The Doxastic Problem: If you really, really believe in hell, you may already be in it

I have saved the best for last. Okay, that’s a tad inaccurate. I imagine that most readers of Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God will find the chapters devoted to the divine pres­ence model of hell to be the most interesting and profitable, as well as the author’s analysis of Calvinist construals of damnation in the early chapters. But for me personally, it was chapter 2 that grabbed my attention: “The Doxastic Problem.” Doxastic? I confess that I had not run into this word before, so of course I did a Google search and discovered that it has something to do with beliefs. There’s even a discipline in philosophy called doxastic logic. So what is the doxastic problem that deserves a chapter all to itself? Under this phrase Zachary Manis groups the “psychological consequences of thoroughgoing belief in hell” (p. 48). He stresses the thoroughgoing:

Among those who profess belief in the traditional doctrine of hell, it seems that there are many who either do not truly believe the doctrine or whose belief in it is at best irrational, and the doxastic problem that I wish to discuss do not apply to such individuals. The irrational nature of these individuals’ belief stems not from a lack of justification—or at least not only this—but rather from the incongruity arising from the combination of this belief with their other beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and actions. Being consigned to hell is, nearly by definition, the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. We would judge a mother mentally ill who looked out the kitchen window, saw a neighbor child in the street in imminent danger of an oncoming speeding car, and continued tranquilly washing the dishes. Yet scores of theists profess to believe that multitudes of people around them are doomed to spend eternity in hell, without its having any apparent effect on their day-to-day actions or emotional states. It would be irrational, and probably a sign of insanity, for one to hold the belief that one might have terminal cancer in such a way that it was just one more belief among the many beliefs one held. Yet many theists seem to hold a belief in the traditional doctrine of hell in just such a manner. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that such theists do not really believe what they claim to believe, for if they do, the manner in which they hold this belief is highly irrational. (pp. 48-49)

We all hold beliefs, individually and collectively, that do not impact our day-to-day lives. 72% of Americans, for example, believe that global warming is a real threat, yet we remain unwilling as a nation to address the problem. Our belief in the impending cataclysm informs neither public policy nor our individual choices. We plan and work for the future as if all were right with the world, despite what we say we believe about that future. The ecological dystopia is too terrifying to think upon. And so with hell. Everlasting damnation has long been a doctrine commended by the Church for genuine belief—what Catholics call “the assent of faith.” We are summoned to affirm everlasting damnation as a teaching revealed by God and therefore incorporate it into our fundamental belief system and live our lives accordingly. Mere lip service is hardly adequate, yet the doctrine is so horrific, mere lip service remains the norm (even when vociferously defended). But if we do wholeheartedly believe the doctrine, the conse­quences to spiritual health and the mission of the gospel will be deleterious.

Underlying the doxastic problem are two theological assumptions:

  1. “Any doctrine revealed in Scripture ought to be genuinely believed, carefully reflected upon, and deeply appropriated” (p. 49).
  2. “Genuine belief in, careful reflection upon, and deep appropriation of any doctrine revealed in Scripture is spiritually edifying, both individually (to the believer) and corporately (to the Church)” (p. 50).

Manis identifies six possible dilemmas posed by the doctrine of eternal perdition. Let’s take a look at the one I find most compelling—coercion & liberty. The threat of damnation is so severe, the argument goes, that it subverts human freedom and the ability to love and trust the Creator:

The problem, however, is that if one believes—truly believes—the doctrine of hell according to traditionalism, it seems all but impossible that one could choose to do anything other than what one believes is necessary to avoid the fate of being consigned to hell. There is no greater threat than that of being damned for all eternity; as previously noted, hell is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person. When a threat of such magnitude is made, and one believes the threat is real and not a bluff, it seems that any decision made in response to it is coerced. But if this true, how can one’s response (to receive God’s grace, to accept Christ, to give one’s life to the Lord—however one wishes to put it) be a free decision? (pp. 53-54)

As understood by many (most?) analytic philosophers, freedom requires the ability to do otherwise; but when con­fronted by the the threat of hell, there is no rational otherwise. Refusal is a “psychological impossibility.” By this term Manis means “that which one simply could not bring oneself to do, even if doing so is possible in some other sense” (p. 55, n. 17). If it is psychologically impossible for a person to choose to perform a specific action, then that person is not libertarianly free; ditto if it is psychologically impossible for a person to choose not to perform a specific action. Given that everlasting torment represents a maximal threat to one’s happiness and well-being, a rational being will do, must do, whatever is necessary to avoid this fate. He cannot rationally do otherwise. The threat of perdition, therefore, functions as maximal coercion. Within a Christian context where the benevolence of God norms proclamation and discourse, it weaponizes the divine love and renders a free response of love and faith—precisely the response God desires from us—impossible. It’s as if God has put a gun to our heads: “Obey me or else.” The only persons who will disobey the demand are those who disbelieve the threat. “But then,” Manis observes, “this seems to make the revelation of hell either useless or counterpro­ductive: it is useless to those who disbelieve it, and it is counterproductive to those who do believe it, for it renders the believers incapable of doing what is required of them in the manner in which God wants them to do it” (p. 56). If one believes that God truly desires from us a free response of love and faith, then one is duty-bound to reject the doctrine of hell, “for one ought not to do anything (including form any belief) that makes loving God impossible” (p. 56).

The retributive model of damnation would seem to be particularly vulnerable to the coercion & liberty dilemma. Once I have thoroughly embraced this model, then fear of eschatological punishment—and therefore fear of God—must become the supreme motivating force in my life, and I will dedicate all of my energies toward accomplishing whatever is divinely required to avoid condemnation at the final judgment. In the language of the Lutheran Reformers, my life is now existentially constituted by self-justification and works-righteous­ness: salvation is not a gift to be received but a task to be achieved by my doings (ethical, liturgical, ascetical). My picture of God invariably becomes that of a tyrant and law-giver, his love being conditioned by my performance and obedience. Scrupulosity and pride are common outcomes. And should I ever become convinced that I am incapable of succeeding in the task of salvation … my life will become the hell I believe and fear.

