An Augustinian Defense of Hell

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 It’s seen as an outdated, despicable, morally horrendous scare-tactic that is a significantly embarrassing blot on the claim to believe in a perfect, loving, good God.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” [1]. 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” [2].

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” [3]. 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” [4].

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'” [5]. 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” [6]. 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” [7].

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” [8].

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” [9].

 

Notes

[1]. Augustine. The City of God against the Pagans. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. XIX.12.

[2]. Ibid. XIX. 13.

[3]. Ibid. XIX. 12.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. 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/&gt;.

[6]. Augustine. City of God. XIX.13.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid. XIX. 17.

Header Image: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An Existential Argument for the Resurrection from St. Athanasius

St. Athanasius, in his beautiful De Incarnatione, presents an argument for believing in the reality of Christ’s resurrection. It is, one should note, primarily an existential argument for the resurrection, rather than a purely historical one as is most often defended today; but I don’t think this makes it any less powerful. Indeed, most people probably find existential arguments more compelling than purely historical arguments, insofar as working through the latter can involve much difficulty and abstraction, whereas the former have the potential to be directly experiential in nature.

First, St. Athanasius points to the martyrs and their willingness to die for the faith as evidence that Christ has in fact “trampled death”. But then he continues Continue reading

Christmas: To the End of the Way of the Wandering Star

Behold our universe: the horizons of which we cannot perceive, the intricacies of which we cannot plumb. The entire cosmos dances to some profound, utterly divine melody; it dances and it sings along in the harmonious chorus of existence. The stars shout the glory of light and warmth. The planets circle their suns, pulled in by their radiant beauty. The very atoms and molecules, the stones from which this majestic palace of the universe was crafted, sway with the winds of an eternal breath. All beings ordered to their time and place and way, all things directed to their specific ends, all in jubilant obedience to their Maker and Sustainer.

The galaxies shout praises to the Creator in their fiery exultation. The planets sing hymns of laud to their God and King as they sweep from one end of the solar system to the next. The oceans roar, the mountains rise, the birds soar and fish dive, the creatures saunter and crawl, all to the glory of the Lord.

And yet all these beings, though the very innermost depth of their being flows directly from, and is constantly directed to, God as their Creator and Sustainer, the First Cause and Final End of all things, this is done in them without conscious knowledge, an open awareness of both their internal selves and the external world. In all of creation, this privileged position of knowledge has been granted to mankind. And with this honorable position comes immense duty.

A duty which we have squandered.

All of creation succeeds in that every being therein is itself, exists as itself, as it was meant to, and fulfills its intrinsic ends/purposes. This is the ultimate duty of all beings: to be itself, as it was so designed and intended by the Divine Craftsman. It is the duty of all stars to shine, the duty of all planets to orbit, the duty of all trees to grow and bear fruit, the duty of all bees to buzz and pollenate and produce honey, the duty of all ants to crawl and march and build and protect their queen, the duty of all mice to scurry and squeak, the duty of all birds to flap wings and fly, the duty of all waves to crash upon the shore. All these beings, down to the most minuscule of subatomic particles, all have their purpose, all have their duty, and in ordered obedience to this duty they glorify God in their very being.

And of all creation, humans alone were granted the gift of knowing their own existence, knowing their own duty and purpose, and, ultimately, thereby knowing their Creator and Sustainer. This knowledge and will are the distinctive human gifts. It is the duty of man to know God, the duty of man to will the good in obedience to God. All other beings enact their existential dramas and fulfill their duties unconsciously, automatically, without choice or awareness. Human beings were given the opportunity to do so fully consciously, freely, with knowledge. And thus human beings alone were given the opportunity of the ultimate good and happiness and joy of all existing things: the Beatific Vision, conscious experience of and union with the Divine Reality. To know God as God.

It was the duty of man to know God and to consciously glorify God to and for all creation. We, as rational animals, as immortal souls in mortal flesh, were meant to be the ambassadors between God and creation. On this very speck of death, mankind was meant to be the mouth from which all creation could pour forth the wondrous joy it held inside, the ecstatic delight of its own mystical existence.

Placed as such above all creation, to lift all creation to God, how disastrous then becomes our fall! For in thus falling, we become actually the lowest of all creatures, lower than all other beings in creation. For all other beings in the entire universe are themselves, are what they were truly meant to be; and in falling, humanity fails to be humanity. Humanity fails to be what we were meant to be. In falling, humans don’t just become something less than human–we become something less than creation itself. For creation in its very essence is good, the gift of existence flowing from Divine Source. But in our fall, mankind rebelled against this divine gift of existence. We chose to be something other than what we are, because to be what we truly are would require the one thing for which we were made: obedience to the Divine Will. How easy for a bird to fulfill the Divine Command to chirp! But what great burden for man, with his own knowledge and will, to submit that will to Another.

Evil, essentially, is disordered existence. Evil is the lack of Goodness which is humanity being as it is meant to be. Evil is humanity failing to be truly human. Evil is man being less than man.

Imagine the horror if the stars rebelled and refused to shine! Imagine the tragedy if the particles and atoms and molecules all rebelled, and refused to join in their chemical community to produce our cosmos! So how terrible, how monstrous, how dark, how absurd it is, for man to rebel and refuse to be man! The wondrous song and dance of creation suddenly was thrown out of tune into a horrid tension. The humans fought and killed each other, they were angry and sorrowful and wretched and lustful and prideful and selfish and hateful, the exact opposite of what they had been meant to be. They created societies and civilizations, driven by greed and fear, ruled by oppression and injustice. They fought wars and enslaved fellow men. They tore at the earth and at each other.

