If hell is separation from God, why wouldn't a body held in thrall by sensuous pleasure do as well as a body wracked with pain? Absorbed in sensuous pleasure, one is arguably farther from God than when in pain.
far as I can tell, the popular Islamic conception of the afterlife is
unbelievably crass, a form of what might be called 'spiritual materialism.' Muslims
get to do there, in a quasi-physical hinterworld, what they are forbidden to do
here, for example, disport with virgins, in quantity and at length. And
presumably they are not wrapped up, head-to-foot, like the nuns of the 1950s.
You can play the satyr with their nubility for all eternity without ever being
sated. But first you have to pilot some jumbo jets into some skyscrapers for the
greater glory of Allah the Merciful.
That the afterlife is a garden of sensuous
delights, a world of goodies with none of the bad stuff endemic to our sublunary
sphere, strikes me as a puerile conception. It is a conception entertained not only
byMuslims but also by
many Christians. And even if many do not think of it in crassly hedonistic
terms, they think of it as a prolongation of the petty concerns of this life.
They think of it, in other words, as Life 2.0, an improved version of life here below. This, however, is not what it is on a sophisticated
. . .
the eternal life promised by Christianity is a new life into which the Christian is reborn by a
direct contact between his own personality and the divine Spirit,
not a prolongation of the 'natural' life, with all its
interests, into an indefinitely extended future. There must always be
something 'unworldly' in the Christian's hopes for his destiny
after death, as there must be something unworldly in his present
attitude to the life that now is. (A. E. Taylor, The Christian
Hope for Immortality, Macmillan 1947, p. 64, emphasis in
A. E. Taylor is no longer much read, but he is 'old school' in the depth of his erudition, unike most contemporary academics, and is thus well-worth reading. In the passage quoted he makes a penetrating observation: the true Christian is not only unworldly in this world, but also unworldly in his expectations of the next. This by contrast with one who is worldly in this world and desires his worldliness prolonged into the next.
on Frank Sinatra's tombstone reads, "The best is yet to come." That may well be,
but it won't be booze and broads, glitz and glamour, and the satisfaction of
worldly ambitions that were frustrated this side of the grave. So the believer
must sincerely ask himself: would I really want eternal life?
funerals one sometimes hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with
the Lord. In manycases,
this provokes a smile. Why should one who has spent his whole life on the make
be eager to meet his Maker? Why the sudden interest in the Lord when, in the
bloom of life, one gave him no thought? If you have loved the things of this
world as if they were ultimate realities, then perhaps you ought to hope that
death is annihilation. Do you really desire direct contact with the divine Spirit?
In any case, it is the puerile conception
with which some mortalists and atheists want to saddle sophisticated theists. (A
mortalist is not the same as an atheist, but most of the one are the other.)
But is there a non-puerile, a sophisticated conception of the afterlife that a
thinking man could embrace? The whole trick, of course, is to work out a
conception that is sophisticated but not unto utter vacuity. This is a hard task, and I
am not quite up to it. But it is worth a try.
Our opponents want to saddle us with
puerile conceptions: things on the order of irate lunar unicorns, celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters, God as cosmic
candy man, and so on; but when we protest that that is not what we believe in,
then they accuse us of believing in something vacuous. They would saddle us with
a dilemma: you either embrace some unbelievable because crassly materialistic
conception of God and the afterlife or you embrace nothing at all. I explore
this at length in Dennett on the Deformation of the God
Self-professed mortalist and former Jesuit
Peter Heinegg writes, "It was and is impossible to conceive of an afterlife
except as an improved version of this life (harps, houris, etc.), which doesn't
get one very far." (Mortalism, Prometheus 2003, p. 11) Granted, the
harps-and-houris conception is a nonstarter. But is it really impossible to
conceive, at least schematically, of an afterlife except as an improved version of this life?
