, though his agreement is perhaps clearer in his earlier book Hell:
To begin, one of my fundamental convictions is that the suffering of hell is the natural consequence of living a life of sin rather than arbitrarily chosen punishment. In other words, the misery of hell is not so much a penalty imposed by God to make the sinner pay for his sin, as it is a necessary outcome of living a sinful life. … God could not make rational creatures such as ourselves in such a way that they would not need him for their fulfillment and happiness. Perhaps God could make creatures similar to us who would be capable of happiness without him. But if there could be such creatures, the level of happiness they could achieve would be far below what we are capable of. We are created in the very image of God, and as such, we have the capacity to enjoy supreme creaturely happiness through a relationship to him. Since we have such a nature, it is impossible, in the strictest sense of the word, for us to know our true happiness apart from God. (p. 150)
That we are able to sacrifice the future for immediate pleasures or mistake lesser goods for our supreme good is a consequence of our present finite existence. But imagine, if you will, being placed in a situation in which all ambiguities are stripped away and one is provided full disclosure of final reality. Only then might it be said that a fully informed decision for one’s eschatological destiny would be possible. One would know what one was purchasing and thus be able to commit oneself to it wholeheartedly and irrevocably, without regret, without second thoughts or second guesses, without buyers’ remorse. “What this means,” explains Walls, “is that there is a profound difference between choosing heaven as an eternal destiny and choosing hell. It makes perfect sense that one could choose heaven and remain happy in that choice in the long run. Those who choose heaven never regret it. By contrast, it makes no sense that anyone could choose hell without coming to regret it at some point” (HHP, p. 77).
Walls states Talbott’s position accurately, but having read a fair bit of Talbott myself, I feel that something of its full force is missing. What does it mean to be fully informed? Surely it’s not just a matter of watching a power point presentation on the pros and cons of salvation versus damnation. It can be nothing less than coming to understand that what God wills for me is what I truly will for myself. Talbott puts it this way:
Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of the “stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God. (The Inescapable Love of God [2nd ed.], p. 172; emphasis added)
If I do not understand that the good I will for myself is identical to the good God wills for me, then I cannot be said to be fully informed. A crucial piece of information is missing. I remain in a state of ignorance and self-deception. And here, I tentatively propose, lies the crucial difference between the two philosophers. There seem to be two different understandings of human freedom at work: the freedom of beatitude (Talbott) and the freedom of indifference (Walls). The former owes its lineage within Christian theology to St Gregory of Nyssa, St Augustine, and St Thomas Aquinas; the latter to John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. The former speaks of freedom as grounded in humanity’s divinely-given inclination and desire for the Good; the latter speaks of freedom as autonomous self-determination (see Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics; also “Universalist Hope“). I am not suggesting that either philosopher clearly fits into one category or the other—as we have seen, Walls acknowledges the role of happiness in our relationship to God—yet I think something like this may be at work.