Escaping Hell (part 4)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 7, 2009 in Christian Theology

escape4I 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).

Three clarifications

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.

Conclusion

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.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu May 8, 2009 at 12:35 am

From where do you get these pictures?

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Luke May 8, 2009 at 1:15 am

Can’t say it motivates me to get ‘saved’. I guess I’ll just put it off like everything else. :)

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Reginald Selkirk May 8, 2009 at 5:11 am

This is the sort of thing that causes Dawkins to dismiss theology. To even care about this argument, I would have to (for the sake of debate) accede the existence of an afterlife, the existence of Heaven, the existence of Hell, the existence of God, that God determines the eternal disposition of my soul in that afterlife. That’s a whole lot of assumptions, none of which have a sound evidential or rational basis. This is as much my argument as a discussion about angels dancing on the head of a pin.

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Chris W May 8, 2009 at 7:40 am

“once you have cultivated the kind of character that is prepared to enjoy forever, then it is psychologically impossible to ever choose otherwise”

Why couldn’t the same be said about people in hell, if hell is apparently more desirable to people who would rather not be with God?

In accepting that some things are “psychologically impossible,” these theists are getting dangerously close to a (true) position that utterly destroys any attempted  justification of hell: that there is no true contra-causal free will, and that some things are indeed “psychologically impossible,” even in a theistic worldview (how does the existence of the soul free oneself from the chain of cause and effect?).

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Lorkas May 8, 2009 at 8:40 am

Reginald Selkirk: This is as much my argument as a discussion about angels dancing on the head of a pin.

It seems, though, that this is not too different from ordinary literary discussion. We can talk about what Harry Potter would probably do in a certain situation (or about things that must be true in HP’s world, based on descriptions from the books), even though he never really existed.

I’m generally interested in discussing questions like this in theology, as long as it’s understood that we’re talking about fiction, or at best, a hypothetical situation.

Although, there are questions in theology that I haven’t the patience to even discuss, like whether the Holy Spirit issues forth from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son (one of the disagreements which led to the schism between Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy). This is like debating whether God’s voice is baritone or tenor–it’s an utterly content-free discussion.

Perhaps this is how you feel about this issue, and we just have a difference in tastes regarding which arguments we find interesting.

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lukeprog May 8, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Taranu: From where do you get these pictures?

Google Image Search + PhotoShop.

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Mark May 9, 2009 at 8:02 am

Reginald Selkirk: This is the sort of thing that causes Dawkins to dismiss theology…

I would agree with Dawkins here and dismiss the sort of theology mentioned in these articles.  They do discuss the broad concepts of hell, judgment, and salvation which the bible mentions of course.  However, these aren’t defined biblically.  And the concepts of  “luck” and “escapism” are not biblical at all.  Likewise, the articles don’t seem to comprehend God’s ultimate purpose – it’s not to “save” as many people as possible.

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lukeprog May 9, 2009 at 8:12 am

Mark,

Philosophers don’t often make appeals to the Bible because the Bible is, duh, yet another human book. There’s no more reason to stick to the Bible than there is to stick to Aristotle. If Aristotle is right, fine. If he’s wrong, then he’s wrong. So too with the Bible. You’ve got to be a fundamentalist to prefer the Bible over logic and evidence in the world. If the Bible is logically contradictory, then the Bible is obviously wrong, as with Aristotle.

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Lorkas May 9, 2009 at 9:46 am

Mark: Likewise, the articles don’t seem to comprehend God’s ultimate purpose – it’s not to “save” as many people as possible.

What do you believe his ultimate purpose to be?

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Reginald Selkirk May 11, 2009 at 8:07 am

Is that Miss California in the photo, with surgically implanted wings?

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Mark May 11, 2009 at 12:15 pm

lukeprog: Mark,Philosophers don’t often make appeals to the Bible because the Bible is, duh, yet another human book. There’s no more reason to stick to the Bible than there is to stick to Aristotle. If Aristotle is right, fine. If he’s wrong, then he’s wrong. So too with the Bible. You’ve got to be a fundamentalist to prefer the Bible over logic and evidence in the world. If the Bible is logically contradictory, then the Bible is obviously wrong, as with Aristotle.

Luke, I understand philosophers refer to many ideas outside the bible.  I mention the biblical standard since your articles repeatedly mention “Christianity” and “Christian philosophers”.  I’m assuming the idea of Christ is supposed to be from the Bible, therefore one would assume the ideas of hell, heaven, salvation should be the biblical concepts.  Of course, someone can refer to himself as a “Christian philosopher” and dismiss the  bible’s concept of Christ and other spiritual concepts.  Many do this, so I prefer to differentiate between “Christian” and “Biblically Christian”.  If a strawman is constructed and labeled “Christian” then set ablaze, nothing hostile to “biblical Christianity” has necessarily been accomplished.

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Mark May 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Lorkas: What do you believe his ultimate purpose to be?

To show His glory.  More here:  God’s Ultimate Purpose

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Lorkas May 11, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Narcissus much?

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Antsan October 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I think it’s funny that being in heaven sounds more like an addiction then being in hell when accepting the theory of not being able to escape heaven for psychological reasons.

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