But the Problem of “Infernalism”

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.

(Go to “The Problem of Free Will”)

* * *

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.

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20 Responses to But the Problem of “Infernalism”

  1. DBH says:


    This is mostly a reprise (and a somewhat confused one) of arguments I deal with more than adequately in the book. And it reflects premises that are so inherently absurd that I don’t believe they would convince you if you didn’t feel you had to be convinced. The language is thickly pious, and apparently thick enough to obscure my arguments from you. The theology of death business is entirely beside the point.

    I may get around to replying later today. Or not. The replies are already in my book.

    Oh, Kvanvig’s book is quite poor. I do mention one of his arguments in my book, though without naming him.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DBH says:


    Thanks again, but again I have to say “No.”

    Your arguments here are simply not very strong. You are repeating questions I deal with in the book sufficiently, and you are populating the landscape with red herrings who—enchantingly scaly and glimmery and red though they be—are mere distractions from my arguments (once again). You certainly have identified none of those seams you’re looking for.

    But, of course, I realize that this is the game we’re playing. So I’ll play on to the end.

    Before all else, let me reject out of hand all the business about the theology of death. Who cares? It has absolutely nothing to do with my arguments, and does not qualify them in any way. Nothing in the experience or meaning of death can alter the basic disproportion of which I speak in the book, or touch upon the issues of rationality and freedom, or the issues of God’s creative intentions (etc.), and invoking that theology as some sort of misty mystery that could somehow—if we could only grasp it—make it all somehow make sense is the worst kind of cloudy nonsense. What arguments like this really mean is: If we must have an eternal hell because tradition witlessly tells us so, however absurd the idea really is, we must come up with some way of not making it sound atrocious, so how about dithering on about the mysterious experience of death and how that might magically make us, as finite agents, capable of an existential decision that would literally be impossible by any sane calculus of what a finite free will is and can do… (And, as the saying goes, I have a bridge to sell you.) Unless dying makes us into gods capable of positing ultimate ends for our wills (though what would that mean?), this is irrelevant to my book. The moral equation remains the same.

    Yes, death is a great mystery. Justice not nearly so much of one as you suggest. There, again, we are back to the questions of the possibility of analogy, the necessary structure of rational free choice, the limited conditions of knowledge, the coinherence of personal identities, the moral meaning of God’s creative act…

    As for diverse proportional degrees of punishment in hell—“few blows, many blows”—that too is beside the point. I will note, however, that in Jesus’s parables about torment, the one tormented gets out when the price is paid. But that is not important. The issue I deal with is not how much or little hell might hurt, but the ultimate eternal loss of creatures, both in respect to their capacities as creatures and in respect to God’s intentions in creating. And I don’t think I should repeat all my arguments about (again) the questions of the possibility of analogy, the necessary structure of rational free choice, the limited conditions of knowledge, the coinherence of personal identities, the moral meaning of God’s creative act…

    One thing mightily annoys me in your argument here, though. Christian rejection of the idea of purely retributive justice (even if proportionate to the wrong, which an eternal hell really could never be) is hardly a post-enlightenment phenomenon. You find it explicitly stated in the fathers again and again, especially in such luminous saints as Isaac the Syrian. This is because they were Christians and felt (not unreasonably) that they should understand justice in terms provided by the New Testament: in Christ forgiving the adulterous woman freely or crying out “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” or telling the parable of the workers who labor but an hour receiving the SAME wages as those who have labored through the day (there’s the answer to Thomas’s proportioned blessedness, by the way) or telling the parable of the prodigal (and so on) or commanding his disciples to think of their heavenly Father by analogy to their own fatherhood; in Paul’s reflections on the wrath of the Law that is put aside by God’s mercy and of the free gift of God’s Charis; and so on. Isaac takes all this as clear evidence of the character of God’s justice and mercy.

