Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Hell: Oppression or Justice?

An argument about the existence of hell broke out, and I couldn't help inserting myself into it.

Something interesting, however, struck me about how arguments were phrased. Formulations (from theists) of the belief that hell either does not exist or does not contain anyone seemed to be based on a need to avoid thinking of God as on oppressor:

"I refuse to believe that a just and loving God would condemn anyone to eternal suffering."

Defenses of the existence of hell and the idea that at least some people are in it tended to emphasize the ability of people to do wrong:

"People choose hell by utterly and irrevocably rejecting God. Given the willingness of people to choose evil in this life, even when it makes them unhappy, I don't see why it's hard to believe that some people would reject God permanently."

The more I thought about these two formulations, the more it struck me that these tied in the with Kling's "three axis model of politics" which I mentioned a while back. The three axes are:
[P]rogressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Here we have those who deny hell (which is, indeed, generally thought of as a "liberal" theological belief) doing so based on the argument that allowing some people to experience eternal misery turns God into an oppressor. Since they don't want to see God as an oppressor, they reject the possibility of anyone being condemned to hell. Also implicit in this is a belief that everyone is, at root, good. No one will really, really, really choose hell over the beatific vision, so obviously the only explanation for anyone being in hell is that God is a big oppressive meany who put them there.

Those who believe in hell (a belief we might term "conservative" theologically) see hell as a matter of justice and free will: Some people will reject God, and if they choose to do so, then justice and free will demand that God allow them their condemnation. Thus, the "conservative" belief is based, like many other conservative beliefs, on a conviction that we can be pretty sure that some people will do evil, and that the application of justice will necessitate those people being punished.

Kling's model is one of those things which I am a little annoyed to find working as well as it does, since it seems so utterly simplistic. Yet I have to admit, in its basic sort of way, it provides a bit of insights into a startling number of arguments.


Enbrethiliel said...


I find the three axes model very useful for such a discussion, but I'd use it a bit differently. People who fall into those three political categories seem to take for granted that anyone with half a brain would choose the "beatific" end of the scale--in the same way that anyone with half a brain would choose Heaven over hell. (They've probably not had to deal with teenage students petulantly agreeing that it's "better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n.") And yet there continue to be people who go the other way, despite all arguments or "proof" against that side. So why is it so mind-blowing that there would also be people who'd choose hell over Heaven?

Incidentally, the only friend I've ever had this theological discussion with first said, "I don't believe a good, loving God would create a place like hell," and then mused (after the death of the family dog), "I would refuse to go a Heaven that doesn't have Bailey in it."

Donald R. McClarey said...

I have always been concerned with a balancing of the scales of justice. That obviously often does not happen in this life and I am very glad that it happens in the next. This post should be put up on TAC. The discussion should be very illuminating.

bearing said...

I don't know --- in my experience you can even push the "there's no hell because God isn't a big meany" crowd into admitting that they hope there's some kind of punishment for the right kind of bad person. You can find some historical Nasty Person, or set up a hypothetical bad guy, and before you know it they want such a person to burn in hell.

There are a lot of people who simply say things without working through the consequences. A lot of them get interviewed on the radio, I have noticed.

bearing said...

Donald - the psalmist says, "Justice and mercy shall kiss" (ps. 85:10). I believe in the possibility of hell, and I also figure that the Last Judgment will be an experience of contact with perfect justice *and* perfect mercy. This is something that is difficult to imagine since it never happens on earth, but with God all things are possible, and it seems unlikely to be anything less.

If there is an axis between oppressor and oppressed, between one who harms and one who is harmed, then neither is at much of an advantage, for the oppressor is called to repent completely in the face of perfect justice and the oppressed is called to forgive completely in the face of perfect mercy. I am not sure which position I would rather be in before the Judge; I expect nearly all of us who survived early childhood will stand as some combination of the two.

Darwin said...

"If there is an axis between oppressor and oppressed, between one who harms and one who is harmed, then neither is at much of an advantage, for the oppressor is called to repent completely in the face of perfect justice and the oppressed is called to forgive completely in the face of perfect mercy."

The axis model more has to do with how people frame issues. The idea is:

Progessives tend to frame issues in terms of fighting an oppressor.

Conservatives tend to frame issues in terms of defending civilization and decency against some barbaric force.

Libertarians tend to frame issues in terms of being in favor of freedom and not coercion.

Kling did an interview on the concept which is pretty good on a recent EconTalk here:

He's also done a short ebook about it.

The Three Languages of Politics

I think you're right that one can (sometimes) push the "God would be unjust to punish anyone for eternity" crowd into imagining a few famous wrongdoers in hell, but in my experience:

1) It's usually only the less religious ones one can get that concessions from. The committed "dare to hope no one is in hell" folks think that imagining Stalin repenting is the whole point and shows what heroic forgivers they are.

2) Using this tactic essentially involves arguing, "God may not send people to hell, but surely we can agree that some oppressors might be there."