Friday, July 12, 2013

"From the Latter-day Saints to the Communion of Saints"

A blogosphere acquaintance of mine recently began this blog in which he plans to discuss his conversion to the LDS faith, and why he decided to revert to Roman Catholicism. As a now former Mormon considering conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy his project resonates with me.

I look forward to his future posts and I hope you will check it out as well!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Is it possible to choose Hell?

Until relatively recently in my life I viewed the Christian perspective of Heaven, Hell, and who goes there in a base, karmic "If you life a good life, you go to Heaven; if you live a bad life, you go to Hell" sort of fashion. A few years ago I discovered that soteriological opinions are much more complex and diverse than this. On the end which I will deem "fundamentalist" exist theists who hold that living well isn't sufficient, or isn't relevant at all. What is crucial is the beliefs the individual holds. For instance, regardless of how saintly a person was in life, a certain sort of Christianity may claim that they are going to Hell because they did not believe Jesus (and it must be the correct Jesus) is their savior. A more intriguing and merciful perspective I first encountered in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce, which, similar to Dante's Divine Comedy, tells the story from the perspective of a character traveling through Hell and then Heaven.

Rather than being forced into the treacherous abyss by a God set on punishing sinners for their crimes, the damned in Lewis' Hell remain by choice. Some refuse to forgive, others refuse to let go of pride. By holding onto such vices these souls cannot let go and enter into Heaven. The doors of Lewis' Hell are locked from the inside, suggesting that if the damned soul wishes, he or she may leave.

Faith traditions such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism hold a similar view to that presented in Lewis' tale: the damned are such because they freely reject God's love and forgiveness. Unlike Lewis, the Roman Catholic Church has denied the idea that a soul may potentially escape Hell if they so choose. Instead, the Magesterium holds that a soul damned will remain so for eternity. Many in Orthodox Christianity are in agreement with their Western brothers; however, there exists a school of thought in Orthodoxy that argues, in similar fashion to Lewis, that Hell is not necessarily permanent, and forgiveness remains possible after death. An example of this lies in the words of Met. Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church who, according to this source, states "God is Love, all He created and sustains is always loved by Him. Even the creation that rejects Him continues in existence by His love. This unfathomable Divine Mercy can even make hell* "Gehenna," temporary."

This is all a disorganized introduction to the question presented in the post title: Is it possible to choose Hell? After considering what free will is, I aim to argue that if an individual remains in Hell only as long as they freely reject God, the actor will eventually cease this rejection. Additionally, I will argue that confining an individual to Hell merely because they were in a state opposed to God at death is pointless and runs counter to the mercy of God. 

I believe that the only reasonable way to understand free will in matters of morality is the ability to choose between perceived goods. Some may argue that free will is the ability to choose between good and evil, but I believe the following example demonstrates that this view of free will is incoherent:

Imagine coming across a man wailing in agony as he saws off his own hand. Now, before reading any further ahead (don't cheat!) take a few minutes to speculate about why on earth he is doing such a thing.

Done speculating? Okay. Perhaps you notice he is in a
Road Warrior scenario in which he is desperately attempting to escape an imminent explosion to which he is handcuffed. Perhaps he is just sitting there in no apparent danger and thus you assume that he must be deranged. In either case I would wager you wouldn't assume it is just a perfectly reasonable, sane man sawing off his hand for no reason.

As rational actors we have reasons or motivators for making decision, and we make these decisions because we see them as desireable or good. This isn't to say that our desires or perception of the good can't be off. Most of us at one time or another are victims of less than ideal desires or perceptions, but when we make a decision we are choosing what we perceive as desirable, and this is what is important. 

Someone may object, claiming that they have knowingly made a bad decision. I think there is merit to this objection. I can imagine myself intentionally burning myself to prove a point, knowing it is bad to act in such a way. However, I would wager that I, and anyone else, would eventually reach a point at which they would no longer make the free decision to burn themselves. For example, imagine that, instead of having an intense burning sensation only during contact with the hot surface, the sensation remained for an extended period of time, be it 10 minutes, 10 hours, 10 days, and so on. My guess is that, assuming you are relatively sane, you would no longer be willing to act in such a way. This is because as rational actors we make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis.

If we apply the above to our consideration of damnation, a few things seem to necessarily follow:

1. We don't choose Hell at all, since a rational actor wouldn't make such a choice. Instead our damnation is a punishment enforced against our will.

2. We choose Hell only until we realize that there is a more desirable option, or that the cost is no longer worth the choice.

3. We remain in Hell because our ability to choose the good is compromised. Perhaps we don't know heaven is an option, or perhaps we are so mentally ill that we don't have the capacity to make choices at all. Would a loving God let us remain in such ignorance or dementia, or would the God who is Love grant us clarity so we can act rationally?

4. We choose Hell because the alternative would be worse. I don't mean appears to be worse, but is actually worse. Perhaps in Hell you are roasted for 8 hours a day, but in Heaven it is 10 hours a day. This example is ridiculous on a number of levels, including that it completely reverses our perspective of what is and isn't desirable.  Nonetheless it remains one of the only ways in which I could imagine a soul remaining eternally in Hell.
In addition to the above questions, I think it is essential when considering the idea of eternal suffering to ask "What is the point?" There are many potential answers to this question, the most common of which include "to respect humanity's free will," "so God can exercise His perfect justice," or "to punish people for their choices."

The first has been covered above. I argued that at some point a person would no longer will such a thing, and their damnation would only continue against their will due to ignorance, divine force, or other impairment.

I have heard the second answer, "so God can exercise His perfect justice/ punish sinners," numerous times from Christians of all stripes. I have never been able to understand how a person can see eternal punishment as just. Even if we hold that the punishment should fit the crime, it seems that it would always be finite. Hitler would be forced to experience all of the suffering he caused, and this may amount to 600 million years worth of pain, but it would end. Because we can only ever choose or cause a finite amount of suffering and sin, the punishment could only ever be finite. 

Further, it is often held that the purpose of punishment is behavioral correction. A child is grounded or scolded in an attempt to deter them from deviant behavior in the future. If we hold this view of punishment, then eternal punishment is a nonsensical concept, since it would fail to be corrective.

A final argument I would like to consider is that damnation is eternal because when an individual dies he or she leaves time, and because actions or choices are possible only in a temporal setting it becomes impossible. This argument is easily (and quickly) refuted, especially if one believes in a literal, physical resurrection:

1.A physical body can exist only in a spatial environment.
2. A body can move and think in a spatial environment
3. When a body moves and/ or thinks it exists temporally, since to move from one state to another requires a temporal before, during, and after.
4. Therefore, humans will exist in a temporal afterlife.

A heaven in which we cannot think or act as we do now is a heaven in which we would no longer be human. Thus if one maintains that we will be something similar to ourselves as we exist now, it cannot be said that we leave time when we enter into God's kingdom.

In light of the areas I have touched on above, I cannot help but be inclined towards universal reconciliation. If Hell exists only as long as it is chosen, then I firmly posit that it cannot be necessarily permanent.  I may be completely in error on these subjects, and if so I hope for a reader who will provide his corrective insights.