    Again, though, it doesn’t really matter. You’re talking about a retribution that simply could not, in any meaningful sense, be earned by a finite agent of rational freedom. And, no, my argument on freedom does not rely on a very particular understanding of freedom. Or, rather, it does: it relies on the logically correct one, the one adopted by all classical Christian tradition. But my arguments in the book are, again, phenomenological, logical, and quite immune to the sort of critique I already see coming in your third installment. In fact, must there be a third installment? (If yes, please spend tonight chanting the phrase “mens rea” like a kind of mantra, in the hope that enlightenment will dawn before tomorrow does.)

    As for the issue of time and eternity: again, this is a distraction. You write:

    “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.”

    Not at all. Not in the least. If I had offered only a simplistic formula, I suppose you might complain (even though the formula is, in fact, formally correct, at least if you add the modifier “justly”). But I did not; I offered an argument of several pages. It is enough to grasp that a finite rational creature remains a finite rational creature only by possessing an intentionality (you don’t need Brentano or Husserl to see this, since both Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus how it to be so a well), and therefore their consciousness—so long as it exists—must have the structure of futurity. But, also again, since the principal issue I am dealing with is one of ultimate, irrecuperable loss, and a “perpetual” state (however conceived) that could never have been the free destination of a rational will.

    As for your very Western (and very, very unbiblical) questions about merit, they too miss the point. In fact, they’re a wee bit on the insulting side. Absolutely no Christian universalist has ever spoken of us surmounting the flames of purgation by our own efforts. Those “flames” (according to Origen, Isaac, Gregory, [fill in the spaces], MacDonald, Bulgakov…) are nothing but a metaphor for the relentless, pitilessly loving grace of God poured out in Christ overcoming our resistance. Those flames are the very work of Christ redeeming the cosmos, the grace he sets free in overcoming the powers above, on earth, below, and in our hearts. They are grace abounding, not an endurance test for the hardy. They are the Spirit conforming us to the one under whom all things are to be ordered, and by whom God will be all in all. You’ve totally flipped the script here, baby. Must you talk like a bloody Calvinist?

    We all need to stop playing games. I assume that you do not really embrace the sort of epistemic and moral nihilism required to believe that the analogy between divine and human justice is quite as difficult as you make it out to be. That contagion of equivocity against which I warn in the book is very real. And you know damned well that the story we are too often asked to swallow uncritically makes only such equivocity possible (and hence evacuates theology of meaning and faith of content): Babies born damned to hell because of an ancestor’s sin, or left to make their way falteringly to hell because of an inherited moral disease they did not induce in themselves, a Father God who permits his children to descend to eternal suffering out of either his amoral desire to demonstrate his sovereignty or out of his respect for an autonomy that could never actually really exist (and on and on and on). You really don’t need to be told how preposterously, obviously illogical the picture is. You just need to be allowed to admit it to yourself.

    Again, your comments do not actually reflect or answer the argument in the book, nor do they qualify the force of that argument in any way. And it is a single argument, that begins on the first page and ends on the last; it is never, as you suggest it is, more reflective than analytic (though it is occasionally both at the same time); if you don’t try to see how it all fits together, then you are going to keep raising questions that have already been answered, or that don’t need to be answered because they aren’t germane.

    Your first installment left me sympathetic but unmoved. This one has left me unsympathetic but moved to despair. We’re not heading in a healthy direction.

    Liked by 6 people


    Thanks again for the dialogue.