Suppose that a bunch of young adolescents
were to claim that it is impossible to conceive of adulthood except as an
improved version of adolescence. These boys and girls imagine adulthood to be
adolescence but with the negative removed: no pimples, no powerlessness, no
pestering parents, no pecuniary problems, no paucity of facial hair or mammary
deficiency, etc. They simply cannot conceive of anything beyond the
adolescent level. If you were to try to convince them that their horizon is
limited and that there is more to life than adolescent concerns you would not
get through to them. For what they need is not words and arguments; they need
to grow up. The notion of growing up, though it entails persisting in time, is
distinct from it: it involves the further notion of maturation. They need to
shed false beliefs and values and acquire true ones.
In this life, we
adults are like adolescents: confused, unsure of what we really want, easily led
astray. We have put away many childish things only to lust after adult things,
for example, so-called 'adult entertainment.' We don't read comic books, we
ready trashy novels. We don't watch cartoons, we watch The Sopranos
and Sex in the City. We are obviously in a bad state. In religious
terms, our condition is 'fallen.' We are not the way we ought to be, and we
know it. It is also clear that we lack the ability to help ourselves. We can
make minor improvements here and there, but our basic fallen condition cannot
be ameliorated by human effort whether individual or collective. These, I
claim, are just facts. If you won't admit them, then I suggest you lack moral
discernment. (I am not however claiming that eternal life is a fact: it is a
matter of belief that goes beyond what we can claim to know. It is not
rationally provable, but I think it can be shown to be rationally
Contrary to what Heinegg says is impossible, I am able,
employing analogies such as the foregoing, to conceive of a radical change that
transforms us from the wretched beings that we presently are into beings who
are genuinely and wholly good. (I concede, though, that conceivability is no
sure guide to real possibility; but the issue at the moment is conceivability.)
What is difficult and perhaps impossible is to conceive the details of how
exactly this might come about. As I said, it can't be achieved by our own
effort alone. It requires a divine initiative and our cooperation with
It won't occur in this life: I must pass beyond the portal of death,
and I must somehow retain my personal identity through the passage. Much will
have to be sloughed off, perhaps most of what I now consider integral to my
selfhood. As noted, the transition is a transformation and purification, not a
mere prolongation. Will anything be left after this sloughing off? I suggest
that unless one is a materialist, one has reason to hope that the core of the
And this brings us back to what Schopenhauer called the
'world-knot,' the mind-body problem. If materialism could be demonstrated, then
the foregoing speculations would be mere fancies. But materialism, though it
can be assumed, cannot be demonstrated: it faces insuperable difficulties. The
existence of these difficulties makes it reasonable to entertain the hope of
But if the afterlife is not Life 2.0 and is something like the visio beata of Thomas Aquinas, wouldn't it be boring 'as hell'? Well, it might well be hell for something who was looking forward to black-eyed virgins and a carnal paradise. But suppose you are beyond the puerility of that view. You want not sex but love, not power but knowledge, not fame but community, not excitement but peace and beatitude. You want, finally, to be happy.
Would the happy vision be boring? Well, when you were in love, was it boring? When your love was requited, was it boring? Was it not bliss? Imagine that bliss ramped up to the maximum and made endless. We tire of the finite, but the divine life is infinite. Why then should participation in it be boring? Or consider the self-sufficient bliss tasted from time to time here below by those of us capable of what Aristotle calls the bios theoretikos. Were you bored in those moments? Quite the opposite. You were consumed with delight, happy and self-sufficient in the moment. Now imagine an endless process of intellectual discovery and contemplation.
What I am suggesting is that an afterlife worth wanting would be one, not of personal prolongation, but one of personal transformation and purification along lines barely conceivable to us here below. God is just barely conceivable to us, and the same goes for our own souls. So we ought to expect that the afterlife will be the same. If we descry it at all from our present perspective, it is "through a glass darkly."
. . . then heaven is a joke, and so is this life, and there is no ultimate justice, hence no God.
