“I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable,” writes C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. “Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral.” Fr Lawrence Farley agrees. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” he offers an apology for eternal damnation. Making the doctrine “palatable is beyond my power or intention,” he writes, but perhaps it can be shown to be moral and just and thus reconcilable with belief in the love of God . . . or perhaps not.
One immediately notes a difference, though, in Fr Lawrence’s construal of eternal damnation. In his preceding article, “Christian Universalism,” Fr Lawrence claims that Holy Scripture teaches a retributive model of damnation: “God is the judge of all the earth, and his punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.” Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna but represents the eternalization of the divine retribution. Many of the early Church Fathers, ranging from St John Chrysostom to St Augustine, can be cited in support of this interpretation. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” however, Fr Lawrence quietly moves from a retributive model of damnation, in which God is the active agent of punishment, to a libertarian-abandonment model, in which God ratifies the fundamental orientation of the self-damned and abandons them to the interior consequences of their sins. I do not object to this shift (who wouldn’t prefer Lewis’s The Great Divorce, where the damned can take a bus ride to heaven, to Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?), but I do have to ask: What is its biblical grounding? On what basis do we override the “clear” biblical witness to retributive punishment for wrongdoings (a witness so strong, asserts Farley, that we must dismiss universalist proposals without further ado) and affirm a view that lacks explicit biblical support? (Might we be seeing a bit of philosophical reasoning at work here?) I’m sure scriptural verses on behalf of the self-damnation model can be cited, just as one can provide them for absolute predestination, annihilationism, universal salvation; yet Fr Lawrence’s stated methodology requires that the less certain texts be interpreted through the dominant, unambiguous ones. Once again we are brought into the thicket of hermeneutics. Neither biblicism nor patristicism can resolve the challenge.1
The self-damnation model of damnation became the dominant understanding of eternal damnation in the second-half of the twentieth century. While one can still find proponents of the retributive model, their numbers are growing fewer. Across the denominational board, Christians have come to believe that eternal retribution is incompatible with the infinitely loving Father as revealed in and by the incarnate Son. George MacDonald’s meditation upon divine justice now seems prophetic : “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice.”2 How then do we justify eternal damnation? By reinterpreting eternal retribution as the creature’s irrevocable act of self-alienation from his Creator. The reprobate chooses perdition. God does not damn; the human being damns himself. The Father eternally offers sinners mercy and forgiveness; but those who exist in the state of perdition irrevocably refuse the offer. In the oft-quoted words of Lewis: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”3
But is this free-will construal of eternal damnation rationally coherent? I long thought that it was. The Great Divorce is one of my favorite spiritual books, and I have often used its arguments and stories in my preaching and catechesis. Yet the libertarian position has its weaknesses. Philosopher Thomas Talbott has subjected the free-will model to incisive critique in several peer-reviewed essays, as well as in his book The Inescapable Love of God. His book is essential reading. I would even go so far as to declare that no one should publicly reject the universalist hope until they have first wrestled with and answered his arguments. Talbott’s argumentation is well complemented by the rigorous philosophical analysis of John Kronen and Eric Reitan in God’s Final Victory and David Bentley Hart’s penetrating reflections in That All Shall Be Saved. The latter works can be hard sledding, but Talbott’s writings are wonderfully accessible.
Can you imagine a human being eternally rejecting God?
“Absolutely,” you reply. “I do it all the time.”
Now let’s add misery into the equation. Can you imagine a human being freely choosing everlasting intolerable torment over God?
Now matters become a bit more complicated. Will you not do just about anything to avoid pain and suffering? You might temporarily sacrifice lesser goods in order to acquire what you believe to be a greater good, as a jewel thief might invest a great deal of time, energy, and money preparing for a lucrative heist. You might choose the immediate satisfaction and excitement of an adulterous encounter rather than remaining faithful to your spouse, whom you find boring and unattractive. But what if there’s no payoff, only interminable, ever-increasing torment?
“Yes, I’m forced to admit that doesn’t seem to make much sense. I always prefer happiness to unhappiness. That’s why I choose to sin. I want what I want and I want it now. I don’t want to wait for the future happiness the preacher promises me. I am satisfaction-driven. Even when I am spiteful and seek to injure another, it’s because it gives me some degree of perverted pleasure. So no, I suppose I can’t envision myself rationally and freely choosing the fire of Gehenna.”
Now we come to the critical Christian point: God, and God alone, is our consummate happiness, our supreme Good. We were created by God for God. While we may search for our happiness in temporal goods, while we may confuse apparent goods for genuine goods, while we may be tragically ignorant of the fundamental truth of our ultimate fulfillment, we are always searching for the Good who is our God and will never find abiding happiness and peace except through union with him. Lewis puts it this way:
What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they ‘could be like Gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God to make Him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as man made the engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.4
Our eternal Father has created us to enjoy him forever in the communion of the Son and Holy Spirit.
Given that God is our transcendent and perfect Good, can you imagine a genuinely informed human being freely choosing utter misery over eternal happiness with him? Can you imagine yourself doing so?
