by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.
As I noted in my first post, David Hart’s moral objection to what he calls “infernalism” is important but raises questions about the nature of epistemic and theological authority. In this post, I’ll highlight what I think are visible seams in Hart’s moral argument. Most basically, I don’t think Hart’s moral argument is really an objection to Hell as such, given the reality of sin. His moral argument raises bigger questions about the kinds of creatures God creates, and about why God creates at all.
Infernalism or Proportionalism (Or Restorative Justice)?
Hart’s chosen label for the position he opposes — “infernalism” — is rhetorically brilliant but stacks the moral deck. “Infernalism” calls to mind an “inferno,” a Hell that burns each and every person in it alive forever. The thought of anyone being burned alive forever (or at all) is, of course, morally revolting. And it’s true that, to some extent or another — often to a large extent — this is precisely what many traditionalists imagined and many fundamentalists still imagine Hell to be. But as Hart acknowledges, this is not the whole of the “traditional” position. Some thought of the “flames” of Hell as the experience of God’s glory by a person unable to love. Many, including a key bête noire for Hart, Thomas Aquinas, imagined Hell to contain degrees of punishment.
On the question of degrees of punishment, Aquinas responded to an objection based on a quote from Gregory the Great: “There is indeed but one hell fire, but it does not torture all sinners equally. For each one will suffer as much pain according as his guilt deserves” (ST III.97.5 Obj. 3). Aquinas’ response to this objection remained facially gruesome. It literally involved “degrees,” since Aquinas imagined God adjusting the intensity of the flames with a sort of Thermostat of Justice based on the magnitude of the sinner’s wrong: “although fire is not able, of its own power, to torture certain persons more or less, according to the measure of sin, it is able to do so nevertheless in so far as its action is regulated by the ordering of Divine justice: even so the fire of the furnace is regulated by the forethought of the smith, according as the effect of his art requires” (ST III.97.5 Reply 3). But, cloaked as it was in literal language about Hell’s flames, Aquinas’ fundamental point remains vitally important: Hell is proportionate to each individual person in it, never the least bit excessive, always perfectly regulated by justice.
With the concept of proportion in mind, it’s particularly surprising that Hart refers to Dante as an example of the moral depravity of any traditional idea of Hell. Indeed, the label “infernalism” invokes Dante’s Inferno. It’s true that Dante imagined some gruesome punishments, but these are literary devices, drawn from a harsher cultural-judicial context, and often quite amusing in how they poke fun at hypocritical Popes and Cardinals. The bigger point for Dante is that Hell — and Purgatory, and Paradise — contain multitudes of degrees of punishment or beatitude, each perfectly appropriate to the person. The Inferno has to be read in conjunction with the Paradiso. Some of the blessed in Paradise are not as blessed as others, but they aren’t sad about it, because the blessedness they enjoy is perfectly in proportion to who they were and are.
For Aquinas and Dante, then, it is not that every person in Hell suffers the maximal amount of agony that any human person could possibly suffer for all of eternity. To be sure, Aquinas said the pains of Hell are not bearable for anyone, but the key point is that they are nevertheless proportionate. And Dante’s vision, in its own way, is really quite modern: each individual person, from the deepest depths of Hell through the highest heights of Paradise, and at every myriad stop in between, receives only what he or she deserves, nothing more, and nothing less.
So let’s acknowledge that Augstine and Aquinas’ speculations about the precise nature and magnitude of the flames of Hell take the Biblical metaphors too literally, and reflect the ugly context of an age when tortures and burnings at the stake were thought appropriate forms of judicial punishment. Outside of fundamentalism, few theologians today who consider themselves traditionalists would argue that God literally burns people alive for eternity. The primary point such traditionalists take from Aquinas et al. is that, however we might understand the Biblical metaphors of fire, the punishments of Hell are entirely proportionate and just, never more, nor less, than each individual sinner in Hell deserves. In the modern legal sense of the term, this understanding of Hell does not involve torture at all. “Torture,” by definition, is disproportionate and unjust — “cruel and unusal punishment,” to use the American Constitutional lingo.
Perhaps then we should modify Hart’s rhetoric: let’s call the “traditional” view of Hell “proportionalism” rather than “infernalism.” The notion that justice is proportionate — that to do justice is to “render to each person his or her due” — is at the core of the classical understanding of justice. I don’t think Hart wants to dispose entirely of this classical understanding of justice. In fact, Hart seems happy to allow that many, or most, or all people will be punished in the next life, often very painfully and harshly, and perhaps for eons upon eons, in accordance with their due. His real problem, I think, is not that the punishments some people are due might be harsh in accordance with the gravity of their wrongs. His problem is that in the “infernalist” view the punishments are eternal. It is not the kind of punishment Hart seems most concerned about, it is the duration of punishment.
I could be wrong about this observation. It’s unclear to me whether Hart rejects the idea of punitive and retributive justice entirely in favor of restorative justice. Maybe this is because I haven’t read carefully enough, or because of Hart’s book at points is more reflective than analytic.
The concept of restorative justice has become popular in legal and theological scholarship in recent decades. Some advocates of restorative justice argue that it is the only reasonable way to think about justice and that older concepts of punitive and retributive justice should be discarded as ancient pre-Enlightenment religious baggage. I’m personally sympathetic to arguments for the centrality of restorative justice, but the claim that this is the only reasonable way to think about justice seems to me overstated and impossible to establish. In any event, if this is part of the series of moves Hart wants to make, I think it has to be stated and defended explicitly.
