The Theodicy of Hell

Vicq Ruiz asks a fascinating and very hard question:

I … have noted that one element in which Christianity appears to be unique is the doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelief, and for unbelief alone among man’s sins. And it is that doctrine which stands between me and Christianity like a thousand mile high granite wall. For if it is true, not only are both my (loving, and unbelieving) parents in eternal torment even as I write these words, but I am also to acquiesce – no, to delight! – in the “justice” which placed them there.

Of all doctrines, the one I am least eager and least qualified to defend is the doctrine of eternal damnation, and precisely for the reasons Mr Ruiz adumbrates: nothing seems, at first, to be more absurd, unjust, and sadistic than a benevolent and loving God who would throw the into a furnace the weeping innocent child, His own child, who is guilty of nothing but a reasonable, even inevitable, skepticism.

Add to this the cruelty of asking the believer to rejoice in this divine justice, and you have perhaps the most powerful argument against theodicy imaginable.

It is as bad as if, during a highrise fire or a mine collapse, the fireman who raised the ladder or dug a tunnel to find the dying victims, upon opening the way to escape from the flames or from the darkness, suddenly and arbitrarily demanded to know which of the dying had believed, beforehand and without evidence, that the fire department was coming. After finding some illiterate widow or small child or born pessimist who did not believe, the fireman yanks the ladder back, leaving those who entertained reasonable doubts to burn; or he bricks over the escape tunnel, leaving them to asphyxiate. Certainly we would question the justice, and the sanity, of a fireman who acted by such a standard. It sounds like a horror story worthy of Poe rather than the act of a divine spirit motivated by supernatural and infinite love.

Nonetheless, the evangelist commands that I be ready always (with meekness and fear) to give an answer to every man that asks a reason of the hope that is in me.

The short answer, my dearest Mr Ruiz, is that you are blaming the doctor for the disease.

You are pointing at the sole cure to hell, the escape hatch from hell, and calling it injustice that not all men avail themselves of it.

This answer is perhaps too short, and may unfortunately seem flippant. Allow me to expand on it.

The thing that stands between you and paradise like a brick wall is an emotion, a sentiment, a feeling. You imagine your loving and beloved parents thrown into the cruel and burning torments of a pit worse than a gulag or deathcamp by an arbitrary tyrant. What I ask, for the sake of your immortal soul, is that you put sentimentality aside and think carefully and clearly and rationally. Think as if your life depends on it, for it surely does.

First things first. Let us establish an axiom which, I hope, needs  nothing but the most cursory defense: The world we see around us is one where men, all men, know the difference between right and wrong, and, knowing the wrong, chose to do it anyway.

The nihilist idea that there is no such thing as right and wrong contradicts itself—for if there is no such thing as right and wrong than it is not wrong to say, either ignorantly or deceptively, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. To be ignorant is not sloth and to deceive is not evil and to be deceived is not regrettable.

The Socratic idea is that men do evil only out of ignorance, because they fail to know the good. But the experience both of temptation, and its power, and the history of evils deeds done by evil men for a wide variety of motives, including self destructive motives, makes the Socratic idea seem naive at best, delusional at worst.

While I am willing to discuss the pros and cons the nihilist or the Socratic idea in more detail on some other day, for this discussion, I will assume the reader will take for granted that this is a world where men willingly and knowingly do evil things to others and self destructive things to themselves.

To be sure, not all men do evil in the same magnitude or in the same way, and little babies have no capacity to do evil at all. But that is not the question. The question is whether or not we are by nature selflessly and endlessly abundant in our love for each other and for the world. I take it as a given that we are not. We are all imperfect, each of us. And by imperfect I mean that we do not live up to any reasonable human standards, our own standards we, by our actions, show we expect from others, to say nothing of superhuman standards.

Second, let us define what the options are for the fate of man, given that man is imperfect.

Cruel logic says that there are only three general possibilities of what happens after death: oblivion, reincarnation, and resurrection.

Or, to put the matter the other way, the three options are endless nonbeing, which means the obliteration of human nature; the endlessly continuation of human nature and its flaws; or the endless perfection of human nature.

If those in truth are the only possibilities, then even God Almighty could not design a universe with something other than one of those three results, any more than He can make a four-sided triangle.

If oblivion is our fate, there is neither hope nor justice in this world, for every suicide bomber, or successful criminal, or bloodthirsty tyrant, who died comfortably in bed mocks even the idea of a just retribution.

Justice is not even possible, for if the victim of murder cannot be made to live again, then the injustice of murder is as infinite as the span of nonexistence into which the murderer plunges his victim. The murderer himself, when he dies, whether on the scaffold or comfortably in bed, is placed in the same dreamless oblivion as his victim, as all heroes, no matter how heroic, as all villains, no matter how wretched, as selfless saints and sadistic madmen, all, all, all come to nothing in the end.

In this worldview, all human fears and ambitions and hopes and wars and commotions come to nothing and mean nothing. Life is hopeless, and the best one can hope for is a certain small amount of personal comfort and selfish pleasure, a love affair or a temporarily happy family or a little money before it is spent or a fame before it fades, and then everything is swallowed by the dragon of nothingness.

If we were beings other than we are, that is to say, if we were robots or Houyhnhnms or creatures of pure and dispassionate logic, then we could live without hope and die without regret, killing ourselves with the dignity of Cato of Utica whenever our schedule made it convenient.

But, being creatures as we are, creatures who need hope to live and who go mad and turn wicked and perish without hope, the hopeless universe where oblivion is our common fate cannot be a place in which a loving God would place us.

If reincarnation is our fate, then there is no end of suffering.

This case can be subdivided there are two possibilities: the first one, along the lines of the Myth of Er, or certain New Age writings, suggest that we selected our lives and their miseries, and select again between lives; the second is that some divine force, a Karma or a cosmic judge assigns rewards and punishments due to our merits, and that misery in this life is a penalty for evil we did in past lives.

Let us look at these two worldviews, the world of Er and the world of Karma in turn.

In the world of Er, there is freedom, for each life is ours to choose, but there is neither justice nor hope, for in the world of Er, we each of us chose to live the life I described above: one where we know the difference between good and evil, and we chose evil. Nor will we ever be punished or corrected in the world of Er, because all lives we live are merely our own choice, and no man can judge his own case and condemn nor reward it appropriately.

In the world of Karma, there is justice, at least of a mechanical and relentless sort, but no freedom and no hope. You see, a cycle of endless reincarnations of beings who know the difference between good and evil and still chose evil means an endlessness of punishment, of lives that are inflicted like jail sentences. In effect, reincarnation is hell.

That leaves the only remaining possibility, which is resurrection. In the resurrection, there is a final stopping point, a last judgment, a judgment after which no further judgment is needed or possible, and human suffering comes to an end.

Only this last possibility makes an end to human sorrow possible; only this last possibility opens the gates to the gardens of endless joy.

There are logically only three possibilities after a last judgment: Nirvana, Hell and Heaven.

In Buddhism, this last judgment is after countless infinities of reincarnation, when all living things arrive at perfect enlightenment, and achieve nirvana. Until then, they just keep suffering. In Christianity, this last judgment comes once at the end of this one life we know, and all those not fated for paradise are consigned to the torments established for Satan and his angels, called hell.

Whether the last judgment is after one life or many seems to me to be a minor issue, for, when compared to the eternity of timelessness that follows, any lifespan, long or short or multiple lives, dwindle to a speck. Any finite number, compared to infinity is as nothing.

The difference between the three options may be summed up this way:

Buddhism sounds like one of those forgiving teachers who keep letting you re-take and re-take the test until you get all the answers right. To the best of my admittedly limited understanding, that is not what Buddhism says.

I am assuming here that the possibility that mankind will find perfection after a sufficiently large number of reincarnations, and know the difference between good and evil and choose the good, to be too small a possibility to contemplate. No one familiar with the natural selfishness of human nature, the indifference, the lack of charity, the hate, infinite human capacity for self-adoration and self-deception, will be so sanguine as to think a few billion kalpas of extra lives will allow us all to learn to live as saints.

Again, this is not my field, so anyone more well studied in the teachings of this ancient and profound theology is welcome to correct me—but Buddhism speaks of the annihilation or absorption of human nature back into the original godhead. Nirvana is not paradise, but an undisturbed state indistinguishable from oblivion. The word means ‘no wind blowing’ that is, the unruffled.

If the oblivion of Nirvana is not real, then a second option is to suffer last judgment and receive condemnation, that is, damnation.

Damnation is described, at least among the theologians I have read, as the withdrawal of all of the good God has bestowed, or, in other words, the withdrawal of all the blessings we have from God which we take for granted, such as our capacity for love and pity. It means the destruction of human nature, which therefore implies endless existence without joy or hope or rest.

Some phrase this by saying that Hell is the absence of God; others depict the torment as an outer darkness filled with wailing; others speak of flame. Myself, I suspect a situation which is unimaginably worse than Dante’s imaginings of a vast funnel of carefully organized tortures or Milton’s lava bed ringed and coped by black fires.

The third option is the perfection of human nature, that one thing which we all implicitly or explicitly desire: to be as we can somehow tell we were always meant to be.

We only have weak and watery metaphors for this state, since it is something as far outside our experience as the life of a grown and happy adult would be to a feral child raised by wolves. The metaphors we use involve kingship, glory, perfection, and, for children, the images used for these include golden streets or walled gardens or winged beings sitting on clouds playing harps.

The closest thing we have in this life to such sublime moments is the ecstasy of love when man and bride embrace in the throes of sexual passion intending to have a child. For those of you unfamiliar with nuptial bliss, sexual acts while attempting to prevent sexual reproduction are of necessity incomplete and unfulfilling, slightly or wholly selfish, and lack a certain zest of adventure. I use the example here of fruitful copulation in order to emphasize the drowning sublime surrender of total unselfishness, total commitment, total passion. I realize this metaphor may prove more of a distraction than a help for any modern thinker drilled and conditioned to false-to-facts neurotic reactions when the topic of sex comes up.

Unfortunately, the other examples I can think of — the ecstasy of saints and martyrs, the transports of aesthetes beholding sublime nature in her most majesty soul-filling beauty, the culmination in sport or art or science of some perfect performance at the top of your game as the result of a life of devotion, and promising even greater triumphs and glories to come — all these other metaphors refer to things even more remote from the daily life of men than natural nuptial bliss.

But each of us has had moments of pleasure, happiness, bliss, and joy, at least to some degree. Each of us has had a day when we were at our best, and use all our energies and talents to the utmost. Most of us have yearned for such days to continue without end: to be free from fear, weakness, bad habits, anger, guilt, sorrow, disappointment, pain and despair.

Most of us have suffered days of grief or disease, toothache or pain or some painful duty to be endured, and know what it is like when the pain subsides and health returns.

We cannot picture a perfect man very clearly—the staggering lack of such depictions in world literature is a clue that we cannot—but we know what flaws are, what pain is, what disease and death and sin are. So in theory we can imagine, if only in a negative way, what a man without flaws and full of power and benevolence and joy would be like.

We also know what such a paragon would suffer if he fell into our hands. If we met the perfect man, we would crucify him.

Therefore we can imagine what would happen if we were thrust into the company of beings full of joy and entirely without flaw. If unable to crucify them all, we would throw ourselves into a lake of fire to escape them. Without the comforting morphine and half-sleepy stupidity of clamoring distractions, and the self-pity and self-deception in which we blanket ourselves, meeting perfect beings, walking among them, seeing what was in their hearts and knowing they could see what was in ours, we humans would be unable to hide from the grotesque foulness of the errors and crimes and dark thoughts boiling within us, the perverted desires, the small sadisms, the pettiness and envy, the greed, the anger, the lust, and, above all, the pride.