Mobster Frank Calabrese Sr. has died in prison. Good riddance. I read the book by his son, Frank Jr. and came away impressed by him for courageously 'ratting out' his father: family loyalty is a value, but there are higher loyalties.
Frank Calabrese Jr. told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that that violent history made his father's death especially emotional.
"I believe he was taken on Christmas Day for a reason," he said. "I hope he made peace. I hope he's up above looking down on us. ... He's not suffering anymore. The people on the street aren't suffering anymore."
With all due respect to Frank Jr., this is just morally obtuse. For it implies that how we live here below makes no difference to the ultimate outcome. It makes no difference whether one lives the life of a brutal murderer or the life of an Edith Stein or a Simone Weil. But then there is no justice, and this life is even more absurd than it would be were there no God or afterlife at all. The reality of the moral point of view cannot have the divine underpinning it needs unless God is the guarantor of justice. The following exchange between Drury and Wittgenstein is apropos:
DRURY: I had been reading Origen before. Origen taught that at the end of time here would be a final restitution of all things. That even Satan and the fallen angels would be restored to their former glory. This was a conception that appealed to me -- but it was at once condemned as heretical.
WITTGENSTEIN: Of course it was rejected. It would make nonsense of everything else. If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with. Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred per cent Hebraic.
(Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rhees, Oxford 1984, p. 161.)
I am at the moment listening to Dennis Prager interview Dr. Eben Alexander. Prager asked him whether he now maintains, after his paranormal experiences, that consciousness is independent of the brain. Alexander made a striking reply: "We are conscious in spite of our brains." And then he made some remarks to the effect that the brain is a "reducing filter" or something like that.
That is to say much more than that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. For the latter would be true if consciousness existed in an attenuated form after the dissolution of the body and brain. Alexander is saying that embodiment severely limits our awareness.
Well, why couldn't that be true? Why is it less plausible than a form of materialism that views consciousness as somehow dependent on brain functioning and impossible without it?
Let us assume you are not a dogmatist: you don't uncritically adhere to the unprovable materialist framework assumption according to which consciousness just has to be brain-based. And let us assume that you don't have a quasi-religious faith that future science has wonderful revelations in store that will vindicate materialism/physicalism once and for all. By the way, I have always found it passing strange that people would "pin their hopes on future science." You mean to tell me that you hope you can be shown to be nothing more than a complex physical system slated for utter extinction!? That's what you hope for? It may in the end be true, but I for one cannot relate to the mentality of someone who would hope for such a thing. "I hope I am just a bag of chemicals to be punctured in a few years. Wouldn't it be awful if I had an higher destiny and that life actually had a meaning?"
But I digress. Let's assume you are not a dogmatist and not a quasi-religious believer in future science. Let's assume you are an open-minded inquirer like me. You are skeptical in the best sense: inquisitive but critical. Then I put the question to you: Can you show that the Alexander claim is less plausible that the materialist one?
I don't believe that there can be talk of proof either way, assuming you use 'proof' strictly. You have to decide what you will believe and how you will live. In the shadowlands of this life there is light enough and darkness enough to lend support to either answer, that of the mortalist and that of his opposite number.
So I advance to the consideration that for me clinches the matter. Bring the theoretical question back down to your Existenz. How will you live, starting right now and for the rest of your days? Will you live as if you will be utterly extinguished in a few years or will you live as if what you do and leave undone right now matters, really matters? Will you live as if life is serious, or will you live as if it is some sort of cosmic joke? Will you live as if something is at stake in this life, however dimly descried, or will you live as if nothing is ultimately at stake? It is your life. You decide.
Now suppose that when Drs. Mary Neal and Eben Alexander die the body's death, they become nothing. Suppose that their phenomenologically vivid paranormal experiences were revelatory of nothing real, that their experiences were just the imaginings of malfunctioning brains at the outer limits of biological life. What will they have lost by believing as they did?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You could of course say that they were wrong and were living in illusion. But no one will ever know one way or the other. And if the body's death is the last word then nothing ultimately matters, and so it can't matter that they were wrong if turns out that they were.