What of the choice model of hell? Manis suggests that it avoids the doxastic problem:

If the suffering of hell is a natural consequence of willful persistence in sin, there is no concern that it is cruel and unusual, and if God is not the one inflicting it, there is no concern that He is being unduly harsh or unloving. There is, furthermore, little if any concern that the doctrine of hell functions as a threat on such views; in fact, in FWA [free will annihila­tionism] and the direct form of the choice model, at least, it seems that creaturely annihilation/damnation is actually an expression of God’s love, since God is here simply giving the damned what they have freely and willingly chosen for themselves. So the most prominent doxastic problem is sufficiently ameliorated as well … Both the choice model and non-retributive forms of annihilationism place the central barrier to salvation in human free-will, which allows their various proponents to insist without duplicity that God loves everyone and does everything in His power to save every person He creates. (p. 233; my emphasis)

Yet is it true that the doctrine of hell does not function as a threat in the choice model? Only, I would think, if freely-chosen hell is never declared from the pulpit or taught in catechism classes. But once it is so declared and taught, it will always be heard as a threat, a threat not of retributive punishment but of the possibility of irrecoverable failure. The coercive exhortation remains: “Repent or be damned.” When con­fronted with this word, it doesn’t help me if the preacher appends the assurance that God has done and is doing all he can to make it possible for me to save myself. The love of God and his optimal grace are indeed proclaimed in the choice model, but my eternal happiness remains contingent upon the exercise of my free will. I still must do something: I must repent, I must accept God’s forgiveness, I must open my heart to the Spirit, I must become the kind of person who will gratefully receive the freely-offered divine love—always under the threat of interminable suffering. In the retributive model, the threat is directed to my performance and works; in the choice model, it is directed to the mysterious depths of subjectivity and character, over which I have even less control than my actions. In the retributive model, I fear that the divine Judge may judge my works inade­quate or insufficient; in the choice model, that my bondage to sin and vice (or just plain idiocy) may triumph over God’s desire to save me. It is true that the choice model portrays God as loving, but it is a love that is impotent before my (ostensibly) free will that may prove unable to conquer my egotism and blindness. Am I really more free in the latter than the former? Given the stakes, am I psychologically free to do otherwise? It’s swell to be told that God loves me infinitely, but the power of that message is undermined by the reality that God has placed me in what may turn out to be be a Kobiyashi Maru scenario. A gun is still being held to my head, only I’m the one holding it (with God’s hands wrapped around mine). The “pedagogy of intimidation and terror,” as Alexandre Turincev calls it, remains intact. In both the retributive and choice models, the burden of salvation ultimately rests upon the alien­ated self—that is the real doxastic problem. This becomes clearer when we consider that for both models preachers remain bound to the “if … then” structure of conditional promise (see my articles “Preach­ing Apokatastasis,” “To Preach the Gospel is to Justify the Ungodly” and “Preaching Gospel”). The doxastic dilemma remains, only in a different key. Perhaps we might name it “the existential problem of hell.”

The above concerns also obtain, I submit, under the divine presence model. Manis believes that his constructive proposal evades the doxastic problem, because like the choice model, it too rejects divine retribution. God does not intend retribution by his eschatological revela­tion of glory; it only feels that way to the damned:

Since exposure to the divine presence is imposed on them by God, against their own wills, it is experienced by the damned as a divine punishment … From the perspective of the damned, hell is an experience of divine wrath, judgment, and vengeance; it feels like a retributive punishment to those who suffer it. (p. 286)

However, if my analysis is correct, the threat of perdition not only remains in the divine presence model but becomes as explicit and decisive as in the retributive model. When the Holy Trinity finally manifests himself in the fullness of his glory, I will discover that I have either become one of the deified (but I cannot know this ahead of time, apart from a special revelation) or one of the irredeemable, forever condemned to torment. In the meantime, there remains the abiding threat of perdition. If preachers declare this threat, which they must, and if I thoroughly believe this threat, as I should, then I inevitably find myself trapped in the deadly structure of conditional salvation and works righteousness. I may not fear God as my Judge, but how can I love him as my Savior?

(Return to first article)

 

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29 Responses to The Doxastic Problem: If you really, really believe in hell, you may already be in it

  1. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    I can personally attest to the devastating “psychological consequences of thoroughgoing belief in hell”. They are what ultimately lead me to look elsewhere, hoping against all hope that the traditional doctrine of hell might be shown false (or at least unnecessary). In my early 20’s I finally began to take all of the doctrines of my church seriously. I was already in the depths of a serious depression and everything came to a head when I took a hard look at hell. The weight of the seriousness of unending torment finally hit me and I was overcome with a powerful sense of despair. I spent what was probably a week, but felt like years, walking around seeing flames beneath every person I encountered. It was vivid and terrifying, and the memory of it can still give me the chills. I recall reading numerous quotes from champions of the faith proclaiming that God and saints would delight at the sight of the damned suffering the worst horrors imaginable. Indeed, hell as eternal conscious torment was repeatedly stated as a cornerstone of true Christian faith, the acceptance or denial of which could be used as a kind of litmus test. I soon found myself in a place where I was staring into what seemed like two different but almost equally horrifying abysses. Either there was a hopeless chasm of fire into which most people I’d ever known were destined, or else there was no God and no purpose, only nothingness at the end. I can now see that those are not the only options, but at that time I felt trapped. Not knowing which was true, and wanting neither to be true, I both desired death and cowered at the thought of it. I wanted my pain to end because it was unbearable, but I could not get rid of the thought that I might be exchanging one pain for an infinitely worse one. The more I believed in hell, the more hellish my life became. Eventually, through a long series of small shifts, I came to the realization that God’s plan for his creation is far more glorious than anything I or anyone else had ever imagined. During one of the many times that I spent crying bitter tears over the doctrine of hell, I got up the nerve to ask God if my grandfather was really being tormented as I spoke. I committed myself to asking no other question and to not moving until it was answered, even if it meant sitting there until I died. To my shock I heard a whisper inside myself that said “everything is going to be OK.” I knew immediately that the voice did not mean just that my grandfather would be OK, but that everything, in the grandest sense of the word, would be fine. That was the most significant turning point in my life. I had not yet encountered arguments for Christian universalism or met anybody who was a universalist, but something had shifted within me. It was like a glowing seed had been planted inside the blackened hole that I thought I was. There were still dark days ahead, but instead of there being a hungry darkness trying to consume me from the inside, I felt this strange assurance that no matter how things appeared, the end was going to be good. That is still my most basic theological conviction.

