The first chapter of The Evangelical Universalist, entitled “A Hell of a Problem”, is mostly logic. Why get philosophical?
…Christian theology is guided by several key sources of wisdom: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Of these, the Protestant churches agree that Scripture is the most authoritative. These four sources, however, inter-relate in such complex ways that one cannot claim to “just read the Bible” without paying attention to tradition, reason, and experience. In an ideal world, the four sources would beautifully dovetail and lead to clear conclusions. However, it is a common experience for the Church to be faced with situations in which Scripture seems to conflict with one or more of the other sources. What do we do in such situations if we are committed to a divinely inspired Scripture? We first ask whether reason, tradition, or experience may not be misleading or mistaken. We then also consider whether we may have misunderstood Scripture, for even a commitment to an inspired Bible is not a commitment to inerrant interpretations. Reason can play a role in exposing misinterpretations of the Bible. It is this role that I want to draw attention to in this chapter. (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 9)
In this chapter MacDonald presents the two general problems he sees in the traditional doctrine of hell and then argues that there are logical problems inherent in the traditional defenses of that view.
First, the two general problems:
1. Infinite punishment for finite crimes.
MacDonald wonders what sin a finite human could possibly commit that would warrant an infinite amount of punishment. The “retributive theory of punishment”, the common basis for hell theology, argues that punishment is justified simply because the criminal deserves it—that is, not because it is rehabilitative or a deterrent from future sin. Central to retributive justice is the idea that the punishment must fit the crime. An infinite amount of punishment does not seem to fit a finite crime. “[T]he traditional doctrine [of hell] seems to require a theory of punishment that ends up undermining it” (p. 11).
St. Anselm tried to solve this problem by arguing that since God is infinitely great, any sin is infinitely grave and therefore deserves infinite punishment. Anselm’s position is difficult to swallow these days, as we no longer live in a feudalistic caste system (is that redundant?)—we no longer (in theory) punish according to the social status of the victim in relation to the social status of the perpetrator. As a result, Anselm’s position has been further developed to suggest that sin deserves infinite punishment since God is infinitely greater than humans in an ontological sense, much like we believe that a crime against a human is worse than a crime against an animal, because humans are ontologically greater than animals. Still, argues MacDonald, it “does not necessarily follow from the claim that God has infinite honor that any crime against him is infinitely bad” (p. 12).
An objection to Anselm’s argument which is more difficult to overcome is the fact that Anselm’s position appears to make all sins equally bad, which, MacDonald argues, is a position difficult to defend Biblically. Briefly, some have argued that while all sin results in hell, not all sin results in equal amounts of punishment while there, so that John may be punished 12 hours a day, whereas Michael receives 20 hours of punishment each day. MacDonald argues—and rightly so, I think—that when you are speaking in terms of an infinite damnation, how much punishment someone in hell receives over a period of time is moot. 12 hours of punishment daily for infinity is still, for all intents and purposes, an infinite amount of punishment (there are objections and counter-objections to this line of thought which I won’t get into here).
He briefly covers a few other approaches to the problem unequal sins, all of which appear to be either unbiblical or irrational in terms of who we believe God to be, but for the sake of my own brevity (too late!), I won’t cover those right now.
2. “The Problem of the Joy of the Redeemed”
By listing a series of premises and their logical conclusion, which I won’t do here either, MacDonald wonders how someone “in heaven” could be supremely happy without being deceived about fate of the unredeemed. How could those in heaven be supremely happy while knowing that some of their loved ones are experiencing eternal, conscious punishment?
Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that there are two possible solutions to this problem:
“• God could wipe the memory of those [the redeemed] love, or
• the beautific vision may be so all consuming that [the redeemed] may simply never turn their thoughts to [their loved ones]” (16)
My initial response to the first solution was, if it is not unreasonable to think that God could simply wipe out any memories which may be connected to those in hell, why is it any less reasonable to think that God will save everyone in the end? Isn’t the solution for the traditional view more convoluted than the universalist position (e.g. God will tamper with select parts of people’s memories so that they don’t remember their damned loved ones vs. God will, in the end, save everyone).
MacDonald proposes two objections to Craig’s initial solution:
- Is it possible to wipe out swaths of a person’s memory—leaving massive gaps—without deceiving them in the process, say, by filling in the gaps with different memories?
- The memory wipe seems rather cruel. Would anyone want to be ignorant of the fate of a loved one, no matter how cruel that fate may be?
As for the beautific vision, MacDonald argues that it would make the redeemed more aware of the fate of their loved ones, rather than less. In the end, MacDonald rejects Craig’s solutions because they do not fit the Biblical picture of a God who loves even his enemies.