Of all Christian doctrines, the doctrine of Hell is seemingly the easiest to attack, hardest to defend, and most shied away from by theologians, philosophers, and apologists. It’s seen as an outdated, despicable, morally horrendous scare-tactic that is a significantly embarrassing blot on the claim to believe in a perfect, loving, good God. It’s rarely discussed in a serious philosophical setting, except in the brief work of skeptical writers presenting arguments against its moral justification. Christians may offer some general responses to the sentiment behind these arguments, but for the most part are just content to pass by and focus on other, “easier” and less taboo topics. It is now somewhat standard fare for people to assume that Hell is a settled issue; it’s often just taken for granted that Hell is indefensible and morally repugnant and hence that it’s almost not even worth critiquing or defending.
Much of this makes sense. After all, the doctrine of Hell is about as serious an issue as one could possibly discuss. It makes us uncomfortable, and it should make us uncomfortable. At heart it is a claim not just that a good many people are going to experience incomprehensible suffering, but, even worse to the modern mindset, it is a claim that that a good many people, and indeed all people, actually completely deserve such suffering. It would be one thing for some offshoot religious fanatic to shout out that he believes in a cruel God who hates humanity and will delight in their suffering; it’s quite another, more unsettling thing to be told that there’s a perfect, loving, good God who loves humanity but whose eternal punishing of them is essentially an act of merited justice. The first claim makes God into the villain; the second makes us the villains. Of course, the typical response is that eternal torment of such kind is in principle unjust and wicked; that it could never be morally defensible. Thinking to this effect usually takes the form of arguments contending, for instance, that the finite acts of finite agents such as humans, even extremely evil acts, could never warrant infinite guilt or infinite punishment. To purposefully inflict eternal torment on human persons seems to us to be the utter opposite of anything “loving” or “good” (perhaps because, as C. S. Lewis notes, we moderns have confused “love” proper for simple “kindness” or lack of conflict). And indeed, even many Christians have felt the force of such arguments, to the point that “annihilationism” (the doctrine that the damned are not eternally tormented but rather completely destroyed or “annihilated”, i.e. their souls are not kept in existence but pass out of being) and universalism (the doctrine that all humans are eventually saved) are increasingly accepted.
Now, I am certainly not trying to downplay the significance of the difficulties involved in the idea of Hell. Nor am I here attempting to offer a complete defense of it. In this post, I just want to offer a few brief thoughts taken from St. Augustine’s City of God which suggest that not only is the doctrine of Hell justifiable and morally defensible, but that it might even be morally necessary and superior to a position such as annihilationism (I won’t here be interacting with universalism at all). The doctrine of Hell is complex and there are much more in depth defenses of it (see, for instance, philosopher Ed Feser’s recent series of blog posts on the topic here, here, and here), but in this post I’m just going to be skimming the surface of one possible vein of thought.
St. Augustine’s City of God is a massive treatment of various philosophical, theological, political, and historical issues centered around the idea of there being two distinct and opposed “cities”: the City of God and the City of man. As such, the work is replete with discussion of the nature of man, man’s “fall”, the sin of man, man’s guilt, and the deserved punishment of that guilt. In all of this there is a wealth of material that could be used to construct a defense of the Christian doctrine of Hell, but I want here to focus on a single aspect. Book Nineteen is all about order and peace in the context of comparing the Christian view of virtue and happiness with that of other classical philosophies. For St. Augustine, order and peace are inextricably linked; there cannot be the latter without the former. Everything naturally desires and seeks peace, which is necessary for ultimate happiness/fulfillment, and order is requisite for attainment of that peace: “Just as there is no one who does not wish to be joyful, so there is no one who does not wish to have peace” . Peace requires order because peace just is a right ordering of things:
“The peace of the body, therefore, lies in the balanced ordering of its parts; the peace of the irrational soul lies in the rightly ordered disposition of the appetites; the peace of the rational soul lies in the rightly ordered relationship of cognition and action; the peace of the body and soul lies in the rightly ordered life and health of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is an ordered obedience, in faith, under an eternal law; and peace between men is an ordered agreement of mind with mind . . . The peace of all things lies in the tranquility of order; and order is the disposition of equal and unequal things in such a way as to give to each its proper place” .