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    • csadosky says:

      Matthew, I have had a similar experience when I was in anguish over the eternal destiny of my three children. I am still working hard at not falling back into terror.

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    • Christopher says:

      Matthew, like you I remember that moment and voice of comfort. It was one of the two most profound spiritual experiences of my life. My teenaged son went missing two and a half years ago after leaving a suicide note on social media. After the detectives had left for the night, and my emotionally exhausted family had finally fallen asleep, I remained alone on my knees weeping at the thought of my son dead or dying on the ground somewhere in the sub-zero temperatures outside. In the midst of my wordless tears and supplication before God I heard that voice within me and I knew in the deepest parts of my being that my son would be OK. It was not a knowledge that he was alive or would return to me in this life, but rather that the God who made him and loves him beyond conceiving would not abandon him, even if he had abandoned hope within himself. My son did return home alive, but the conviction never left me. The time since has been filled with struggle, but the knowledge has remained and I have spent the time since trying to understand what I already know.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Christopher, thank you for sharing this. I can imagine your terror. On the morning my son Aaron did not come home, I called the police, gave them his name and license plate, and asked if they had received any accident reports. They put me on hold for what seemed an eternity and then came back on the line and told me they would call me back. At that moment a shiver went down my spine. An hour and a half later a police car drove up and two nicely dressed detectives got out of the car. I knew then …

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        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          Christopher and Fr Kimel, I cannot imagine the pain that you each went through. There are situations that hurt more than we believe is possible. One of the things that has helped me is to think that if heaven’s joy is enough to overwhelm all earthly sorrow, it must be surpassingly wonderful. Much much more than the inverse of our most devastating sufferings. When the voice of comfort finds us in the midst of our storms it offers us a glimpse of what awaits.

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  2. oliver elkington says:

    I was having a discussion about this subject on a Catholic forum a few weeks ago, the main conclusions from the responses to my post were: 1. That salvation is not owed to us, it is not a right to be saved and that by sinning we have lost our hope of Heaven unless we decide to repent. 2. That the damned are people who simply decided to turn away from God, they died after committing sin and as a result have not merited Heaven, their punishment is eternal because their wills are fixed against God because the body is no longer connected to the soul and so decisions are made in a different manner to how they are made on earth, one may ask why God does not give them the ability to change their mind or simply another chance to ask for forgiveness and the answer is that perhaps God knows that they would never accept forgiveness no matter how many chances they are given, 5 or 5 million, I find it hard to find this rational but it is what the church has always taught. 3. That committing mortal sin is incredibly irrational, mad even, it is completely avoidable and has no excuse, committing a mortal sin is as irrational a decision as can be, it has no purpose, the “benefits” in the sense of heightened pleasure only last a matter of minutes or in some cases even years, they never obviously last for all eternity and so at heart the committing of a mortal sin is completely irrational.

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    • Steven says:

      I’ve encountered an opinion among some Catholics that mortal sin is such a radical act of the will, that few people actually fulfill all the criteria for their [objectively grave] sins to be truly mortal. This idea is held in various degrees, ranging from people who believe it’s harder than previously assumed to commit mortal sin and therefore is actually fairly uncommon , to near-universalists who doubt whether anybody truly is capable of committing it.

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      • Grant says:

        I would agree with this (I would also say I tend to see that venial, grave and mortal sin is best interpreted via a confessional and pastoral context rather then as an legalistic or absolute rule or law code, where I think it becomes unhelpful and harmful), in that it would difficult to get into a truly ‘mortal’ situation, and I would hazard even metaphysically impossible to be truly and absolutely in a mortal state (a full and absolute embrace of the way of death, and an absolute rejection of God).

        Firstly I’ll address some of the forums comments in a broader sense, first in relation that God doesn’t owe us salvation. This is on the face of it absolutely true, God neither needs nor owes us anything, nor anything of creation, not even continued being and existence is owed to us, all is a absolute and complete gift and act of grace. However, there are issues here, Christian confession is that God is Love in His very Being, and creation itself is an super-abundant act and gift of love, call things from nothing into being, and every continuing to create them and keep them in being by participation. Also, for Catholics much as all ancient Churches, they all adhere to classical Christian theism, God isn’t a being deliberating about possibilities of which world to bring into being, rather He is Being, and bring the world He desires utterly freely into existence, without anything constraining Him apart from His own nature (which is confessed to be love, and in which God is understood to be the Good in Himself). This does causes the problem of evil to have a strong hold, particularly in the face of the Christian revelation and claims to God in Christ, however the current age is a held to be a temporary state of affairs, allowed by the gift of secondary, contingent freedom created things have in their appropriate natures, but ultimately the fallen state of affairs in the Cosmos is overcome and will pass away.

        However, this cannot be taken in the ultimate state of things that is creation’s telos, in the final unfolding of things will be revealing of who God really is, and on what His true purposes for creation are and His relation to Him. This however we phrase it, puts a clear moral claim on God, on Who He really is, and His purposes for creation (which then relate back to the first issue), if God has brought into being a contingent reality in which beings are brought into existence which can and indeed are and will be lost forever (and possibly tormented forever), this is nothing less then the situation and shape of creation that God intends from the beginning. Nothing forces Him into this act (otherwise He would be God), nothing such as per-existent materials or other principles external to Himself affected how He called everything into existence, as the Primary Cause, all and every secondary cause and act is reducible down to and enfolded in that Cause, therefore whatever the ultimate outcome, it is the outcome of God’s free act of creation. Therefore, the lack of salvation to some, as part of creation, is an intended act of God and would be an present a clear moral revelation about God, and who He really is, and such a situation freely risked and brought into being, a creation that even would thus depend on some being damned forever, God could be called Love or the Good or Just (at least not where those words have any actual meaning, and don’t mean the opposite). God doesn’t owe anyone anything, but the final outcome and telos of all things presents who God is and presents the nature of what the gift is intended to be, contains due to His free action a moral claim upon that nature.