If they were right, however, then the moral transformation that their taking seriously of their experiences has wrought in them can be expected to redound to their benefit when they pass from this sphere.
The personable Dr. Neal recounts her experiences during this 13 and a half minute video clip. The following from an interview with her:
The easy explanations—dreams or hallucinations—I could discount quickly, because my experience—and the experience described by anyone who's had a near death experience or other experiences that involve God directly—is different in quality and memory from a dream or hallucination. It's just entirely different. The memory is as precise and accurate now, years later, as it is when it's happening.
So then I thought it must be due to chemical changes or chemical releases in a dying brain. I did a lot of reading about that. If my experience had lasted five, six, seven minutes, maybe even eight minutes, I am sure that no matter how real it seemed to me, I would have said that's a reasonable explanation. But the people who resuscitated me would say that I was without oxygen for up to thirty minutes.
It took them ten or fifteen minutes to figure out, first, that I and my boat were both missing. Then once they identified where they thought I was, they started their watch. They're used to doing this—you have to know the timing so you can recognize whether you're trying to rescue someone or you're trying to go for body recovery. So on the watch it was fifteen minutes, but about thirty minutes in all. I tend to stick with the fifteen minutes, because that's an absolute timing. But even at fifteen minutes, that is way longer than can be explained by a dying brain. The human brain can hang on to oxygen for maybe five or six minutes, and so even if you give it another four minutes to go through its dying process, that still doesn't add up to fifteen minutes. And so after I looked at all that, my conclusion was that my experience was real and absolute.
To paraphrase Pascal, there is light enough for those who want to see and darkness enough for those who don't. Atheists and mortalists will of course not be convinced by Neal's report. Consider her first paragraph. She underscores the unique phenomenological quality of OBEs. Granting that they are phenomenologically different from dreams and ordinary memories, there is nonetheless a logical gap between the undeniable reality of the experiencing and the reality of its intentional object. Into that gap the skeptic will insert his wedge, and with justification. No experience, no matter how intense or unusual or protracted, conclusively proves the veridicality of its intentional object. Phenomenology alone won't get you to metaphysics. Everything I am perceiving right now, computer, cup, cat, the Superstition ridgeline and the clouds floating above it (logically) might have a merely intentional existence. How do I know I am not brain in a vat? If I cannot prove that I am not a brain in a vat, how can I know (in that tough sense in which knowledge entails objective certainty) that cat, cup, etc. are extramentally real? The skeptic can always go hyperbolic on you. How are you going to stop him?
The other consideration Dr. Neal adduces will also leave the skeptic cold. Her point is that her brain had to have been 'off-line' given the amount of time that elapsed, and that therefore her experiences could not be the product of a (mal)functioning brain. We saw in an earlier post that Dr. Eben Alexander employed similar reasoning. The skeptic will undoubtedly now give a little a speech about how much more there is yet to know about the brain and that Neal is in no position confidently to assert what she asserts, etc.
The mortalist starts and ends with an assumption that he cannot give up while remaining a mortalist, namely, that there just cannot be mental functioning without underlying brain activity, and that therefore no OBEs can be credited. In the grip of that materialist framework assumption, he will do anything to discount the veridicality of OBEs. Push him to the wall and he will question the moral integrity of the reporters. "They are just out to exploit human credulousness to turn a buck." Or they will question the veridicality of the memories of the OBEs. The human mind can be extremely inventive in cooking up justifications for what it wants to believe. That is as true of mortalists as it is of anyone. To paraphrase Pascal again, there is enough darkness and murk in these precincts to allow these skeptical maneuvers.
Our life here below is a chiaroscuro.
