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Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation

Other issues of freedom and damnation are raised and considered, including the question of whether God might override freedom to prevent [ultimate] damnation, or simply permit the damned to commit ‘metaphysical suicide’, as some have suggested. But for Walls, the doctrine of hell involves a strong commitment to the value of libertarian freedom, and either one of these moves by God would undermine the seriousness of moral freedom, and the significance of our choices. The decisive choice of evil is not a ‘rash, temporary impulse’ that the moral agent might be grateful to have reversed or overridden, and the divine bestowal of optimal grace justifies God presenting us with choices that are highly significant because their ‘consequences are eternal and inescapable’. Everyone gets what he wants. And Walls is even willing to argue that ‘the distorted pleasures of hell are sufficient from the viewpoint of the damned to make life in hell preferable to extinction’. He writes, ‘the good according to Christianity is not an ordinary thing… it is the extraordinary opportunity to live before God, in conscious relationship to him… anything chosen in favour of such a relationship to God could only be hell in comparison’.

 

6. Hell and Human Misery

Walls’ final chapter offers some reflections on the nature of the suffering of hell. Conscious that some traditional accounts have been unbalanced in their lurid depictions of this place of misery, but that his own account is open to the opposite charge of failing to capture this aspect of hell, Walls endeavours to redress any imbalances. Whilst recognising that classical expositions of the doctrine have tended to play up the physical aspect of suffering (and, in Augustine’s case, play down the spiritual), Walls notes even in Jonathan Edward’s account the common realisation that ‘If God were to leave sin without restraint, nothing more would be needed “to make the soul perfectly miserable”. Indeed, “if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven…”’. The misery of hell, thus construed, is not ‘a remote, inconceivable mystery… [but] stands in clear continuity with our experience of this world’. For Walls, fundamentally, ‘the suffering of hell is the natural consequence of living a life of sin rather than an arbitrarily chosen punishment’. Walls believes that ‘God wants all creatures to be happy [and] the only way any could end up otherwise would be if their happiness were no longer possible’. But ‘it is impossible, in the strictest sense of the word, for us to know our true happiness apart from God’6. Those who cultivate sinful attitudes and feelings are ‘naturally and necessarily unhappy’. Regarding the ‘distorted sense of satisfaction’ argued for earlier, Walls urges that ‘it must be viewed within the context of the fact that such feelings are essentially destructive of true pleasure. They are incompatible with genuine peace, joy and contentment’. But, whilst Walls emphatically rejects the notion of hell as ‘an ingeniously contrived place of the greatest possible pain and agony’, he also recognises a physical component to the sufferings of the damned as a ‘natural accompaniment of evil passions and emotions’. Hell is [ultimately] an embodied experience, and ‘if there is a fire in the breast which torments the soul, it will disturb the body as well’. He speculates that perhaps some of the damned will ‘inflict physical pain on one another too’, though maybe not everybody will suffer in this fashion. ‘Each damned person will suffer in the way appropriate to his sin and the character he has formed’.

In commending his view as one ‘in essential continuity with traditional theology’, but with certain important distinctions, Walls argues that this conception of hell ‘has a moral seriousness’ and a ‘stark realism’ about it that renders the reality of this dreadful place much more believably. ‘By contrast’, Walls complains, ‘sensational accounts… may actually have the effect of trivializing the doctrine or making it seem like an empty threat’. This charge is laid at the door of Jonathan Edwards. Whilst pragmatic assessments of Edward’s sermons on hell are favourable, Walls wonders whether ‘in the long run his frightful depictions of damnation may have helped to undermine serious belief in the idea’. The real difficulty here is that he (and others like him) fail to give ‘a persuasive account of the moral connection between sin and the unspeakable torment’ they describe. However, if ‘the natural connection between sin and misery is kept at the forefront when discussing hell’, it not only circumvents sensational excesses, but has a mitigating effect on ‘Kantian-styled’ objections which argue that one who is ‘moral only to avoid hell… is not really moral’. Noting that such objections garner the most force ‘when the misery of hell is conceived as externally imposed punishment, with no necessary relation to the nature of the sin involved’, Walls is able, on his account, to rejoin that ‘to choose evil is to choose misery, and the one who so chooses does so freely’. Like John Wesley, we can ‘abhor sin itself far more than the punishment of it’. To the committed Kantian who insists that ‘if you avoid sin because a natural consequence of it is anguish for you, then you are still selfishly motivated’, Wall replies, ‘not all self-interest is selfishness, and that proper self-interest is a legitimate part of genuine moral motivation’. Leaving Kantian hubris behind, with its unliveable dilemma of egoism and altruism, ‘the traditional doctrine of hell adds positive moral import to the Christian conviction that it is impossible to further one’s ultimate best interest by doing what is wrong, just as it is impossible to act against one’s ultimate best interest by loving God and doing right’.

Reviewed by W. Simpson

 

Publisher’s page: http://undpress.nd.edu/books/P00167

 

Notes

1 Evangelical theologian, William Fudge, for instance, argues for conditionalism (the belief that the wicked are punished by God and then destroyed). See William Fudge (Author), Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue. IVP Books (April 2000).

2 The idea of this principle, as Walls explains, is that ‘if an agent performs some action for the sake of a sufficiently important good, and if bad secondary effects are unavoidably entailed by the action, the agent is not blameworthy for those effects if he does not intend them’.

3 Middle knowledge is knowledge of what created free wills would do in any given circumstances – an infinite set of metaphysically contingent truths, known by God prior to his decision to create.

4 A more precise and technically valid formulation of the argument could be stated as follows:

1) If God is all powerful, then if he wants to save someone, he will save them.

2) If God is perfectly good, he will want to save everyone.

3) God is all powerful and perfectly good.

Therefore, all will be saved

Its logical form can be captured in predicate logic: P ⊃ ∀x  (Wx ⊃ Sx), G ⊃ ∀x  (Wx), P ∧ G ⊥ ∀x (Sx), where P denotes ‘God is all powerful’, Wx denotes ‘God wants to save x’, Sx denotes ‘God will save x’, G denotes ‘God is perfectly good’, ⊃ denotes the conditional (read it as ‘implies’), and ∀ denotes the universal quantifier (∀x means ‘all x’).

5 That is, they are damned in all feasible worlds in which they exist.

6 Italics mine.

 

This review originally appeared on the Pneuma Foundation In Depth Resources page on May 27, 2008. The Pneuma Foundation is the parent organization of PneumaReview.com.

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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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