I am not speaking of men guilty of enormities, of Hitler and Stalin and Mao and men whose hearts were even more vicious than this, but who lacked the power to command genocides and mass murders. I am speaking of ordinary men, all men, men not worse than myself and many a good deal better.

I can tolerate my corrupt and horrid human nature because I am among men like myself, because I am benumbed by self-esteem and because I do not condemn my own flaws with half the fervor I use to condemn others; and because my mind is dark, and I cannot see clearly, with perfect, pristine, stark and inescapable clarity, all the harm I have done in my life, or the good I have failed to do.

What I see in the world around me suggests that other men are a great deal more tolerant of their own sins and failings than I, not less. Perhaps it is merely my experience as a bartender, or a newspaperman covering the crime beat, or my work in a law office, but the men I see go to greater lengths than I do, not less, and some go to elephantine lengths, to hide from themselves from the burning and pitiless light of the conscience.

It is popular these days, with philosophies like moral relativism and Freudian nonsense, for men to destroy their capacity to condemn themselves by destroying their faculty of judgment and reasoning, or by pretending it has no authority.

I am not worthy of life in paradise, not I as I am constituted now, weak as I am and subject to temptations, passions, folly, moments of weakness, and my pathetically small supply of love and zeal and joy. This is not because my life is particularly wretched, indeed, compared to nine tenths of the human race across nine tenths of human history, my life is a fairytale of bliss and triumph, free of guilt and death and pain, or relatively so. I have never been in a war nor spent a night in jail. I have an abundant richness of blessings beyond my ability to count. And yet I say I am not fit for paradise.

Not on my own merits. Not burdened with a corrupt human nature.

Now, perhaps you feel you are worthy. There are only two possibilities: you are a fool or you are a saint.

Paradise is not a walled garden; nor a city of streets of gold bright as a looking glass. Paradise is a condition where all human capacities operate at the peak of performance, and superhuman selflessness and shockingly reckless love, and overflow of absolute love, informs all our actions and every nuance of our words and deeds. The idea that paradise properly so called could be occupied by beings like me without friction, despair, violence, or sorrow is simply and starkly impossible.

It is illogical to say that sinners would be happy in paradise, for we would bring our sins with us, and create our own unhappiness. Look at the way your neighbors live, or your ancestors, if you have not the strength of character to look honestly in the mirror. Human nature does not fit us for happiness.

So the only possibility for paradise is that something changes us from within, something which perfects our imperfect human nature.

Many cycles of reincarnation could perhaps achieve such a thing, if a divinity were within us and aiding us, or many years of purgatory, or perhaps an all-powerful God could accomplish such a transmogrification in a single moment of time.

Could an all-powerful God accomplish such an act of self-transformation or apotheosis upon the leprous soul of a sinner who did not wish it, who was not contrite, and who was lacking in repentance and remorse?

Could the gift be given to one who rejected the gift with scorn?

I will leave it to theologian subtler than I to answer that question. All I would say for myself, speaking as an ex-atheist, is that I would have preferred death and damnation to some sort of change from sinner to saint being imposed on me by force, and against my will. You may have a gentler disposition than I, or be less prone to the sin of pride. Whether it is possible for any god to impose salvation on the unwilling, (which I gravely doubt) I will say only that it would be unwelcome if it were possible.

So. The possibilities are (1) oblivion, which is a universe without a particle of justice or hope in it; (2) reincarnation, which is either (2a) the world of Er, which has freedom but no justice and no hope or (2b) the world of Karma, which has justice but no freedom and no hope; (3) resurrection to a last judgment, which is either (3a) self-obliteration by absorption into the godhead, which seems to have neither freedom nor justice nor hope or (3b) the evisceration of human nature called hell or (3c) the perfection of human nature called paradise.

This perfection is either imposed or freely accepted. If imposed, it lacks freedom. Only if it is freely accepted, is the universe one where freedom and justice and hope, not to mention other good things like mercy and joy, imaginable. In all other possibilities they are unimaginable, that is to say, not logically possible.

Logically, if the only possible universe where human beings, given what we know of human nature, can be brought to paradise, which we define as a condition where all human faculties are full and fulfilled and perfect, must be one were paradise is freely offered and freely accepted.

This means it can be refused.

Since free will is one of the faculties of man we are assuming must be perfected to achieve paradise, a paradise into which one was compelled or constrained or mesmerized or browbeaten into entering would be a prison rather than a paradise, for the human faculty of freely making the correct choice would not be allowed to operate.

Let us turn now to the heart of the question: Suppose we reflect upon some beloved kin or friend, who is no murderer nor rapist and is guilty of nothing aside from the normal human traits of selfishness and pride and indifference to suffering of any others.

He is a normal and therefore an imperfect fellow, no saint, but he has done nothing to merit an eternity of torment without the possibility of parole or reprieve.

He is guilty, if that is the word, only of disbelief in God. His only crime, if it is a crime, is not freely to accept the paradise offered.

But, of course, that is not the word. Using the metaphor of judicial condemnation is misleading. The fireman analogy is misleading. Both are misleading to the point of parody, a straw man argument.

Why would oblivion seem any more fair? If we discovered that we lived in a universe where God, or, if there is no God, the laws of nature, have arranged matter such that all men are obliterated upon death, and that the human race itself will one day die, and, soon after that as astronomers and geologists count time, no trace of man will be preserved in any record or memory, the universe shall be just as if we, and our loved ones, and everyone you or I loved or hated or admired or heard of only as rumor, simply had never existed.

Come, we all here believe in evolution, do we not? We all believe that life can arise from nonlife by some unintentional natural process or unlikely accident. Suppose it happened once upon a time on our nearest planetary neighbor. But suppose it did not take. Some seeds blown from dandelions do fall on stony ground and die, do they not?

If one spore of living matter existed for one hour on the planet Mars. It is a single single-celled organism who perishes before it divides and reproduces. The natural process or lucky accident which produces life from nonlife never happens again. There is no species of this one Martian spore, but it is solitary. The red and rusty sands of the dead world stretch in all directions, and overhead is a dim sun, one-fourth as bright as when seen from Earth.

A desolate image. And yet that spore which lives and dies in an hour, and never encounters a single other living thing in its whole globe is, from the point of view of the vastness of the universe, no less desolate than a single world, Earth, which flickers into and out of existence, the only living globe in the desolation of an empty galaxy.

And even if the galaxy is teaming with life, it too shall pass away, and be no more significant than that Martian spore which respired for an hour, then expired: compare to infinity, everything is merely a speck.

In such a universe, a universe of appalling emptiness where all life ends in oblivion, talk of justice and injustice is meaningless. No one and nothing is condemning the living things to become nothing, because there is no possibility of immortality. Entropy makes than certain. In a world were death is oblivion, our loved ones simply are gone, and there is no one to save them.

In a world of endless cycles of reincarnation, there is again no meaningful talk of justice and injustice. No one and nothing condemns all life to endure endless lifetimes because there is no beginning.

Talk of justice only enters the picture if we speak of a last judgment. Human nature being what it is, perfection and paradise are not an option. This is not a condemnation for a crime in the way we normally mean those words, it is merely a fact, if not the fact, of human nature.

We cannot be worthy of paradise without becoming gods, nor could we tolerate paradise if we do not become divine. We cannot become divine by any effort of our own, not an effort of will, not a clever system of education, not with psychoanalysis, nor with wise laws.

We can become gods only if there is a God who loves us and enters into our spirits and sustains us and changes us. This cannot be done against our will, or, if it could, it should not be.

And consent alone is not enough; we would have to love God with all our heart and strength and mind. It is not like signing a contract; it is like engaging in marriage.

What, then, becomes of those who reject the love of God? Logically, they must be excluded from paradise, or they exclude themselves, which is much the same thing.

It is the hardest doctrine of all Christian doctrines to accept, and to this day I still pray that on the last judgment day, all men will be judged worthy of mercy, and all soul be lead to enter heaven.

But what does one do, if one if the fireman, who comes to save the victim from a burning building, and raises the ladder, and climbs it, and puts out his hand, and yet the victim does not believe? He does not believe the building is on fire; or does not trust the fireman; or does not think the ladder will hold; or he is not willing to let go of the handle to his closet where his stash of stolen money and precious collection of drugs and alcohol and pornography is kept. He won’t leave the burning building; he will not escape the city of destruction.

I am asking a very practical question. In the physical world, where we have physical bodies, the heroic fireman can club a hysterical woman over the head, and throw her over his shoulder, and drag her bodily down the ladder and away from death. But even God cannot make an evil soul into a good one without that soul’s cooperation. There is no clubbing over the head for immaterial realities, because the danger is spiritual, not physical.

Again, suppose the rescue team breaks into the cave where the miners are trapped. But during the hours of their imprisonment, as their air was getting low, they come to believe that this cave is all there is, and the world outside is a fantasy, a fiction, and a trick from greedy con-men. So they dismiss the rescuers. They don’t believe in them enough to leave the black pit which is they now believe to be their only home.

Who has punished or condemned the dwellers in the suffocating darkness in that case?

Is the Rescuer to blame, if the skeptic erects a thousand mile high granite wall, and blocks out all air and light?

Or, are you to blame?

If your parents died in their sins, Mr Ruiz, lulled into pleasant numbness by the opiate of disbelief, where were you? Did you lift a finger to save the souls of your parents from the fires of hell? You cannot tell me they were not warned, or did not know the Christian message, and the intoxicating good news we bring. Did you pray for their conversion?

My question is unfair. You tell me you do not believe in hell. Perhaps you do not believe in prayer. Clearly there is no reason for you to pray to a God you dismiss as a myth to save men from a hellfire you dismiss as hallucination.

I will ask another question instead. Did you lift a finger to save the souls of your parents from the coldness of the grave? Everyone knows he is going to die some day.

Everyone who speaks English anywhere on Earth knows that we Christians claim, at least, to have the cure for the grave, an escape, a salvation. It behooves anyone who takes death seriously, or is haunted by the strange promise of eternal joy, to investigate those claims with considerable sobriety and care. At least one should show the same level of curiosity a man who learns he is dying of a disease to seek out a doctor who claims he can cure it.

If neither you, nor your parents, no matter how much you loved them, could bestir yourself to save yourself or them from death (a danger which you did not need us to warn you about) and did not bestir yourself to save yourself or them from damnation (a danger which we have warned you about, many times) then you have no ground to throw this back at us as an accusation that we did not do enough to save you, or them, or that the results of disbelief are a punishment of an unjust judge rather than a consequence you bring upon yourself.

If there is any injustice there, it is on your part, for lacking hope; and if you live a hopeless life and go to a hopeless death, what do you expect God to do to save you? Grant you hope as a grace? Why, so He will, if you ask Him.

In effect, you are condemning as unbelievable a God in whom you do not believe for failing to rescue your parents from a danger you deem imaginary. But if the danger is imaginary, you cannot condemn God for failing to rescue them from it; and if it is not imaginary, then your disbelief in God, and the disbelief of your parents, builds a thousand mile high wall between yourself and the one person who can rescue from that danger.

Or, in other words, your complaint is that you cannot believe in a God who requires that you believe in Him before He grants you the blessings that follow from belief.

You don’t believe in God because you find it unbelievable that He wants you to believe in Him. That is absurd.

The doctrine that disbelief leads to damnation is not unique to Christianity. It is not unique to matter of life and death.

It is absolutely ubiquitous. In nearly all things, from mountain climbing to listening to the weatherman, if you don’t believe the warning, and the danger comes to pass, your disbelief is to blame.
There are some cases where a man can be saved against his will, but these are all physical dangers. You can indeed haul a hysterical woman out of a burning building or inject a stubborn patient with the antibiotic to save his life. These cases are rare emergencies; and just because one can impose salvation on the unwilling, does not mean one ought.

