Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Firelight at the end of the tunnel

Steven Nemes has been blogging on hell. I’m going to excerpt what I take to be his core arguments and comment on them:

“It seems to me problematic to suggest that any particular sin would warrant eternal punishment. This is problematic precisely because justice for that sin could never be served -- because it deserves infinite punishment, there will never be a point in time after which the offender will have paid in full for his crime; and if that is true, then there'll never be a point in time at which complete justice will be dished out. If that's true, then if people in hell deserve infinite punishment for any of their individual sins, then justice will never win out; there will never be a point at which justice defeats injustice, and good defeats sin and lawlessness once and for all.”

Several problems with this argument:

i) It turns on the commercial metaphor of the offender paying his debt. But while that’s a useful illustration of retributive justice, it’s not something we should take too literally. It’s not as if the offender has actually accrued certain numerically specifiable units of guilt which must be recompensed by commensurate units of punishment.

ii) It’s easy to dream up symmetrical penalties for certain types of offenses. Dante was good at that sort of thing.

However, other offenses resist a superficially symmetrical penalty. For instances, some things have sentimental value rather than intrinsic value. It’s a question of how much an individual values them. To it means to someone else.

Take a child’s drawing. It may not be an artistic masterpiece, but it’s precious to her mother. Or, to ratchet up the stakes, suppose the child dies of leukemia. This drawing is one of the few things the grieving mother has to remember her child by.

Objectively speaking, the drawing isn’t worth very much. It lacks aesthetic excellence. Yet the drawing is unspeakably precious to the grieving mother.

Suppose a sadistic offender, just to be mean, burns the drawing. He picks the one thing which would be most hurtful to a hurting mother.

What would be the appropriate punishment? To burn one of the offender’s childhood drawings? But his drawing hardly has the same value for him. Indeed, his drawing may be utterly worthless to him.

Or, to take another example, suppose the offender makes his living by cheating gullible seniors out of their life-savings.

What’s the appropriate punishment? A symmetrical punishment would be for the judge or victim to defraud his own parents of their life savings. But, of course, that wouldn’t be fair to his parents.

iii) We could also turn Steven Nemes' objection around. Instead of first deciding what we think the damned deserve, then meting out a suitable punishment–we could begin with the divine punishment, and take that as our cue for what the damned deserve. If the damned suffer everlasting punishment, then that of itself tells us what they deserve. That’s exactly what they had coming to them.

iv) Indeed, isn’t the unremitting duration of hell punitive in itself? The damned know, from one day to the next, that there will be no let up.

Even something that isn’t inherently unpleasant can become unbearable if that is all we’re exposed to. Indeed, even something that is normally pleasant can become unbearable if that’s all we’re exposed to.

The damned know that things will never get better. And that, itself, is punitive. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Or if there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, that’s firelight. Hellfire!

v) Let’s also remember that we’re not speaking of justice in the abstract, as if we personified justice. As if justice were a Platonic hypostasis.

No, this has reference to wronging a person. Failing to discharge our obligations to God or man.

So justice is, in part, a question of what is just punishment in the eyes of the offended party.

“The reason is this: on a “vicious circle” view of hell, there will always be some more sin to be punished, and it seems as if the people in hell are going to be getting only more and more callous, more hardened against God, and so on. But then the display of God’s justice—the good that is brought about by it—hardly seems greater than the very unfortunate fact that there exist individuals who are forever doomed to become more and more evil, more and more disinterested in seeking their own good, etc. That state of affair’s obtaining (the latter) surely seems horrible, and it’s not obvious that the former’s obtaining outweighs its ‘badness’.”

i) The question of what’s good isn’t a simple question, for there is more than one potential party to the transaction. Good for whom? The punishment may not be good for the offender, but is the offender entitled to beneficial punishment?

ii) And even intuitively speaking, isn’t there a value in seeing the consequences of evil run their evil course?