And so how infinitely, overwhelmingly profound is it, that God should save man by not refusing to be man, by Himself becoming man to teach us how to be man! Jesus Christ, the God-man, was the first truly and fully human person in the history of our race. He was the second Adam, who overcame our broken nature, to restore our ruined flesh. When we look to Christ, we see God. But equally as true: when we look to Christ, we see humanity, as it was truly meant to be. The wonder of the Incarnation is not just Divine; it is also human.

How incomprehensible that which God accomplished in Christ! Human reason cannot capture Him, and yet a manger held Him. Human hands cannot reach Him, and yet a mother swaddled Him. The human mind cannot contain Him, and yet our lowly planet enclosed Him. Death cannot touch Him, and yet nails pinned Him to a cross.

St. Irenaus wrote: “Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” The Glory of God is living man. Christ was the first and true living man, the man who fulfilled the duty of men and thus completed the purpose of all creation. The man who tasted and defeated death, so that all men can become living men.

G. K. Chesterton wrote this beautiful poem, The House of Christmas:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home [1].

Much could be said about these words, but that line towards the end specifically stuck out: “To the end of the way of the wandering star”. It’s referring, of course, to the star of Bethlehem, which guided many to see Christ. But in another sense, I think we could say that planet earth is the wandering star, the star which went rogue, the lone star of all stars in all the heavens which abandoned its way and fell from its light and life. And Christ is thus the end of the way of the wandering star. In Christ, our wandering is over; our Home is found.

And now my own, original Christmas poem:

Lo, the dawn! The sun doth shine

Upon hills blanketed in snow,

And all creation, sprung from Divine

Rises forth, from darkness low.

Glistening horizon, wreathed in flame

Marches onward in triumphant shout;

Come to bring light and day back again

Come to water our souls so long in drought.

The snow, the leaves, all do shine!

For light of sun in infinite fullness

Cannot but share its Glory Divine

To pour out from indivisible wholeness.

Lo, the Dawn, birthed from woman!

In a manger the Sun doth lay;

For in Christ, God made man,

The night can ne’er stand up to day!

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

On this rebel planet, in Bethlehem,

Immanuel, God with us, He is not far!

All death and darkness conquered by the Lamb!

 

Notes

[1]. Chesterton poem found online here: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/GK_Chesterton_House_of_Christmas.shtml

 

 

Aquinas on Incarnation and Christmas

The ultimate mystery and meaning of Christmas, and really the entire Christian faith, is the Incarnation. It is the very heart of all Christian creeds. But it is, in its beautiful, wondrous depth, unfathomable to finite minds. What impenetrable profundity, to say that God became man, that the Divine Reality took on flesh!

Such a feat would not be really so problematic in many mythologies/theologies. Just read through the literature of many ancient myths, and you’ll see that the gods are understood really as just “glorified” (in a very ironic sense) humans–immortal, much more powerful, but in essence still all too human. These gods, in effect, differ from mankind merely by degree. They are “higher on the scale” in terms of qualities.

But nothing could be more different from the belief of Classical Theism, which holds God to be not just another being amongst all beings, with a little more power, or even a “higher” being; but rather Being Itself, Existence Itself, Pure Actuality, Goodness Itself, etc. That in whom Essence and Existence are identical, totally simple (no metaphysical composition), completely and totally unchanging and unchangeable, absolutely no passive potencies, qualitatively infinite in power and goodness and knowledge, entirely immaterial, incorporeal, impassible, not able to suffer or be affected externally. This is the God, acknowledged in the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well, but who the Christian faith alone of all traditions has declared became a human being, like us, to walk among us, live beside us, and die for us.

But how, in a metaphysical sense, is this even possible? How can something that by its very nature is Pure Act, Being Itself, immutable, impassible, immaterial, and infinite, become something finite, material and physical, changeable, a being among beings, composite of act and potency? In short, how is the Incarnation not a total contradiction in terms? Continue reading

Advent and the Silence of God

*Note: this post contains spoilers for the book/movie “Silence”.

Last week, I finished Shusaku Endo’s  highly acclaimed 1966 novel “Silence”, the long expected movie of which is being released next month (see the trailer here). The book was fantastic–beautifully written, hauntingly profound, and deeply thought provoking. I’m not going to discuss too much of the actual plot here, since I highly recommend reading/seeing it for yourself. Rather I want to consider perhaps the central thematic point of the story: the silence of God (thus the book’s title).

Throughout the novel, as the characters experience extreme hardships, difficulties, and suffering, often times as a direct result of their Christian faith, they are left to wonder: where is God? Where is the God in whom they have placed their trust and hope? Where is the God for whom they are currently offering their lives, having given up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Where is the God who all their lives they have been told is loving, who is supposed to care for His people, who has commanded prayer and promised to answer? Where is this God?

But they are met only with silence. Continue reading

The Most Noble Science: Reading Aquinas: Summa Theologiae I, Q. 1, Art. 5

This is the third post in a series reading through sections of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. In the first we read through the Prologue and the first article of the first Question of the first Part, discussing the relationship between reason and divine revelation. In the second we read the second through the fourth articles of the same Question, considering divine revelation as a type of “science” or scientia, in the classical sense.

In this post we will begin with Article 5: Continue reading

The Person of Jesus Part 7: The Life of Jesus

So far in this series, we have examined Jesus’s impact on the world, introduced the academic field of historical Jesus work, shown that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is so firmly established in history that virtually all scholars accept it, examined the various criteria and methods which historians use in determining historicity, and looked briefly at the nature of the gospels as sources. To remind, the purpose of this series since its beginning was the look at the identity of Jesus, not necessarily the historicity of all the events in his life or the reliability of the gospels, etc. We have very briefly touched on these things (having to leave out much) in order to set up and provide a foundation for our ultimate turn to questions of identity. In this post, we will look at several events from the life of Jesus and try to determine their historicity. Continue reading