Any benefit where free consent is required cannot be bestowed upon those who, for good reasons or bad, rational or not, do not believe in the offer or the benefit, and do not trust the offerer.

What would you like God to do to prove to you the danger is real and His offer is good? Send a free sample? Perform a demonstration? Raise a man from the dead?

Would you have preferred God make a universe where His existence if perfectly obvious, and man and woman could see Him walking in the garden in the cool of the evening? Why, He did exactly that, and we left Him.

And we still live in that universe. To a mind unclouded with pride and folly and sin, or so I have been told, the existence of God is perfectly obvious, perfectly logical, perfectly intuitive.

If we cannot see God because of a willful blindness our sinful nature imposes on us, whose fault is that?

He has done all He should have done and more, far more, and still your eyes are blind and your ears are dull.

It does not work the way you are asking it to work. You cannot love skeptically. You cannot love and wait to be convinced. Either you love or you don’t. God is not a math proof to be solved by logic and not a experiment to be performed and observed. God is a person.

For those who disbelieve, if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.


  1. Comment by Zach:

    If I can be glib, this is a principle reason I remain a Latter-day Saint. See here for the official doctrine:

    Put shortly, we believe that the critical sacraments must occur here on Earth. However, we believe that a merciful God has provided a way for us to save those who died without receiving them. It’s a very glib response on short notice, and the theology is deeper than I can give it justice.

    I will caution, though, that this is in no way “universal salvation.” You still need to choose to follow Christ and show evidence of it in a broken heart and contrite spirit.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Why stick in the caution? Why not abandon Mormonism for a religion that teaches everything you like plus universal salvation? If your reason for adhering is that you are fond of their doctrines, why stint yourself?

  2. Comment by Raphael:

    I might be misunderstanding the question, but to me it seems that Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Wright are talking about different things. Mr. Ruiz seems to objecting to a doctrine that condemns unbelievers to hell for the one unforgivable sin of unbelief. Mr. Wright seems to regard unbelief merely as an indirect, and not a direct, cause of condemnation. In the latter view, unbelief brings about condemnation through the unbeliever’s willful rejection of God’s love and refusal to do what is necessary to be saved. But in Mr. Ruiz’s objection, it sounds as though he’s regarding unbelief as the very thing that gets you condemned. Axe-murderers who believe go to heaven; decent, kind people who happen not to belong to the right confessional group go to hell.

    That might be a valid objection to some versions of Christianity, but it doesn’t reflect Scripture—cf. Matthew 26:31-46—or the teachings of the Catholic Church. As St. John of the Cross says (and is quoted as saying in the Catechism): “In the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” The Catechism cites Lumen Gentium: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” [CCC 847] It should also be mentioned that this “knowing” means more than just “having heard about.” No man knows the secrets of another man’s heart. No one but God knows whether a man willfully rejected something perceived to be true or merely disregarded something not understood.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I do not think you are misunderstanding the question at all. You have correctly identified the point of my argument. I submit that Mr Ruiz, by claiming Christians teach that that unbelief is a crime whose punishment is hell, utters an outrageous misrepresentation of what the Church actually teaches and has always taught, namely, that death and the grave are certain, but that Jesus says that if you believe on Him, you will be saved.

      This implies that if you do not believe, you will not be saved, but it does not imply that hell is meant as a corrective punishment meant to terrify the indifferent into belief. I am sure bad preachers might phrase it this way, but probably not so many. My personal experience tells me this is the kind of misrepresentation atheists invent to justify their unbelief.

  3. Comment by Stephen J.:

    The best answer I ever heard to this difficulty — though the essay above is wonderful — was from Lewis’ The Great Divorce (emphasis added by me):

    “I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,” said the Ghost.

    “I am not trying to make any point,” said the Spirit. “I am telling you to repent and believe.”

    “But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.”

    “Very well,” said the other, as if changing his plan. “Will you believe in me? …Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”

    It did not work in the original context between these characters and it does not always work in life, but it is one of the few things that I have sometimes seen work for real people: we have to be the Gospel, not just speak it. The man unwilling to grasp the fireman’s or rescuer’s hand — perhaps because he does not know them, or mistrusts where they will take him (based on stories, possibly even tragically true ones, he has heard about the misdeeds of men in fireman’s uniforms in the past) may sometimes grasp the hand of a man he knows and has seen to be good.

  4. Comment by Mary:

    Let us not give up all hope for those who appear to have utterly rejected: “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. ”

    And we can not judge which it was in this life.

  5. Comment by deiseach:

    There is also the question of the gift of faith. If the ordinary cardinal virtues were sufficient – if being ‘a good person’ was enough to save us – then we would have no need for the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. But mere secular virtue does not suffice.

    Faith is a supernatural gift, we don’t attain to it on our own, but we can exercise our reason to bring us to a certain point. Whether we do use our reason to examine the options, whether we deliberately turn away because for one reason or another we don’t want to believe, or whether we never receive that gift all bear upon the matter.

    I can’t speak for the state of the souls of Mr. Ruiz’ parents; I can’t speak for the state of the souls of my own parents. I hope they are in Purgatory, but I don’t know. (I have a much less sanguine expectation of my own eventual state, but that’s my own fault for my own sins, and I don’t blame God for it).

    We are required to believe in the existence of Hell. We cannot say definitively who is in it (not the worst sinner in the world) nor out of it (the most reputedly virtuous person alive). Once again, I turn to Dante, where he has St. Thomas Aquinas caution him:

    The Divine Comedy, “Paradiso”, Canto XIII

    112 ‘And let this always be as lead upon your feet
    113 to make you slow, just like a weary man, in moving,
    114 whether to yes or no, unless you see both clearly.

    115 ‘For he ranks low among the fools
    116 who, without making clear distinctions,
    117 affirms or denies in one case or another,

    118 ‘since it often happens that a hasty opinion
    119 inclines one to the erring side, and then
    120 fondness for it fetters the working of the mind.

    121 ‘He who casts off from shore to fish for truth
    122 without the necessary skill does not return the same
    123 as he sets out, but worse, and all in vain.

    124 ‘Clear proof of this was given to the world
    125 by Parmenides, Melissus, Bryson, and others,
    126 who went to sea without a port in mind.

    127 ‘Such were Sabellius and Arius and the fools
    128 who misread Scripture as a sword reflecting
    129 the distorted image of a face upon its blade.

    130 ‘Let the people, then, not be too certain
    131 in their judgments, like those that harvest in their minds
    132 corn still in the field before it ripens.

    133 ‘For I have seen the briar first look dry and thorny
    134 right through all the winter’s cold,
    135 then later wear the bloom of roses at its tip,

    136 ‘and once I saw a ship, which had sailed straight
    137 and swift upon the sea through all its voyage,
    138 sinking at the end as it made its way to port.

    139 ‘Let not Dame Bertha and Master Martin,
    140 when they see one steal and another offer alms,
    141 think that they behold them with God’s wisdom,
    142 for the first may still rise up, the other fall.’

  6. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    It seems to me that there is an unexamined option. You say “Death is inevitable, we offer a way out, it’s up to you to take it”; very well, but Hell in the Christian tradition is worse than mere death. You offer a way out, but at the same time you make the alternative worse. Take your analogy of the man who won’t escape the burning building because he’s too attached to his possessions: Why doesn’t the fireman shoot him, and put him out of his misery at least? (To be sure, the analogy breaks down with a merely human fireman, who doesn’t make that sort of decision for all kinds of excellent reasons; but we are postulating an all-wise rescuer.) Or to put it differently, why is the alternative to salvation not a mere merciful oblivion? Is Hell, in spite of its reputation, actually better than nothingness? Alternatively, can it be escaped after a while, presumably because even the most stubborn human will get the point eventually? Niven and Pournelle explore that possibility in “Inferno” and its sequel.

    Unless one of these is the case, I really do not see how the “way out” can be defended. You’re arguing that Hell is inevitable except for choice on the part of the damned, but it’s really not. Cannot an all-powerful god show some mercy and snuff ’em out, even if they won’t take the best option? Bujold in her “Curse of Chalion” series has fading and oblivion as the alternative to Heaven, and that actually makes sense: “Heaven weeps, but free will is sacred. The meaning of yes is created by the ability to say no.” This is a logical doctrine, in which the gods freely offer a gift, but nobody is punished for refusing – they just get what they’d have had anyway. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Christian Hell.

    • Comment by John Noble:

      I’m no theologian, but I would propose that oblivion is simply not an option. Suppose that the soul is eternal and can not be destroyed, the options become eternity as a perfected soul or eternity as an imperfect soul. If you can’t force a soul to be perfect, and the state of being imperfect is the torment we’re discussing, then “hell” is the result. No one is being *punished*, they’re merely experiencing the results of being imperfect – which is “what they had coming” anyways.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        Very well; then you have apparently abandoned the omnipotent god, but you’ve answered the question. But I still think you have a false dilemma: Eternity as perfect or eternity as imperfect. How about eternity as an improving soul? There is no obvious reason why mortal life should be your only opportunity to improve. Again, if you decide that Hell is escapable, as I believe the Mormons do and as Lewis proposes, this resolves the problem; but that is not, to the best of my understanding, what the Catholic church teaches.

        • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

          How about eternity as an improving soul?

          “Eternity” and “improving” are mutually exclusive concepts. Improving, change, can only happen over time. Eternity is not an indefinite or infinite time and is inaccessible to anything which is not purely immaterial or completely spiritualized, like resurrected bodies.

          This is not to say improving is not possible after death. Your question demonstrates it is a very logical thing to ask and it has an answer: Purgatory. This is where souls not yet perfect but who accepted the mercy of God at their final judgment and chose to be with Him for eternity, are praying for us and atoning for their sins for a time (they are not yet outside of time), until they enter eternity having become saints in the process.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            All right, that does resolve the question in a fairly satisfactory manner. Again, though, you have to ask why the souls only get that one chance to accept mercy. You’d think that a hundred years or so of sitting about in boiling water, or whatever it is, would change people’s minds.

            • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

              Sorry, I was not clear. In fact, the souls in Purgatory are already saint because of their welcoming God’s mercy at their judgment, so they cannot and would not “change their mind” anymore. The only change that occur in the souls of Purgatory is that sins not paid for or redeemed before death are redeemed by the acts of mercy in their power: acceptance and offering of the pain (“fire”) of not being in the beatitude, and prayer (love) for us who still live on earth.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                Sorry, I was also unclear. I meant that the souls in Hell, not the ones in Purgatory, would change their minds after a while. Why do they only get the one chance?

                • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

                  Same reason in reverse that the ones in Purgatory: the souls in Hell refused the mercy of God at their judgment, for they were in such a state that there simply was no question of changing their minds at that last moment. This is known as the “sin against the Holy Spirit”. Besides, as stated above, Hell is in eternity, not in an infinite time.

                  Also, if the final judgment is the last chance to change one’s mind, it is absolutely not the only one. All humans have their lifetime to work on their fundamental options and make themselves receptive to grace. The saints achieve it before dying. The souls passing through Purgatory (most of us) achieve it imperfectly. And those who go to Hell stubbornly refuse grace, out of cultivated pride resulting in hatred of God and final despair.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      “the gods freely offer a gift, but nobody is punished for refusing”

      Your statements and questions are odd.

      If the natural consequence of sin is misery then being offered a way out of misery is a freely offered gift and continuing in misery for refusing isn’t a punishment for refusing but a natural consequence of ones actions. Even in this life wickedness never was happiness, one can take pleasure in ones sins for a season but how very quickly does that pleasure turn into pain of body or spirit.

