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Forever Separated Lovers

A while back Bradley Monton invited his friend and colleague, Nicole Hassoun, to post an incipient sketch of an argument against the existence or goodness of the Christian God. The basic thrust of her concern is as follows: "Perhaps I have the story wrong, … but it seems to me that several things are true of love. First, if I love someone, I cannot believe that that person deserves eternal suffering. … Second, when someone I love is hurt, that hurts me. I could not be perfectly happy if someone I loved was suffering for eternity. I cannot even conceive of such a thing. But then it seems there is a problem. For, I could be saved while someone I love is not saved. Then I could be perfectly happy in heaven while a person I love is burning in hell. But if I love someone, I cannot even think this is possible. So I should not, if I love, believe in this kind of Christianity. It could not be right unless my love would disappear at the gates of heaven (or some such) and why, I wonder, would that be? Wouldn´t it be better if heaven had my love in it? Wouldn’t I be happier in love?" My own cursory, and incipient, response follows…

My Response

Nicole. I agree that Hell, insofar as it is believed to be a state of eternal punishment, is an exceedingly difficult doctrine to square with a God of all-surpassing love and mercy. However, if the Christian is permitted some latitude in his or her conception of Hell, it may be a little less intractable. Just as the Christian conception of Heaven should be understood as essentially eternal life in the knowledge and presence of God, perhaps Hell should be understood conversely, as essentially the eternal province of those who preferred not to live in the knowledge and presence of God. Perhaps for some, the presence of God is claustrophobic, the rule of God a chaffing oppression. Perhaps for some, Heaven would be Hell. If that is the case, I can imagine two loved ones lovers who are separated in the afterlife being grieved, but nonetheless grateful that God had provided a dwelling most suited to each of their decided orientations toward God.

As I see it, love is essentially non-coercive. Hell, on the above view, can be understood as an eternal testament to the non-coercive nature of God’s loving relationship toward humankind. The lover allows the beloved to be forever free, even though that freedom entails the deprivation of many of the goods available only to those wed to Christ. And if love is essentially non-coercive, allowing for the free roam of the beloved, our separated lovers may be grateful that each is allowed to persist as they choose.

As Doug Geivett has argued with respect to theodical responses to the problem of evil, the prospects for a supposition such as the one I’ve offered here will depend greatly on whether there are independent lines of evidence that God is there… and is good. If there is sufficient independent evidence for theism, one may approach the problem of Hell with some assurance that it does, if fully understood, fit within the best of all possible worlds, even if that understanding evades us. The Christian also takes some comfort in the assurance that God is just. No one property of Hell is as well attested in Christian scripture as is God’s perfect justice. If it comes right down to it, the Christian should be willing to beg ignorance about the fundamental nature of our ultimate state rather than compromising the justice of God, of his doing right by each of his creatures.

Perhaps you will have noticed my abundant use of “perhaps”. That is as it should be. I offer these thoughts as the apprehensive musings that they are. And now, it’s time to rewatch What Dreams May Come.

Other Responses

It is interesting to note the many references to C.S. Lewis’ writings on Hell in the responses to Hassoun’s post. His influence on the question of Hell is considerable. Some highlights from others who took up the challenge…

Steven Perry underscores the moral appropriateness of allowing persons to reap what they sow.

None of us like the thought of someone suffering for their choices. Yet, we allow people to do this everyday. Criminals go to prison and waste away in penal institutions devoid of freedom. Drug addicts destroy themselves failing to stop scratching the itch. Smokers suffer under the cancer they self-inflicted. We allow them to suffer in these situations because we cannot prevent them from making choices only they can make. It doesn’t change the amount of love we have for them. The same is true for God. Why do we think God is somehow different in His view of such things? If our lives determine the trajectory of our eternal destinies, then our choices are our own to make.

Sarah Schoonmaker rejects the appeal to such human conceptions of reward and punishment. Be that as it may, it’s the only frame of reference to which we have recourse.

As for the other posts, the theme running through their line of reasoning relates to the analogy between God and humans. As humans allow criminals to suffer the consequences of their actions, in a similar way, God allows humans to suffer for their decisions about Him. The reason why this line of reason is problematic lies in the fact that the nature of God and the nature of humans remain vastly different. Drawing connections between finite, human scenarios (i.e. consequences for committing crimes) and God’s ways, which are infinite and mysterious, establishes a weak analogy.

Rick concedes that the separated lovers may indeed be bereaved, noting the biblical image of God wiping the tears from every face.

I must confess that I find the idea of God loving each of us as an only child, and wiping the tears from every face, to be one of the most beautiful images in Western religion, as I think Saint Augustine also did. Because leaving aside anything outside of this life as we know it, there’s still the fact of suffering… [W]hy doesn’t God conspire to make everyone perfectly happy all the time, why is there pain and distress that is not by virtue of our own wrongdoing, and so forth. This could be cited as evidence against religion (if you assume that it’s God’s job to ensure our contentment/satisfaction), or it could be seen as one of the difficult features of existence that religion provides us one way of trying to come to terms with. … The passage you cite about tears being wiped from every eye clearly acknowledges the fact of suffering and doesn’t try to explain it away, but instead views it as endemic to our condition: that is, the logical consequence of being a finite creature who loves, forms attachments, pursues the good, and who, of course, would be tormented to know that his or her loved ones were suffering.

Like me, James Y. suggests an alternate reading of the relevant biblical passages, but intimates instead at annihiliationism.

There are bible texts that speak of [the] state of the dead as a condition of non-being, non-existence. … For brevity’s sake, I won’t post any more passages, but I think you get my point. Ecc. 9:5 tells us that the condition of the dead is such that they are not conscious of anything. They are non-existent. And Ez. 18:20 says that the soul is not something that survives death and goes to Hell to be tortured forever, but that it actually dies.

And finally, Frank Hatch chimes in with a, “the Bible says it”, and that’s enough.

Hell exists and God’s Mercy exists. Since the Lord God is the Alpha and Omega of every eternal sequence, you should trust God to correctly deal with the eternal sequence of Hell.