    Well, in one sense, fair enough. As I mentioned in response to you in my comments in the first post, this second post doesn’t say anything the book doesn’t address. Perhaps you’re right that I’m too dense to understand how you’ve already conclusively answers them all. Or perhaps, as my first post on “authority” suggests, I’m not willing to say that any one person’s arguments — whether those of a mere acolyte such as myself or those of a true master — could answer this entire thing conclusively. Maybe I think the question is just too big for me, and for anyone, to give a final answer. For me that might be a vice of timidity, or a virtue of humility, or maybe both in any given moment. I certainly don’t think any of these “distractions” prove you wrong. Nothing in any of my posts should be taken to say “Hart is definitely wrong.” But I personally don’t think any of this can be a matter of much more than speculation and probability by any human being, so I don’t think there’s any way for you to prove you’re definitely right. This is why, respectfully, I don’t think reflecting on the chasm of death or the mystery of time and eternity is merely a distraction. There’s no way for any human being to know, for sure, until we die. So I’m back to my basic issue of epistemic authority, which in my judgment, compels me to hedge. There I stand.

    Let me note a few things that your comments foreshadow that are NOT where I’m going:

    (1) I agree that we can and must reason and speak by analogy about the good in relation to God. Milbank once criticized me because I had yet to overcome my “residual Calvinism,” and maybe he was right, but I’m not a voluntarist or a nominalist. That said, as we know, analogy has its limits, often in defining what we can’t say rather than determining what can be said (hence, the need to admit that much of what we affirmatively say is speculation);

    (2) I agree with you about the classical definition of human freedom against the notion of “libertarian” freedom. My questions in the third post are about the much more particular reference to Maximus’ distinction between the natural and the gnomic wills, the view of creation and fall in which Maximus’ distinction is embedded, the surd of Adam’s sin that remains even if Maximus was right, and the relation of all this to a contemporary theology that must account for the natural sciences and therefore to related big questions about realism and idealism;

    (3) I never said retributive justice was the only model of justice on offer in antiquity and certainly not in scripture or the Church Fathers. My question here, I think, is more interesting, though maybe not. Many contemporary legal theorists, along with some theologians (e.g., Moltmann), argue that restorative justice is the _only_ proper way to think about justice. That, it seems to me, is a much bigger ask, and I was curious about your position on it.

    Finally, I think I’ll pass on chanting “mens rea” but perhaps I’ll sit before my icon of Aquinas and chant ignorantia legis neminem excusat while hitting my back with horsehide.


    • DBH says:

      Oh, one thing: No, you’re wrong about death and dying and about the relation of time to eternity. Those are distractions and distractions only. There is no way any reflection on these mysteries can alter the calculus of my argument. Either we are finite rational creatures or we are not. Of course, our imaginations fail at these thresholds. But moral intelligence does not. And, again, when you put the whole argument together…

      Don’t you see what those arguments are? They possess no content. They don’t say anything. They’re simply attempts to fabricate ambiguities or evasions of the real issues, so that we can somehow justify believing things that were never worthy of our belief to begin with.


      • DAVID W OPDERBECK says:

        David, doesn’t your position also entail a theology of death? The death and resurrection of the incarnate Christ, which makes a path through the powers of death for all humanity, until death itself is finally swallowed in victory? Doesn’t that lead us to ask why death is necessary at all?

        John Behr in the book I mentioned seems to take death as a necessary part of this process — I think even with some affinities for process theology. He once recommended to me Henry Novello’s Death as Transformation: A Contemporary Theology of Death — which is very much process theology. Process theology seems to me the Grand Inquisitor’s compost of history applied to Godself.

        So, death as transformation — or death as decision — in either case, we’re working really hard to justify death, aren’t we?


    • Tom says:

      DavidO: “Many contemporary legal theorists, along with some theologians (e.g., Moltmann), argue that restorative justice is the ‘only’ proper way to think about justice. That, it seems to me, is a much bigger ask, and I was curious about your position on it.”

