For over fifteen hundred years, the dominant Christian understanding of hell has been one of everlasting punishment. Zachary Manis summarizes the traditional position (particularly as taught in the Western Church): “The purpose of hell is retribution: one’s consignment to hell is a punishment, selected and imposed by God, as requital for the evil deeds committed during one’s earthly life” (Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God, p. 17). Theologians have debated the nature of this punishment (physical fire? separation from God? torment of conscience? demonic abuse? divine energies?), but that there will be deserved suffering has long been the consensual position. Over the past two centuries, though, the retributive model of damnation has come under vigorous criticism. Transgressions committed by finite temporal beings, it is argued, cannot merit infinite punishment. The suffering inflicted must be proportional to the offense; otherwise, it becomes unjust. Not only does justice recognize differences between crimes (theft deserves less suffering than murder, e.g.); but it also recognizes that the punishment exacted for even the most heinous crimes must be limited, because the harm caused is necessarily limited: “No matter how egregious the individual’s earthly sins might be, an infinite punishment will always be far out of proportion to the severity of the crimes committed, and thus never a punishment that fits” (p. 18). The victim of horrific violence may feel that the perpetrator can never suffer enough, but at some point the inflicted suffering does become enough, beyond which punishment becomes vengeance.
But an even more telling objection against the retributive model is the divine charity. God is not only perfectly just, but he is perfectly loving. He wills the highest good of every human being, and this highest good is nothing less than eternal communion with the Holy Trinity. Everlasting retribution, however, does not contribute to this good. Its purpose is purely punitive, intending neither the conversion nor sanctification of the offender:
On retributivist accounts, the suffering of hell neither serves nor is intended to serve a reformative function: it is not aimed at the moral improvement—or more generally, the good—of the one punished. But punishment inflicted with neither the intention nor the possibility of reform is unloving, even if it can be made to fall within some plausible account of justice. Loving someone requires willing his or her highest good, insofar as one is able, so a perfectly good and loving God punishes His creatures only insofar as it is good for them—or, more carefully, only insofar as it is intended for and directed at the good of the ones punished. Retributive accounts of hell are unable to accommodate this; they fail to account for divine love for the damned and so must be rejected. (p. 39)
In response to the above objections, theologians and philosophers have proposed non-retributive construals of hell, the most popular being the choice or free-will model. The best known exponent of this model is C. S. Lewis. In The Great Divorce every person in hell (the grey town) is given the opportunity to take a bus ride to heaven and to remain there, if they so choose. There is only one hitch: they must give up their favorite sins and allow themselves to be purified and made fit for joy. As the character of George MacDonald tells Lewis:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. (chap. 9)
In this model God never sends anyone to hell. The damned freely reject communion with their Creator. They get back on the bus and return to their dismal, self-burdened lives. As Lewis memorably states in The Problem of Pain: “The gates of hell are locked on the inside.” What makes the damned damned is their adamant refusal to turn the key.
But why would anyone knowingly choose the misery of hell, and how is this choice implemented? Manis distinguishes two forms of perditional choosing—direct and indirect—and for each turns to Søren Kierkegaard for enlightenment.
We may first imagine hell as “the explicit and direct object of choice of those who are finally lost. The damned are individuals who desire not to be in communion with God; they will to be separated from Him, no matter the cost” (p. 195). Their choice is intentional. They know what they are doing and they defiantly accept the consequences. But why? Manis proposes that at the heart of their contumacy lies prolonged earthly suffering which has generated “offense over the problem of evil that the suffering causes, which over time ferments into a psycho-spiritual condition that Kierkegaard calls ‘inclosing reserve, or what could be called inwardness with a jammed lock'” (p. 198). Captain Ahab in Moby Dick immediately comes to mind. Ahab is consumed by his hatred of the great whale and will destroy it at all costs. At the end, knowing that his quest for vengeance has failed, he casts his harpoon, crying out:
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear! (chap. 135)
Ahab’s rage has reached Satanic proportions. It has so possessed him that it now defines his identity. He has become his hatred. He cannot but seek to avenge himself upon the leviathan. So with every person who directly rejects God. One who defies God in this way has become “so invested in the significance of his own personal suffering that he is eventually unwilling to relinquish it, and this becomes his motive for rejecting God in a direct way” (p. 199). Filled with bitterness and spite, the damned irrevocably commit themselves to hell “for the sake of demonstrating that they are in the right, and that God is in the wrong” (p. 200). Willing the Good becomes a temptation to be renounced. Kierkegaard names this “demonic despair.” The reprobate freely embrace the torments of Gehenna as an abiding, and in their eyes righteous, witness to the malice and cruelty of the almighty Creator. Hence they are constitutionally incapable of finding satisfaction in communion with God. Their only delight is their rebellion. Against this final obduracy even God is helpless. All he can do is give them the perdition they demand.
