At the age of 65, actor George Sanders committed suicide in a hotel room in Castelldefels, Spain. He left the following note:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
As life takes its toll upon us, perhaps we may begin to think that our eternal destiny and the possibility of perdition does not matter, that there really is nothing. Let’s just get it over with. The monotony and pain; failures, losses, and tragedies; incapacitating loneliness; guilt and regret; the indignities of ageing and disease, disintegration of mind and body; impotence—it’s just all unbearable. My family and friends will understand. They’ll quickly forget and move on with their lives. But of course this is nonsense. Love intends coinherence and solidarity. My tragedy becomes the tragedy of all who love me.
If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, the eternal torment of the damned must and will cause a profound problem for anyone who loves them. If I choose definitive separation from God, then not only have I done irreparable harm to myself, but I will have brought horrific suffering into the lives of all who love me.
In “Hell and the Solidarity of Love,” I briefly summarized Thomas Talbott’s argument that the traditional Christian doctrine of hell is incompatible with the gospel assertion that God wills our supremely worthwhile happiness. We cannot enjoy the first and best form of eschatological bliss if we love one or more of the lost. John Kronen and Eric Reitan have formulated the argument in syllogistic form in their book God’s Final Victory. They title it the Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed (p. 80):
1. Anyone in a state of eternal blessedness possesses both perfect bliss and universal love for all persons.
2. Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.
3. Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).
4. If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.
5. Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).
6. God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.
7. Therefore, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6).
The first premise is no doubt the most important. Surely all Christians can agree that God intends human beings to enjoy in heaven (substitute “kingdom,” if you prefer) the most supreme and worthwhile form of joy in an eternal communion of love and holiness. All of the saved will, by grace, come to share in God’s universal love for humanity, including the condemned. As K & R note: “The prevailing Christian interpretation of divine love is that it is unconditional, encompassing even the damned” (p. 81). The blessed will love not only each other but also the reprobate, just as God does. Neither second-best happiness nor defective charity makes the grade. The optimal eschatological condition will thus include “(a) perfect bliss—that is, happiness that is the best kind of happiness a person can know, untainted by any dissatisfaction; and (b) moral sanctification, including being perfected in love such that the saved love as God does” (p. 81). To love is to will the good of the other, to identify the good of the other as my own good; but what if that good is no longer possible? Will my love then cease? Would I want it to cease?
Perhaps the second premise is the most controversial. Assuming that the redeemed share in God’s universal love for all human beings, then their eschatological happiness will necessarily be diminished if they know that one or more of their brethren are enduring eternal misery. “If we love someone,” K & R ask, “how could knowledge of their eternal damnation not diminish our happiness?” (p. 81). This must be true even if the condition of perdition is freely chosen. Damnation is, after all, not just a tragic outcome for a human being: it is the ultimate tragedy, the worst possible conclusion of human existence. How can we not lament those who endure this calamity?
I can imagine myself setting aside the distress caused by the torment of another, if I knew that the torment was temporary and reparative; but it is quite another thing to envision my enjoyment of supreme happiness if I know that the other’s torment is interminable. K & R elaborate:
There is a difference between temporary and permanent bad states. Perhaps it is possible for happiness to be undiminished by the former—especially if there is an assurance that the bad state will be redeemed. However, it is something else again to suppose that happiness can be undiminished by the latter, especially if there is no hope of redemption. In the former case, the intentional object of one’s happiness might be the final state that is ultimately realized. Insofar as this state is worthy of unmitigated approval, supreme happiness might be fitting given even passing evils. What is not compatible with supreme happiness is permanent and ultimate tragedy–for in that case the final state is not one towards which an unmitigated positive judgment is fitting. (p. 84)
Kronen and Reitan have advanced Talbott’s argument beyond the love of loved ones (parent for child, lover for beloved, friend for friend) to reflect the universal intention and character of the divine charity. The blessed have been perfected in love. “The degree to which they love the damned will exceed the degree to which we love even our dearest and closest friends” (p. 83). There are no strangers. No matter how evil and corrupt, no matter how possessed of hatred for God and the company of heaven, the reprobate remain persons made in the image of God and therefore remain objects of love and concern both for God and the redeemed. The blessed cannot be indifferent to the awful plight of those who inhabit hell, precisely because they love as God loves. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:33-35). Olivier Clément once asked Elder Sophrony what would happen if a person did not open his heart and accept the love of God. The monk answered: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” If such is the case for Christ, then surely also the saints; and if also the saints, then we must conclude that God will find a way to restore all humanity to himself in perfect love and beatitude. The vision of the Seer will be fulfilled: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev 21:4).
When we confront head-on this Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed, the impossibility of everlasting hell becomes increasingly evident. Only a person who does not love could find hell for others sufferable—but then that person would be in his own hell. David Bentley Hart passionately voices the moral intolerability of eternal damnation:
It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell. All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities. Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one. But not a person—not the person who was. But the deepest problem is not the logic of such claims; it is their sheer moral hideousness. (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 9)
But didn’t Jesus declare, “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26)? I can understand Jesus exhorting his disciples to prioritize their loves and loyalties and abandon egotistical affection, to put service to him above all other considerations; but is our Lord actually asking us to renounce our love for family and friends? I remember preaching on this text some thirty years ago at St Mark’s Church in Highland, Maryland. A distressed mother came up to me afterwards and asked, “Is Jesus telling me that I must stop loving my husband and children?” The young preacher fell silent.
(10 September 2013; revised)