“In my last post, I considered the suggestion that there are some states of affairs that are good, but it would be better if they never obtained; I suggested that the punishment of some evildoer was something like that: it is good that evil is punished, but it is better for there not to be a need for punishment. It also seems as if the more evil is performed, and the more need there is for justice to be shown, the less valuable on a whole the states of affairs that obtain are. If someone does what is wrong and is punished once, that is good, though it'd be better if it never happened at all; but if someone is perpetually doing what is wrong and is continually being punished, with no rehabilitation or anything of that sort, and there will always be evil committed, that state of affairs doesn’t seem valuable in the least; the continued need for a display of justice seems unfortunate rather than valuable.”

i) The question of what is “better” is not a simple question. Leibniz famously thought the principle of sufficient reason induces God to choose the best possible world. But a number of modern philosophers don’t think there is one best world to choose form. Rather, they think different good worlds encapsuate incommensurable goods.

ii) On a related note, what is better for one party may be worse for another.

iii) At a concrete level, we live in a world in which it’s easy to imagine just about anyone’s life being better in some respect or another than is currently the case. God didn’t make their life as good as he could have.

Just take our little fantasy about what we’d ask for if a genie granted us our three wishes. The hard part would be narrowing the choice down to just three wishes.

Now Nemes might say this is deceptive. Yes we can imagine many “improvements,” but these have unintended consequences. However, that consideration subtracts from his intuitive appeal.

“I don’t know about the plausibility of this. You might question whether it could be that a person could merit eternal, unending punishment for some particular sin they’ve committed; how could any finite action committed by a finite agent warrant infinite punishment?”

Since I’ve often commented on that objection, I have nothing new to say at this point.

“Of course, it may be that people in Hell will always be sinning, and hence will always have something to be punished for, and thus God’s justice will always be on display. But then I wonder whether or not this is a good thing. I could imagine an objector saying: It seems like some goods may be good, really good even, but the world would be better if they didn’t have to come about—and justice and punishment of evil seems like one of these things.”

That repeats an objection I just dealt with.

“You might even question whether or not an eternal hell constitutes some sort of defeat or failure on God’s part—assuming, of course, that hell is punishment. For if hell is eternal, and if it is eternal in virtue of the damned always having some new sin to be punished for, then it seems as justice will never be served definitively or finally—there will always be some sin to conquer, some iniquity to destroy, and there will never be a final victory of good over evil.”

That’s the classic objection of the universalist. But, of course, it only represents a defeat if God predefined the terms of victory such that this outcome undershoots the mark. But why should success be framed in those terms, anyway? Doesn’t that beg the very question at issue?


  1. Hi Steve,

    First, thanks for commenting on my posts. These have just been various thoughts I've had throughout the last couple of days on the issue, so they are not particularly refined or well thought-out, but I appreciate your taking the time to comment on these issues and help me work through them.

    To start, I should probably make it clear that when I spoke of some state of affair's being good or bad (for instance, sinners in hell becoming more and more evil and callous as they are continually punished by God), I mean objectively good -- not good for some particular person. Naturally, hell is not good for the damned. When I considered the Augustinian defense of Hell, that in creating a world with Hell in it God could bring about good states of affairs that otherwise wouldn't obtain, I spoke of states of affairs being good or bad objectively, and it being better for one not to have obtained objectively.

    That being said, I'll try to respond to some of what you've brought up.

    I considered that no particular sin could warrant eternal punishment, and I thought of two ways in which this could be: no one could possibly pay the penalty of eternal punishment, because there will always be more suffering to be had and hence it will never be totally paid; and I wondered how an action by any particular finite agent could warrant infinite punishment.

    You responded that proper punishment for judgment would be determined by the offended party, and (presumably) proportionate to the level of offense that has been committed. The obvious line of response you'll give here is that God has decided fit to give sinners eternal punishment for their sins, and hence it is just for him to punish them so.

    That is a powerful reply. A possible rejoinder would be to suggest that it is hard to see how God could decide fit to punish sinners eternally for their particular and finite sins, what kind of reasons he would have; how exactly could it be that finite sins deserve infinite punishment?

    But you would respond probably in two ways: first, you say you've dealt with this objection elsewhere, so I will simply check the archives on universalism and do some research; second, you can offer a skeptical theist-style rejoinder rejecting my quasi-"noseeum" inference.