Time, Death, and Eternity
Assuming Hart agrees that restorative justice is not the sole framework for thinking about justice, his concern about the relationship between temporal wrong and eternal punishment is interesting and important, but more complicated than he suggests. First, Hart is not clear about the relationship between “time” and “eternity” and of any moral relationship between the two. Second, in light of the ambiguous relationship between “time” and “eternity,” and the liminal space of “death,” it is not clear why it must be impossible for anyone ever to merit an eternal punishment. Finally, Hart’s rejection of a key moral justification for the eternity of Hell — the free will argument — depends on a deeply contested understanding of the will and human freedom. I’ll address the first two concerns in the remainder of this post and leave the third one for my final post.
I’ll tackle my first two concerns together because they’re related. In one moving passage in his book, Hart wonders about a person who is in Hell a “trillion years” from now, and then a “gajillion years” after that. But who said there are “years” in Hell? “Time” is a feature of this universe, not a property of God’s being. Indeed, God is timeless. And even in this universe, “time” is relative and not absolute. “Years” are just the way we measure what we experience as the passage of time from our point of reference on this Earth as it circles the Sun. Send a person on a trip away from Earth at light speed, let them return in 300 Earth years, and that person will have aged only the equivalent of about 40 Earth years when they return.
What will “time” and “relatively” look like in the eschatological future? Will an “arrow of time” even be a fundamental part of it? We have no idea. I think there’s a sense here in which Dante was very much ahead of his time, when he pictured the lowest circle of Hell as a state of being frozen in ice. Maybe the subjective experience of the person in Hell a “trillion years” from now is of the slightest moment of sad, frozen longing. (I am drawing here to some extent on Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell [Oxford: OUP 1993].) Maybe the subjective experience of the person in God’s presence “one year” from now is of trillions of years of ecstatic joy. This reflection on the relativity of time even in this universe, and on our inability to know what “time” might be like in the age to come, means the simple formula “a finite wrong cannot result in an infinite punishment” is overly simplistic. The comparison is literally beyond our comprehension.
Another piece of this puzzle that is beyond our full comprehension is the liminal space of “death.” Hart does not discuss a theology of death — what it means for a person to pass from “life” through “death” to “eternity” or the “age to come.” Most of the living, sadly, eventually gain an experience of observing the dying process in another person, but by definition, none of the living have yet personally experienced death. (I mean here, “death” in its finality, not some loss of function that can be revived through CPR or some other technological means, regardless of the validity of any reported near death experience. I’m also setting aside Biblical figures such as Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, from whom we have no testimony about their experiences of death.)
From the perspective of the living, the dying pass relatively quickly. It may happen in the blink of an eye, as in an aneurism or terrible accident, or over weeks or months or longer, as in the last throes of illness or age. It seems, as Hart suggests in his book several times, that the short span of a person’s life cannot form a basis for judgment through the endless ages after death. But what if the passage of “death” itself is not “short” at all for the dying? What if the passage of “death” is the final process of clarity when the love and grace of God are fully disclosed to each of the dying, for as “long” as it might take for this final good to be made fully available? With the preparation of this life (for good or ill) stretching behind, and the future of the eternal ages stretching ahead, does the dying person experience an Archimedean point of final decision? Is the boundary between “life” and “death” in the experience of the dying as thick and timeless as it needs to be for grace to become present? Is that experience, in fact, the experience of meeting Christ in the tomb, between crucifixion and resurrection?
I am echoing here, of course, existential theologies of death and decision such as those developed by Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. (I’ll also refer here to a wonderful book by one of Hart’s endorsers, Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2019). Whatever the merits or demerits of those specific theologies, they do demonstrate reflections on the significance of death that I think Hart glosses over. A theology of death and dying could render the connection between our choices in this life and their eternal consequences in the next less apparently disproportionate or arbitrary.
Merit, Nature, and Grace
These thoughts about time, eternity, and death also raise a related and important question about “merit.” A Christian, whether of an Augustinian bent or not, must acknowledge that no one merits paradise on their own. We need Jesus to save us. The Atonement, however understood, is not optional for us. Justification, however construed, is not something we accomplish without Christ.
If anything like a remedial, non-eternal Purgatory or Hell is true, the basic truth of our need for Christ must remain. The purgative flames would not enable us to overcome our own sins by forging our own superior merits. If we can overcome our own sins by enduring some eons of purgation, then Christ’s death and resurrection are suplusage. Christ would not then be the Victor over sin and death who hands the Kingdom over the Father. He would be at best a kind of sherpa for some on the path to their own purification.
The purpose of the purgative flames must be to reorient our souls so that we are able to receive grace, that is, to receive Christ, to be united with Christ. To reject grace finally, to reject Christ finally, is to lose paradise, that is, to remain in Hell. There would be nothing unjust about this state of affairs if, in fact, someone freely refuses what God so freely offers. It is only to receive what one is due rather than something better than what one is due.
Hart’s response to this is his argument that no rational will can forever refuse the good. This depends on a very particular understanding of the freedom of the will, which I’ll address in my final post. For now, I want to point out that this is not really an argument based on the morality or justice of Hell as such, given the reality of sin. It’s an argument about the kinds of free creatures God may create, God’s purposes for creation, and the goodness of a God who might create a world in which he knows that justice would require some of his creatures to be separated from their final good ends forever. Really, it’s nothing less than the question of the intelligibility of the good and the surd of evil — of why God ever made a universe in which creatures could sin and thereby do experience the deprivations of evil. Maybe Hart is right that the Christian narrative of the perfectly loving and self-subsistent Triune God who freely creates, redeems, and consummates makes no sense if any surd of evil finally remains. Even though I’m inclined to agree, I think I need to acknowledge the enormity of the question and the limits of my human frame. I’ll reflect on that problem in my final post about human freedom and the will.
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David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.