Indeed, for Augustine there is a hierarchy of order and peace: a man must first be at peace with himself, then with his household, then his city, then his nation, then the world, then God. To order something rightly seems to be to allow lower ends which are naturally directed towards higher ends to be subordinated to those higher ends. For example, in humans the ends of the body should be subordinate to and ruled by the ends of the soul (or mind), the ends of an individual should be subordinate to and ruled by the ends of the common good of a community/society, etc. And, of course, the ends of all created things must ultimately be subordinate to and ruled by God Himself, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. As such, sin, which is a disordered will, is incomprehensibly serious. Sin is a turning away of the will from God, its proper end, towards lower things, and ultimately towards the individual self. Sin is thus a rebellion of order and a destruction of peace, without which there can be no happiness. Sin is a result of pride (the turning of the will towards the self) which is “a perverted imitation of God” . How so?
“For pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and wishes to impose its own dominion upon its equals, in place of God’s rule. Therefore, it hates the just peace of God, and it loves its own unjust peace; but it cannot help loving peace of some kind or other. For no vice is so entirely contrary to nature as to destroy even the last vestiges of nature” .
How does this relate to Hell? C. S. Lewis has a famous quote (coming from the mouth of his fictional portrayal of the writer George MacDonald) which states that “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done'” . The idea is that the damned are damned precisely because they desired things other than God, and so in the end God gives them what they want: life apart from Himself. But since He is the only Good, life apart from Him is misery. For St. Augustine, however, this is not the whole story. The damned may “get their way” in the sense that they desired separation from God and they receive it, but they don’t entirely get their way.
On St. Augustine’s view, God is Being Itself, that from which all other things derive their existence. Total separation from God, even for a single moment, would just be to cease existing, to pass out of being. This would be annihilationism, and would be, St. Augustine, argues, actually unjust for God to allow, for several reasons.
The first reason has to do with his privation account of evil (see my posts here and here for more on this). Evil has no positive existence in itself; rather it is the privation or perversion of goodness. When a person sins, they are ultimately seeking escape from God’s order, which is evil. But total escape from God’s order, and hence total evil, would just be complete non-existence, since God’s order includes everything that exists. And so, to allow the sinner to pass out of existence would just be to give him what he wants, to allow the sin to have its way, as it were. But this would leave the sin entirely unpunished and hence would be to fail to achieve actual justice.
But there’s an even more fundamental reason. Augustine crucially held that a sinner is a being with an evil will, but not an evil nature. Every nature that exists, qua creation of God, is intrinsically good. Evil is not a nature in itself, but is only a privation/perversion of good in some nature which itself is good. This is why he says, in the quote above, that “no vice is so entirely contrary to nature as to destroy even the last vestiges of nature”. And elsewhere he declares: “There cannot exist a nature in which there is no good. Hence, in so far as it is a nature, not even the nature of the devil himself is evil. It is perversion [of the will] that makes it evil” . The being, the existence, the substance of the devil is good in itself, precisely insofar as it was created and is sustained in existence by God; but the will of the devil, which is given freedom by God, is so entirely perverted that it can never achieve actual goodness.