        Also in a gift nothing is owed, but a gift given in love, and an act of love, always is one that is that of freely given commitment. At our creaturely level, love is hardly true without utter commitment to another, a parent is committed in love, that paradoxically is both unchosen and yet free to their child, and a good parent will always remain devoted to their child unconditionally. In a marriage you in love give yourself to your spouse, which is free, it isn’t owed and yet the commitment of love is total. And the love of God is always presented as the commitment without resistant to creation, God freely commits Himself to His creation, His people, giving His Son, and His Son giving Himself to the Father, and for us and all the Cosmos, the Holy Spirit is given freely, as with a marriage God gives promises of absolute and unbreakable commitment. And in living in the love of God, this is the pattern Christians are called to emulate (and so be like the Father) give to any with need, generously and without restrain, care and love all, love enemies, forgive, bless them, help them, and any in trouble, not if their worthy in our eyes but because of who they are, for being in existence. We are called to an absolute commitment to the other, just like God in love is committed to us, and creation, a commitment freely given just as love is always freely given, but one which is total. So it is not a question of owing, but a question of love, and the commitment of love, which is a freely given gift, and a freely and generous act and giving of Himself which God has done, and in loving us and creation, has committed Himself to us. That makes issue of some left to being lost truly a problem, and brings again God as love and one as revealed as committed in love to all to be a real problem.

        As to mortal sin, an act of will against God to the extent that it represents a rejection of the way of life, and of Christ altogether, (such as indicated in the sin against the Holy Spirit or the warnings in Hebrews of rejecting the sacrifice of Christ) as those parts of the New Testament would indicate in itself requires an intentionally behind the action and the will to be what mortal sin is described as being. In that it’s not just an awareness that the current manner of life and will is destructive and is falling away from the way of life into destructive paths of death (say active adultery, or murder and murderous action). No, to me it would have to meet those New Testament standards, to do such an action and turn of being and life as a intentional and direct action against Christ and the Gospel and rejection of Him (which could only be done in a particularly state of sin in and of itself by actually willfully and with full awareness both intellectually and in emotion and heart of the attack against the Holy Spirit or the salvation in Christ, in acting to it as evil and so on, and embracing the path of death in willing rejection of Christ). Only if other actions do this and are done for this purpose, can they meet even initially mortal status rather then grave status. Active communion can be impaired in terms of active growth in grace and participation in Christ’s life by active sin (a turn to slavery and damage of death) but it cannot be stopped or removed by such acts that never reject Christ or the Gospel so absolutely.

        However, even here I don’t believe that it can be considered fully mortal (and again why I feel this is best a confessional aid rather then seen in absolute legalistic terms) because even with those New Testament passages, repentance remains ever possible, indeed the point of the address about the Holy Spirit was a warning and call to those in that situation, and the same is one of the whole purposes of the letter to the Hebrews, a calling back from wandering in the wastes towards non-being. And within Catholicism, one can turn back from even a seemingly full state of mortal sin (even for the attack against the Holy Spirit say) repent, confess and receive absolution and be restored to the Church and restored out of the wandering of darkness. Now, often death is shown as some arbitrary cut-off point, but why should it be, particularly as it is such a random event, and the various complex situations in some lives inherently affect some much more than others in such varies of life in the Fallen world. Why are people fixed in the souls to certain decisions, which would also be when they are incomplete? Again, back to an earlier point, this would only be so if God has so ordered creation and our natures so, such as those damaged and lost in what are accepted by all sides as irrational decision and attitude, in confused action, are then locked in that attitude unable to change or even respond in a rational way. This would be deciding after a time with mentally ill patients to inject a drug in them that would forever lock them in their mental illness and delusions forever, so they could never respond nor heal, and would never be free. This again makes a moral claim towards God, on who He really is, which is the biggest issue with any being lost forever. Now, I could see the freedom of the soul in the Lord’s Presence freeing perception and understanding, but with such perception, even if the involved the sense of grief of Love betrayed as St Issac of Ninevah saw, such clarity and freedom of mind and being would lead to a response to freedom and love, to what the person as really wanted and sought in irrational misunderstanding in the fall into the way of death in mistakenly seeking life and being there. The very freedom such would give would be a response towards God, and perhaps they could be instant at death leading into the state of purgatory/sanctification. Perhaps it would be over a longer time (though I imagine many Catholics might feel it would have to involve a decision at the moment of death).

        But it is the very irrationality of all sin, and particularly anything as damaging and grave as to be considered to be a state of mortal sin that is a problem, a decision and action made irrationally cannot be a free decision, and once in such a state and person’s mind and being as clouded in irrationality and inability to truly perceive God, reality and even themselves. Their actions are not and cannot be free, and therefore, as Christ prayed on the Cross (to those killing Him, a mortal sin if ever was one, and of course we are all included in this pray) ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’. That is revealed God’s perspective on a fallen and insane ways, we don’t know what we do, we have no wisdom or insight, and those in darkness are truly enslaved and have no understanding of what they do, they are not choosing or acting responsibility and are not acting nor thinking freely. So their choices are not free, and are in this interpretation being condemned for actions that are not free (for if they had been free and with true understanding they would make them), and are enslaved by them, and if they remained in darkness are then trapped in that state forever, that cannot be so. Only if the decision is free and rationally done, and the state maintained such could it be continued as truly mortal but the very nature of sin is that it is a privation of good and a lack of freedom and rationality.

        And so I would also suggest that metaphysically it is impossible to truly and absolutely act or embrace a state of mortal sin, since all being and decision, understanding and existence is founded on God, in Him and towards Him. All we are and do is orientated towards Him and He is the end goal and purpose of all our aims, desires and actions, which produce and direct our thoughts and wishes. However off target all our actions and thoughts are towards God and life in Him, by the very fact we are being, we are directed towards Being, which is God. The tend towards non-being can never truly succeed since it is nothing, and there can be no action or choice or move towards nothing in of itself (since nothing is nothing, no thing, it doesn’t have existence). Nothing can by definition never be chosen, and so such a truly radical rejection of God is inherently not possible it seems to me.

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        • Steven says:

          Well said. I’m in agreement that genuinely mortal sin is more difficult to commit than traditionally assumed, even to the point that the concept of ‘mortal sin’ may actually exist strictly as a theoretical abstraction (like the Just War theory). I find helpful the mystical insights of Julian of Norwich, what she’s written about the nature of sin and how God keeps us safe even when we sin. Particularly helpful is her parable of the lord and servant as an explanation of the nature of sin, free will, salvation, and possibly the end state of all humanity.