Question for Dr Manis: If those who directly reject the Creator do so as a living protest against him, have they truly separated themselves from him? Their protest requires their acceptance, or at least acknowledgement, of the gift of existence. We therefore need to distinguish between the desire for autonomous existence, which by the nature of things is impossible and therefore can only resolve into a relative separation from the Creator (the outer darkness?), as Manis himself notes later in his book, and the desire for absolute separation, terminating in nothingness. The question then becomes: Would the defiantly damned have chosen everlasting suffering if the option of annihilation had been available to them?
Clearly the defiantly damned are operating under a profound spiritual blindness and delusion, which can only be described as pathological, even madness. They are irrationally convinced—irrational, that is, if the gospel is true—that their Creator is an evil monster who has brought intolerable, undeserved suffering upon them, thus making their existence an abomination to themselves. The question arises: Are the damned morally responsible for their final decision for hell? It’s important for the model that the answer be yes, but yes is not obvious. Not only are the damned enslaved to their passions, but they are basing their rejection of God on a profound misunderstanding of his character, providence, redemption. To make a sound judgment about their condition, though, we must consider the entire process of personal corruption:
What is needed is a plausible account of the means by which one’s perspective could become twisted to the point that one is blind to the most fundamental truths about God and oneself, and it must be an account that makes it clear that the process itself is something for which the individual is blameworthy. (p. 201)
Manis relies heavily here on the arguments of Kierkegaard and Jerry Walls. The key lies in the willful suppression of evident truths which we find painful and difficult to act upon, resulting in willful self-deception:
Self-deception is the ability to suppress knowledge that conflicts with one’s desire, to hide from oneself unpleasant truths—especially those revealed by conscience—and to accept in their place something else that one desperately wants to be true. For creatures like ourselves who possess this power, belief is not always entirely passive; one’s inability to perceive the truth is sometimes due to one’s unwillingness to perceive it. The immediate effect of exercising this power is the bringing about of some false belief in oneself. But there are long-term noetic effects, as well. To engage in self-deception repeatedly, and especially habitually, is gradually to form in oneself the kind of character that renders one unable to perceive the deepest truths of human existence: the ethico-religious truths and the truth about oneself in relation to God. This is the phenomenon to which Scripture refers as being blinded by sin. (p. 204)
The damned may be deemed morally culpable for the progressive corruption of their intellectual, volitional, and emotional powers and therefore culpable for its infernal denouement. “The choice of hell is indeed irrational,” writes Manis, “in the sense that all acts proceeding from self-deception are irrational, and even maximally irrational, given that it is the exercise of self-deception in its uppermost limit” (pp. 205-206)—yet the choice remains blameworthy. The lost are responsible for the formation of the vicious character and madness which grounds their rejection of God. They freely made themselves to be the kind of person who perversely prefers the misery of self over the bliss of eternal communion with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. The choice for hell may be lunacy, but it is the logical conclusion of the path freely taken. Self-deception is neither an excuse nor mitigation. “Guilty!” the judge solemnly declares, as the gavel strikes the bench.
I remain unpersuaded. No matter what the historical and psychological process may have been that produced the state of despair and madness, an insane final choice is an insane final choice and therefore cannot be judged as free (see Tom Talbott “The Fatal Flaw in Free-will Theodicies of Hell”). Its irrationality undermines a fundamental plank of the choice position: God does not interfere with our decisions because he respects human freedom. All bets are off, however, once the sinner becomes totally and irreversibly enslaved to his evil nature, rendering him incapable of doing anything otherwise. So what exactly is the significance of culpability in the context of the choice model? Are free-will theorists claiming that the damned deserve to suffer because they are responsible for their condition of incurable blindness, irremediable irrationality, and incorrigible impenitence? If yes, then the theorists have slipped retribution in through the back door, and we are right back at the top of the page, wondering about the justice of infinite punishment—but now the punishment imposed is not for crimes committed but for the crime one has become. If no, then they are still left with the challenge of justifying an interminable suffering that serves no good purpose. Suffering is an artifact of the devastation. How can it be present in a transfigured cosmos in which death has been conquered and God is all in all?