      Wouldn’t any purely punitive orientation to justice contradict established Xan notions of divine simplicity, the unity of the transcendentals in/as God and all his acts? If the good, the true, and the beautiful are truly transcendental, then they qualify all of what we name ‘divine attributes’ revealed in God’s acts, including judgment. But this, it seems, would preclude any purely punitive orientation or function to divine justice, ,for ‘punitive’ names an ‘end’ for which justice is enacted, and all God’s acts are (transcendentally speaking) as loving and benevolent as they are just (in holding us to account of our actions). Hence, the end for which God judges must be the same as that end for which he creates, and loves, and invites, etc. So the only possible way to defend eternal conscious torment as theologically/logically coherent (in classical terms) is if it such a punitive act can be perfectly loving (and good, and true, etc.), and that (if I follow Dr. Hart) is what is inconceivable in Xan terms, for all God is transcendently defines all God’s acts diversely. Justice can never be ‘punitive’ (i.e., have as its end the retributive paying back or evening the score), for God already/always lovingly wills the highest good of all he judges.



    • A short point of response on this thread. On my best day I couldn’t carry DBH’s (or probably yours either) intellectual briefcase, therefore, my commentary is somewhat an act of immense hubris.

      It seems to my unenlightened mind that your basic problem, sir, is that you are a lawyer, and thereby are infested with Roman Courtroom thinking. Such legal inebriation predisposes you to read everything in Scripture in legal terms. In the East, we have no such fascination with the law. Christ is the Great Physician. The Cross is not some payoff to an offended Deity, or a piece of substitionary justice exacted upon the willing Victim. In the East, Christ enters into death and as we sing during Pascha “By death He conquered death.” Death is vanquished because it swallowed life whole, then found it had destroyed itself.

      If you ever get out of the Western mode of thinking and embrace the East, you will understand. I read that Ilaria Ramelli’s next book will have to do with the politics of hellism, which anyone who has even slightly understood the history of the Roman Catholic Church, will understand had a great deal to do with scaring the massa damnata into obedience.

      And now, having said this, Brother Hart’s book arrived in the mail today and I must be about perusing it.


  4. DBH says:

    Skip the horsehide. It’s not nearly as helpful as it sounds

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom Talbott says:

    With respect to the issue of whether there are degrees of punishment in hell, here is a comment I make on that subject in ILG (2nd ed.), page 142. My context—the absurd idea that every sin against God is infinitely serious—is slightly different from the one here. But I thought I would share it anyway. Here it is:

    “Many Christians do, it is true, speculate that gradations of punishment exist in hell; some sinners, they suggest, may experience greater pain than others, and some places in hell may be hotter than others. . . . [But if] all of the sinners in hell are dead in the theological sense, if all have lost forever everything that might make life worth living, then all have received essentially the same punishment: everlasting separation from God and a permanent loss of happiness. And the idea that all sins deserve essentially the same punishment undermines perhaps the most important intuition behind the retributive theory: the intuition that some offenses merit less severe punishments than others do. We would hardly regard a king who executes every law-breaker, the jaywalker no less than the murderer, as just; nor would we feel much better if, in an effort to fit the punishment to the crime, the king should reserve the more humane forms of execution for the jaywalker.”

    Liked by 5 people


      Thomas, good to have a chance to interact with you as well. I admire your work. In one sense I agree with you. Aquinas talks about gradations of punishment but also about Hell being equally impossible for anyone to bear, which seems to make the gradations irrelevant. But he also talks about the Limbo of the Infants and the retention of “natural” happiness in contrast to the happiness of beatitude, which seems less severe, and that tradition as in Dante sometimes thinks of Limbo as the highest circle of Hell. So a great deal will depend on how you define “Hell.” You’re defining Hell to mean there _can’t_ be real gradations in punishment, which begs the question.

      If the notion of proportionality is going to do any work at all it has to mean that there is a real difference in experience and that God is not totally absent in Hell. I don’t see why that would be a problem. If Hell is not eternal and is purgative, then God is not absent in Hell. Indeed he is present in Hell, or rather his presence itself is Hell for the unready; the experience of his presence effects purgation, and the chastisement is proportional to the need for purgation. The difference is that both proportionality and (in DBH’s view) the Christian doctrine of creation require that the purgation eventually come to an end. If Hell is eternal, then presumably God is also still there, and there is therefore still some measure of grace, or else the annihilationists are right (maybe they are), because by definition there can’t be any place where God is not.

