Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Restraining the damned in hell

My principle objection to Jerry Walls's defense of traditionalism on libertarian grounds is this: human agency has an object, namely the good or happiness, and human persons learn through the choices they make whether they are pursuing happiness in the right place or not. If this is true, then we have adequate reason to believe that the experiences of the damned in Gehenna will be educative and human persons will freely repent of their sins when learning their consequences.

Now Walls holds that the experience of hell is never unbearable misery, though it may be miserable for the damned person. If it were unbearable misery, then the damned person would want to leave. But in this case her "repentance" would be a false one, a mere giving up under pressure rather than genuine moral reform. But it is possible that the experience of unbearable misery in hell can be the first step in a sinner's eventual moral reform. Indeed, it may be that God cannot avoid making the experience of hell unbearable for some sinners.

Suppose Nietzsche is in hell for his refusal to believe in God and to accept Christian ethics. He insists that the order of nature is the superiority of the strongest over the weak, whereas the morality of Christ is for the weakly and the lowly. One day as Nietzsche is doing his thing in hell, Genghis Khan and his band of marauders ride by, capture the weakly German philosopher, and begin to torture him for the fun of it. Because Nietzsche's body is immortal, he cannot be killed by the things that he is undergoing; yet he is being tortured, and he would give anything to escape the pain of his torments.

At that moment, an angel appears to Nietzsche during his torture and tells him: "You are more than free to leave hell, of course, on one condition -- that you genuinely repent of your wickedness of thought and accept God's truth in humility. Note well, however, that these men are only embodying the principles you defended within your own lifetime. Can you complain about what is happening to you?"

Now Nietzsche is confronted with his own philosophy. He sees that in such a world ruled by the law of the jungle, he is doomed to be a victim in unbearable suffering. He would give anything to get out, yet he cannot do so until he genuinely repents. He connects his own false thinking with the unbearable pain that he is suffering, and so decides that it is better to leave than to stay. He yells out, "I repent!" And the angel immediately frees him from the bonds of Genghis Khan and his band of marauders.

Yet Nietzsche is not immediately taken into heaven, since after all, his character is not changed. No, he is taken into some liminal, purgatorial place where he must be taught and his character must be developed so as to be worthy of God's presence. In this place he will experience many difficulties, he will be forced to confront himself and his constructed identity, to give up many false notions he previously believed, and it may take him a long time ever to leave it. Still, in his mind, hell is the last place he'd ever want to go, because it has become connected with the experience of horrific, unbearable misery at the hands of the godless.

In such a case, Nietzsche's moral development is a slow and gradual one, sparked first by an association of a certain course of action (or thought) with pain. It is similar to the moral education of children, who first learn by associating actions with pain and later come to develop more sophisticated moral sentiments. Yet his moral development is certainly going to go in only one direction, because backsliding into hell is no longer an option.

Jerry Walls suggests that repentance under unbearable misery is never genuine. Yet suppose that after many eons spent in purgatory after his horrific experiences in hell, Nietzsche comes to be totally and freely transformed, eventually enjoying God's presence in the kingdom of heaven. Why shouldn't we consider such repentance genuine, even if it were caused initially by unbearable suffering? His repentance was gradual, a lengthy process, but no less genuine for that reason. Neither is it any less genuine because it was occasioned by an experience of unbearable suffering for which -- thank God -- there was an escape.

Walls may respond that God restrains the freedom of some persons in hell in order to prevent others from suffering unbearably. But this is problematic on two counts. First, if unbearable suffering can lead to free, genuine repentance, and if God desires the salvation of those in hell, why shouldn't he permit it? God clearly permits people to suffer unbearably on this side of the grave, where we do not know if it is for their salvation or not. But secondly, God's restraining the freedom of some individuals may make their suffering unbearable.

Imagine Genghis Khan and his marauders want nothing more than to raid and torture and pillage in hell. So God puts them in a cage that restrains them. Yet Khan does not want any less to do various violent things, and perhaps the cage even provokes his ire even more so. When he sees that there is no leaving the cage, Khan's rage may be so great as to make his existence unbearable. It may drive him insane, compromising his freedom in choosing to remain in hell. Or he may prefer to die than to be restrained in this manner, and so he attempts to kill himself -- only to find that, with his immortal resurrection body, he cannot die. In any case, as soon as he judges it preferable to die than to continue living, he by definition is undergoing unbearable suffering. In this way, we can see that God might not be able to prevent unbearable suffering in hell, even if he restrains the freedom of some.

Or consider the case of a womanizer who wants to give free reign to his lusts. Eventually he becomes violent in his treatment of damned women. In order to prevent the suffering of these women from becoming unbearable, God restrains the womanizer. But his lusts are growing and are not satisfied, and so his desire soon controls his consciousness. Because it is increasingly powerful yet frustrated, the womanizer either goes insane or else judges it better to die than to remain in hell. At this point his suffering is unbearable, and when he sees that death is not an option, he will want to leave. Thus the possibility of eventual genuine repentance is opened to him.

Of course these situations are horrific, but that is the nature of hell. Sinners getting what they wanted all along, as C.S. Lewis said -- and it just so happens that some sinners are truly monsters. These persons will either make hell unbearable for others, or else it will quickly become unbearable for them as they are restrained in their evil. In either case, we can see how sinners would learn from their experiences and begin a long and painful journey to genuine repentance and salvation.