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:
- “Any doctrine revealed in Scripture ought to be genuinely believed, carefully reflected upon, and deeply appropriated” (p. 49).
- “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?