Of the various contributors to Philosophers Without Gods, David Lewis is undoubtedly the most high-powered thinker of the bunch. However, the actual essay is a work of composite authorship since he died before writing out the essay in full. Perhaps this accounts for all the slack reasoning.
There’s nothing terribly original about his argument, and I’ve dealt with this sort of thing before. But since unbelievers may quote from this book in the future, I might as well take one more whack at the dead horse on the backstretch.
Also, when a philosopher of his stature offers his own formulation of what many unbelievers regard as the decisive objection to the Christian faith, there’s some value in evaluating his performance. If this is the best that the best can do with the best weapon in their arsenal, what’s left?
Basically, he contends that the doctrine of hell is a special case of the argument from evil. Of course, he’s hardly the first atheologian to approach the issue from this angle, but let’s study his own formulation.
Standard versions of the argument from evil concern the evils God fails to prevent: the pain and suffering of human beings and non-human animals, and the sins people commit…What interests me here, however, is a simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected. The standard versions, I said, focus on evil that God fails to prevent. But we might start instead from the evils God himself perpetrates. There are plenty of these, and, in duration and intensity, they dwarf the kinds of suffering and sin to which the standard versions allude.I don’t see that this version of the argument has been at all neglected, but, to continue:
For God, if we are to believe an orthodox story, has prescribed eternal torment as a punishment for insubordination.It’s unclear from his essay what his source is for the “orthodox story.” In the endnotes he refers to Scripture, Dante, and Tertullian. Does he therefore include both Scripture and tradition as the source of the “orthodox story”?
If so, this raises the question of his target audience. For Protestants, Scripture rather than tradition is the rule of faith.
For Catholics, Dante is not an ecumenical council. And Tertullian was a Montanist.
I doubt the Eastern Orthodox are overly concerned with what a Latin Father or Florentine poet believed. In addition, there is a universalist strand (which I reject) in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The orthodox story is explicit about the temporal scale of the punishment: it is to go on forever.This is a correct statement of the Scriptural doctrine. And that is binding on Protestants like myself. But Eastern Orthodoxy is tolerant of universalism.
Many of those who tell the orthodox story are also concerned to emphasize the quality of the punishment. The agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives.Several issues here:
i) He seems to define eternal punishment in terms of pain. But he makes no attempt to show that pain is the singular or primary component of eternal punishment. Does he think he’s getting this from Scripture? If so, where’s the exegesis?
And if he’s getting this from tradition (e.g. Dante, Tertullian), why should I care?
ii) Where does Scripture tell us that the damned suffer in “unimaginable” ways? Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but if you’re going to attack the doctrine of hell, you need to attack what is taught in our rule of faith, and not embellish that teaching with fanciful additions and hyperbolic descriptions.
iii) To say that damnation intensifies the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives does not imply that such sufferings are “unimaginable.” To the contrary, such an argument appeals to our to imagination as we project what we suffer in this life into a heightened form in the afterlife—in the case of the damned.
Dante and Tertullian, as well as Milton and Hieronymus Bosch had, if anything, an overly active imagination when it comes to fleshing out the details of everlasting punishment.
iv) It may well be that hell embodies an extension and intensification of what the reprobate already suffer in this life. But we need to distinguish between the actual teaching of Scripture and mere speculation.
If hell is a place devoid of special grace or common grace, that it’s easy to conclude that whatever is bad in this life is even worse in the life to come—for the hell-bound. And I think that’s a reasonable inference from Scripture. But one can extrapolate from this principle in more than one direction.
a) Hell is not merely a worse version of what the reprobate suffer in this life, for many of the reprobate do not suffer in this life. They make others suffer while they luxuriate. In this life, they get off scot-free.
One aspect of Biblical teaching is that hell will mark a reversal of fortunes. The ungodly who prospered in this life suffer in the next, while the godly who suffered in this life prosper in the next. So it’s quite inaccurate to say that hell is merely a linear extension and intensification of what the reprobate suffer in this life.
b) Once again, if we’re going to use this life as our frame of reference, then there are many different ways in which men make themselves miserable, or make the lives of those around them miserable.
Most human misery does not resemble a horror film. Most human misery is far more mundane and banal. Most human misery resembles a film like The Last Picture Show rather than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Loveless lovers in search of love. Loveless lovers who fall in love with other loveless lovers. Men and women bored out of their minds by trite, repetitive lives.
So, if you are going to view hell as the perfection of everything that makes the reprobate miserable in this life, then, for the most part, hell would be a pretty tame place to spend eternity. What would make it insufferable is not the blood and gore, but the interminable triviality of a godless existence ad infinitum ad nauseum.
If Lewis is going to speculate, then I’m free to speculate as well, and my conjecture is that hell is a place with a wide variety of punitive lifestyles. There are many ways to be miserable, and a lot of misery consists in a mind-numbingly dull existence. Tedium rather than torture. Life without hope is unbearable.