      ” god show some mercy and snuff ‘em out”

      That all powerful God showed infinite mercy and made an eternal atonement for their sins so that they don’t have to suffer if have any desire to not suffer. That merciful God also allows them to remove themselves from Him so that they are less miserable then they would otherwise be. They are as dead as it is possible for them to be.

      “Is Hell, in spite of its reputation, actually better than nothingness?”

      Is nothingness even an option?

      It would appear that you prefer life without the gospel of Jesus Christ over death, which I assume you see as annihilation, meaning that you have chosen what might be considered a partial hell over nothingness. The majority of people that believe in annihilation of the person at death appear to likewise prefer life to annihilation, even many of those that have made their lives as close to hell as they can.

      “can it be escaped after a while, presumably because even the most stubborn human will get the point eventually?”

      I take 1 Peter 4:6 (3:19) (Isaiah 61:1, 49:9, 42;7, others) and 1 Corinthians 15:29 to mean that there is a chance for those in Hell to escape if they would, at least until the resurrection. At which point those that are filthy will remain filthy still having done the equivalent of denying the existence of the Sun while staring at it at noon, meaning there are those that will never get the point.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        Is nothingness even an option?

        I responded to this in my reply to John Noble, above.

        It would appear that you prefer life without the gospel of Jesus Christ over death, which I assume you see as annihilation, meaning that you have chosen what might be considered a partial hell over nothingness.

        Your arrogance would be breathtaking if it weren’t so laughable. Because I do not require a psychological crutch, my life “might be considered a partial hell”? The man in the wheelchair asks the man with two good legs how he can live without being able to move about!

        I am not going to defend my happiness to you. I suggest, however, that an apology is in order.

        If “Hell” is merely life as I’m living it now, then I most certainly will take it over annihilation; but that does not seem to be what we are discussing. Hell is said to involve unending, intolerable pain. Mr Wright speaks of “a situation which is unimaginably worse than Dante’s imaginings of a vast funnel of carefully organized tortures or Milton’s lava bed ringed and coped by black fires.” To compare this to an atheist’s ordinary life is ridiculous. Please pick a hell and stick with it; it’s very hard to discuss things that shift about at the convenience of the believer.

        • Comment by John Hutchins:

          Sorry, I perhaps was not clear: Hell is separation from God; All men are separated from God because all have sinned; The gospel allows men to become alive in Christ. Happiness comes from doing that which is good, Misery from doing that which is not good. In this life neither happiness nor misery are perfect, or perfectly exclusive; we neither experience full misery for that which we have done wrong, nor do we experience full happiness for that which we do right, and we are able to be both miserable in regards to things we do wrong and happy in regards to things that we do right. In so far as we have separated ourselves from God and are miserable for doing that which is wrong we experience, in part, the pains of Hell.

          You do not believe that greater happiness comes from following Christ and you take pride in not believing, calling it a crutch and you having two legs. How is that so different from what Milton writes in regards to Lucifer?

          Anyways, an atheist that is generally doing that which is right can be better off then a theist that is doing that which he knows to be wrong; and therefore happier. Also, the misery brought on by sin is partial to that which we will experience when brought before the judgement seat of Christ having a full knowledge of our sins and unworthiness before Him and a full knowledge of His holiness and the mercy that could have been ours if we had wished it.

          If you are saying that you are perfectly happy, feel no guilt at all for any of your actions ever, and never feel any pain of conscious, nor experience remorse, nor regret then I apologize for suggesting that your life is anything similar to Hell.

          “Please pick a hell and stick with it;”

          I do pick a hell and stick with it, there are significant differences to that of the Catholics or anyone else for that matter, but also significant similarities.

          “atheist’s ordinary life is ridiculous”

          Heaven or Hell is determined in large part by how we live our ordinary life.

          ” abandoned the omnipotent god”

          If something is impossible due to basic principles then attributing that impossibility to a god does not make the god more powerful or more omnipotent.

          “How about eternity as an improving soul?”

          According to LDS scripture that would be what Eternal Life and Exaltation is. To reach that goal one needs to spend their life improving their soul. If one does not improve their soul now then what makes you think they will do so later? If one knows that something is right and does nothing to attempt to do it now then when are they ever going to do it? Even receiving the gospel when dead doesn’t absolve completely the requirement that one should be improving themselves while alive.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            Credit where credit is due: I do find the Mormon theology of the afterlife more satisfactory than the Catholic one, in that it gives, in effect, a second chance with more data.

            In so far as we have separated ourselves from God and are miserable for doing that which is wrong we experience, in part, the pains of Hell.

            Again, if hell consists merely of feeling bad about what you did wrong in life, then it’s not actually very fearsome for the average human. I hardly think this qualifies as worse than Dante’s imaginings, at least for people whose sins are not on the order of rape and murder.

            You do not believe that greater happiness comes from following Christ and you take pride in not believing, calling it a crutch and you having two legs. How is that so different from what Milton writes in regards to Lucifer?

            Lucifer hardly disbelieves in Milton’s god; the two have just fought a war! Lucifer refuses to submit to a superior power; that is entirely different from not believing the power exists in the first place.

            As for crutches, if you need belief X to be happy, irrespective of whether it is true; while I can be happy without the belief; then which of us is the healthier? Note: The answer does not depend on whether X is true, nor does it depend on whether either you or I actually believe X. Consider the man who, for his happiness, needs to believe in nuclear fusion, but is unable to do so because of some curious mental block. (Of course, if he believed it, then his life would improve enough that he could overcome the block…) Is this man healthy? Suppose he is able to overcome the block, and believe in nuclear fusion, which makes him happy and happens to be true; is he healthy now? What about his brother who is perfectly happy whatever his beliefs about the behaviour of atomic nuclei; would you not say his mind is healthier than the first man’s, whatever he believes?

            That aside, it appears to me that you conflate ‘belief’ and ‘following’; let’s please keep the two separate. Many an atheist strives to follow the Golden Rule, which presumably brings them closer to god, in your formulation.

            • Comment by John Hutchins:

              “if hell consists merely of feeling bad about what you did wrong in life, then it’s not actually very fearsome for the average human”

              “feeling bad” barely begins to describe it, and it if understood is very fearsome. If someone else were punishing or torturing a person that person could pretend they didn’t deserve it. If that person is left alone with his own thoughts due to his own actions and all his friends and family eternally removed from him and all the false pleasure of his actions stripped from him then there can be no relief to the torments that one will put himself through and no denial that the torments are just.

              ” you conflate ‘belief’ and ‘following’; let’s please keep the two separate.”

              Yes, I appear to have, sorry.

              “, if you need belief X to be happy, irrespective of whether it is true; while I can be happy without the belief; then which of us is the healthier?”

              So if I believe that I need to know the truth of things to be happy and you can be happy without knowing the truth then you are somehow healthier then me? If I need the belief that my actions matter and my family are not figments of my imagination to be happy but you do not need that belief then you are somehow healthier then me? I hope you will excuse me for not agreeing with this.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                So if I believe that I need to know the truth of things to be happy

                That is not the nature of the dispute. You assert that you need to “follow Christ” to be happy. That is a specific set of beliefs; please refrain from declaring it to be the truth. I gave you the example of nuclear fusion precisely to avoid the trap of arguing about the truth of your religion. If you needed to believe, for your happiness, that nuclear fusion was economically workable, would that be a healthy state of mind? Please observe, you have no idea whether nuclear fusion can be economic or not. But that has no bearing on whether the state of mind is healthy.

                Now, if you declare that you must know the truth of the matter, that is one thing. But that’s not what you do. You declare that if the statement were false, you would be unhappy – and then you continue, “but fortunately it’s true”. I suspect that there is some causality here, but we needn’t argue about it; my point is that it’s the need for a statement to be true that’s unhealthy.

                • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

                  What makes anyone happy, either a Mormon, an atheist, a Catholic or a polytheist pagan is one and the same thing, formulated clearly by Socrates: to be good.

                  Knowing the truth is very important, but it does not make one happy directly: it makes you free to choose the good by helping you discern right from wrong, thus enabling you to act good. Acts of goodness are the only thing that can make you good.

                  All men have the capacity to be good; it is a gift made to all immortal souls. But we have an obvious problem: it is very difficult for men to act consistently good either personally or as a group. This strongly hints that we need help.

                  It is part of being good to seek the highest truth, and where lies our real happiness, which is ultimately beatitude. Beatitude is given to all those who welcome the mercy of God, first of all those who were not happy on this earth.

                  Among other benefits, truth makes moral principles rest on an authority higher and more reliable than personal conscience. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did not discover the necessity of grace to achieve goodness in earthly life but they clearly understood that moral conscience and moral law came from the immaterial, eternal world.

  7. Comment by The Next-to-Last Samurai:

    I can’t remember where, but I read a theory that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside; that the damned could walk out any time they want to , but their values are such that life outside hell appears repugnant to them. So they stay. This makes sense to me–imagine that unpleasant man who writes the Pharyngula atheist blog stuck in heaven with God and a bunch of nice folks. He’d hate it. This idea also strikes me as very close to what Mr. Wright explicated above.

  8. Comment by Laura:

    One small comment: the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from the beginning has been that it is utterly un-fruitful to wonder about the possible damnation of any human being other than oneself alone. There is no equivalent process to canonization for damnation– not even for the classic case, Judas Iscariot.

    For one thing, none of us truly know whether something which appears bad was actually good (or at least not so bad), or vice versa; or how much freedom of choice any individual actually had, or whether a bad intention was sustained fully until the person’s ultimate demise. We have, all of us, been accused of evil we have not done, or bad intention when something turned out not as we wished; likewise, we have all “gotten away with” some evil thing (that is, escaped the condemnation or negative consequence due to our actions). The same then is true for every human.

    We also know that damnation, for any person whatsoever, is contrary to God’s Will, and we should earnestly hope (and provide whatever practical assistance may be possible) that each person’s salvation be ultimately achieved. (Any desire to see someone else “rot in Hell” is explicitly wishing for evil, and is a serious sin; no such prayer will be answered.) Pondering this also tends to make humans judge themselves by human standards (well, I’m better than him, so I’m OK to go to heaven) rather than by divine standards, which is a serious problem.

    In the case of Mr. Ruiz, while his love for his parents is a good and just thing, he does not know, in point of fact, what their ultimate disposition is, and how many of their “good works” were ethically meaningless (e.g. merely being docile to societal standards, or done for show, or for hope of personal gain, etc.) or just clever fakes. He also doesn’t know what evil things they may have done but successfully concealed from him. (They may also be vastly more heroic than he knows, for that matter.) Indeed, we can’t even judge our own case justly, let alone someone else’s.

    What we DO know is that the Lord’s hand is not too short to save… not for anyone. John the Baptist lept with joy in his mother’s womb when Jesus came near. Pagan astrologers walked for weeks across a desert to come to him. The Holy Innocents were martyrs before they could talk. Simeon and Anna considered seeing the infant Jesus once to be a full repayment (and then some) for a lifetime of virtue. None of these were baptized in water or heard the Gospel in human words, yet all of them achieved saving faith. We may (indeed must) hope that Mr. Ruiz’s parents were also so blessed.

  9. Comment by Steven D.:

    Excellent essay, Mr. Wright. I also pray that all men will be judged worthy of mercy, but my heart has accepted God’s will in the matter. Have you ever read “The Fire That Consumes” by Edward Fudge? It’s the best biblical defense of hell as annihilationism I’ve come across. I guess that would be solution 3(d): Resurrection followed by judgment and oblivion.

    As for Mr. Ruiz, I would encourage him to continue wrestling with God over this notion of hell. I’ve done the same, and eventually God won (I submitted). There are a lot of great Christian minds that have tackled the issue and may be of some help to you.