There is no proof of the afterlife. But there is evidence. Is the evidence sufficient? Suppose we agree that evidence for p is sufficient just in case it makes it more likely than not that p. Well, I don't know if paranormal and mystical experience is sufficient because I don't know how to evaluate likelihood in cases like these.
So let's assume that the evidence is not sufficient. Would I be flouting any epistemic duties were I to believe on insufficient evidence? But surely most of what we believe we believe on insufficient evidence. See Belief and Reason categories for more on this.)
Those who believe that it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficent evidence believe that very proposition on insufficient evidence, indeed on no evidence at all.
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.
But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.
Two questions arise. Were Dr. Eben Alexander's experiences while in the coma state veridical? This question must be asked since the mere having of an experience is no guarantee of the reality of its object. The second question is whether the experiences, veridical or not, occurred wholly independently of brain functioning. The two questions are connected. If it could be shown that the experiences were generated by a minimally (mal)functioning brain, then then this would be a reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences. (Analogy: if I know that my unusual experiences are the result of the ingesting of LSD-25, then I have reason to doubt the veridicality of the experiences.) The author deals with these connected worries in the following passage:
All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.
Although I reject materialism about the mind and consider it reasonable to believe that conscious experiences do not require a physical substratum, and that it is possible to have such experiences in a disembodied state, I don't think the the author has proven that the possibility was actual in his case. For how does he know that his cortex was "simply off"? Failure to detect the functioning of the cortex does not entail that the cortex was not functioning. It might have been functioning below the detectability of the instruments and might have been generating the experiences all along.
A second concern of mine is this. How does Dr Alexander know that his wonderful experiences didn't suddenly arise just as the cortex was coming back into action just before his eyes popped open? So even if his cortex was for a long time completely nonfunctional, the experience he remembers could have been simply a dream that arose while the cortex was coming back 'on line.'
My point is not the the doctor has not given us evidence that mental functioning occurs in the absence of brain activity; I believe he has. My point is that the evidence is not compelling.
Our predicament in this life is such that we cannot prove such things as that God exists, that life has meaning, that the will is free, that morality is not an illusion, and that we survive our bodily deaths. But we cannot prove the opposites either. It is reasonable to maintain each of these views. Many arguments and considerations can be adduced. Among the evidence is a wide range of religious, mystical and paranormsl experiences including near-death and out-of-body experiences. The cumulative case is impressive but not conclusive. It rationalizes, but does not establish. Philosophers. of course, are ever in quest of 'knock-down' arguments. This is because you are no philosopher if you don't crave certainty. Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben! Husserl once exclaimed. But so far no 'knock-down' arguments have been found.
In the final analysis, lacking proof one way or the other, you must decide what you will believe and how you will live.
I would add that the 'living' is more important than the 'believing.' It is far better to live in a manner to deserve immortality than to hold beliefs and give arguments about the matter.
The epitaph on Frank Sinatra's tombstone reads, "The best is yet to come." That may well be, but it won't be booze and broads, glitz and glamour, and the satisfaction of worldly ambitions that were frustrated this side of the grave. So the believer must sincerely ask himself: would I really want eternal life?
At funerals one hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with the Lord. In many cases, this provokes a smile. Why should one who has spent his whole life on the make be eager to meet his Maker? Why the sudden interest in the Lord when, in the bloom of life, one gave him no thought? If you have loved the things of this world as if they were ultimate realities, then perhaps you ought to hope that death is annihilation.
If then a man without religion (supposing it possible) were admitted into heaven, doubtless he would sustain a great disappointment. Before, indeed, he fancied that he could be happy there; but when he arrived there, he would find no discourse but that which he had shunned on earth, no pursuits but those he had disliked or despised, nothing which bound him to aught else in the universe, and made him feel at home, nothing which he could enter into and rest upon.
One might even go so far as to say that heaven would be hell for the worldly person. And what the worldly person imagines heaven to be might reveal itself as hell, as in the Twilight Zone episode, A Nice Place to Visit.
