I have been summarizing a debate among Christian philosophers over the nature of hell. In 2005, Buckareff and Plug argued for escapism, the idea that a just and loving God would allow people to reconcile with him even after death:
…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…
I also summarized two critiques of escapism: Jones’s arguement (2007) that escapism does not avoid the problem of “religious luck,” and Swan’s argument (2009) that escapism does not avoid the “Job objection.”
Recently, Buckareff and Plug responded to these critiques in their article Escapism, religious luck, and divine reasons for action, and will extend their argument in a forthcoming book chapter called Value, finality, and frustration: problems for escapism? I summarize these two documents below.
Escapism and Religious Luck
Christianity suffers from the problem of “religious luck.” Whether you spend an eternity in heaven or hell depends in large part on luck: where you happened to be born, who your parents happened to be, what tragedies happened to befall you, and so on. Escapism, Jones argued, does not escape this problem. For even if you can still choose to reconcile yourself with God after death, whether you respond positively to this offer still depends on all the unlucky or lucky circumstances that have shaped your personality.
Because of this, Russell proposed a new kind of escapism in which God grants extra grace to those who have, by luck, developed personalities that are more resistant to God’s offer of salvation. But Buckareff and Plug argue that “unmodiﬁed escapism has the means to avoid the problem of religious luck.”
Let’s say a person refuses to embrace God both in life and the afterlife, forever, partly due to luck. It seems he would not deserve an infinite punishment if his predicament was partly due to luck. But, Buckareff and Plug argue:
…at some point, that continued [choice to stay in hell] would in no way be due to luck at all but due to that person’s refusal to develop the appropriate character…
Suppose that Sam – at age thirteen – is exceedingly materialistic due to parental inﬂuences and other factors that are outside his control. His value system, then, is due in part to luck. However, suppose that over the course of his life Sam continues to make choices that reinforce this value system. Over time, the fact that Sam is exceedingly materialistic would be due less and less to luck and increasingly due to his choices and behaviour.
We suggest that something similar would take place in hell.
After all, we may assume that a person in hell…
…has full knowledge of the means to reconciliation with God, can become more adept at practical reasoning, and has the time to deliberate carefully about how to choose… over time the eﬀects of luck are sufficiently mitigated to make the choice of separation from (or reconciliation with) God one that the agent, given her preferences, rationally and wholeheartedly endorses.
Next, Buckareff and Plug consider Jones’ second scenario, in which a person goes to hell but eventually decides to embrace God’s grace and enter heaven. That he spends any time at all in hell is, in part, due to luck. But luck “is only a problem if two individuals are treated differently (in terms of beneﬁts received) due to luck,” and the benefits of being with God for eternity are infinite. Thus, even if someone is in hell for a while before entering heaven, he eventually gets the same benefits as someone who was always in heaven, for they each receive infinite benefits.
In his paper, Jones already objected to this response. He said that if we were given a choice up front, we would choose to not spend any time in hell, which suggests that avoiding hell altogether is preferable even if you eventually receive infinite benefits either way.
Not true, argue Buckareff and Plug, because “those in hell prefer to be in hell rather than heaven.” After all, Buckareff and Plug have endorsed an “issuant” view of hell, according to which hell is not a place of punishment, but a place provided for those who do not wish to be with God. God loves everyone, so he will not force anybody to be with him if they don’t want to be. On this view, people enjoy some well-being in hell, because that is where they want to be.
Escapism and Divine Reasons for Action
Next, remember that Swan’s objection to escapism was that God could be fully just and loving and still lock people in hell forever, because he might have good reasons we can’t possibly understand with our tiny human brains. This is the “God is mysterious” defense.
Buckareff and Plug respond, obviously, that we can only argue for what God’s reasons for action are based on the data we do have available to us. We cannot reason with regard to remote, ad hoc, literally inconceivable reasons for action that God might have. Yes, it is always possible that God has such reasons, but unless we have any reason to think so, then escapism remains the theory of hell that is most consistent with God’s love and justice (without throwing out the whole concept of hell, as universalism and annihiliationism do).
Finally, in their forthcoming article Value, finality, and frustration: problems for escapism?, Buckareff and Plug answer three questions about escapism.
1. “According to escapism, is hell an unmitigated good thing for those that are in hell?”
Answer: Not necessarily. Perhaps hell is like the addicts choice to continue smoking: not an unmitigated good, but potentially rational given the agent’s desires and personality.
2. “But doesn’t the standard Christian concept of hell commit one to a sense of finality regarding the afterlife?”
Answer: First, escapism does not require that there is no finality to one’s entrance into heaven (i.e. that you could “escape heaven”), for it may be that once you have cultivated the kind of character that is prepared to enjoy forever, then it is psychologically impossible to ever choose otherwise. Also, there is one sense in which hell has “finality” even though one can always choose to escape it [a claim which Buckareff and Plug defend with a complicated modal argument I will not repeat here].
3. “Does escapism allow for the possibility that God’s redemptive plans may, ultimately, be frustrated?”
Answer: No, assuming that God’s plans are that all those who want to be reconciled to him eventually are. Indeed, if it is God’s plan that all those who want to be reconciled to him eventually are, then the denial of escapism would thwart God’s plans.
I have summarized a very recent and ongoing debate in the field philosophical theology, just to give you a taste of how philosophy of religion is done.
It’s interesting to note that neither Buckareff nor Plug actually hold to all the specific doctrines defended in their papers. In fact, Buckareff is some kind of physicalist pantheist! The authors merely assert escapism as a viable doctrine for those who want to reconcile the traditional view of God with the notion of hell.