      So the real question isn’t whether there is a possible understanding of “Hell” that could make differences in punishment truly meaningful. It seems to me the real questions are whether an _eternal_ punishment could ever truly be “proportional” no matter how otherwise mild, and whether the failure of any rational creature finally to return to its rest in God destroys a meaningful concept of freedom, the goodness of God, and the goodness of creation.


      • Tom says:

        DavidO: It seems to me the real questions are [1] whether an ‘eternal’ punishment could ever truly be “proportional” no matter how otherwise mild, and [2] whether the failure of any rational creature finally to return to its rest in God destroys a meaningful concept of freedom, the goodness of God, and the goodness of creation.

        Forgive me for jumping in uninvited. Regarding your first real question, David, there seems no coherent way to make irrevocable-eternal suffering a “proportional” (just) consequence of finite offense. Once we posit unending/infinite suffering, are we are into a qualitative notion of suffering (regardless of degree of severity) which categorically escapes any ambiguities in understanding regarding how one dies or what the temporal nature of postmortem judgment might be. It seems you take these ambiguities justify positing the mortal intelligibility of infinite suffering.

        Your 2nd real question there seems to assume that rational creatures can finally refuse to rest in God (which is the point to debate), but maybe you’re just asking whether supposing such refusal contradicts meaningful notions of free choice (et. al.). I’m a stubborn advocate of ‘libertarian’ choice (rightly understood as liberty of the will ‘within’ the horizon of a finally irresistible teleology). But we can never understand God and ourselves enough to construct a refusal of God that merits irrevocable suffering.

        Perhaps the mechanics (the ‘how to’) one should be passionate about exploring ought to be the mechanics of ‘choice’ needed to merit eternal suffering, and that in this case not being able to do so cannot constitute the kind of ambiguity that permits people to hold contrary views on an issue. Looking forward to your 3rd installment.



      • Tom Talbott says:

        Hi David,

        Thanks for your response. As I said before, I make no claim that my own remarks above are particularly relevant to the battle of the Davids going on here. For the context of my own remarks was the claim of some that every sin against the infinitely great God is infinitely serious and thus deserves an infinite punishment. For my own part, however, the idea of gradations of punishment makes perfectly good sense, so long as the punishment has an intelligible point and furthers the cause of a sinner’s ultimate redemption. I also agree with you that God is present in hell; as I have explicitly stated, it is God, not Satan, who rules in the Lake of Fire. See the section in ILG entitled “Two Very Different Images: The Lake of Fire and the Outer Darkness” on pages 185-189.


  6. earsofc says:

    Hey! I wrote a book talking all about this stuff. Any interested in further reading should check it out – Ears of Corn, available on amazon or at wipfandstock, by PC Mullen. (Both Tom’s have it! :P)

    Dr. Opderbeck, I did have a question. You take great stock in tradition, conceding even that, if all your moral judgments are mistaken, and if your personal God-conscience tells you that a Good God really could not create an eternal hell, you would still side with tradition, and against the still small inner voice. If this is so, why try to weigh the matter yourself in the first place? You know what the majority of tradition says. It says many (some? even one though is infinitely too many) will suffer unimaginable agony forever. If you are willing to believe that *no matter what* your conscience tells you, I don’t understand the attempt to engage the question existentially, by calling your own heart to the bar of judgment.

    Which brings me to another question. *What could the Bible say – or tradition, or anyone – that you would not believe?* If it could literally say anything – and if it could not, aren’t you invoking some subjective standard which pronounces that such-and-such is a state of affairs just too terrible for God to create? – if, as I said, the Bible could literally attribute any conceivable intention to God, or state of will towards his creation, cannot you believe in any God at all? How is one’s own heart any more of itself drawn to the Eternal Love, if it can be steered towards any idol, by the abstract and tradition-loving intellect? I am not accusing you of idolatry. I am only wondering – because I wondered it myself till I wanted to die from the question – how you are giving yourself a chance to have a real faith in that God within you, if you would take the word of an outside source, from wherever it came, *over* the word of God that has been born in your heart?

