Universalists do not necessarily deny Gehenna. Thomas Talbott is case in point. He believes that it is possible for human beings to reject God. Those who die in their rejection will find themselves in a post-mortem condition of suffering. We can describe this condition in various ways, but the one constant is suffering. To obdurately rebuff the mercy of God is to bring upon oneself judgment, privation, and misery. So far, Talbott stands in agreement with Jerry Walls. But Talbott then goes on to argue that perditional suffering will inevitably demolish all the delusions and false reasonings that make hell seem more attractive than heaven. All God needs to do is allow the damned to experience the spiritual and psychological consequences of their rejection; all he needs to do is to give them what they believe they want. Reality will do the rest.
Talbott directs us to the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. He plausibly suggests that this lake of fire symbolizes the holy presence of God. The repentant experience this presence as refreshment, healing, purification, sanctification; the impenitent as torment and misery. Walls advances a similar interpretation: “Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence. But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not” (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 85). Walls quotes New Testament scholar Robert Muholland:
If, as John says, those in hell are in fire in the presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14:10), who in the vision is seated on the throne with God (7:17), and the Water of Life flows from the throne (22:1), then both the fire image and the water image are linked to the throne. (p. 86)
(Eastern Orthodox readers are no doubt thinking, “What took them so long? It’s the River of Fire!”)
But unlike Walls, Talbott believes that the damned will experience their condition as intolerable, unbearable, unendurable. Each person will reach his breaking point. Following upon the vision of George MacDonald, Talbott conjectures that God might even allow the damned to experience existence absent his presence, love, and blessing. No human being can survive the horror of this nothingness:
No matter how tenaciously some sinners might pursue a life apart from God and resist his loving purpose for their lives, God has, as a sort of last resort, a sure-fire way of shattering the illusions that make their rebellion possible in the first place. To do so, he need only honor their own free choices and permit them to experience the very life they have confusedly chosen. When, as a last resort, God allows a sinner to live without even an implicit experience of the divine nature, the resulting horror will at last shatter any illusion that some good is achievable apart from God; it will finally elicit, therefore, a cry for help of a kind that, however faint, is just what God needs in order to begin and eventually to complete the process of reconciliation. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 189)
By hook or by crook, the damned will reach that point when they can no longer sustain their false beliefs and delusions. Talbott is even so bold as to assert that final reconciliation of all sinners to God will necessarily occur.
Walls advances a strong objection to the Talbottian thesis: repentance under the condition of unbearable suffering can be neither free nor sincere. “We can only absorb so much pain,” he explains, “so if hell forcibly imposes ever-greater suffering, no one could resist forever. … Our freedom can only bear so much pressure in this regard. At some point, if the pain is simply too intense, we would be forced to either give in or die” (HHP, p. 78-79). But of course the damned cannot die; escape is impossible. Having run out of options, what choice do they have but to beg their Creator for mercy? In his book Hell, Walls compares the eschatological experience of unendurable suffering to a form of judicial torture designed to exact a plea or confession. Given the excruciating pain, the victim must eventually break and confess his alleged crimes; but the confession will be neither freely given nor credible testimony. Similarly, how likely is it that repentance expressed under conditions of gehennic duress will represent authentic contrition and conversion? People will say or do anything to escape torture. “Repentance that is compelled in this way is not true repentance” (HHP, p. 79). But what of the possibility that this suffering might bring about salvific insight? God would neither cause nor allow it, argues Walls:
Now I am inclined to agree with Talbott that universalism follows if we grant his claim that no illusion can endure forever. But if he is correct in his account of why this is so, then it is apparent that God forces some persons to give up their sinful illusions. For if God causes those persons who continue to rebel against him to grow ever more miserable and tormented, then it seems that God is imposing on those persons the clear knowledge that he is the source of happiness, and sin the cause of misery. No one can avoid this knowledge for the simple reason that no finite being can continue endlessly to choose greater and greater misery for himself. So in the end, the knowledge which makes impossible the choice of damnation is not acquired through free choice, but is itself impossible to avoid. (Hell, p. 132)
Walls, however, fails to clearly distinguish between a suffering that has been externally imposed and a suffering that comes as an intrinsic consequence of one’s choices and actions. Consider an alcoholic whose drinking is progressively destroying his life. He may be aware of the destruction he is causing to himself and others, yet he continues to drink regardless—such is the enslaving power of his self-denial and delusion. How is such a person to be helped? Conventional answer: either by allowing him to hit bottom on his own (as the folks at AA like to say) or by inducing an artificial bottom through intervention. In both cases, suffering plays a key part. It is through his suffering (the more intense the better) that the alcoholic becomes open to the truth of his situation. The pain is not externally imposed upon him as a punishment: it is a natural consequence of his drinking. And without this misery, he would probably neither seek nor submit to treatment. This is why organizations like Al-Anon repeatedly tell the friends and family of alcoholics not to protect the alcoholic from the consequences of their drinking. They call it enabling.
