Escaping Hell (Part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 3, 2009 in Christian Theology

escape2In 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?

A hybrid

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.

  1. See Feinberg, Problematic Responsibility in Law and Morals (1962); Williams, Moral Luck (1976); and Nagel, Moral Luck (1976). []

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu May 3, 2009 at 7:06 am

Does God’s ultimate justice affect “hell escapism” in any way?


lukeprog May 3, 2009 at 7:29 am

Taranu: Does God’s ultimate justice affect “hell escapism” in any way?

God’s supposed justice is the impetus for escapism. If God is just, he would not shut the door forever on reconciliation after death. So, escapism is more compatible with an all-just God than the traditional view of hell is.


Adiel Corchado May 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Justice is when a guilty party receives the exact penalty that he deserves for his crime. Not one tiny little bit more. Not one tiny little bless.

Now, the Bible says that the exact penalty that sinners deserve for their crimes is: the fully fury of  God’s wrath. That is how wicked we are. That is how huge our offense is. You violate the ultimate Authority of the universe you receive the ultimate penalty: the eternal One’s holy wrath which for us means—> eternal conscious torment in hell.

The only way for anyone to escape perfect justice (us getting exactly what we deserve) is not by God unjustly giving us less than we deserve. It is by someone else stepping in our place and drinking down every single drop of our just punishment for us. God’s justice must be satisfied. There is no other way. Either the sinner will suffer for every single sin he has ever committed eternally in hell, or, a perfect and sinless Substitute of infinite worth and value steps in his place and takes the sinner’s punishment upon Himself.


Lorkas May 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm

The article isn’t about people getting out of their punishment without accepting Jesus–it’s about whether or not people can accept Jesus after they die. I presume the author of the article believes, as you do, that Jesus is the only way to avoid hell for your sins, but he believes that Jesus can still save you even after you die.


Adiel Corchado May 3, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Oh OK. No, the Bible does not teach that. His is just wishful thinking. This is how false religions get started.


Lorkas May 3, 2009 at 3:44 pm

So Jesus’s sacrifice isn’t powerful enough to save us once we’re in hell?


Adiel Corchado May 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Its not about whether Jesus’ sacrifice is powerful enough to save those in hell, its about: “What does the Scripture say?”

The Scripture says that your chance is now.  You are not even promised that you will have a chance tomorrow for tomorrow you might already be in hell.

Once you are finally judged it will be too late. Hell has no exits, once the gavel comes down your cries will fall on deaf ears. The Lord’s counsel is:

“Seek the LORD while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the LORD,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon. ”

I’m telling you the truth, the Lord will not always be found, He will not always be near to save, be wise, and learn from the Parable of the Virgins! Because once the door is shut there is no hope for the wicked. Nowhere does the Scripture teach that there is hope for the damned!

Whoever has ears to hear let him hear!


Lorkas May 3, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Yea, I was just screwing with you, Adiel.

I agree with you that there isn’t direct Biblical evidence of postmortem salvation, but it does seem to mesh better with the concept of a just and loving God. Why not let them into heaven, if they realize their mistake and are truly sorry? (rhetorical question–I don’t really care, since I don’t think any of this exists anyway)


Adiel Corchado May 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm

God bless you Lorkas. Maybe we’ll chat again some other time.


Lorkas May 3, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Thanks Adiel. By the way, is this your blog?


Adiel Corchado May 3, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Yes it is. Good night.


Teleprompter May 3, 2009 at 8:41 pm


You mention perfect justice. How is eternal suffering for finite offenses, perfect justice? 

How offended is your god that he must punish for eternity, beings whose capacity for committing the very mistakes which he punishes them for, he created? Isn’t that a little…petty? vengeful?


Adiel Corchado May 4, 2009 at 6:24 am

Because our sins are not against some insignificant little mayor of some out of the way little town in the middle of nowhere. Our sins are against the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Creator of the Universe, the Author of life— the One being who is Himself of infinite worth, value, dignity, authority, and glory. It is no small thing to lift your finger against YHVH.  And it is definitely no small thing to trample the Son of God underfoot and count His blood as beneath you.

Think about this. On the cross two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was imputed with our sins. Now, once the holy and innocent Jesus had taken the blame upon Himself, what did the Father do? Did the Father overlook the guilt (which was really ours) that He carried? No. What did the Father do? He crushed His only begotten Son.