Indeed, that’s the underlying reason why some people resort to a life of violence or drug abuse. Anything to temporarily break the crushing monotony of their godless little lives.
So, along both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe.i) Maybe yes and maybe no. That’s an armchair version of hell.
ii) Is infinite agony a meaningful concept? Doesn’t physical pain have a physical threshold?
Or does he include psychological torment? But is infinite unhappiness a meaningful concept? You can speak of an infinite quantity, but what does it mean to speak of an infinite quality? What palpable sense can we extract from infinite intensity?
What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants did.i) Lewis makes no attempt to defend this statement. And it builds on other indefensible premises. What tyrants do is to make their subjects miserable rather than let their subjects make themselves, or one another, miserable.
A tyrant will have a secret police force that tortures revolutionaries and terrorizes the populace to keep the populace in a state of fearful submission to the tyrant.
God does not torture or terrorize anyone (or contract that out to a subordinate) in order to keep people in fearful submission to himself. The only men and women who submit to God are those who have been favored by his gracious loving-kindness. They serve him out of joy—by hearts liberated from the bondage of sin.
By contrast, hell is a penal colony for rebels. Their insubordination is everlasting. And if there’s any torture in hell, it’s a case of one hellion tormenting another.
How is that "infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants did"? To the contrary, this is a situation in which one evildoer repays evil for evil by returning the favor to another evildoer. How is that unjust? How is that not the essence of justice? Each evildoer receives his just deserts at the hands of his fellow evildoers. Not a pretty sight, to be sure, but richly deserved and eminently fair.
ii) A tyrant is someone who allows the wicked to prosper while he persecutes the righteous. God is doing the very opposite in damning the wicked.
God is supposed to torture the damned forever, and to do so by vastly surpassing modes of torment about which we know.i) He keeps telling us that God tortures the damned. He never gets beyond the bare assertion. What is his justification for this claim—which undergirds his entire argument?
ii) Where does Scripture ever say that eternal punishment vastly surpasses the modes of torment about which we know? Indeed, isn’t his claim self-refuting?
If everlasting punishment vastly surpasses the modes of torment about which we know, then how would he be in a position to know that? How does he know so much about the unknowable? For someone who tells us that hell is “unimaginably” cruel,” he seems to have some very definite ideas about the nature of the punishment—otherwise, how would he know enough to attack the doctrine of eternal punishment?
For the punishment of the damned is infinitely disproportionate to their crimes. Even the worst of this-worldly offenders is only capable of inflicting a finite amount of suffering. However many times that offender endures the exact agony he caused, there will still be an infinite number of repetitions to come.This is a very revealing analysis.
i) He equates suffering or agony with punishment. But how does that follow?
I go to the doctor because I feel unwell. The cure may be painful. Is the doctor “tormenting” me? Is painful medication or surgery a form of punishment?
Suppose I accidentally injure my best friend. He’s in agony. Was I punishing my best friend? There’s nothing intrinsically punitive about pain.
ii) What makes a crime criminal is not that a criminal pained the victim, but that he wronged the victim. The amount of suffering is not what makes an action unjust. And it’s not what makes on action more unjust than another.
Suppose a Nazi gasses a Jew, or shoots him in the head. Is the evil quantified by the amount of pain endured? If you could make the Nazi feel the same amount of pain as a bullet in the brain, would that be a just punishment? Does Lewis believe that if only there had been an ouchless, painless way of implementing the Final Solution, the Nazis would be innocent of their crimes?
iii) How does he measure pain and suffering, anyway? And what point does the offender endure "the exact agony he caused"? Does Lewis have an agonometer? Is pain and suffering quantifiable in discrete units? How many units of pain and suffering does he think a child rapist should have endure to recompense the exact amount of pain and suffering he inflicted on the victim? What’s the minimum?
Moreover, in each of these repetitions, the torment will be intensified and extended across all possible modes.It will? How does he know that? What’s his source of information?
This is to assume, of course, that the damned have committed some crime. If the orthodox story supposes only that they fail to believe in God, then the injustice is even more palpable.This assumes, without benefit of argument, that atheism (or agnosticism or idolatry) is blameless.
Alice the agnostic may live a life full of charity and good works, notable for its honesty, fairness, and loving care of those around her. If lack of faith suffices for damnation, then the divine reward will be an eternity of the most exquisite agony.i) Alice is a virtuous agnostic due to common grace, and not due to her innate goodness or personal merit. Left to her own devices, she would be unfair, uncaring, uncharitable, dishonest, and full of bad works.
ii) Lewis has done nothing to show that Alice will suffer the "most exquisite agony."
Indeed, if Lewis really thinks that hell is populated by people as honest, caring, and charitable as Alice, then why does he also think that hell is such a horrific place to spend eternity? If the damned are such a nice bunch of people, then hell would be pretty idyllic.