I respectfully suggest you cannot, not really. No doubt you can imagine yourself doing so under conditions of ignorance, delusion, addiction, mental illness and psychopathy, and enslavement to your disordered passions—all of which characterize our fallen existence—but in their absence, I submit, you cannot truly imagine yourself choosing absolute, unabating, unrelievable, intolerable agony, not if you possessed the freedom to choose otherwise. It would make no sense—a choice made for no reason or motive whatsoever. Talbott elaborates:
Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of the “stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met.5
The ultimate good we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! When properly formulated and understood, therefore, definitive rejection of God ironically turns out to be the most “selfless” and irrational act conceivable—and that is why it is inconceivable. It would be to deny our deepest and truest self. It requires us to choose privation for privation’s sake, to choose misery for misery’s sake, to choose evil for evil’s sake—yet that is precisely what we cannot rationally do! St Thomas Aquinas plainly states the matter:
I answer that, Man like any other being has naturally an appetite for the good; and so if his appetite incline away to evil, this is due to corruption or disorder in some one of the principles of man: for it is thus that sin occurs in the actions of natural things. Now the principles of human acts are the intellect, and the appetite, both rational (i.e. the will) and sensitive. Therefore even as sin occurs in human acts, sometimes through a defect of the intellect, as when anyone sins through ignorance, and sometimes through a defect in the sensitive appetite, as when anyone sins through passion, so too does it occur through a defect consisting in a disorder of the will. Now the will is out of order when it loves more the lesser good. Again, the consequence of loving a thing less is that one chooses to suffer some hurt in its regard, in order to obtain a good that one loves more: as when a man, even knowingly, suffers the loss of a limb, that he may save his life which he loves more. Accordingly when an inordinate will loves some temporal good, e.g. riches or pleasure, more than the order of reason or Divine law, or Divine charity, or some such thing, it follows that it is willing to suffer the loss of some spiritual good, so that it may obtain possession of some temporal good. Now evil is merely the privation of some good; and so a man wishes knowingly a spiritual evil, which is evil simply, whereby he is deprived of a spiritual good, in order to possess a temporal good: wherefore he is said to sin through certain malice or on purpose, because he chooses evil knowingly.
Ignorance sometimes excludes the simple knowledge that a particular action is evil, and then man is said to sin through ignorance: sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular action is evil at this particular moment, as when he sins through passion: and sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular evil is not to be suffered for the sake of possessing a particular good, but not the simple knowledge that it is an evil: it is thus that a man is ignorant, when he sins through certain malice.
Evil cannot be intended by anyone for its own sake; but it can be intended for the sake of avoiding another evil, or obtaining another good, as stated above: and in this case anyone would choose to obtain a good intended for its own sake, without suffering loss of the other good; even as a lustful man would wish to enjoy a pleasure without offending God; but with the two set before him to choose from, he prefers sinning and thereby incurring God’s anger, to being deprived of the pleasure.6
But, replies Fr Lawrence, that is precisely what the Devil did! Hence all of this philosophical speculation proves empty. We know of at least one rational being who did the rationally impossible: “In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and commitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation.” Lucifer was given a direct vision of God at the moment of his creation, and yet he rejected God and became the Satan. How then can anyone posit the inconceivability of self-damnation? “The sad truth,” Fr Lawrence concludes, “is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different.”
This counter-argument, however, is purely speculative and unconvincing. We know very little about the unholy spirits, beyond the fact that they are our enemy and must be renounced; nor has God revealed to us the details of the demonic fall. Of course, that has not stopped theologians from speculating about their rebellion, but these speculations are predicated upon prior assent to the dogma of eternal perdition: if we know that the damned have freely chosen damnation, then we will naturally seek a rational explanation. Yet a rational explanation eludes us, so we posit the incomprehensible conundrum of primaeval evil. Once upon a time, the greatest of the archangels knew the goodness of God with crystalline clarity, knew God as his supreme and only Good, knew him as infinite Love and bliss; yet despite this perfect knowledge, he freely rejected eternal joy and instead chose intolerable torment. But all of this is speculation, myth, and absurdity. God has not disclosed to us the whys and wherefores of the angelic rebellion. Paradise Lost is not Holy Scripture.7 Perhaps, just perhaps, God gave the angelic spirits an epistemic distance analogous to that which he provided Adam and Eve for the development of their personhood—just perhaps. In any case, the claim that rational beings can freely reject the Good when apprehended in immediate and comprehensive vision must be deemed implausible if not impossible.
In his essay “God, Creation, and Evil,” David B. Hart discusses free will and argues for the impossibility of a definitive, irreversible decision against God. Man is created in the imago Dei and cannot destroy his transcendental orientation:
But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.8
Hart’s argument is not identical to Talbott’s, but both concur that the human being is intrinsically ordered to the Good. In reply to this argument, Fr Lawrence remarks: “Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete. Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological backseat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree.” This simply will not do. It is biblicism of the worst kind. Yes, Dr Hart is presenting a sophisticated, reasoned argument, but it is an argument grounded in the Bible and patristic metaphysics. Whenever we exegete Holy Scripture, we are doing philosophy, no matter how rudimentary or unselfconscious. To think we can cordon ourselves off from metaphysics, even in the simplest interpretive act, is naïve. The only question is whether we are doing good philosophy or bad philosophy.
(29 February 2016; rev.)
 For a comparative analysis of the principal models of damnation, with critique of the retributive model, see Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as the contributions of Jonathan Kvanvig and Thomas Talbott to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chap. 3.
 Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God [2nd ed.], p. 172; emphasis mine.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I/II.78.
 See Talbott’s discussion of Milton’s portrayal of Satan, pp. 173-175; also see my article “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan.”
 David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil,” Radical Orthodoxy 3 (September 2015): 10; emphasis mine.