    By the way — strange synchronicity: a family member was watching “ParaNorman” while I was writing this comment and one of the characters started screaming on and on about eternal damnation. Weird.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I have not had the pleasure of reading Mr Fudge, nor the education to have heard of him. I myself would be highly skeptical of the idea that hell is oblivion, for the reasons outlined in the essay (since it would be grossly unfair for the evil men of this life who died happily in bed to escape retribution) but also for one reason more:

      On philosophical grounds, I have severe reason to doubt that even God Almighty could create a simple intellectual substance, such as I conceive the soul to be, and yet at the same time rendering it capable of annihilation. If humans are made in the image and likeness of God, I do not think it is logically possible for souls to be destroyed any more than the number 2 can be destroyed, or the concept that A is A can be destroyed.

      I did not mention this in the essay, because this is a private philosophical opinion of my own, and not within the scope of the question asked. But if this speculation is correct, and if Hell is the absence of God (or, rather, the inability to see the face of God without pain), and if only the righteous can endure the face of God, then Hell is a logical inevitability. Oblivion is not an option because it is logically impossible for spiritual essences to dissolve, and isolation from God is impossible because God is omnipresent.

      • Comment by Steven D.:

        Interesting. Creation out of nothing suggests to me the philosophical possiblity of destruction back to nothing. The whole question hinges on the properties of the soul — what they are, and whether they are inherent or conditional. If the ability of the intellectual substance to reason and will is conditional on the sustaining power of God, then all that is
        needed for dissolution is for God to withdraw His support. Also crucial is whether man is tri-partite or dual, whether the spirit and the soul are substantively different. If for instance, the animating spirit and the physical body combine in some fashion to produce the soul, then at judgment the body could be destroyed and the life-force spirit returned to God, thereby annhilating the personhood of the soul.

        But let’s face it — Hell is not a trifle, and Scripture plainly tells us of its horror.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        On philosophical grounds, I have severe reason to doubt that even God Almighty could create a simple intellectual substance, such as I conceive the soul to be, and yet at the same time rendering it capable of annihilation.

        I have some sympathy with this view. On the other hand, there is the hypothesis put forward by C. S. Lewis, who suggests that there may be such a thing as the residue of a soul. He recurs to the Biblical imagery of fire. When you put a log on the fire, it is reduced to smoke and ashes. May not the souls in Hell, he asks, be similarly reduced, until they are not souls anymore, but the spiritual version of smoke and ashes? He pictures the central self dissolving in the unmediated war among conflicting (evil) desires, until the personality simply disappears and the fragments of malicious intention go spiralling away.

  10. Comment by Erik:

    If you could just expand a bit: you say in the wrap up that God cannot be solved by logic nor by experiment, and yet just a few passages earlier you suggested that to those who establish the correct conditions, God is perfectly logical. This suggests both the logic dimension explicitly and the experiment dimension implicitly. Surely if the foundational axiom of our thinking is the existence of the object of our love, we cannot at the same time hold it to be the result of logic. [?] Would it be fair to interpret your meaning as saying that because it is “obvious” and “intuitive” – i.e. a brute fact, like the perception of light or my awareness of my wife – that it cannot be deduced by logic (the point at the end) but fits within a perfectly rational system of axioms, theorems, and derivations (what it could mean to say His existence is logical to the saints)?

  11. Comment by arkanabar:

    @Erik, God does not require you to accept his existence. As a result, nowhere in His creation will He provide anything which can be used to browbeat you into believing. You only get evidence if you want it, even if you only want it if He is real. I urge you (and Mr. Ruiz, and all the skeptics) to ask for revelation, bearing in mind that it will only be given to you if you hold nothing more dear than knowing the truth of God’s existence, and that it won’t necessarily convince anyone else.

    However, if one starts with what God has revealed of Himself (particularly through His Church), what follows logically will also be true, and what contradicts logic will be false of Him. Hence, the Church’s love of reason.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      it will only be given to you if you hold nothing more dear than knowing the truth of God’s existence, and that it won’t necessarily convince anyone else.

      I can confirm this is exactly my experience when I converted from atheism to Christianity. That it does not convince anyone else is still mildly surprising to me, because I assume anyone hearing my testimony must either assume I am a liar or a madman or that I honestly and accurately reported what I saw. But anyone who assumes, without any research into my character or background, that I must be a liar or a madman based on the unlikelihood of what I report seeing, that is, namely, a confirmation of the opinion of the majority of men across the majority of history, must recognize that he is reasoning in a circle.

      It was not until I met read comments left here on my blog that I understood that it was not surprising at all. The why a so-called skeptic deals with the paradox of assuming a sane and honest man is a liar is by simply not thinking about it, and then, less simply, going through convoluted philosophical and psychological excuses, evasions, distractions, and self-deceptions to prevent himself from thinking about it. In some men this evasion rises to the pitch of comical hysteria or self-parody: and this from men who, in their own inflated estimation, regard themselves as learned and even superior in intellect.

      Of course, I would not have been surprised at all, had I read my Bible carefully, because the faithful believer is warned in several places about the perversity of the faithful. Their eyes are blind and their ears are dull and hearts are hard because otherwise they would listen and see and understand and be healed. The world does not know the Christians because the world does not know Christ, and lacks the discrimination and wisdom to see the differences between true and false, right and wrong. Sin darkens the intellect and corrupts the integrity, and pride, which is the chief sin, darkens the intellect absolutely.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        Much as I agree with the charge of circular reasoning, I can’t help but note that we may appear vulnerable to the same charge in the last paragraph; for if that boils down to, “They do not see because they do not believe, and they do not believe because they do not see”, does not the converse demand we make therefore amount to “If you believe, you will see, and once you see you will believe”?

        (Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that demand to be the ultimate truth of what must happen in the mind and soul; but I cannot deny that its paradoxical nature makes it a demand that perhaps reason alone cannot meet.)

        An image comes to mind from, of all places, Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, where early on in the book the characters discuss the optical illusion known as the Necker cube: a graphic pattern drawn on a page to give the illusion of a transparent cube with one face shaded, and the shaded face can appear to be at the “front” or at the “back” of the cube as one’s perception shifts. (Vampires’ superior mentalities are asserted to be able to see both perspectives simultaneously.) To some extent this reminds me of this logical situation: precisely the same data can support two completely contradictory conclusions, depending purely on one external position that cannot itself be determined by the available data.

        Which is why, I think, human existence requires not Truth alone, but Love as well; Love, the ultimate in subjective, non-rational, personal, irreproducible experience, the light by which to see Truth properly. (And, regrettably, Suffering as the third ruler of this triumvirate, to make it important that we get Truth and Love right — to make them matter to us, by requiring consequences for their absence, selfish misuse, or misapprehension.)

      • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

        Mr. Wright:

        I regret that I have not participated in this thread despite having (so to speak) instigated it by an earlier comment. Commitments out here in the big blue room have prevented me from spending more than a few moments online in the last couple of weeks.

        And I trust that I have not exhibited the behavior of the “so-called skeptic” described by you above. To my knowledge, at no time have I ever accused Christians of deception or of ignorance beyond the portion of those failings which as humans we all share. I suppose that I would view your faith as opposed to my lack of same as I might view one of us being left-handed while the other is right-handed, without any pejorative intent.

        You make an eloquent case in your main post for the theodicy of Hell as it applies to the destiny of Vicq Ruiz, the individual. I fear that you make a less convincing case in response to the conclusion of my original statement, which in a less personal context amounts to: will those in Paradise rejoice in the contemplations of those in Hell? Some Christian writers (Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards come immediately to mind) seem to have little doubt that this is the case.

        To my mind, a Paradise from which my loved ones are absent, irrespective of their failings or of their disregard of God’s message, is no Paradise at all.

        You may attribute that position of mine to the blindness of my eyes and the dullness of my ears as you choose, bearing in mind only that such a reply is unlikely to achieve the desired end (and I give you full credit for your best wishes toward me in desiring that end).

        Alternatively, you may suggest that a Universalist Christ is not impossible, and that I ought to seek such a One. But I do think that you would be rejecting a long-established tenet of your Church in doing so.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      “God does not require you to accept his existence.”
      He does. He gives not only inklings (through creation and moral conscience) of his existence that an Aristotle was able to read, but unmistakable signs of it, through his Revelation, and not all excuses will guarantee a free pass to heaven.

      Mr. Ruiz is right to think unbelief can mean ending in hell but, as others commenters pointed out, it will be so only if the other conditions for mortal sin and final impenitence are met. For example, in many cases it will not be the good persons who were scandalized by bad Christians, but the bad Christians responsible for the scandals who will go to hell if they do not repent. This is to say atheism or indifference to God are grave matters to begin with.

      “As a result, nowhere in His creation will He provide anything which can be used to browbeat you into believing.”
      God requires belief on pain of hell in case of conscious and stubborn refusal, but of course he does not force anyone; this is a free choice and, where there is real lack of freedom, unbelief is not imputable.

      • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:


        If I ask God to enter my heart, and He does so, will He anesthetize the grief I will inevitably feel upon realizing that I am to be separated from my now-dead loved ones for all eternity?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          If any Christian has told you that he knows for certain that your parents are in Hell, that man lies. No Christian knows who, if anyone, is damned.

          • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

            What you seem to be telling me in your several posts on this thread is that I should deal with my own soul and just try and put that troubling question about my loved ones out of my mind.

            Fair enough, but have I misread you? For if I have not, you have sidestepped exactly the part of my original comment which you characterized as “very hard”.

            I lived with my father and mother for twenty years, saw them on a weekly basis for respectively fifteen and twenty-five years later. For them to now be in a Christian heaven;

            (1) they would have decided to conceal their true beliefs from me for lo, those many years. Not buying it, never will. I knew them and discussed religious topics with them hundreds of times, no member of this forum did so even once.

            or (2) they would both have had deathbed conversions. Possible, but improbable to the near zero point.

            or (3) God does in fact eventually save all, unbelief notwithstanding. If I were confident of this, it would indeed tear down that granite wall. But orthodox (small “o”) Christianity calls that concept heresy.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              “What you seem to be telling me in your several posts on this thread is that I should deal with my own soul and just try and put that troubling question about my loved ones out of my mind.”

              I never said anything of the kind.

              Fair enough, but have I misread you?

              Very much so.

              For if I have not, you have sidestepped exactly the part of my original comment which you characterized as “very hard”.

              I believe I addressed your question directly, and at some length. My answer was that you are making a mistake of cause and effect, and blaming the doctor for the disease. My answer is that if you are actually worried about your parents, rather than using them as a talking point in an internet argument with a stranger, you would pray for the salvation of their souls.

              Have you done this? If not, on what grounds do you complain of the justice of God? That He did not answer when you did not ask?

              or (2) they would both have had deathbed conversions. Possible, but improbable to the near zero point.

              If you think you know what goes on inside the secret heart of another person, even a person you know well, and if you think you know what God does and does not do, you are grossly overestimating your powers of perception. The chance that I would witness a miracle, see a vision, have an out-of-body experience, talk to the dead, and convert from being a lifelong atheist to a Catholic is improbable to the near zero point, and yet here I am. There was no worldly reason for me to convert. It was impossible. Yet here I am. It happened in one day, no, in one second. Even if you were my child, even if you had been in the room with me, you would seen nothing, until and unless I spoke of it.

              You seem to be convinced that the Church teaches that no virtuous pagans are received into heaven, and that only Christians go to heaven, and that belief in God is a prerequisite. This is not what she teaches. There are slight nuances of difference, but they are significant. More than once this was told to you, and yet something in your mind makes you blank out that fact, like a little moment of amnesia, each time it is mentioned.