I’m deeply disillusioned that a humanist would have so little faith in his fellow man. If what Lewis supposes is true, then the most loving thing that God could do is to allow so many wonderful unbelievers to spend forever and a day in one another’s philanthropic company. We should all book reservations before the vacancies fill up and the boxed chocolates run out.
Where did Lewis every come across the nasty rumor that hell is a place you want to avoid—much less a torture chamber? With all those humanitarians running around in hell, handing out bouquets and valentines, who would they recruit to torture anyone? Didn’t anybody ever tell him that hell is just one big rose garden, with fawns and butterflies and bunny rabbits?
So I think the usual philosophical discussions of the problem of evil are a sideshow. We seem to strain at the gnat and swallow the camel. Why is this? Many will say that what I have called the “orthodox story” is a cartoon theism. Real, grownup theists believe something much more sophisticated…I reply that this overlooks two important points. First, the neglected argument does apply against mainstream version of theism preached all around us. There is a strong case for claiming that the overwhelming majority of Christians and Muslims, both in North America and the rest of the world, are committed to the “orthodoxy story.” There are many passages in the New Testament (and in the Koran) that tell, or presuppose, that story, if they are read at face value.Since I’m not a Muslim, I don’t care what the Koran has to say on the subject.
Second, the reply fails to appreciate how difficult it is to avoid the “orthodox story” while simultaneously retaining the distinctive doctrines of Christianity. To evade the neglected argument, you must contend that prominent passages of scripture should not be read literally. Perhaps there are alternative ways of reading the idea of God’s punishment or understanding torment. But we need to hear not just that there are such ways but what they are.That depends on what he means. You don’t have to assume that the damned are Billy goats, or the devil is a red dragon with a chain around his neck, or that Jesus has a sword sticking out of his mouth, or that Jesus rides a warhorse into battle, to believe in the biblical doctrine of hell. One can make intelligent allowance for idioms, stock imagery, and literary genres. That’s a matter of retuning our ears to hear Scripture as it would have been heard by the original audience.
But if damnation is torment, or if it is a state for which eternal torment is an apt metaphor, then trouble recurs. For if we suppose that the alleged choice is ill informed and irrevocable, then God does evil. He places people in a situation in which they must make a judgment that binds them for eternity, and he knows that some will be so inadequately informed that they will opt for an eternity of torment (or for a state for which torment is an apt metaphor).A couple of problems:
i) Lewis is superimposing his own viewpoint onto God, as if God shares his viewpoint regarding ignorance of the hellbound.
ii) But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the hellbound didn’t know the consequences of their actions. So what?
Suppose that child rape is a capital offense. Suppose a child rapist doesn’t know that child rape is a capital offense. Suppose, if he’d known the penalty, he would have refrained from sodomizing little boys and girls.
How is that exculpatory? It’s a way of saying that he would do it all over again if only he could do so with impunity.
Does that somehow make the crime any less heinous? Does that somehow mitigate his guilt?
It is hard to distinguish between God and the parent who equips the nursery with sharp objects galore and plenty of matches, fuses, and dynamite.This assumes the hellbound are in a state of diminished responsibility, like children before the age of discretion.
Things would be different if those who are damned are stubborn, persisting in their choice even when fully informed. What would these people be like? They must prefer a state of torment (literal or metaphorical) to the alternative of salvation.Do people choose to be miserable? Maybe not directly. Remember, though, that Lewis regards damnation as a carryover from life on earth.
It’s a commonplace of human experience, in the here and now, that many people make themselves miserable by making destructive, lifestyle choices. They don’t like to be miserable. But they like the lifestyle that leaves them unhappy.
One more thing. Lewis has a myopic focus on the “torments” of hell. But his analysis is very lopsided.
What makes hell hellish? There are two things, not just one. Of course, one of them is where you end up. But the other is where you don’t end up. For one of the main things that makes hell hellish is that hell isn’t heaven. This is a neglected truth, yet it’s quite fundamental. To miss out on heaven is, itself, a hellish deprivation.
The penalty of damnation is, in part, the loss of heaven. The absence of heaven and not merely the possession of everything that heaven is not. Damnation is as much a matter of what you lose as what you incur.
To take a mundane example, suppose a man fumbles the chance to marry the love of his life. He procrastinates a little to long in popping the question. She gets tried of waiting, and accepts the proposal of his rival.
If he marries a battle-ax, then that is twice as bad. But even if he never gets married, or marries a good, dutiful woman, he will always regret his lost opportunity. If only he had screwed up the courage to seize the moment. But now it’s gone forever.
 D. Lewis, “Divine Evil,” L Antony, ed. Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford 2007, 231.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232.
 Ibid. 232-33.
 Ibid. 233.
 Ibid. 233.
 Ibid. 233.
 Ibid. 233.