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Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation

At least some of us, then, do believe in the doctrine, and indeed more than a few of its supporters throughout the centuries seem to have been much too eager to do so. That has prompted a strike on the other flank: belief in an eternal hell is just a ‘mythologized projection of the worst side of human beings’ – a way of lashing out against those who have hurt or frustrated us. Walls contends that it is a mistake to insouciantly dismiss this kind of attack as a genetic fallacy. ‘The Christian doctrine has been rooted in the teaching of Jesus… it would be unsettling if it could be shown that the doctrine… is rooted firmly in objectionable human feelings and instincts’. But it would also be very difficult to demonstrate vindictiveness in the case of someone like Jesus Christ. The most plausible tack – and the position Bertrand Russell seemed to take – would be to regard his belief on that point as a simple inconsistency with his otherwise lofty and moral teaching. In which case, as Walls points out, the dispute turns on whether or not the idea of an eternal hell is, in fact, morally objectionable. And Walls spends much of his book preoccupied with precisely that question.

Before passing, another sort of response to this line of attack is noted, one that turns the tables on the Feuerbachian shift from theology to anthropology. Berger, for instance, suggests that ‘certain aspects of our experience reliably direct our attention to a world of supernatural reality’. Some of the examples he offers are horrific experiences that ‘not only cry out to heaven, but also cry out for hell… if our sense of justice is to be vindicated’. The argument is not developed in any detail here, but the upshot is that, rather than being used as an argument against hell, the phenomenon of belief might be construed as evidence for it.


2. Hell and Divine Knowledge

In the second chapter, Walls argues that our view about divine foreknowledge has a definite part to play in our concept of hell. But Walls is not convinced that any particular theory of foreknowledge is exempt from wrestling with moral objections. He begins with the more traditional conceptions, where God infallibly knows the future in specific detail. The objection here, most famously expressed by Mill, is that a God who created a world ‘with full awareness that many persons in it would be eternally damned’ is ‘directly responsible for a terrible evil’. The connection between foreknowledge and intention, however, can only be maintained where the principle of double effect2 cannot be invoked; if some are unavoidably damned, and God has created for a sufficient good, then God cannot be blamed.

Turning first to Calvinism, Walls observes that this theological tradition affords a ‘winsomely clear account’ of how God can have infallible knowledge of future events (he predetermines them), but ‘is far from successful as an account which can preserve human freedom’. If God knows our choices because he has predestined them, then it appears we cannot choose otherwise. God foreknew who would be damned because he freely determined it, and is therefore directly responsible for it. There can be no appeal to the law of double effect; He might just as easily have determined that all would be saved. On this account, Mill’s charge seems fully justified.

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: W. Simpson, PhD (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), is a physicist and writer with an interest in theology, currently engaged in scientific research in the middle-east.

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