              You also seem not to notice that if the Church is wrong, your parents are dead and in oblivion, which is, if anything, if a fate even more unfair and hateful than hell, because it is meaningless.

              The advantage of being Catholic is that everything we believe is written down and cross referenced. Here is the catechism, the official Church teaching, on Hell. Please note exactly what is said, and do not confuse it with any conclusions you may wish to leap to, but which, in fact, are not said:

              IV. HELL

              1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

              1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

              1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

              1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

              Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

              1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

            • Comment by DaveSomething:

              Neither 1, 2, nor 3 are necessary for your parents to be in heaven. The only way they would be in hell is if they had died in a state of mortal sin. Do you have reason to believe that they were in such a state? In other words, that they had deliberately done something that they fully believed would damn them to hell? And that, having done so, they had no contrition at all for that act?

  12. Comment by camargoignacio:

    This is my first post, but this is what I think this come with the mystery of the free will. If a person makes the willful decision of not believing Jesus when fullness of the truth is presented he can not go heaven, when he is not presented with that he ultimately has the obligation of searching for the Truth until the last consequences because no person goes to God against his own will. The mystery of hell is the safeguard of the dignity of liberty. Sorry for grammatical errors and orthographical mistakes Spanish is my mother tongue.
    post data:
    with out consequences freedom is meaningless

  13. Comment by lotdw:

    “I … have noted that one element in which Christianity appears to be unique is the doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelief, and for unbelief alone among man’s sins.”

    There seem to be two crucial misunderstandings of Christianity here, and it may be because Victor has only encountered Calvinist theology.

    The first misunderstanding is that all Christians think that mere unbelief is enough to damn someone to hell. Actually, many Christian denominations, including Catholicism and much liberal Protestantism, do not necessarily think so. Many Christians believe that it contradicts the mercy of God to think so, in fact. And the Biblical support for it, even if one is a fundamentalist, is not at all conclusive – after all, one of the major themes of the New Testament is that Jesus came to save all mankind, not just the Jews; it makes no sense that a new and arbitrary subset of mankind would be damned. Many non-Christians were saved before Christ’s birth, in traditional Christian belief; how would it be just or merciful to damn them? And if sin is only sin when the sin is willed – one cannot murder or rape or steal on accident or unknowingly – then an unbeliever who is not obstinate in his unbelief cannot be be called to account. By no means is this the same across all of Christianity.

    The second is puzzling to me, but it may just be that the original sentence is unclear. Victor writes “for unbelief alone among man’s sins.” I cannot tell whether he means that not believing by itself, with no other sins, could mean damnation; or whether unbelief is special among all the sins in damning men. The answer to the former is found above, that the damnation must be willed; the answer to the latter is that unbelief is not special, and damnation can come from any number of vices.

    As for uniqueness, well, that’s not true either. Islamic hell is actually split into levels BY the belief of the person. From wiki:

    Hawai: Hypocrites, Pharaoh and his associates. This is the lowest level of Hell.
    Jahim: Above Hawai, also for polytheists.
    Saqar: Above Jahim, for Saibeen, a sect having no religion.
    Nati: Above Saqar, for Iblis and his associates.
    Hatma: Above Nati, for Jewish religion.
    Sa’ah: This is for Christians.
    Jahannam: Uppermost level, which is meant for general Muslim sinners.

    So even being sinning Muslim gets one into a better level of hell than being from any other religion.

    Victor, if you have concerns about Christian theology, you should read up on it! While it may not solve every issue you have, you’ll at least avoid the misunderstandings exhibited above.

    • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

      “for unbelief alone among man’s sins.”

      What I meant here was that all other sins can be set aside if one is a believer at the moment of death. Only unbelief has no cure.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Not to be flippant, but, logically, if all things can be forgiven when one asks for mercy, then the only unforgivable thing is not to ask.

        The other option is a worse one, that is, to have the same fate for all men, regardless of anything they do. In that case men’s doings mean nothing whatsoever.

        Look at the causes of your disbelief. How much skepticism, if any, is a strictly logical inadequacy of the Christian worldview and how much, if any, is due to an emotional and irrational belief that God prevents happiness rather than causing it? You speak as if God is torturing your parents sadistically and threatening you arbitrarily. We speak as if God is life, infinite life, offered to you freely. To reject life is death.

  14. Comment by Mary:

    One is reminded of the old joke of a sinner who, dead, found himself on floating clouds, with a halo and wings. Then he asked what was happening and was told they were all going to sing hymns. He asked what sort of Heaven this was, and was blandly told that while they were in Heaven, he was in Hell.

  15. Comment by DaveSomething:

    An important point is that under Catholic teaching, one is only damned for mortal sin. Disbelief is a sin, but not necessarily mortal. In order for a sin to be mortal, three criteria must be met:
    1. Grave matter
    2. Full knowledge
    3. Full consent of the will
    Disbelief is certainly grave, but the second two categories present uncertainty. Disbelief can mean several things. It is clear that disbelief as in “unconvinced after examining the evidence as objectively as possible” would not rise to the level of mortal sin. What we’re talking in the context of a sin worthy of damnation is willful disbelief – in other words, obstinately refusing to believe something which you otherwise would.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Actually, number 2 also includes vincible ignorance, which can mitigate but does not eliminate guilt. Supine ignorance, where one makes no effort to find out the truth, does not mitigate. Affected ignorance, where one goes out of the way to avoid the truth, may make guilt worse, because of the hardness of heart shown.

  16. Comment by Malcolm Smith:

    What Mr Ruiz, and many others, are saying is: It cannot be true, because if it were true, it would be terrible.
    That is an understandable, emotional response, but it is not very logical. We would not apply it to matters in the material universe. Christianity may or may not be true, but that is something which must be determined on the evidence, not on what we want.

  17. Comment by WyldCard4:


    Allow me to consider this a bit. I am not attempting a counter argument, more thinking out loud.

    First of all, let’s make a few facts clear. Hell is considered as terrible compared to mortal life as Heaven is wonderful. In the same way Heaven is compared to the best acts, Hell is the worst. Hell may best be compared to the most brutal acts of human suffering and self degradation. Hell would seem most similar to a a good man betraying himself out of weakness. Examples that come to mind would be a starving man eating his children to survive, to use perhaps one of the least graphic and disturbing metaphors.

    This being the case, one fact that comes to mind is that many of the worst things imaginable would involved being forced to do something by either an outside force or your own flaws. Experiencing the loss of control and performing an evil act while fully aware of the evil of it seems worse than merely witnessing an evil act.

    Considering this, however voluntary Hell actually is, the state would be similar to it being involuntary or inevitable.

    Considering this, surely being forced into salvation would be a lesser evil? Overcoming the most prideful, rebellious, and evil soul and transforming it into an entity worthy of Heaven would be monstrously evil by many philosophies, but it seems like a far lesser one than the evil of Hell. It seems natural to the argument that if Hell is a state that includes all the horrors of the world, and being forced into changing is a horror of the world, the subset of evil involved in the transformation would already exist in the state of Hell, so no greater wrong would be committed.

    Now, a God incapable or unwilling to creating good through evil would not do this, but this is definitely not the the Lord of Christianity. Father and Son definitely contain feats of creating good through sorrow and pain. Indeed this is one of the more basic Christian arguments.

    The same feats also have, well, direct examples of spiritual transformation engaged in by God to change people. Coming directly to mind is hardening the heart of a certain Egyptian ruler. God’s scope of action does not ban mind control.

    Based on this, the God of the universe suggested in this theology would have no reason not to violate the souls of sinners and change them into saints.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      “hardening the heart of a certain Egyptian ruler. God’s scope of action does not ban mind control.”

      Knowing perfectly the heart of a certain Egyptian ruler and using his own tendencies and social situation is not the same as mind control. That is, God promises to punish Pharaoh for not letting His people go and that hardly seems just if Pharaoh had no role or choice in the matter (Exodus 8:15, 32, 7:13,22).

      “violate the souls of sinners ”

      Violating the souls of the sinners and God being a Just, Loving, Kind, and even Merciful God are completely incompatible concepts. Even if God did aid, or in some sense force, the hardness of Pharaoh that hardness was not out of character for Pharaoh, nor did it change the very nature and being of Pharaoh.

      If God violated the souls of sinners then the sinners would no longer be themselves and would have no say or choice in the matter. Annihilating the being and personality of a soul doesn’t appear to be anything like saving them and would appear to be worse then Hell.

      According to my scriptures the reason that Lucifer was cast out and a third of the hosts of heaven were willing to follow him was that he wished to have the power and authority of God so that all men would be saved regardless and none would be lost. He wanted to destroy the agency of man such that regardless of our choices, will, or desires we would all be saved. Also according to my scriptures it is our agency that is the greatest of Gods gift to us, as it is the ability to choose that defines our existence. We fought a war in heaven over this subject and chose there to follow the plan of God and His Christ, shouting for joy that we would have the opportunity to learn, grow, make choices, and receive the consequences of those choices.

      • Comment by WyldCard4:

        “Knowing perfectly the heart of a certain Egyptian ruler and using his own tendencies and social situation is not the same as mind control. That is, God promises to punish Pharaoh for not letting His people go and that hardly seems just if Pharaoh had no role or choice in the matter (Exodus 8:15, 32, 7:13,22).”

        Could be a linguistic mistake on my part, honestly. However, I think there is a serious argument that mind control is on a spectrum with normal persuasion and anticipation, rather than a thing entirely outside of it.

        “Violating the souls of the sinners and God being a Just, Loving, Kind, and even Merciful God are completely incompatible concepts.”

        Hardly more so than Hell itself would, as a category. A sinner would seem just as violated by the removal of God’s love and blessings as them being forced on him. Both would be fundamental alterations to how a person interacts with and experiences the world.

        “Even if God did aid, or in some sense force, the hardness of Pharaoh that hardness was not out of character for Pharaoh, nor did it change the very nature and being of Pharaoh.”

        This I find an acceptable argument, but would reaffirm that this indicates that such alteration is a matter of degree rather than kind. Surely we can agree that mundane forces can alter a man’s very nature and being, such as severe brain damage, brainwashing, or time, to say nothing of spiritual experiences. Assuming that such mundane forces are permitted to exist, then it seems reasonable that such things are no more evil than the other evils of the world.

        “If God violated the souls of sinners then the sinners would no longer be themselves and would have no say or choice in the matter.”

        This does not seem that meaningfully different from Hell. To misquote something not particularly Christian, “hell is forgetting who you are.” Lack of choice, ceasing to be yourself, effective death, all of these are well within the metaphors and images of Hell we use for such discussions.

        “Annihilating the being and personality of a soul doesn’t appear to be anything like saving them and would appear to be worse then Hell.”

        I think this is our point of divergence. It doesn’t seem worse, because Hell contains all imaginable horror, and this is an imaginable horror. It seems bizarre that there would be meaningfully worse things than Hell that God holds at bay.

        Honestly I do not know which scriptures you are referring to, though Latter Day Saints is my first guess. Anyway, there seems to me to be something vaguely gnostic about the free will focused arguments. It seems to argue that vast semi-divine beings work their will on their souls to grant themselves deeper unity with God. That does not sound quite like Jesus’s focus to me. His arguments were rarely “focus on evangelism and the spreading of an understanding of reason and free will to save as many souls as possible” as much as moral teaching. Free will focus seems to remove the centrality of Jesus in favor of the centrality of the individual. I am not saying it is wrong, merely a somewhat different religion than the Catholic one in the blog post.