Sin brings with it its own punishment. We may, therefore, speak of a suffering that is, as Karl Rahner puts it, “the connatural, intrinsic consequence of sin”—and if an intrinsic consequence, then divinely ordained:
The punishment of sin, in this sense, appears as the penalty inflicted by God as guardian of the moral order, since the hurtful structures of man and his world which sin inevitably sets in motion are created by God and hence are objectivations and expressions of his holy will. God “punishes” through the good world which he created and whose structures he still upholds when they are abused by finite freedom in an evil act. Since the creature cannot abolish them, they operate to cause pain through the objectivations of sin. … This enables us to understand the difference between “medicinal” and “vindictive” punishment, which again is not to be visualized along the lines of the penal law in force in the State. Every hurtful reaction of reality (in man and his world) to a wrong decision as it affects this reality is of itself a summons to “conversion”, to a better decision, more objective and humane, and has therefore a “medicinal” character. Because an expression of the holy will of God, it also has a “vindictive” (retributive) character, which does not of course mean that it must be understood as the angry reaction of a will imposing law merely extrinsically and adding punishments of an extrinsic type. The holy will of God which reacts retributively is the will which creates a good world and sustains it in its objective goodness. Punishment loses its medicinal character (in its effect, not in its essence) insofar as it is confronted with refusal by the free agent, either provisionally or finally through definitive obduracy. (Encyclopedia of Theology, pp. 1587-1588)
Rahner’s argument does not directly address Walls’s concern that excessive suffering destroys freedom, but it helps us to see how one might speak of this suffering as a divine punishment that is not an externally-imposed form of torture.
In his earlier volume Walls describes the traditional vision of hell as entailing “a depth of despair and dismay that is beyond anything we can imagine,” “an unbearable agony and torment which must, nevertheless, be borne” (Hell, pp. 146, 147). But he rejects this vision as inconsistent with hell itself, for if it were as horrific as Dante and Jonathan Edwards depict, no one would freely choose to remain there (p. 153). In other words, Walls is compelled by his particular model of perdition, namely, the choice model, to mitigate the gehennic misery. Only by such mitigation can he explain why the damned refuse to repent. Walls then goes on to propose that hell must have its own perverted pleasures:
No one who choses to remain in bitterness, resentment, and alienation from those who love him or her is truly happy. And yet bitterness and resentment do offer a certain form of pleasure, twisted though it is. Those who cling to such pleasure may do so with a sense of triumph, illusory as it is, even as they defiantly lock and doors of hell from the inside, thereby remaining “in one sense, successful rebels to the end” [C. S. Lewis]. … Generally speaking, the reason hell can be freely chosen is that it is a distorted mirror image of heaven. There is no righteousness or holiness in hell, but it does offer the alternative of self-righteousness. If offers no real joy or happiness, but it does offer the deformed sense of satisfaction from holding on to bitterness, resentment, and hurt. There is no real fulfillment, but it does offer the illusory triumph of getting one’s way, self-destructive though it is.
Hell is an empty shell of which heaven is the pulsating, vibrant reality. But the shell is not without its pleasures, miserable though they are. (HHP, pp. 89-90)
Hell as a “distorted mirror image of heaven”? The image that immediately comes to mind is a cheap, dilapidated motel on the bad side of town. The beds are full of lice, the linens haven’t been washed in ages, the desk clerk is rude, and the couple in the next room keep you up all night with their sexual frolicking. But since you can’t afford The Homestead, it’s better than sleeping in the gutter. At least the black & white TV works. And if you close your eyes and ignore the stench, perhaps you might even persuade yourself that you are staying at the Ritz … well … maybe the Holiday Inn.
The Gehenna of Jerry Walls is a far cry from the furnace of fire of which our Savior speaks, where “men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 14:50).
Now let’s come back to Tom Talbott’s controversial claim: the afflictions experienced in hell will inevitably break down all false beliefs and delusions, thus liberating the damned to recognize the fundamental truth of their creaturely existence–namely, God wills for them the happiness they truly seek. The question thus becomes: Does the unbearable torment of hell violate the freedom of the damned … or does it restore it?
[Readers will have observed that I have referred to Walls’s earlier book Hell: The Logic of Damnation, published in 1991, to elaborate his arguments advanced in Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. I am assuming a continuity between the two books. If this assumption is incorrect, please let me know.]