Book Review: The Problem of Hell

problemofhellTitle: The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology

Editor: Joel Buenting

Bibliographic info: 236 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2010.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

The “problem of hell” that this volume discusses is the question of how a perfectly good God can send a person to hell. Though, of course, the existence and nature of hell can be a tricky issue to discuss. As Justin Barnard illustrates:

Engaging in informed speculation about the nature of hell is rather like trying to characterize the experience of being sucked through a wormhole. Both tasks are plagued by two important difficulties. First … we have no first-hand experience of being pulled through a wormhole … the further difficulty remains that our conception of the nature of hell, like our conception of traveling through wormholes, is perhaps irreparably tainted by the forces of popular imagination.

The thirteen studies in this volume approach the problem of hell from a variety of philosophical angles and the contributors have a wide range of views on the existence and nature of hell. For instance, Raymond VanArragon does not see hell as a place of physical, conscious torture that is inflicted on people every second of every minute of every day, but instead sees it as “spend[ing] eternity alienated from God” which “need not imply a state of being akin to living in an eternal torture chamber.” I was surprised, however, that out of the sixteen contributors to this volume there are none who adhere to annihilationism/conditional immortality. What makes this absence even more surprising is that one of the chapters, by Claire Brown and Jerry Walls, is specifically written against annihilationism, concluding that “the major philosophical arguments for annihilationism do not begin to carry sufficient conviction to motivate adopting that position.” Considering their chapter revolves around the problems with annihilationism, it would have been nice to have a chapter in which a proponent defended the view.

Kenneth Himma, who admits he does not believe in hell, argues that if hell does indeed exists, then it is morally wrong to bring a child into the world given the odds that this child will spend an eternity suffering the torments of hell. Himma specifically ties this argument in with the idea of exclusivism, seeing exclusivism as amplifying this problem as it posits that one has to have explicit conscious faith in Jesus to attain salvation (meaning that innumerable multitudes of people suffer in hell simply because they were born in the wrong time and place).

Four chapters could be categorized as (to some extent) supporting the notion of universalism, though I should note that not all of these authors explicitly support a universalistic position, with Talbott being the most explicit and the others pointing in that direction to some degree. Thomas Talbott looks at the relationship between universalism and the grace of God, offering up an account of how God participates in our moral development so that “a glorious end is ultimately inescapable.” Stephen Kershnar argues that humans do not warrant an infinite punishment but that God can only send people to hell as punishment if an infinite punishment is indeed just. John Kronen and Eric Reitan look at god-justifying reasons for damnation, the nature of hell, and causes of damnation. Gordon Knight approaches the problem of hell from a Molinistic perspective (the idea that God has a “middle knowledge” of how free agents would likely act in a given circumstance). He sees Molinism as being especially difficult to reconcile with a traditional view of hell: “While Molinistic hell-defenders are right to insist that their view is some improvement over Calvinistic predestination, the insistence on libertarian free will by itself does not remove the clear aura of cold manipulation from their eschatology.”

Another four chapters defend, to some degree, a more traditional understanding of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. Justin Barnard looks at the problem of hell in light of compatibilism, seeing those who populate hell as “wantons”, figures who only have first-order desires, but no second-order volitions. James Cain discusses a number of philosophical objections to the existence of hell that he does not find convincing, then considers whether these objections preclude the development of an acceptable account that incorporates certain standard features of the main traditional view. Stephen Davis asserts that the view of an eternal hell is not only consistent with God’s loving and merciful nature, but is also entailed by it. Keith Yandell focuses on the question as to whether those who believe in God can, without inconsistency, also believe in a hell. He sees the answer as a clear yes, going so far as to say that is necessitated: “Divine love will not be soft and flabby, but serious and demanding. The dignity of persons, and the nature of a holy God, requires nothing less.”

Three other chapters support what is known as escapism. This is the idea that while hell exists and might indeed be populated for eternity, the denizens of hell nevertheless have the opportunity to accept God’s grace at any time. In effect, this view kind of espouses a purgatorial universalism, though the universalistic outcome is by no means required by this position. Andrei Buckareff and Allen Plug look at whether this escapism means that hell is an unmitigated good for its inhabitants, whether it is consistent with Christian eschatology that requires finality/consummation, and whether it allows for God’s plans to be thwarted. Bradley Sickler, in answering the question of who goes to hell, proposes “infernal voluntarism” (another term for the escapist view), which affirms the reality of hell but rejects the assumption that those who are consigned there will be going against their will. His contribution brings every undergrad’s favorite theologian into the mix: C. S. Lewis (and he is, in fact, brought up in a few other chapters). Raymond VanArragon explores the question of whether it is possible to freely reject God forever. He defends a libertarian conception of hell, arguing that it is possible to freely reject God and thus damn oneself forever (by “freely” what is meant is that “to freely reject God is to act in a way that goes against God’s will, where performance of that action is sufficiently rational, sufficiently informed, and not determined by God, nature, or desire” ).

As I mentioned earlier, the lack of an annihilationist in this collection is a bit of a drawback, and I should note that the collection as a whole definitely has a Protestant feel to it (not much talk of purgatory here!), and maybe a a somewhat stronger than expected Calvinist streak. Nonetheless, this collection of studies is an interesting exercise in the philosophical explorations of topics such as theodicy, free will, moral psychology, and so forth.  Perhaps the wisest words of the book are found in Davis’ treatment. He says in regards to questions about the nature of hell (e.g. will there be a chance of postmortem salvation for those in hell): “…the key word here is perhaps. There are no grounds to dogmatize here. I do not think we know much about the future life.” 

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