So here is the problem: the will of the sinner is really evil and hence really deserving of punishment. But the nature in which that will necessarily exists is not in itself evil, and hence not deserving of punishment. Furthermore, that evil will seeks escape from God’s order and rule, but total escape therefrom would be non-existence. To annihilate the sinner would be to allow the sinner a power and sovereignty over God’s creation that is totally improper to it; it would, in effect, allow the sinner a victorious and absolute rebellion against God which would vindicate the sin itself. But this would be the height of injustice. In fact, the injustice would be threefold: First, it would leave the sin unpunished; Second, it would allow the sinner a victory and sovereignty over God’s order which effectively vindicates the sin; and Third, to annihilate the whole sinner would be to punish the nature rather than the will of the sinner. For God to destroy the good nature of the sinner would be for God to punish something that in itself is innocent, good, and undeserving of punishment. It would be for God to destroy His own good creation; or, rather, it would be for God to allow the sinner to ruin God’s creation, thus further allowing the sinner an entirely inordinate power, sovereignty, and vindication. So St. Augustine writes:
“Thus, the devil did not abide in the truth, but he did not escape the judgement of the Truth. He did not remain in the tranquility of order, but he did not thereby avoid the power of the Ordainer. The good imparted by God, which the devil has in his nature, does not remove him from God’s justice, by which his punishment is ordained; nor does God punish the good which He has created, but the evil which the devil has committed. Moreover, God does not take away everything that He gave to that nature. He removes something, yet He leaves something also, so that there may be something left to feel pain at what has been taken away. And this pain itself testifies to both the good that was taken away and the good that is left; for, if there had been no good left, there could be no grief for the good which was taken away. He who sins is in a worse condition still if he rejoices in the loss of righteousness; but the sinner who suffers grief, even though he acquires no good thereby, is at least grieving at the loss of salvation. For righteousness and salvation are both goods, and the loss of any good is a matter for grief rather than rejoicing . . . It is more fitting, therefore, for an unrighteous man to grieve over his punishment than to rejoice in his fault. Hence, just as the delight in forsaking good which a man takes when he sins is evidence of a bad will, so the grief which he feels at the loss of good when he is punished is evidence of a good nature” .
In short, a sinner is a good nature with an evil will. God thus must punish the evil of the will but not the good of the nature. On the classical understanding, the nature of the soul of man is immortal. Therefore, to destroy the nature would be to punish it, and this would be gravely unjust, since the nature is essentially good and undeserving of punishment. But the will must be punished, for the will has sought escape from God’s order. Thus, in fulfilling justice, God allows the will to escape from the peace of His order without escaping His actual order itself. A will is naturally directed in desire to some good. A proper will is directed towards the ultimate Good, God Himself. An evil will is directed inordinately to lower/lesser goods, seeking them as its false ultimate good. But precisely because an evil will is inordinate, it falsely perceives these lower goods as fulfilling and so delights in them. So to punish the evil will, God must show the will that it was wrong to seek these lesser goods in place of the True Good. In short, he must allow the evil will to experience the pain, torment, and misery of not grasping the True Good. He must teach the will that it really was bad for it to choose not to have the True Good; he must force it to grieve at the loss of its salvation and the ruination of itself. If He did not, the evil will would never know that it was wrong, it would never know its own evil.
So in the end we come to see that annihilation would be injustice, since it would be to punish something intrinsically good and innocent by destroying the nature, and to allow the sinner a power and sovereignty over God’s creation by escape from God’s order and hence a vindication of its sins. God must punish the evil will of the sinner but not the good nature; it would be unjust for Him to allow the sinner to escape completely from His own order over creation. And He must punish the evil will by showing it the natural ends of its own desires: total misery at having departed from the True Good. Only when all things are subordinate to God can there be true order, and hence true peace, and ultimately true happiness. The damned tried to escape the order of God by their wicked wills, but God cannot allow them to do so; they must be subordinate to Him, and so their wills must be punished even as their natures are kept immortally in existence. But their misery is that they are in fact separated from the peace of God’s order, precisely as they intended. And so
“the wretched, however, insofar as they are wretched, are clearly not in a condition of peace. Therefore they lack the tranquility of order in which there is no disturbance. Precisely because of their misery, however, even they cannot be said to lie beyond the sphere of order; for they are miserable deservedly and justly” .
There is hope, of course. For there is the City of God, which
“directs that earthly peace towards heavenly peace: towards the place which is so truly such that — at least so far as rational creatures are concerned — only it can be held to be peace and called such. For this peace is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and of one another in God. When we have reached that peace, our life will no longer be a mortal one; rather, we shall then be fully and certainly alive . . . This peace the Heavenly City possesses in faith while on its pilgrimage, and by this faith it lives righteously, directing towards the attainment of that peace every good act which it performs either for God, or — since the city’s life is inevitably a social one — for neighbor” .
. Augustine. The City of God against the Pagans. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. XIX.12.
. Ibid. XIX. 13.
. Ibid. XIX. 12.
. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. Quoted here: <http://randalrauser.com/2012/04/c-s-lewis-view-of-hell-and-why-it-doesnt-help-much/>.
. Augustine. City of God. XIX.13.
. Ibid. XIX. 17.
Header Image: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.