We may suppose, however, that the majority of the damned do not choose hell in such a straightforward fashion. There is also, Kierkegaard tells us, an unreflective despair. For such persons, life just happens. They are happy when circumstances are favorable, unhappy when they are not. They lack the strength and consistency of character to overcome the adversities, failures, and disappointments they endure. Over time, Manis explains, they abandon moral effort, give in to vice and become vicious people:
Without the exertion of sustained moral effort, then, a person will eventually develop a bad character. Worse yet, the more that bad desires are indulged, the more difficult it is to resist them in the future: greater and greater amounts of moral effort are required to resist the same temptation. Worst of all, desire for the good will become weaker and weaker each time it is resisted, until eventually the individual experiences no desire for the good at all. Damnation is the logical culmination of this natural process. (p. 209)
These are the kinds of persons depicted in The Great Divorce—not obdurate in direct rejection of God (the defiant would never get on the bus to begin with) but obdurate in their insistence to return to the grey town. They may not even know they have become persons fit only for hell. They only know they lack the strength to change—hence their despair. Instead of turning to God and seeking his help, they entrench themselves in despair and despair over their weakness. Their choice for hell, therefore, is indirect, yet irreversible nonetheless. Turned in upon themselves (incurvatus se—or what Kierkegaard calls “inclosing reserve”), they cannot entertain the possibility that they could be truly and supremely happy, if only they would ask the Savior to heal them. Unlike the defiantly damned, they are desperate to escape their condition, yet in their alienation and hopelessness, they will to remain in it. They have extinguished within themselves the desire for the Good and made perdition their home. God is left with only one option: to nail the damned to themselves, thus making their despair manifest and their selves an eternal torment (Kierkegaardian paraphrase).
Question for Dr Manis: If the indirectly damned remain desperate to escape their condition, does this not suggest that their desire for the Good is not thoroughly extinguished? If even a glimmer of desire for a better life remains, then self-damnation has not yet been achieved. There is still room for grace.
The choice model of damnation has many strengths, which explains why it has largely supplanted the retributive model in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and mainline Protestantism. It neatly resolves the conflict between justice and love (too neatly, proponents of double agency will protest) by positing respect for human freedom. Because God is love, he will not violently impose himself upon rational beings; he will not force anyone into the communion of his kingdom. To do so would be both unjust and unloving. Yet a problem remains, says Manis. Why would God eternally maintain the damned in everlasting suffering and torment? Why not instead annihilate them? If it is unloving for God to retributively inflict suffering on the damned, would it not also be unjust for him to permit the damned to suffer needlessly? We do not treat our pets so cruelly. While we can, perhaps (just perhaps), understand the motivation of the despairing to defiantly stand as living witnesses against the cruel and spiteful Creator, no matter the cost—and therefore understand why God would sustain them in their protest (that is, after all, what they want)—it is not clear how the suffering of hell “is freely chosen by those who do not (knowingly) desire separation from God, especially those who are ignorant that their earthly condition is even one of despair” (p. 214).
Manis explores the possibility of annihilation at length in his book, and I commend to you his incisive analysis. He believes that a free-will version of annihilationism represents a philosophically (and perhaps biblically) compelling alternative to the standard choice model. To willingly choose eternal separation from God does not necessarily entail the knowing embrace of eternal torment. There may in fact be many among the lost who would prefer absolute extinction. Why would the infinitely loving God not honor such a choice? In this sense free-will annihilationism is a variant of the choice model: God gives the self-damned the desire of their evil hearts.
In the end, though, Manis dissents from the choice model of hell. In his opinion it contradicts the clear Scriptural testimony that God imposes hell upon the reprobate against their will. God does not just sit back and passively watch the process of self-destruction play out, as the metaphor of giving the wicked over to their desires might suggest (Rom 1:24). In the bibical presentation God condemns the reprobate to an eschatological fate to which they have not given their consent. A punishment freely chosen hardly qualifies as a punishment. Consider Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet: the king orders an improperly dressed guest to be bound and cast into the outer darkness, even though he wishes to join in the festivities (Matt 22:1-14).
“The body of clear textual support for the idea that damnation is self-chosen is rather thin,” concludes Manis (p. 237). An alternative, biblically faithful model of hell is necessary.