    Secondly, what do you think about the fact that, even if you side with tradition, the “hell” that you seem to think possible, is not near the hell that tradition has upheld. Tradition has described hell as a place of unspeakable, unending, conscious torment – Augustine and Aquinas (as I’m sure you know) holding literal flames being involved. They believe the damned will wish they were never born; they will hate their existence, be in unspeakable agony, and know without doubt they shall never escape (to be able to doubt this would involve them having hope, which can find no place in a soul forsaken by God.) It seems to me, if you’re going to go with tradition, why not go all the way? Is it because you just can’t bring yourself to believe such a thing? If so, are you not already letting the authority of tradition fade a bit into the background?

    I end with a quote from my book.

    “Jesus taught us to look upon God as the universe’s loving Creator and
    Father, who notices even the fall of the sparrow. Therefore we believe that
    the whole thing has sprung from his all glorious, triumphant, infinitely creative and omnipotent heart. Whatever is, in whatever manner it is, ex-
    ists only insofar as our God has first given it its *is*. All things are, simply through the divine *yes*. Doubtless the creation is infused with potencies
    which respond better when they align themselves with his will. Still, even
    these very potencies receive their *could-be* from his hand. Thus, God is only
    resisted insofar as he has created such a thing to be able to resist him in the
    first place. Yet God has not decided, nor could he have since he cannot deny himself, to be able to be resisted forever. No could-be from God could be *ultimately* evil. If God can be thwarted for a time, even this thwarting is only made to serve his glory—therefore the creature’s glory, therefore the uni-
    verse’s glory. Because of the divine creative choice—because what is made comes from an all-loving and powerful Maker—the evil which may infect
    the universe must necessarily be finite and limited. It must finally, of necessity, serve the good. Since we have this God—the Christian God, the God of Jesus, who comes to us with a Father’s face—the freedom to do evil can
    never result in infinite harm or corruption. Even the evil of an individual
    choosing thing must be woven into the divine harmony of life everlasting.
    Otherwise evil would be as strong in its direction as good is. Evil would be
    as powerful as good—as good as good—for it, like good, would be power itself. But this cannot be. Evil cannot be both the living fruit and the rottenness which plagues it. Sin and its effects cannot be equally counterbalanced with righteousness and its effects. Therefore whatever comes of sin cannot
    be eternal and infinite. Such must be bent to the glory and beauty of God.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • dbecke says:

      That isn’t exactly what I said. What I said is that the tradition (and scripture) make me think I can’t give a definitive answer, and definitely not just by looking inside myself. Theology is a collective enterprise extended across thousands of years, not a heroic solo effort.

      Reason has a vital role in clarifying and developing tradition even if you’re a Roman Catholic (which I’m not). I’m not a Traditionalist in the sense of claiming to think just what someone in some earlier time of history thought and nothing more or less — no one is, even if they claim to be. If I can invoke the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the question for me is always the relationship among scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

      So yes, to the extent I hold a “traditional” view, it’s not exactly what Aquinas or Augustine would have thought, though I think to some extent you caricature them here outside their original context, and you omit other voices in the tradition (including, indeed, the universalists such as Origen and Gregory). I certainly don’t claim Origen, Gregory and the like are outside the tradition! For me, the diversity of the tradition (and scripture) makes me hold my own views tentatively, not with certainty, short of “he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.” Others will disagree, and that’s ok.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        David, on what basis do you discriminate between those beliefs you hold tentatively and those which you hold with certainty?