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  3. Christopher says:

    Over time I have come to the conclusion that any conception of eternal damnation, retributive or otherwise, is horrific, irrational, and irreconcilable with the concept of divine love, union, and the restoration of creation. The Doxastic problem Manis proposes is interesting, but I think that the commentary regarding our psychological tendency to believe in and yet fail to respond to impending cataclysm of all kinds strikes much closer to the heart of the problem.

    Over and over in my life I have observed human beings psychologically paralyzed, taking actions that actively contribute to some easily foreseeable ruin, and yet unable to steer themselves in a different direction. I have personally experienced this state of being. The mind employs all manner of psychological defense mechanisms to normalize and rationalize away the internal tension that accompanies such behavior, such that the person pinballs between moments of extreme stress and listless incapability (and often guilt). Interestingly, I have also seen people in the aftermath of the inevitable hammer drop, and my experience has largely been that individuals are sad, regretful, and yet also relieved. The toll of such internal tension is enormous, even if it is largely in day-to-day life not experienced consciously. Thus the final arrival of the consequence often brings acceptance, greater self awareness, and relief that the conflict is over.

    Human beings normatively hold irreconcilable beliefs at the same time, but also normatively employ psychological tools (unconsciously for the most part) to resolve the natural tension that arises from such a state. We are also much better at spotting this tension in others than within ourselves. In other words, cognitive dissonance is the normative state of the fallen human being as is ignorance and a blindness to oneself. It is trivial to spot this dynamic in our everyday public discourse.

    In my mind then the question becomes: if the salvation of man rests on individual “free will” choice are human beings psychologically equipped to make such choices? For any observant person the answer should be no, clearly not. Who then wouldn’t join with the disciples in asking the Lord “who then can be saved?”. The tyrant in any formulation of eternal damnation or annihilation is not God, but man’s debased and clouded will, the supposed vehicle of loving relationship which instead drives virtually all men straight into the heart of Hell while they simultaneously perform the mental gymnastics necessary to convince themselves that all is well. God cannot be the tyrant, for it is not God who is sovereign in this scenario but man, and man is a mad king. God becomes impotent the moment he releases man to his own defective intellectual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual mess. From the moment man falls all is lost and creation can never be healed.

    St. Maximus’ articulation of the gnomic will perfectly captures our state, but it also points to the reality that the healing of man and all creation requires God by grace to deliver us from our own incapability. If God is Being, Goodness, and Love, and evil has no real existence in itself and thus no part in God, and God is uncircumscribed, infinite, and unconstrained in exercising his divine will, and God wills that all be saved, and man’s salvation, freedom, and purpose is only found in union with God, all bedrock Christian dogma, then the promised restoration of man becomes inevitable for all of man, all of the created order. The problem lies in our sense that freedom requires libertarian free choice, a concept rendered absurd by the reality we live in every day. We all obviously make choices in some sense of that word, but they are just as obviously often made in ignorance and coercion, a bondage not initiated by God but by a tangled mass of factors that result from our fallen state.

    My conclusion from this is that our conception of human freedom is off-kilter. God’s will and man’s freedom cannot rationally be at odds with one another. To be free is to be in union with God, God’s will must by definition be accomplished, and if one thing is clear in all of scripture and Christian teaching it is that God wills the healing and deliverance of that which he has wrought in love. If we ask how we can be saved then Christ has already supplied the answer: “For man it is impossible, but for God all things are possible”. If I can’t see how man’s freedom reconciles with man’s inevitable union with God then it is my own limitation that is operative.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I suspect a common Christian belief is a not-particularly-closely-analysed *near* universalism: assuming that at least some irredeemable, appalling sinners of some kind may probably find themselves damned, but not in practice encountering anyone that one could actually envision going there, and having sufficient faith and love in God to assume that in one’s own case he will somehow make it alright in the end.
    It also seems to me that a second common viewpoint derived from a lively belief in hell as the likely destination of a large part or most of mankind is simply to abandon the concept of spiritual edification entirely. The theology just divides people into the “saved” and the “damned” according to their signing up to the principles and faith statements of the correct religious or denominational “team”. There’s not actually much you need to worry about so long as you are a member of the right church in good standing, and you are positively encouraged to not care about the fate of anyone else.
    Both solve the “doxastic problem” in their own way (although the latter arguably not without cost to any genuine Christian sentiment).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Steven says:

      Your first paragraph sounds similar to what Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical “Saved in Hope”, where he speculated about whether the majority of humanity (being neither heroically good nor appallingly bad) might in the end be saved.

      Like

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        It seems to me that this “near universalism” is the only way of reconciling retaining a dogmatic requirement to believe in hell with a believer’s actual experience of a trusted, loving God.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. William says:

    A conjecture: If one understands freedom (or the most ultimate and lasting kind of freedom) not as being able to “do otherwise,” but rather as being unimpeded by the ignorance/belief/delusion/passion/whatnot that typically keeps a person from doing what is good (or even just what is good for himself or herself), then one might understand a genuine belief in eternal hell that compels one to do what is reasonable by making every possible effort to avoid it not as coercion or compulsion but rather as a genuine unshackling (if eternal hell is true).

    Another conjecture that would maybe negate the previous conjecture: It may not be possible to truly believe in eternal damnation in the same way it is possible to believe in Christ — because one believes in Christ on the basis of an experience of Christ (even if that experience is imperceptible to the conscious mind, faith exists because there is encounter and God’s presence, grace), whereas we in this world have no real experience, perceived or unperceived, of eternal damnation (notwithstanding maxims that suggest that life in this world gives us a taste of hell, etc.; there’s no “grace” of hell that visits us … even a vision of hell is temporary and ends with respite and relief). Even the forms of “damnation,” grief and misery we experience in this life typically can’t completely shut out glimpses of consolation and beauty, so it seems (people have better days and worse days), and that likely renders people unable to to genuinely conceive of an eternal hell (and therefore unable to have a genuine belief in it), despite our ability to describe it most gruesomely.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree, William. I believed in the choice model for all of my parochial ministry. I didn’t preach on hell frequently, but on the occasions that I did, I declared it in the form of threat, warning, and summons to repentance. Clearly hell is not a piece of innocuous information. To cut oneself off from the love and communion of God is to descend into misery. We already know this existentially. I suspect many of us know hell all too intimately.