        • Comment by John Hutchins:

          Yes, LDS. Everyone always see their pet counter theory in LDS thought, it is vaguely disconcerting. There is no moral teaching if there is not morality, there is no morality without moral agency, and the only way to make learn, grow, and make choices and return to God is through the atonement of Jesus Christ; as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I don’t know where you get free will focus other then me stating that our existence is defined by our ability to choose. I believe this is the first time that someone has accused Latter-Day Saints of focusing on reason that I am aware of or of not focusing on moral teachings, I either must be doing something very right or very wrong to bring you to that conclusion.

          ” A sinner would seem just as violated by the removal of God’s love and blessings”

          Have you already prepared the lawsuit for Adam and Eve being thrust out of the Garden for eating the forbidden fruit? God never ceases to love us, it is we, not Him, that choose by our actions to remove ourselves from God’s blessings and from the influence of God’s grace. We have no right to demand the grace of God and God has no obligation to bless us if we have not met the prerequisites for the blessings. I do not understand how one can say they have a claim against God because God will not save them from themselves while at the same time ignoring that God already has saved them if they actually want to be saved.

          “Lack of choice,”
          Generally drug addictions are not things that are thrust on people suddenly and against their will, but something they have chosen, and usually something they have chosen dozens of times over.

          “ceasing to be yourself,”
          Having lost the ability to have joy, to feel shame or sorrow, to love, to be happy is to cease to be what one once was and to die to the things of goodness and righteousness; Haven’t you ever read Paradise Lost by Milton?

          ” such as severe brain damage”
          In some sense sure, this alters ones being potentially drastically. In the sense that I am referring to then in general I don’t think so.

          You have a much higher opinion of this then what I think is warranted.

          ” nothing of spiritual experiences”
          Surprisingly enough there are plenty of examples of people having visions or seeing angels and them not altering their behavior. That is, spiritual experiences, just like all experiences, can have a profound impact on us but only if we let them. If you are referring to being born of the Spirit, that is something that is in large part our own choice to have happen and is not something forced on us.

          “Hell contains all imaginable horror”

          I don’t know where you got this idea about Hell; it is torment which it contains and in unimaginable, endless, and eternal quantities and qualities. It certainly isn’t from the Bible. Since we have already established that I am LDS, and that neither of us are currently referencing the Bible specifically or exclusively in getting our ideas of Hell, here are the relevant scriptures on the subject of what is Hell:

          16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

          17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

          18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

          19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

          20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.

          D&C 19:16-20

          And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us—

          41 That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness;

          42 That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

          43 Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.

          44 Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—

          45 And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows;

          46 Neither was it revealed, neither is, neither will be revealed unto man, except to them who are made partakers thereof;

          47 Nevertheless, I, the Lord, show it by vision unto many, but straightway shut it up again;

          48 Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation.

          D&C 76:40-48

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Your minor premise is insupportable. Merely because Hell is bad, it does not necessarily follow that being mind controlled into being good is possible, much less preferable.

      Nor does it follow that anything to which the label “bad” can be affixed must be in Hell, or part of it. Nor does it follow that the ends justify the means, which is what you are here recommending for God–namely, that he use his evil mind control powers to make men saints rather than allow them freely to fall into the evil of hell, which you have, following Saint Anselm, defined as that evil of which none worse can be imagined. The paradox of having God do evil deeds that good may come of it is droll, but hardly logical.

      If it is a real place, or, rather, a real spiritual condition, like all real things, it has a certain nature and a certain definition, and what we imagine to be or not to be in Hell has no bearing on the issue.

      • Comment by John Hutchins:

        “you have, following Saint Anselm, defined as that evil of which none worse can be imagined”

        So that is where he is getting his idea of Hell from, I should have known that.

        “The paradox of having God do evil deeds that good may come of it is droll, but hardly logical. ”
        But a highly Gnostic concept, as are some other things he said, that when combined with accusing me of being Gnostic makes me think WyldCard4 has been studying Gnosticism, that or watching (and listening to the lyrics) of too many music videos by such performers as Lady GaGa and Ke$ha.

  18. Comment by camargoignacio:

    Like a gunshot wedding, where love is unimportant and power is the only real thing. That would be false relanshiontp, and youre personal life unimportant therefore it would be the greater evil.

    • Comment by WyldCard4:

      Surely being raped and enslaved is a lesser evil than being raped, enslaved, skinned alive, and blinded? This is rather basic logic here. Hell contains the set of “all the worst things in the world.” Mind control is inside that set. Henceforth, it is the lesser evil. What, precisely, is the hole in this argument? Hell contains all the evil of forced marriage, relationships of pure power, and your own nature ceasing to matter. A Hell lacking in this, or equally terrible but discrete horrors, would not be Hell.

      • Comment by Raphael:

        “This is rather basic logic here.” Well, the output of a logical argument is only as good as its premises. Where are you getting your idea of hell from?

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        Hell contains the set of “all the worst things in the world.”

        Asserted but not proven. And you will find the proof hard to come by.

        Following the Catholic doctrine that evil is the privation of good, I shall offer a counter-position: Hell does not contain the evil of forced marriage, because Hell does not contain marriage. Marriage as such is a good, not an evil; it has no place in Hell, and as Our Lord observes, the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

        Likewise, Hell does not contain ‘relationships of pure power’, because relationships between human beings are as such a good, not an evil, and no human relationship exists on a basis of pure power. The only way to completely dominate another person is to completely substitute your will for his own: in which case you do not have a relationship with a person, but mental command of a meat puppet from which the faculty of will has been expunged.

        The evils you have described are all parasitic on some good thing, and we would be rash to assume that those good things are present in Hell. One can no more have th0se particular evils without the particular goods than one can have a tapeworm infestation without a belly. The evil of Hell must be much more absolute than that, and probably not imaginable by the mind of a living man.

  19. Comment by Sandy Petersen:

    re: Oblivion

    The specific Mormon belief is that there is no such thing as creation ex nihilo. We believe that the human soul is not only immortal, but eternal, and existed before our existence on Earth. That matter cannot be destroyed nor created, and God cannot reduce our souls to oblivion. When Mormons speak of the Destruction of the Soul we mean by it eternal separation from God, which we, along with Catholics, see as the ultimate evil.

  20. Comment by The_Shadow:

    An idea of Hell I have always found most striking is this: That upon death, both the just and the unjust receive exactly the same thing – the unmitigated love of God. To those who love God, this is joy beyond all comprehension. To those who hate Him, it is torment.

    From this point of view, asking for the fires of Hell to be quenched is precisely asking God to cease being who He is.

    I hasten to add that this isn’t a doctrine of any church I know of, but I have found it helpful.

    As for those saying that annihilation would be preferable and more merciful… I doubt it. I suspect that mere existence is the only gift the damned are willing to receive from Him. St. Thomas Aquinas certainly teaches that the damned prefer existence in Hell to nonexistence.

  21. Comment by SFAN:

    May I ask you, in the spirit of Advent, if you see the Church fulfilling the role,among others, of the College of Hortators (non-coercitive moral compass) in an ideal society?

    Merry Christmas! :D

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I see Christians not fulfilling that role, to be frank. The movie office of the Catholics was moved to New York, where it no longer had any influence whatever on the content of films, and the Protestant movie office was shut down entirely, both in the 1960’s. The decline in the content of films, and the inversion of the moral message, showing audiences that evil was good and good was evil, that perversion was normal and normalcy was perverse, spring from that era.

  22. Comment by theshink:

    One can easily logically argue for the doctrine of hell, based on two primary doctrines, as inevitable.
    1. Hell is a state of separation from God.
    2. God is love.
    3. Human beings have free will.
    4. If human beings have free will, they can choose to love and to accept love.
    5. If human beings can choose to love, they can choose to refuse love and refuse being loved.
    6. If human beings can freely reject love, they can freely reject God (given p.2).
    7. Therefore, human beings can freely choose hell, i.e. separation from God (given p.1).
    Basically, it can be stated much more succinctly that if God is love, and humans have free will, hell must be an inevitable option.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      How would you answer the question if someone asked why the damned are not merely consigned to oblivion? The classical notion of hell was of a place of torment, an outer darkness filled with wailing, or a lake of fire. Why not resurrect the just, and leave the unjust and unsaved in the dreamless sleep of death? It is the idea of eternal torment which makes the theodicy of Hell so incomprehensible, so hard to defend.

      If hell is no more than the absence of God, surely that absence will not torment those whose dearest wish is privacy, pride, and self-command, to hold themselves away from God and not to have Him near?

      • Comment by theshink:

        Because that is the main course of Christian revelation, as professed by the Church and shown in scripture. However, to answer your question I’ll make several points.
        First, it is important to remember that, as Aquinas pointed out, words about God are analogous: “The Lord is my shepherd”, for instance. So are the descriptions of hell, which resides outside space and time.
        Second, souls are not resurrected; bodies are. All souls in traditional Christian theology exist after death. So to assign some to oblivion is ultimately not to recognize the free choice of human individuals; it would be to make infantile conscientious human decisions and moral autonomy.
        Third, there is no need for a theodicy if there is no logical contradiction between a loving God and the existence of hell. Hell serves several purposes, as a retribution by God as divine justice against the wicked, the bullies, the murderers, the corrupt, and the despots. Also, hell (borrowing a metaphor from C.S. Lewis) has a door only locked from the inside; nobody asks to leave. It is a place, or state of being, freely chosen through this life, and/or the next.
        Fourth, we cannot say hell is crowded; for all we know in the Restoration, as Origen thought, all will be saved. However as a matter of rational principle the reality of hell as a possibility is necessary if God is love and we are free and rational creatures.
        Fifth, the torment of hell (analogous again) is self-torment. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, then rejecting God is ultimately rejecting the source of our own humanity. We then become anti-human. Go back to Dante’s Inferno, where every image of punishment for sin is a state of a perverted good; hell is an inversion of the divine plan. So choosing hell is choosing not to go along with the divine plan. Rejecting God is the same as being in hell. It is pulling the plug on our own humanity.
        Sixth, hell as a state of being is pretty bad in itself. It often surprises people to know that the person who discusses hell the most in the Bible is Jesus. Take the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Abraham remarks about the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man. It is this chasm which separates the rich man from his fellow human beings. When the rich man asks for Lazarus to come and give him water, he asks in such a way as expecting Lazarus as lower than him. The rich man’s sin is not being rich; it is choosing to higher himself over Lazarus because of his earthly wealth. And by rejecting the common humanity of Lazarus, he rejects his own. What he did in his own life he continues to do in eternity. That is what hell is: choosing to not base our identities on God shipped off into eternity.
        To conclude, I’ll quote Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov: “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love”, which is ironically said by Fyodor Karamazov, a man refusing to love. The absence of love from one’s own life is the same as the absence of God from one’s own life. And a life without love is inhuman, but still can be freely chosen. Hell is that life projected into eternity.

  23. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    Mr. Wright:

    You seem to be convinced that the Church teaches that no virtuous pagans are received into heaven, and that only Christians go to heaven, and that belief in God is a prerequisite. This is not what she teaches……

    With respect, sir, I believe this borders upon casuistry.

    My original and subsequent comments are descriptive of people who had heard the gospel of Christ repeatedly, and never been convinced by it.

    At no time did I suggest that my parents were numbered among the virtuous pagans of Dante’s first circle, or among an undiscovered tribe still content in their animism.

    Is the following a reliable guide to the contemplation of the fates of my unbelieving loved ones?

    171. What is the meaning of the affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”?

    846-848 This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      Interesting the amount of editing that went into this response, what was sent by email and what appears here are two very different responses to the same thing.

      To respond to what I got in my inbox of this:

      “is what has been told to VR by John C. Wright, and his fellow believers on this blog, and the Catholic doctrines quoted therein.”