    At this point, I would have only this much to say in response, bracketing the arguments you've given as to how a finite sin could warrant eternal punishment till I read them: I wonder if skeptical theist lines become too skeptical as to allow almost anything, to leave almost any Christian doctrine outside of the reach of our capacity for critical considerations. Of course, maybe the only way to combat specific Christian doctrines (like Hell, or perhaps Calvinism and the supposed moral problems of viewing God that way) is through scripture itself.


  2. Now, in response to my suggestion that the "vicious circle" view of Hell paints a picture of Hell that is not a very valuable state of affairs, you've said (1) it's not good for who? if not the offending party, why assume they deserve some kind of benefiting good?, and (2) there is value in seeing the consequences of evil run their course.

    Ad (1), like I said above, the good is supposed to be objective good. I claimed that the bad of there existing persons who become only more and more callous, sinning all the while, and ever being punished for the evil they committed outweighs the good of seeing justice continually served. I didn't give the best example of this in my original post, but consider this. Suppose Pecos commits a crime against an old woman and is punished by the sheriff of the town, though the sheriff willingly keeps him alive, doesn't kill him. It is bad that Pecos committed the crime, but it's good that he was punished, and perhaps others even benefited from the punishment in that they turned their lives around, kept from committing that kind of evil, and so on (of coursre, in my example, their benefiting would good for them, but I speak of its being objectively good in that they learned some kind of lesson from it, or whatever). But imagine Pecos commits many, many crimes, all the while being punished by the sheriff while never being totally destroyed. Justice is always shown, but it seems the sorts of goods that might come out of Pecos' punishment, except for the good of justice being served, have long since run out. Seeing Pecos punished for eternity simply doesn't bring about any more good and if Pecos is consistently becoming hardened and callous and more likely to commit crimes, it hardly seems as if the justice outweighs the evil and bad that has happened to Pecos. Or at least that is my intuition.

    That's what a "vicious circle" Hell is like, or at least something like that. After a while, it seems to me, the goods that could come out of Pecos (or the damned) continually existing and being punished runs out -- there's no more good to be had; and the bad of what Pecos (or the damned) becomes outweighs whatever good comes about by the display of justice.

    I make no mention of some kind of good benefiting the damned or Pecos, because that is not central to my argument; what is central to my argument is the intuition that after a while, there are no more goods to be brought about in the continued evil and punishment of Pecos (or the damned), and that even the good of the evil being punished is eventually outweighed by the bad.

    Of course, if the good is eventually outweighed by the bad, then God would allow this sort of state of affairs to obtain; so you could take me as arguing that Hell is not like the "vicious circle" because God's goodness precludes it.

    Ad (2), there may be some value in seeing the consequences of evil run their course; but I claim the evil that goes on forever and ever outweighs whatever good there might be in being able to observe its consequences.

    In one of my posts, I suggested some states of affairs, though good, are such that it would be better if they did not have to obtain. You brought up, it seems to me, points about the difficulty of calculating what is better because of the need to calculate the (very) long-term effects of the counterfactual situations; so I said it is good if A is punished for X-ing, but better if he didn't have to be punished for X-ing, but your response is to cast doubt on this by suggesting there may be some long-term goods that come out of A's being punished for X-ing that wouldn't come about otherwise and outweigh what goods would've come about if A never had to be punished for X-ing.

    I grant this is a good point, related in spirit to the skeptical theist-style response that I anticipated above. I don't have any rejoinder to this.

    The rest of the points in your post seem plausible enough.


  3. Steve Nemes said:
    I considered that no particular sin could warrant eternal punishment, and I thought of two ways in which this could be: no one could possibly pay the penalty of eternal punishment, because there will always be more suffering to be had and hence it will never be totally paid; and I wondered how an action by any particular finite agent could warrant infinite punishment.

    I'm not sure that punishment in Hell is linked to particular sins in the way you seem to be taking it (and, to be fair, the way *most* people seem to take it). Steve's response in his original post briefly touched on the avenue I would take, but I'll expand it a bit. (So everyone knows what I refer to, it's Steve Hay's comment: "It’s not as if the offender has actually accrued certain numerically specifiable units of guilt which must be recompensed by commensurate units of punishment.")