I see that London Ed has some thoughts on the topic. I agree with him that 'the objection from boredom' is no good. I'm never bored here, why should I be bored there? Never bored here, only tired. But that's due to the bag of bones and guts that makes up my samsaric vehicle. Free of crass embodiment, things might well be different on the far side.
You say I'm speculating? True enough, but if a philosopher can't speculate, who can?
Jean-Paul Sartre put the following into the mouth of a character in the play, No Exit: "Hell is other people." What then would hell be for philosophers? To be locked in a room forever with a philosopher with whom one has little or no common ground. David Stove and Theodor Adorno, for example. Or Sartre and Etienne Gilson.
The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him. --Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia2ae. 87, 4.
Earlier (here and here) I asked how an all-good God could sentence a human agent to sempiternal punishment, punishment that has a beginning but no end. If the punishment must fit the crime, and the crimes of finite agents are themselves finite, then it would seem that no one, no matter what his crimes, would deserve sempiternal punishment. To make this a bit more precise we ought to substitute 'sin' for 'crime.' They are different concepts. Sin, but not crime, implies an offense to God. If there is no God then there cannot, strictly speaking, be any sin. But there could still be crime relative to an accepted body of positive law. And if there is no positive law, but there is a God, then there could be sin but no crime. (Positive law is the law posited by human legislators.)
So let us say that the punishment must fit the sin. My claim, then, is that no sin or sins committed by a human agent is such as to merit sempiternal punishment. To put the point more sharply, a God who would condemn a finite human agent to unending misery is a moral monster, and not God. (I am assuming that the agent in question has come to admit the error of his ways and is truly sorry for them. I have no problem with the unending misery of a recalcitrant rebel.)
In response, Leo Mollica said that the offense to God, as an offense to a being of infinite dignity, is itself infinite and so deserves sempiternal punishment. This prompted me to ask how an impassible God could be offended, which is the topic of this post.
Impassibility. To say that God is impassible is to say that nothing external to God can affect God. As Brian Leftow points out in his SEP article, impassibility is not the same as immutability. He gives two reasons, but all we need is one: a God who induces a change in himself is not immutable but still could be impassible. Now if God is impassible, then he cannot be offended by the antics of the Israelites as when they fell to worshipping a golden calf, etc. He cannot be offended by sin. And if he cannot be offended by sin, then he cannot be 'infinitely' offended by it. Or so I maintained.
In response Mollica made a clever move. He pointed out, rightly, that a person could be offended (wronged, slandered, calumniated, etc.) without knowing that he is. Such a person would be offended without being affected. I took the suggestion to be that God too could be offended without being affected. Thus impassibility does not rule out God's being offended.
To this my reply was that God is omniscient. He knows everything there is to know. So although it is true that a finite person could be offended without knowing it, and so not affected by the injury that was done to him, God could not be offended without knowing it. Good Thomist that he is, Mollica came back at me with the notion that God is not affected by what he knows. So when the creature sins, God is offended; but his being offended in no way affects him: he is not affected 'cognitively' by his knowledge that he is being offended, nor is he affected or injured 'morally' by his being offended.
Very interesting, but very problematic, as problematic as the Thomist line on divine knowledge. If God is God, then he must be a metaphysical absolute and the pressure is on to say that he is both impassible and immutable. (An immutable being is one that cannot undergo 'real' as opposed to 'mere Cambridge' change.) After all, a decent absolute is not the sort of thing that could change or be affected by other things. If it underwent change or affection it would be relativized. But how could such an unchanging God know anything contingent? If God is unchanging, then his knowledge is unchanging: it cannot vary over time, or from possible world to possible world. Here is an argument adapted from Hartshorne.