      So then I ask myself, given my universalist convictions, what would change in my preaching? Probably nothing at all! When it is appropriate or needful to declare the warning of damnation, then I will do so as forcefully as I can. My congregation needs to know the consequences of sin and selfishness. The question of hell’s eternality is irrelevant, because for the person in the depths of infernal misery, every moment will feel like an eternity. The preacher will have plenty of other Sundays to speak of the love and mercy of God.

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  6. Grant says:

    Like Matthew above I know quite intimately the devastation a full belief in eternal torment brings into your life. I’ve related this before, so I’ll detail to much, but becoming a Christian I assumed belief in eternal torment was a no negotiable belief I had to accept, and due to suffering from OCD I ended up convinced I was damned to hell. I lived that life for at least twelve years, it isn’t that much of a hyperbole to say that that constant fixation and fear destroyed much of my life and paralyzed me, I ended up running from everything Christian, suicidal but able to take my life, as what would be the point, I would just go from current misery to even worse misery and never-ending, mind-destroying agony to be the cherry on the top, but even not killing myself only meant dealing that inevitability. Even now I don’t think I have, or will anytime soon recovery from the long term depression and affect on my mentally that had on me, or how it affected my relationships, my job and my life. I’ll never get those years back, I’ll never get the joy it rob and stole from me, and even after I realized what was wrong with me personally, I still worried about everyone else, and knowing most would also be in never-ending agony (what is the worst kind of suffering and death here, our worst cruelties to that). It was hard to worship or love God, after-all it was only out of fear that I would serve Him, in terror for what He would do to me or to those I loved, I found annihilation first and found a degree of relief there, but it was only in both discovering universalism, and being convinced of it (for my just wanting it to be true is meaningless, if I did not truly think it to be true I would deceiving myself, and worse, others from the ugly truth of reality and our horrific and hopeless situation most of us were probably in). But I did, and it released me from a terrible fear, and more then that a terrible view of God, reality and other people, it has allowed me to love God and others again, and follow not out of some gun to my head, and just prudential fear, but out of genuine love and faith. And I can respond to the suffering around me, the terrible things that happen to people, that blight their lives, that hurt creation, and respond both with compassion but also sure hope, that this isn’t of God, and it isn’t the end of the story and all will get back what was stolen and lost, and nothing will be lost in the end, and that all shall be well, Lazarus does not and will not stay in the tomb.

    Since then, I have meet others who lives have been similarly destroyed by this belief, helping to ruin their lives and mental heath, destroy relationships and so on, leaving them hopeless and lost, so I think any version of it is destructive.

    I also tend to believe that either Christians believe it, and become so locked in fear their are either completely overwhelmed by that terror for themselves and everyone else it ruins their lives, and they either break and flee Christianity or end up keeping it up out of sheer fear and terror hoping that God might yet spare them or those they love. There is little love in this, and none able to respond to God or to be felt from God, for these it turns talk to love sour and twists it into it’s opposite, far from perfect love casting out fear, terror casts out love. Then there are those whole become calloused and even rejoice in the doctrine of eternal torment, of course convinced that they themselves are definitely among the saved. They rejoice in being among the exclusive club, in this case the ultimate one, they will the exclusive gated community for all eternity, and they rejoice in not only the fact they will have this, but the need for there to be the those who are lost whole be envious of them for all eternity. They are those who presently find joy in the thought of others, often those they dislike, tormented and tortured and in misery forever, and even of themselves rejoicing over this pain and torture. These are worse than the first, and more frightening state to find oneself in, my God protect us all from this, and deliver those who are from such a terrible enslavement to darkness (thankfully He will).

    The rest of Christians don’t belief in eternal torment, even when they say they do, and argue strongly for it. They actions and lives tell a different story, they do not live as if many, probably most of the 7 billion people alive today are going to never-ending existence worse than any concentration camp, an unlike that having not end (and for annihilationists that but with it’s ultimate end). If you truly believed this, why waste your time on anything else, family, jobs, pleasures, when people are dying everyday, why would you not be bagging on every door, spending your time frivolities or arguing finer points of theology, watching TV, streaming internet and so on. Making hobbies, friendships, I mean if a flood was about to hit your area, would you be doing this, if someone was dying outside your door you wouldn’t spend your days ignoring it, and would considering anyone that did horrible. And occasional evangelical work wouldn’t cut it either, none if Christians truly believed it, they would act like it, and spend everything in their lives towards this, after all the stakes are infinite. Truth is though, most Christians don’t believe it, and the few that do end up in one of the above camps, or end up just leaving Christianity altogether, because they realize what it says about God Himself, a God who sets up creation like that (and worse even requires evil, intends it, for the ultimate ends of this creation) isn’t the Good at all, isn’t Love, and isn’t worthy of worship at all. As Calvin had both the clarity and honesty to say, such a God is not love at all, but only as towards and as experienced by the blessed.

    But that is direct attack against central Christian Dogma, God is the Good, He is Love, and eternal torment is the doctrine that has never fit comfortable, and most Christians in their lives and actions don’t believe it, because it isn’t true, God isn’t like that. He both can and will save all, and everyone and everything destiny to to be full, free and dynamic loving relationship with Him. Eternal torment is wrong, and St Paul is right, Christ has defeated death and He will destroy it, Life will reign eternal, freedom will reign eternal, not death, it as will the old things of the fallen order will be swept away, and God will be all in all, not in part. And in freedom (as only from the heart and by the Spirit to salvation as St Paul tells us in Romans can we cry Jesus is Lord) will all acknowledge Christ is Lord and enter into the Kingdom that God has prepared, no matter how long and what route it takes.

    We don’t need to fear, for ourselves or anyone else, and are free to love fearlessly, because He has overcome the Cosmos.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Add one more to the list of people who wrecked their lives because their whole view of God and the resultant actions was one of fear. After a young life of deep sin, I was “saved” by the ministry of a Fundamentalist/Pentecostal street preacher. And while God did use this man to deliver me from the insane, sin-filled life I was living, and has given me 50 undeserved years of the peace I was looking for in drugs, there were still repercussions to the kind of preaching I heard on a constant basis. One of the repercussions was the loss of my children to the Christian faith. What child in their right mind wants a God who is not love, but ever threatening, ever angry, ever going to throw you into hell for the slightest misstep or sin? And in the last couple of years, in beginning to really understand the depths of God’s mercy and look over my life, I realize that my actions have been mostly from fear of punishment rather than love for Christ and what He did for me. Fifty years of this crappola may be impossible to turn around in this life, but I am trying. I want to serve and love our Lord for one reason – He is utterly beautiful and loveable, not because I’m afraid that last night I took one too many bites of Hagen Daz and now I am destined for hell for being a glutton.