      • earsofc says:

        I appreciate your interaction. I thought you were invoking tradition as a sort of backstop – “even if DBH’s points are sound, tradition disagrees, and we ought to go with tradition.” If you are simply saying that you incorporate tradition into how you form a coherent faith, then that’s different, and I misunderstood you. But the question then becomes “where does that leave us?” After saying “we’ve got to fit tradition in somehow” what do we do; what is the actual *content* of our belief?

        Are you comfortable just terminating the question of our final destiny in the fact that we cannot know it – that our finite minds make it impossible to know anything? If so, it may help communication to announce that at the beginning. If argument (or DBH’s book) couldn’t *in principle* remove this commitment to epistemic ignorance, then there’s not much to back and forth about, is there?

        I mean no disrespect. I am genuinely wondering where one goes – where for example I would go if I wanted to – with your assertions.


  7. George Domazetis says:

    I am uncertain if any comment I make would contribute to this debate, no matter how much effort I expend in reconciling my outlook with universalism discussed here (sigh), but it is good to read a range of views. Nonetheless, here is my cents worth:

    The term ‘the Grace of God’ is sometimes used to infer that Christianity is unfair – for example, if all the attributes that accord to the one-ness of God were so beneficial, why should not all of humanity be able to access them? Why should God ‘show favour’, so to speak, and choose to be gracious to some and not to others? If God is, as we say, truth and mercy, and so on, He should have ‘converted’ all of humanity by now and thus we would all live in a perfect world without the suffering and misery found on this earth. In this way, we transfer responsibility for our actions to God by virtue of the basic tenant of Salvation, which is that God saves humanity from ‘death’ or sin, into ‘life’ and goodness. The obvious answer to this is that this would not be an act of Grace by God but an act of force – in other words, we would not have a say in this change from human dual/plural attributes into singular Godly attribute. The question, however, has far deeper significance and goes to the heart of the matter of man and God. The Christian message is that the Son of God came to live amongst us and although none could find fault with Him, we as human beings (or those human beings who interacted with Christ) decided to put Him to death. This profound message shows that God would not force or insist on our conversion. It also shows that we human being may say we would choose mercy and goodness, but in actual fact we often choose otherwise.

    The ideas expressed by those with regret regarding the human condition, when considering such things as cruelty amongst human beings, are found within the intentions and acts of human beings. When these ideas are place within the context, or criticisms as a given idea of God, the result is intent to pass responsibility for the acts and attributes of human beings to something other-than-humanity.


  8. Tom Talbott says:

    One additional comment concerning Aquinas’ understanding of limbo. To be perfectly honest, I was unaware of his claim that the limbo reserved for those infants who die without being baptized includes a kind of “‘natural’ happiness in contrast to the happiness of beatitude,” and I thank David Opderbeck for calling this to my attention.

    Now in what sense, I wonder, could a permanent state of “natural” happiness, whatever that might mean, be construed as hell or even as punishment? By falling short of beatitude, I suppose, or supremely worthwhile happiness, as Richard Swinburne has called it. But just what does that mean? Does it mean, for example, that those in limbo, unlike those who die in infancy after they have been baptized, are given no opportunity to learn the lessons of love and therefore never mature into true children of God? Or that this disaster occurs only because no one ever baptized them before they died? Beyond that, I wonder why Aquinas thought that even Omnipotence could prevent the lives of those in limbo from becoming dreadfully dull, boring, and insipid over an indefinitely long period of time. He could, I suppose, make millions of eons seem like a day, or perhaps stop time for them altogether. Or perhaps their internal experience could be analogous to that of a cat sleeping forever.

    But in any case, either those in limbo are being punished for some sin they have committed, or they are not being so punished. If they are not being punished, then their internal experience, whatever its character might be, has nothing to do with degrees of punishment; and if they supposedly are being punished, then Aquinas merely illustrates one of Hart’s own conclusions—namely, “that, in the end, the deepest problem with such claims is not so much their logic as their sheer moral hideousness” (p. 79).


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