1. If p entails q, and q is contingent, then p is contingent. 2. *Tom sins at time t* is contingent. 3. *God knows that Tom sins at t* entails *Tom sins at t*. Therefore 4. *God knows that Tom sins at t* is contingent. Therefore 5. The property of knowing that Tom sins at t is an accidental (not essential) property of God. 6. God has no accidental properties: it is no part of his unchangeable essence that he know any contingent fact, any fact that could have been otherwise. 7. (5) and (6) are contradictories. So one of the premises must be rejected. (6) is the premise most plausibly rejected; but then impassibility and immutability go by the boards.
The challenge for our resident Thomist is to explain how an impassible and immutable God can know any contingent fact.
Peter Geach, Truth and Hope, University of Notre Dame Press, 2001, p. 9:
Soaking myself in McTaggart, I imbibed a desire for Heaven and eternal life, which of course I had not to abandon on becoming Catholic; and meanwhile I was preserved from giving my heart with total devotion to some less worthy end, as I saw many contemporaries doing. Even as regards the relation of time and eternity I had no need to find McTaggart wholly mistaken. God's life, the life of the Blessed Trinity, really is the sort of Boethian eternity that McTaggart ascribed to all persons; and we have the great and precious promise that, in a way we cannot now begin to understand, we shall transcend all the delusion and misery and wickedness of this life and become sharers in that eternal life.
Suppose God exists and there is an afterlife the quality of which depends on how one behaves here below. Suppose that the justice which is largely absent here will be meted out there. And suppose we take as a moral axiom that the punishment must fit the crime. The question then arises: what crime or series of crimes would merit everlasting post-mortem punishment of the perpetrator? I earlier opined that no crime or series of crimes would merit such punishment. Thus it is offensive to my moral sense that a just God would punish everlastingly a human evildoer. (It may be otherwise with angelic evildoers such as Lucifer, so let's leave them out of the discussion.) But I added a qualification in my earlier post: unless the perpetrator wanted to maintain himself in a state of rebellion against God, in which case my moral sense would have no problem with God's granting the rebel his wish and maintaining him in a state of everlasting exclusion from the divine light and succor.
Suppose that, after death, Stalin sees the errors of his ways and desires to come into right relation with God. He must still be punished for his horrendous crimes. Surely justice demands that much. What I fail to grasp, however, is how justice could demand that Stalin be punished everlastingly or eternally (if you care to distinguish eternity from everlastingness) for a finite series of finite crimes.
Discussing my earlier post, Richard Hennessey raises an interesting counter-question: ". . . if justice demands an eternal or everlasting punishment for no finite sin or crime or finite set of finite sins or crimes, no matter how heinous, does justice demand an eternal or everlasting reward for no finite good deed or finite set of finite good deeds, no matter how virtuous?" I think what Hennessey is asking here is better put as follows. If justice rules out everlasting punishment for finite crimes, does it also rule out everlasting reward for finite good deeds?
To sharpen the challenge, let's translate the interrogative into a declarative: If no everlasting punishment is justified, then no everlasting reward is either. If that is the point, then I could respond by saying that the Beatific Vision is not a reward for good things we do here below, but the state intended for us all along. It is something like a birthright or an inheritance. One doesn't earn one's inheritance; it is a gift, not a reward. But one can lose it. Similarly with the Beatific Vision. One cannot earn it, and one does not deserve it. But one can lose it.
"But this is all speculation!" Indeed, but if a philosopher can't speculate, who can?
To keep Osama's purported martyrdom from inspiring others, the point needs to be made, loudly and repeatedly, that killing innocent people is not the path to heaven. This will put the US government, and Barack Obama in particular, in an an awkward spot. It is undoubtedly a theological statement and an uncomfortable one at that.
It is uncomfortable because to assert that Osama did not go to heaven is to suggest that he went to hell. That could be a problem, given the current state of America's religious ferment. As the controversy over Rev. Rob Bell's new book has shown us, a great number of religious Americans do not want to believe in eternal damnation.