    As for the theology which has birthed this monstrous vision of God – as far as I am concerned, it can’t die fast enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tita Deacon says:

    I have jocularly called the state of misery in ‘Heaven’, the suffering of the losers in the revealed glory of God, ‘Drawing Room Hell’. It’s a dodge, plain and simple. It imagines a God who has set up a rule for Himself, and then follows it whatever evil results, pretending to be impotent to assist, heal, or shield those who cannot sustain His presence. The change of costume from red devils to white robes and bright lights does nothing whatever to relieve God of the gravamen of irrational cruelty.
    Since it’s so damaging to preach this, why in the world is it so common? Because it supports the intentions of domination of preachers, catechists, and leaders.

    Like

  9. John H says:

    Father Aidan,

    Excellent observations. I also think that both the traditional model of hell and the divine presence model may cause angry rejections by many people of Christianity. Do you think that may have something to do with the fact that so many young people now think of themselves as “Nones” in terms of religious belief and denomination affiliation?

    In my youth, I was a religious pluralist because I found the traditional teachings of Roman Catholicism to be unpalatable primarily because of the bleak nature of Catholic eschatology. And so I drifted away from Western religion, ironically finding the philosophy of Buddhism to be much more appealing. After all there was no problem being both a Buddhist and universalist or even a Buddhist and an atheist.

    Thank God for blogs like Eclectic Orthodoxy, patristic scholars like Ramelli and theologians such as Hart who demonstrate that the terms “Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis” and “Christian Universalism” are not oxymorons.

    Like

  10. Zach Manis says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    Thank you for this final installment of your review. One last time, I’d like to offer a (hopefully brief!) response.

    You raise the question:

    “Yet is it true that the doctrine of hell does not function as a threat in the choice model? Only, I would think, if freely-chosen hell is never declared from the pulpit or taught in catechism classes. But once it is so declared and taught, it will always be heard as a threat, a threat not of retributive punishment but of the possibility of irrecoverable failure. The coercive exhortation remains: ‘Repent or be damned.’”

    I wonder if our disagreement at this point comes down to conflicting intuitions about what counts as coercion. I find the following thought experiment helpful in sorting through one’s intuitions about what constitutes coercion. (This is from the book, p. 261-63 f. 25, where I discuss the point in relation to Michael Murray’s view.) Imagine a concerned father who explains to his adolescent son the natural consequences of long-term methamphetaime use, in full and graphic detail, hoping thereby to deter his son from experimenting with the drug, solely out of concern for his son’s well-being. On your view – if I have understood it correctly – this would count as coercion.

    Is that correct?

    If so, then I think the concept of coercion is being applied too broadly. Note that when we accuse someone of coercion, we’re applying a negative judgment; we’re implying that they’ve done something they *ought not* to have done. Would we really want to say this about the father in the above thought experiment? If not, then why would we say this about God in a scenario where He reveals to us the natural consequences of our sin?

    Note, further, that if we *do* say this about God in a scenario where He reveals to us the natural consequences of our sin, it would follow that God acts coercively even on a (serious) universalist view. I take it that all Christian universalists agree that sin has devastating natural consequences, and thus that God acts wisely and lovingly in sternly warning us to avoid sin. But how can this be wise and loving if it’s coercive?

    This brings us to a second problem. Continuing the passage above, you write:

    “The love of God and his optimal grace are indeed proclaimed in the choice model, but my eternal happiness remains contingent upon the exercise of my free will. I still must do something: I must repent, I must accept God’s forgiveness, I must open my heart to the Spirit, I must become the kind of person who will gratefully receive the freely-offered divine love—always under the threat of interminable suffering.”

    Again, the irony of this critique is that it applies equally to any serious version of universalism. (Here we are coming back to the same discussion we had in a previous post.) Consider the following proposition: “The wicked are consigned to hell (either upon death or at the Day of Judgment), where they remain *until* they repent, accept God’s forgiveness, receive the Spirit, etc.” Would you accept this proposition? Unless I’ve seriously misunderstood your view, you do accept this. But then, the problem remains: the suffering of the damned is interminable *for as long as they hold out in their rebellion* — that is to say, *until* they perform / participate in these free actions of repentance, etc. – and thus their eternal happiness is still contingent upon their exercise of free will.
    In short, once the concept of coercion is expanded to this degree, *every* serious view of hell, including Christian universalism, will face an insurmountable problem of coercion.

    I don’t think this problem is insurmountable, because I don’t think divine *warnings* about the natural consequences of sin counts as coercion. And if not, then all of the best non-retributive views – including the choice model, natural consequence annihilationism, free will annihilationism, the divine presence model, and universalism – are in the clear with respect to this particular doxastic problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Zach, I was just reading a FB conversation earlier today about my above article, where one philosopher was insisting that even under the retributive model of perdition, the person remains free, despite the consequential severity of the threat of hell. She has a clearly defined, limited understanding of freedom and coercion and therefore rejects the intimation that the threat in any way compromises human freedom. In response to her, I argued that even if were to accept her definition of freedom, the doxastic argument, as you present it, is not necessarily subverted. We would still evaluate differently actions performed under the threat of hell and actions performed in its absence.

      I agree with you that the threat of damnation works differently under the choice model. Does this threat qualify as coercion? I suppose it depends on how we define the word.

      You ask me if I agree with the statement that in the universalist model the damned remain in hell until they repent. Yes. The difference (and this is where I differ, say, from Tom Talbott and others) is that I believe that the gospel is properly proclaimed in a performative mode of unconditional promise, which therefore puts the threat of hell in a different context or framework. Consider, for example, a real life pastoral situation talking to an individual trapped in utter despair. “I’m going to hell,” the person says. “I know it and not even God can rescue me.” The choice theorist will be forced to admit, “Alas, you may be right. God respects your freedom to choose a life of torment and darkness.” But the unconditional gospel theorist is authorized by God to say, “In the name of Jesus I tell you that God will never abandon you and will find a way, even in the outer darkness, to deliver you from your despair into freedom and eternal life.” That word of indomitable hope is the only possible word that might liberate that individual from his despair and open up for him a new future.

