Hell will always be a compelling topic for Christian preachers, theologians, philosophers, and believers everywhere. Preachers love it, because it dramatically raises the homiletical stakes—congregants are guaranteed to sit up and take notice. Theologians love it, because it provides a tidy eschatological alternative to the one doctrine they deem biblically, patristically, magisterially unacceptable. Philosophers love it, because it poses such a great intellectual problem. And the rest of us love it because it scares the bejesus out of us. Hell is always there—sometimes center stage in our thoughts, more often just beyond our peripheral vision, beckoning with its delights and horrors. We have all heard its dark whispers. We have all tasted its despair. We have all descended into the egoistic isolation from which escape is impossible, save by a miracle of grace. If we’ve been raised in a traditional Christian family, we may find ourselves paralyzed by the possibility that God will condemn us to the eternal torments of perdition. Our sins are so many and our repentance paltry. If we’re one of the fortunate millions who have read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, we may instead find ourselves dreading the possibility that in the end we will choose to return to the grey town, irrevocably excluding ourselves from the infinite love of God. Christ has broken the gates of hell, we triumphantly confess—yet perhaps not for me. The cord of self binds. God does not need to send us to hell; we’ve already bought the ticket. H. L. Mencken had the right of it: “Every man is his own hell.”
After entering into a pact with Lucifer, Doctor Faustus keeps insisting that he disbelieves in hell. It’s but trifles and old wives tales. Mephistopheles replies:
But I am an instance to prove the contrary,
For I tell thee I am damned and now in hell.
Still Faustus disbelieves. He inquires about hell’s location. Mephistopheles answers:
Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortured, and remain forever.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.
“Where we are is hell”—is this not the fear of every sinner, that even now we are in hell, that even now we are hell? Perdition can never be just a matter of abstract speculation. Even if we have been saved by personality from excessive introspection, surely we must desperately worry about the eternal destiny of those whom we love—and if we do not, what does that say about our own spiritual condition?
Over the past two decades, analytic philosophers have turned their considerable intellects to the topic of everlasting damnation. Is the doctrine coherent? Is it reconcilable with the Christian affirmations of divine love and justice? A fine survey of the discussion can be found in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In my judgment, the three best book-length treatments are Hell: The Logic of Damnation by Jerry L. Walls, The Problem of Hell by Jonathan L. Kvanvig, and The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott. With the publication of R. Zachary Manis’s Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God, a fourth title may be added to the list.
Manis writes as a Christian in the Baptist tradition. He seeks to advance “an adequate solution to the problem of hell,” faithful both to his tradition and the testimony of Holy Scripture:
An adequate solution must accord with the entirety of Scripture and find significant support therein; it must also accord with the best and most prominent aspects of the Christian tradition on the subject through the ages; and as a guard against theological novelty, it should be a view that, in its general form, is accepted by a significant portion of the church today. Theologically, it must be consonant with the tradition of perfect being theology, with its view of the divine nature as being comprised of all compossible great-making properties in their maximal forms. This requires, in particular, that God’s goodness, justice, and love are such that none greater is possible. Morally, an adequate solution must be one that understands love—in particular, agape love—in such a way that to love a person includes willing his or her highest good insofar as one is able. (p. 8)
In my multi-post review of Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God, I will be addressing the arguments that I find of personal interest. I will be skipping over, for example, the chapters devoted to the retributive construal of hell, not because they are not informative and insightful, but only because I find the retributive construal irrelevant to my own theological commitments. I can only hope that it proves to be false, so contrary is it to my apprehension of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In particular I will be spending a goodly amount of time exploring Manis’s own doctrinal proposal: the divine presence model. This model will be of particular interest to Orthodox readers, as the author explicitly draws on numerous Eastern sources. “The eternal suffering of hell,” Manis contends, “is not the result of any divine act that aims to inflict it, but rather the way that a sinful creature necessarily experiences the unmitigated presence of a holy God” (p. 249).
Faustus could not believe that God could be merciful to him. The pact determined all. There is only wrath:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.
The devil will come and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to heaven; who pulls me down?
One drop of blood will save me.
Rend not my heart, for naming of my Christ.
Yet will I call on him. O spare me, Lucifer.
Where is it now? ‘Tis gone.
And see a threatening arm, an angry brow.
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of heaven.
No? Then will I headlong run into the earth.
Gape, earth! O no, it will not harbour me.
Might the fate of Faustus have been different if Christopher Marlowe had believed in the abiding presence of a loving God?