1. The notion that there is heaven but no hell smacks of the sort of namby-pamby feel-good liberalism that I feel it my duty to combat. Of course there may be none of the following: God, afterlife, post-mortem reward, post-mortem punishment. But if you accept the first three, then you ought to accept them all.
2. One reason to believe in some form of punishment after death is that without it, there is no final justice. There is some justice here below, but not much. One who "thirsts after justice and righteousness" cannot be satisfied with this world. Whatever utopia the future may bring, this world's past suffices to condemn it as a vale of injustice. (This is why leftist activism is no solution at all to the ultimate problems.) Nothing that happens in the future can redeem the billions who have been raped and crucified and wronged in a thousand ways. Of course, it may be that this world is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Life may just be absurd. But if you do not accept that, if you hold that life has meaning and that moral distinctions have reality, then you may look to God and beyond this life. Suppose you do. Then how can you fail to see that justice demands that the evil be punished? Consider this line of thought:
a. If there is no making-good of the injustices of this life, it is absurd. b. There is no making-good of the injustices of this life in this life. c. Only if there is God and afterlife is there a making-good of the injustices of this life d. This life is not absurd. Therefore e. There is a making-good of the injustices of this life in the afterlife, and this requires the punishment/purification of those who committed evil in this life and did not pay for their crimes in this life.
This is not a compelling argument by any means. But if you are a theist and accept (a)-(d), then you ought to accept the conclusion.
3. A second reason to believe in some sort of hellish state after death for some is because of free will. God created man in his image and likeness, and part of what that means is that he created him an autonomous being possessing free will and sensitive to moral distinctions. In so doing, God limits his own power: he cannot violate the autonomy of man. So if Sartre or some other rebellious nature freely decides that he would rather exist in separation from God, then God must allow it. But this separation is what hell is. So God must allow hell.
4. Is hell eternal separation from God? Well, if Sartre, say, or any other idolater of his own ego wants to be eternally separated from God, then God must allow it, right? Like I said, man is free and autonomous, and God can't do anything about that. But if Stalin, say, repents, how could a good God punish him eternally? The punishment must fit the crime, and no crime that any human is capable of, even the murdering of millions, deserves eternal punishment. How do I know that? By consulting my moral sense, the same moral sense that tells me a god that commands me to murder my innocent son cannot be God. See Kant on Abraham and Isaac.
There is a response to this of course, and what I just asserted is by no means obvious; but this is a topic for a separate post.
I suppose I am a bit of a theological liberal. Theology must be rationally constrained and constrained by our God-given moral sense. Irrationalism is out. Fideism is out. No fundamentalism. No Bibliolatry. No inerrantism. None of the excesses of Protestantism, if excesses they are. No sola scriptura or sola fide or, for that matter, extra ecclesiam salus non est. The latter is also a Roman Catholic principle.
5. As I see it, then, justice does not demand an eternal or everlasting hell. (In this popular post I blur the distinction between eternity and everlastingness.) But free will may. Again, if Russell or Sartre or Hitchens refuse to submit any authority superior to their own egos, then their own free decision condemns them everlastingly. Justice does demand, however, some sort of post-mortem purification/punishment.
6. Will I go directly to heaven when I die? Of course not (and the same goes for almost all of us.) Almost all of us need more or less purgation, to even be in a state where we would unequivocally want to be with God. If your life has been mainly devoted to piling up pleasure and loot, how can you expect that death will reverse your priorities? In fact, if you have solely devoted yourself to the pursuit and acquisition of the trinkets and baubles of this world, then punishment for you may well consist in getting them in spades, to your disgust. If the female ass and the whiskey glass is your summum bonum here below, you may get your heart's desire on the far side. I develop this idea in A Vision of Hell.
7. Is Osama bin Laden in hell? Anyone who claims to know the answer to this is a 'damned' fool. But not even he (Osama or the fool) deserves eternal separation from God -- unless he wants it. But it is good that the al-Qaeda head is dead.