      My challenge to you and your fellow philosophers is this: consider how the various models of hell translate into first- and second-person communication. It is, of course, descriptively true that our salvation depends upon our free will and the fulfillment of all sorts of conditions; but once I begin declaring those conditions in exhortational or prescriptive form, I destroy the possibility of a truly loving and grateful response from my hearers. Would you ever say to your wife, “Darling, I love you, but you know that you have to accept my love if you are ever going to enjoy its benefits”? At the very least, the speaking of the condition is going to destroy the romance of your romantic evening. 😎

      Liked by 1 person

      • Zach Manis says:

        I don’t think the imagined conversation would (or should) go the way you’ve described for the choice model theorist. To the one who says despairingly, “I’m going to hell, and not even God can rescue me,” the choice model theorist most certainly should NOT say “Alas, you may be right,” but rather, “NO! God CAN and most certainly WILL save you, if you will just turn and receive Him.”

        And in fact, the universalist should say *exactly the same thing*. It would be at best misleading, and at worst really destructive, to suggest to the despairing one that his/her salvation will be achieved *regardless* of whether s/he ever repents, accepts Christ, etc. After all, on a serious universalist view, there is no possibility of a person’s escaping hell *for as long as s/he persists in sin and rebellion*. There is no skipping past repentance, regeneration, sanctification, etc., since each of these is a necessary part of the process of salvation. That’s why (as I’ve said before) salvation is “conditional” even on a universalist view. And that’s why there’s nothing unloving in presenting it as such.

        So I reject the claim that declaring the conditions of salvation “in exhortational or prescriptive form” will “destroy the possibility of a truly loving and grateful response” from the hearer. If that were the case, it would spell serious trouble not only for the choice model and the divine presence model, but for universalism too.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thanks, Zach, for this comment. I think we have hit an impasse—two conflicting intuitions regarding the gospel of Christ. I have to concede that mine is a minority view, strongly influenced by Robert W. Jenson, Thomas F. Torrance, James B. Torrance, and Karl Barth. I know that 99% of my fellow Orthodox are shaking their heads. They no doubt agree with every word you have written in your above comment. “Fr Aidan, why are you taking your clue from theologians influenced by the Protestant reformers? Manis is simply describing synergism (albeit in an Arminian idiom),” I can hear them saying. I hope you can appreciate the irony for both of us.

          I firmly believe that the risen Jesus Christ never takes our no as the final answer. He will always find a way to turn our hearts to him. And if this is true, then we may, and must, speak a word of unconditional hope to sinners.

          Thank you again for engaging in this discussion with me and other readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy. It is greatly appreciated! 👍👍👍

          Liked by 1 person

          • Zach Manis says:

            Thank you, Fr. Aidan, for this excellent series of reviews, and for your willingness to discuss these important philosophical and theological issues with me. And thanks to all the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy who have joined in the discussions!

            Blessings to you,
            zm

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A thought just occurred to me regarding the father explaining to his son the dangers of drug use—and this in support of your position, Zach: if we keep in mind that we are talking about doxastic situations where the choice-model threat of hell is truly, genuinely, deeply appropriated by the person, then for that person to truly appreciate the threat is to fully understand see how the good God wishes for him (namely, eternal bliss) is identical to the good that person truly desires for himself (namely, supreme happiness). At that moment the threat ceases to be threat, and the doxastic problem disappears. At that moment of illumination the person has embraced God as Love.

      And yet the consuming existential worry may also continue and collapse back into dread and despair, given our abiding bondage to self and sin.

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      • Edward A. Hara says:

        This is all nice and good, however, for the person who has spent a lifetime making one shitty decision after another which have violently and terribly impacted his life, with nothing coming from heaven to say “HOLD ON!!! DON’T DO THAT!!” there is a terrible inner voice that says “God really doesn’t care about YOU so much as He cares about His own glory.”

        This is the view I encountered in Calvinism, i.e., that the glory of God is everything and supersedes all things, even care for what Screwtape I believe described as “miserable bags of flesh.” or something to that effect. We are just lice on the planet, and if God chooses to save a few of them…..meaaaaah, that’s to His glory and to hell with the rest, literally.

        What I am trying to say is that after 60+ conscious years of imbibing the poison of “God loves you ONLY when you do ___________ or _______________ or ____________” embracing such an unconditional love is a very hard thing. Attach to that the seeming indifference of God to human suffering on this wretched little planet and you have real fodder for a forest fire of intellectual atheism or at least disbelief that God really is love.

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  11. I have very much enjoyed this series, Father. These reflections magnify the problem of man’s freedom in relation to God’s providence so that we can analyze the practical, spiritual implications, specifically, determining our object of hope. I think the free choice model when taken to its conclusion precludes an authentic act of theological hope.

    The paradox of man’s freedom and God’s providence can drive a man insane (I know a guy). The free choice model which I learned from C.S. Lewis (pace my hero!) was of no help to me. Ultimately, if God’s love for us will be torture for those who choose lesser goods over the Good, then our hope in God cannot be the last word. The final ground of our hope would be in our own choice. At bottom we would have to hope in our own final decision. For the person who has failed throughout his life, fallen into grave sin, learning to trust in one’s own power to choose rightly leads to despair. But for the pharisee, he is sure he will be saved because he trusts his own good will, especially when it comes to the things of God. The free choice model leaves us with two choices: either embrace despair or pride.

    Authentic hope in God (God as the ground of hope) is only possible if we place our final decision for salvation in God. In other words, our final “yes” to God (whether here or on the other side) finds its ultimate ground in God himself.

    My addicted son knows I love him. He knows I will do anything for him. And yet my son’s hope fails because, ultimately, it’s up to him. He knows himself. He can’t escape. I can’t look at my him and honestly tell him: “I am going to fix this. Trust me.” This statement alone will give my son hope.

    For the tortured soul the Gospel must be: “I am going to fix this. Trust me.”

    Liked by 3 people

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