      Not everyone that has responded is Catholic and I haven’t seen any one Catholic or otherwise agree with what you have presented as Christianity; When heretics that many other Christians are unwilling to admit are Christian agree with Catholics as to the damnation of the unbeliever being uncertain at best being a true part of Christianity then that should give you pause as to whether what you have heard is actually representative of Christianity. The Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of Christianity in general, nor are any other evangelical group that likewise tends to dominate the public square, news coverage, and are very vocal in private as well representative of what Jesus Christ actually teaches.

      “So my question to myself upon reading your comments should not be “is Christianity true??” but rather “is this Christianity, as opposed to the other Christianities that have been expounded to me without effect, true??””

      Asking if the Westboro Baptist Church is true using pretty much any standard of truth that one could think to use will lead to a negative result and has no bearing on any other Christian sect or Christianity in general. Seeking to know if Mormonism is true has no bearing on Catholicism, which has no bearing on Evangelicals, which has no bearing on Christian Science, which has no bearing on Adventist’s, which has no bearing on Lutherans. Since we are discussing something of which there appears to be competing claims as to what is Christianity then yes, obviously the question to ask is which claim is true.

      “heard the gospel of Christ repeatedly, and never been convinced by it.”

      does not mean, necessarily

      “knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation”

      A person can hear the gospel and/or something purporting to be the gospel of Christ thousands of times without knowing that the church is true and necessary for salvation; that requires that the Holy Ghost testify of the truth and I don’t know that anyone says that they know when that has happened.

      “try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience”

      This doesn’t exclude atheists since it is says dictates of conscience, one can not believe in God but still be trying to do His will as one tries to follow the dictates of their own conscience.

      If you are trying to say that your parents not only did not believe in God but also had the Holy Ghost witness to them that the gospel of Jesus Christ was true and they denied it and/or that they willfully and purposefully did not follow the dictates of their own conscience then then you are claiming more then any earthly agent can know except it is revealed by God. You are capable of judging your own actions as to whether you know the gospel is true or whether you are trying to do the best that you can or whatever, you are incapable of judging your parents. Even if your parents went on a shooting rampage and killed dozens of innocents you still do not have all the information that God will use to judge them and can still pray that might be forgiven and healed through the grace of Christ and obtain salvation.

    • Comment by DaveSomething:

      Did the people in question know the Church to be founded by Christ and necessary for salvation? I thought you said they were unconvinced.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Sir, you have said nothing about your parents and their beliefs except that you believe they are in Hell because they do not believe in God. I do not know you, and do not know your parents. You did not tell me that they were instructed in the Church and left it, and it odd that you would accuse me of bordering on casuistry for not making that assumption. Neither did I say that they were virtuous or vicious, neither did I say they were animists. What I said was that the Church teaches there is no salvation outside the Church but also teaches only God knows where the line between inside and outside precisely falls. Hence, I cannot rule out the possibility that they are on the hither side of the line.

      I would not presume to know their fate after death. Nor should you. Nor should you argue that I should know it, or that the doctrine of the Church defines it.

      The Catechism, taking in its entirety, and interpreted correctly, without casuistry on your part, is indeed a reliable guide to the historical and orthodox teaching of the Christian faith. You, however, are dealing with a perfectly logical argument in a warped and emotional way.

      You read that paragraph and reason: since my parents knew the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation refused to enter her, therefore they are (if Christian teaching is correct) in Hell. Regardless of the facts, I cannot accept on an emotional level any teaching which teaching such a horrid fate for my beloved parents. Ergo Christian teaching is false.

      You read that paragraph and reason: since the fate of the parents in question cannot be known by any empirical evidence known to man, if the parents are in Heaven, if the Christian teaching is true, then that salvation is due to Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body, since all who go to heaven so so through that instrumentality of Christ, albeit in some fashion mysterious to me; and, if they are not, and if the teaching is true, then it is because they rejected that salvation, since it is freely offered to all, ergo offered to them. From this, on a logical level, we cannot deduce whether or not the Christian teaching is true or false.

      Do you see the difference? The Church does not teach that all those who do not believe in God are damned. You have said this and repeated it, but you no argument to support it. What your friends have told you is not authoritative. If it disagrees with the Catechism, true or false, it is not what the Church founded by Christ teaches.

  24. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    This has served as a lesson to me. Compose offline and think about it, then log in and paste!

    If I might try and conflate the post that was with the post that is…..

    One thing I have come to realize over the past year or so is that many atheists who claim they are “attacking Christianity” are more than anything else attacking part of Christianity, essentially the fundamentalist and Calvinist wings of Protestantism.

    Awareness of this fact has affected my own atheist thought and I have gravitated to those sites where a more intellectually rigorous discussion can be found. I no longer waste my time in shouting atheist slogans at those who are only interested in shouting fundamentalist slogans back at me.

    And it has not passed unnoticed that those intellectually rigorous sites are more likely to be populated by Catholics than by any other flavor of Christian…….

    Which brings me to your blog, Mr. Wright, and what drew me to it.

    Your articles ring true as coming from the perspective of a former atheist. There are many apologetics by “former atheists” which ring very false indeed (the books of Lee Strobel come to mind) – The so-called skeptical questions they ask have almost nothing in common with the questions I and my atheist friends have asked.

    In contrast, your descriptions of how atheists think and react are clearly written from life, and I read one of your main purposes as a sincere endeavor to dismantle what you see as the caricature of Christianity that exists in the non-believing mind.

    But my opinion is that in attempting to present the concept of hell in a way that it will not cause the honest, unbelieving seeker after truth to recoil, you have in fact softened that concept beyond where your Church intends you to go.

    I believe we are going to have to agree to disagree here, but I thank you sincerely for your thoughtful posts and will continue to contemplate the issue.


    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “But my opinion is that in attempting to present the concept of hell in a way that it will not cause the honest, unbelieving seeker after truth to recoil, you have in fact softened that concept beyond where your Church intends you to go. “

      Indeed? Had I wished to soften it, I would not have accused you of being emotional and urged you to put sentiment aside and think of the issue logically. This is only something hard men wrestling with hard thoughts do.

      What I am trying to do is cut through the smokescreen of noise your emotionalism has erected to get at the stern, harsh truth. One truth is that the Church does not teach that there is salvation outside the Church. The other is that no mortal knows exactly where those lines fall, so that neither you nor I can know for certain if your parents fall inside or outside those lines, despite your claim to know. Another truth is that the statement “anyone who does not believe in God goes to Hell, according to the Church” is inaccurate. The reality is more nuanced.

      If God is Life than those who reject God reject Life and therefore embrace Death. If your parents did that, they are in Hell. You do not know if your parents did that, not unless you could reads their minds and search their hearts at their last moment, and if you also read the Book of Life to know who exactly is and is not written there.

      If you chose to reject God in the grounds that He has been unfair to your dearly departed parents, and consign yourself defiantly to Hell, and then find out, once you are burning, that your parents managed by some extraordinary grace of God to fall under one of the exceptions here mentioned, so that they have been in paradise all this time, the irony will be grim.

  25. Comment by R_Flaum:

    I’m not sure I agree that “all men know the difference between right and wrong.” All men know a difference between right and wrong, but the fiercest and most crucial moral debates are precisely those in which our moral intuitions point different ways. If you look at just about any large-scale moral argument, you’ll find that both sides view their position as the obvious and intuitive one. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a genuine correct answer — just because lots of people believe something doesn’t make them right — but it does mean that the fault is sometimes not in whether people follow their consciences, but whether their consciences are correct. This may sound like just a collection of boilerplate truisms, but I’m always surprised by how many people seem to think that “the Other Side can’t really believe what they’re saying”.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I am afraid you are making a mistake as to what is meant by the phrase. I apologize for the lack of clarity. Allow me to explain.

      The phrase “all men known the difference between right and wrong” and the phrase “all men agree on all moral principles, grant them the same weight, and apply them in the same way” are not identical. Where there is no moral common ground nor shared principle of morality, there is no discussion possible. Any moral whatever is open to discussion. Therefore there is at least some common ground or shared principle of morality between all men.

      Again, it is not right to disapprove of nor to punish a man who cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. With the obvious exceptions of madman and small children, it is right to disapprove of or punish any man who commits a felony. There is nothing about a man’s opinion or philosophy which renders him immune from disapproval or punishment for felonious acts. Therefore all men (all sane adults) know the difference between right and wrong.

      Those who regard their positions as obvious and instinctive are ill-educated and naive, and, in fact, have never entered into a serious and sober discussion with someone holding the opposite conclusion seriously and soberly. You are talking about the emotions of the people involved, and I am talking about reason. In the realm of reason, all men know the difference between right and wrong. The source of disagreement is not on the point of whether right and wrong exist, but over which principles of rightness have priority over which one, and judgment calls on when and how they are to be applied.

  26. Comment by Arakawa:

    “If neither you, nor your parents, no matter how much you loved them, could bestir yourself to save yourself or them from death (a danger which you did not need us to warn you about) and did not bestir yourself to save yourself or them from damnation (a danger which we have warned you about, many times) then you have no ground to throw this back at us as an accusation that we did not do enough to save you, or them, or that the results of disbelief are a punishment of an unjust judge rather than a consequence you bring upon yourself.”

    To be honest, this raises what is for me a worrying point with the Catholic framework on this. Supposing, through scandal or spreading a heresy, I convince people to reject God; or, through my actions, I drive someone to suicide, and they do not repent in the nanosecond between squeezing the trigger and the bullet obliterating their brain (as the Church seems to think is probable). An ordinary murderer will see their victim’s bodily life restored in the Resurrection. A person who drove other souls to Hell will never see the restoration of their spiritual life. no matter how much he repents. He will never be able to make reparation for the damage he has done on his own, and God refuses (or is unable) to restore the damage of His own accord.

    Wouldn’t it, then, be contrary to Justice for God to forgive a person who is guilty of scandal to this extent?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I don’t think a child, or a dog, or an ant knows the quality of mercy a grown man, a father, or a saint can hold in his heart. How much less can we conceive or imagine the mercy of God.

      Imagine your own child were the guilty one. Imagine moreover that you had the power to forgive him, if he were contrite. How could you not use that power? And you are a human being, and your love is not as deep as is the infinite celestial unfathomable ocean of love, the wellspring and fountainhead of love, which God, who defines love and who is love. How much more could he find it in His infinite heart to forgive.

      You and I cannot see how justice and mercy can kiss. We are like Mr A Square of flatland, a two dimension being trying to imagine a third dimensional object, a pyramid or a cube, and asked “how can a solid be made of six squares and have six sides, not four?”

      We don’t really know what justice is. We know parts of it. We know human justice. We know things are supposed to turn out right if a court of law rewards the innocent and punishes the guilty. But we don’t know justice from all sides, in all aspects, in every application.

      We do know, as Christians, that when our prayers are answered, we are given more than we thought to ask. That might be true in this case as well. If you drove someone to suicide, then pray for the salvation of his soul.

      • Comment by Arakawa:

        It so happens that mine was a sin of omission, but nevertheless I pray for him every day.

        Given your analogy, it is fascinating that Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov has one of his character use the term ‘Euclidean’ to characterize the kind of sequential, logical reasoning about God that leads to these paradoxes.

        I suppose I can only draw the distinction between knowing what one must do (for certain), and knowing precisely how it will all work out in the end (where I can only hope in terms of rejecting particular outcomes that are – indeed – too Euclidean).

      • Comment by Arakawa:

        As a matter of fact, I pray for him every day, though mine is a sin of omission.

        It is interesting in light of your analogy that Dostoyevsky, in Brothers Karamazov, had one of his characters use the term ‘Euclidean’ for the kind of perfectly logical reasoning that inevitably leads to absurd and horrific conclusions about God.

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