If God did not spare His own Son, what then will happen to sinners when they stand before Him on Judgment Day, after having trampled the blood of Jesus underfoot?


Mark May 4, 2009 at 6:34 am

When confronted by a Holy God, the proper response is to plead for mercy.  Asking for clarification is not a wise first course of action.  Clarification and understanding come to the humble ear, as we understand God’s holiness, character, and love of His Son Jesus.  But a haughty questioner of God gets no answer.

Psalm18:24  The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
25  To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
26  to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.
27  You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

Luke 18:9  And Jesus also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
10  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.
11  “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.
12  ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
13  “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
14  “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”


Reginald Selkirk May 4, 2009 at 8:17 am

Odds are that I, you, – heck, everybody reading this – is going to be baptised Mormon after our deaths. How does this affect our eternal reward/punishment? If our fate is open even after we die, can it be influenced by actions of those still here on Earth?


Teleprompter May 4, 2009 at 4:07 pm


I firmly believe that the idea of hell is an abomination.  If we are all children of a living god, what parent would subject a child to eternal torment? What kind of parent would set us up for failure, leave us alone and not show himself to us, and then expect us to have a functioning relationship, and abuse us for failing to reciprocate the “love”? 

This god character seems to have all the characteristics of an abusive parent. Would you want a relationship with any human parent who performed that miserably?


Jeff H May 4, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Adiel, why should the degree of punishment differ based on who we commit our crimes against? If I steal something from a poor person, or then I steal the exact same thing (with the same worth and value) from someone who is rich, should the penalty differ? Perhaps it might, but that is only based on the injustices of our courts, inherent in the system. (The rich person can get better lawyers, etc.) But in a perfectly just system, should it matter the status or authority of the person I steal from? I don’t think so. I think that we would likely both agree that the crime should be penalized regardless of the victim’s status or value. If anything, I would think we would say that stealing from the poor person should receive a harsher sentence, since they will be more disadvantaged by the loss.

To take this another way, what harm or threat could we possibly give to an all-powerful God who you say has such great worth and glory that it is beyond measure? What damage could our sins possibly do to him, and why would he take such offense to such an insignificant speck? Even Hitler’s actions should be completely snuffed out as insignificantly pathetic. When you compare it in this light, what penalty should be given to someone whose actions made absolutely no difference anyway?

So let’s combine those two ideas together. On the one hand, our punishment should be our punishment, whether we’ve wronged the creator of the universe or the old lady across the street. We could adjust this slightly if the victim was harmed greatly by the action, but since no action we could take could ever harm God, it seems that our punishment should, if at all, only decrease. And so, since I don’t think we would view any actions as worthy of eternal punishment (even rapists would only get life in prison at most), our punishments should be finite, and should be roughly equivalent to what we would receive for harming a normal member of society (or perhaps less, based on God’s inability to be harmed). Anything different from this I see as injust.


Adiel Corchado May 5, 2009 at 7:42 am

Teleprompter: Adiel,I firmly believe that the idea of hell is an abomination.  If we are all children of a living god…

Teleprompter, I believe your first misunderstanding is that you believe “we are all children of a living god”… This is not true. The Bible teaches…

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

No one is automatically a child of God. To be a child of God you must become a child of God, and this through faith in Jesus Christ which is the result of the new birth from above.

Apart from the new birth, people born in this world are not children of God, theirs is a different father, the devil whom you serve.

So now the question is not, why would God send His children to hell? The question is, why would God die for and redeem any of the devil’s children? And this we call “Amazing Grace”.


Mark May 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Good point Adiel, I wanted nothing to do with God and wanted to remain apart from Him.  But He changed my desires.  Though dead spiritually, God made me alive.  It had nothing to do with my desires, which were opposed to His will.  Truly amazing grace that God would not let me remain apart from Him.  Why should I receive His kindness? – Only God knows and all glory and credit is to Him alone.
Here’s my story:
Ephesians 2:1-9  And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,  in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,  even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),  and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.


Lorkas May 5, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I’m glad I never spoke like I was an Ancient Near East religious text.


Reginald Selkirk May 6, 2009 at 7:49 am

Lorkas: I’m glad I never spoke like I was an Ancient Near East religious text.

Filtered through an early 17th century homosexual English monarch.


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