In my last post, I summarized a paper by Buckareff and Plug defending escapism, the doctrine that God allows people to “escape hell” if they choose to convert after they are dead. Buckareff and Plug argued that…
…if God longs for reunion with us this side of the [afterlife], then it would be arbitrary and out of character for God to cut off any opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness at the time of death… God never gives up on the unsaved after death.
In this post, I summarize one critique of that paper.
Escapism and luck
Russell Jones’ critique in Escapism and luck (2007) adapts Linda Zagzebski’s arguments from Religious Luck (1994) against the escapist version of hell.
To understand the concept of “religious luck,” let us first consider the problem of “moral luck.”1 Moral luck occurs when an agent is assigned praise or blame, reward or punishment, even when it’s clear that the agent’s actions were significantly caused by sheer luck. Consider an example posed by Wikipedia:
There are two people driving cars, Driver A, and Driver B. They are alike in every way. Driver A is driving down a road, and, in a second of inattention, runs a red light as an old lady is crossing the street. Driver A slams the brakes, swerves, in short, does everything to try to avoid hitting the woman – alas, he hits the woman and kills her. Driver B, in the meantime, also runs a red light, but since no woman is crossing, he gets a traffic ticket, but nothing more.
If a bystander were asked to morally evaluate Drivers A and B, there is very good reason to expect him to say that Driver A is due more moral blame than Driver B. After all, his course of action resulted in a death, whereas the course of action taken by Driver B was quite uneventful. However, there are absolutely no differences in the controllable actions performed by Drivers A and B. The only disparity is that in the case of Driver A, an external uncontrollable event occurred, whereas it did not in the case of Driver B. The external uncontrollable event, of course, is the woman crossing the street. In other words, there is no difference at all in what the two of them could have done – however, one seems clearly more to blame than the other. How does this occur?
This problem of moral luck takes on a new significance in Christian theology, where moral luck has eternal and infinite consequences. Here is Jones:
It seems obvious that some people have a harder time attaining salvation than others… Many factors which a person does not control may influence her chances of attaining salvation: natural temperament, family, religious background, culture and geography, important events or circumstances, etc. A person who has a natural temperament conducive to spiritual development, who is born into a warm and loving Christian family, in a cultural environment friendly to Christianity, whose path to salvation is not sidetracked by various circumstances outside of her control, will be much more likely to attain salvation than a person for whom none of these is true. It is a small step to salvation for the first person, but may be a very large step to salvation for the second.
Not only is this a problem in comparing two people who, partly by luck, are sent to infinitely different afterlives (eternal torture or eternal bliss), but also it’s a problem for any single person who, had he found himself in a slightly different situation at a certain point, would have had his eternal future altered by sheer luck.
After explaining how escapism avoids 5 problems of religious luck as outlined by Zagzebski, Jones says that escapism still does not avoid the problem of religious luck. “Instead, it simply pushes the problem forward into the afterlife. ”
Even if people can escape hell, whether or not they do so (or do so quickly) depends partly on the lucky or unlucky events that have shaped their personality, which in turn decides their ultimate fate. The consequences of luck are not infinite on escapism, because one may always choose to reconcile oneself with God, but they are nevertheless quite serious. How is it that a just God would allow mere luck to so greatly influence how much time we spend in heaven or hell?
Because of this theological difficulty, Jones proposes a hybrid theory of hell. Perhaps escapism is true, but it is also true that “God gives enough extra grace to each person to cancel out any bad moral luck she has had.” But:
Zagzebski has two objections to [this kind of solution]. First, it is contrary to our experience, for it does not seem like those with the most bad luck receive the most grace. Second, it may lead us to evaluate people too harshly, for since they have received enough grace to cancel out their bad moral luck, our evaluations of them will not be tempered by a recognition of the role luck plays in their moral failings.
So, Jones proposes:
Suppose we alter the fourth solution slightly, so that God gives enough grace to each person to cancel out any bad luck she has had, but He does so after the person’s death. If we combine this altered fourth solution with escapism, we now have the position that, after death, God gives enough grace to each person to cancel out any bad luck she has had, and each person has an open-ended opportunity to be reconciled to God at any time.
This hybrid theory of hell is not contrary to our experience, since grace is allotted only after death. One might also argue that problems of moral evaluation in this life will be irrelevant to those of the afterlife.
So, Jones argues, his hybrid escapism should be considered a (slightly) superior alternative to the “standard escapism” proposed by Buckareff and Plug.
In my next post, I’ll look at another critique of the Buckareff/Plug paper.
- See Feinberg, Problematic Responsibility in Law and Morals (1962); Williams, Moral Luck (1976); and Nagel, Moral Luck (1976). [↩]