    I think a key question to ask is, just what are people in hell punished for? And this can get a bit nuanced, so I hope I'll be able to frame it correctly so that everyone can understand what I mean by that.

    Suppose that Bob kills a man, then Bob dies and goes to hell. And suppose for the sake of clarity that murder was the *ONLY* sin Bob ever did. Is Bob's punishment in hell specifically because he murdered someone, or is it instead because Bob is objectively a sinner?

    Put it this way: even in our modern penal system (which is woefully inadequate), Bob is a murderer. Even after Bob serves his time, he *still* remains a murderer. He is no longer punished by us, but that he never ceases to be a murderer, for that is an action he has committed in his life. Likewise, a thief always remains a thief, for he has stolen something that did not belong to him; even if he gives restitution and is no longer punishable by law, what he *IS* remains is "a person who has stolen items not belonging to him."

    That will never change, for he cannot go back and change the past. So in that sense, the "label" is stuck to him forever.

    Ignoring salvation through Christ as well as some other pertinent issues (for the sake of simplicity), under that type of concept, suppose God says "a murderer or a thief will never be allowed into my presence." Since people who are murderers or thieves cannot change this themselves, it would be eternal separation from God. This would not be due, per se, to the individual sin, but rather to the status of the sinner.


  4. I'd also add that there are ever so many crimes which sinners would commit if they thought they could get away with it. The fact that they didn't do it doesn't mean they wouldn't do it if they could do so with impunity.

  5. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your input. I disagree. :-)

    I don't think it's true that labels stick in the way you're suggesting. If the only time I ever stole something was when I was fifteen, and I was punished for it and haven't stolen anything since, I don't think I'd be a thief. And if you take an old gunslinger from the West, throw him in jail for thirty years, and he comes out a reformed man, I wouldn't call him still a murderer -- I'd say he was a murder who's been reformed. Neither do I think it would make sense to call one of the saints in heaven because he was once sinned, even many times and in heinous ways.

    Labels like that stick so long as you are continuously committing the relevant crimes; once you've stopped, and perhaps changed your ways and lost your tendency commit those crimes, then I don't see why you'd still be a criminal.

    Labels don't "stick" like that when it comes to virtuous acts. If I help a bum one day while on a stroll through one of the more "colorful" neighborhoods in Phoenix (perhaps colorful from the abundance of graffiti!), I am hardly a philanthropist or a generous person. Why should it be that one act of evil gets you stuck with a label, whereas one act of good doesn't?

    Further, I'm not sure why we should think of Hell in terms you're offering. God punishes sinners, because it because they are sinners or because they've committed sins and the punishment is for those sins?

    If you respond that people in hell will be given the opportunity to continue sinning, and hence will remain sinners with something to be punished for, I suggest that such a state of affairs' obtaining is not something God would bring about. Whatever good might come out of it would be outweighed by the bad of there existing some extremely hardened and callous sinners with no hope of getting better and perpetually getting worse.

  6. Putting aside those crimes committed against humans for the moment ...

    One could be supposedly "justly" condemned to Hell for committing only sins against God (blasphemy, heresy, etc.). However, as God can suffer no "loss" by virtue of His divine attributes, how can one thus merit eternal punishment?

    Further, how can one even hate God in this life when we cannot apprehend Him tangibly? IOW: how can you tell the difference between someone who hates God and only hates a concept of Him (which may not even accurately represent Him)?


    "One could be supposedly "justly" condemned to Hell for committing only sins against God (blasphemy, heresy, etc.). However, as God can suffer no 'loss' by virtue of His divine attributes, how can one thus merit eternal punishment?"

    It's quite possible to wrong someone you can't harm. For instance, it's possible to slander the dead. To besmirch their posthumous reputation through scurrilous accusations.

  8. James said...

    "Further, how can one even hate God in this life when we cannot apprehend Him tangibly?"

    Many things are intangible. Other minds are intangible. Doesn't follow that other minds are inapprehensible.

    "IOW: how can you tell the difference between someone who hates God and only hates a concept of Him (which may not even accurately represent Him)?"

    A misconception of God is, itself, culpable.