Monday, 28 September 2020

Hell: A Thought Experiment

by Thomas Scarborough

Going Down with the Cash by Peter Gourfain 1998
Various religions have concepts of hell. However, nowhere is the doctrine clung to so tightly or debated so vigorously as in the Christian faith.

Yet it is, too, a philosophical subject, which has been treated philosophically in recent years by the universities of Oxford, Stanford, Alaska, and Tennessee—among various others. With this in mind, this short post presents a thought experiment—and a fundamentally philosophical one at that.

While the Christian faith rests on revelation, and its central teachings are known through revelation, there are various interpretations of revelation. In the case of hell, a good many. The most basic variations concerning hell—if they are not major views, then notable ones—are these:

The literal or orthodox view, that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment

The metaphorical view, that hell's torments are symbolic, yet real in some way

The ‘circles of hell’: the view that there are degrees of eternal torment, suited to the crimes

A ‘temporary torment’: the view that hell is not eternal, but finite in time

Annihiliationism and conditionalism, which hold that the wicked—or unbelieving—do not live after death

The universalist view, which holds that there is no hell, but all are saved

In reality, these views have many subtleties—even many different designations—and it needs to be borne in mind that this brief survey is far too simple. Yet it gives an idea.

With regard to the more literal views on hell, the most basic problem from a human point of view is that we find it difficult to imagine eternal torment. We revolt against the idea. Also, we find it difficult to reconcile it with a loving God—in spite of Scripture's copious emphasis on the dangers of hell.

On the other hand, many feel it would be a travesty of justice not to have a hell. Many, too, have felt the fear of hell—call it a supernatural fear. This has been particularly prominent at times of spiritual revival.

The theological response to people’s qualms, most generally, is that we do not need to understand hell, or the God who prepared it for some. Ultimately it is about the sovereignty of God, and the revelation of Scripture. Yet have we fully explored the concepts, or driven deep enough with alternatives? A thought experiment may make this clear.

What is hell? Apart from representing some form of torment, there are at least two features which are central to the literal view: it is said to separate people from God, and it offers no hope. There is no exit. Those who are consigned to hell cannot even see the perfect person and purpose of God, and perhaps thereby have some small comfort. Nor can they strengthen themselves with the thought that this, too, shall pass.

With this rudimentary overview, then, our thought experiment is this:

If I should find myself in hell—whether I had known anything about it in my lifetime or not—would anything in my experience of hell contradict its eternity? Even if, that is, hell were not eternal?

Perhaps we may call this a phenomenalist view of hell. Those condemned to hell would experience it is an eternal torment—a place without God, and without hope—which, after all, is by very definition what hell is, at least to those of a more literal persuasion.

In short, would the sense-experience of those in hell be in any way distinguishable from a literal view of hell? Similarly, could Scriptural descriptions of hell as eternal—with banishment from God's presence, and the absence of hope—reveal to us whether it truly is eternal, and without exit? On the surface of it, no.

On the surface of it, this might promise to solve some critical theological and philosophical problems. One could reconcile the literal view with various other views, because eternity is something which is experienced. There need not be, then, metaphysical truths at stake. One could see complete justice done, while both believing and not believing, as it were, that hell is eternal. And one could ultimately reconcile the unmitigated torments of hell with God’s love.

However, before we congratulate ourselves on having solved the mysteries of hell, there are some further things we need, philosophically, to consider:

Would this not give us the deus deceptor of Descartes—a God who deceives us into believing that the torments of hell are eternal?

How should we distinguish the experience of hell from hell itself, and consider that the one is better than the other? What can be worse than eternal torment?

Would our thought experiment not open the possibility that heaven is not eternal, in the objective sense?

Further, this would surely reflect on views other than a literal one. If the essence of hell lies in the experience of it, then even if we should allow a ‘temporary torment’—namely, the belief that hell is not eternal but finite in time—would we not through this introduce hope to hell? Surely any torment can be borne bravely where there is hope—not to speak of the hope of Paradise! Yet if the ‘circles of hell’ is correct—namely, that there are degrees of torment, but no hope of an exit—is there any judgement without hope which can be a bearable one?

What then might our thought experiment teach us?

It separates objective and subjective views of eternity—which may not have been done before. Yet this seems to offer us little to ameliorate the sufferings of hell. Further, a phenomenalist view of hell might worsen the terrors of the age-old view of the ‘circles of hell’, and—too much, it might be said—improve the situation of those in a ‘temporary torment.

All in all, there is perhaps little to suggest that one may reduce the concept of hell, no matter which view of hell we espouse—given, that is, that we admit its existence at all. Happily, for those who believe, there would seem to be little to suggest that one may reduce the concept of heaven either.


Andrew Porter said...

The opposite of at-one-ment is surely hell. Separation from what is true and deeply real is quite prevalent in today's world. This kind of hell is not a judgment by the godhead but a self-inflicted wound, as in the mistreatment of others or the devastations and degradations of the climate emergency. If you argue that this kind of hell is not eternal, it does cross over generations and has long-term, widespread consequences. Could we say that self-imposed hellishness is semi-eternal?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Andrew. This is hell on a different level. It is a common view. It tends to produce the view in turn that we ourselves may vanquish hell.

But this leads to discouragement (the task is too vast), pride (a messiah complex), delusion (that hell is being overcome), callousness (hell is a mere byproduct of progress), burnout (we tried too hard), and so on.

Teilhard de Chardin, about Verdun, said something to the effect that every soldier who falls in the mud is another brick being laid towards a new world. 'Bizarre,' comments the philosopher Mel Thompson.

Anyway, the hell of my thought experiment is a spiritual realm, beyond the realm we know.

Keith said...

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I cannot get behind either a literal or metaphorical ‘hell’. And the only thing ‘eternal’ about hell is, I’d propose, its actual nonexistence. Hence, the question ‘would anything in my experience of hell contradict its eternity?’ collapses, to my way of thinking on this matter, to a non-question. The reason being that the concept has no basis in reality — ‘revealed’, or supported by any other form of storytelling. By extension, one might conclude that the answer to the question ‘What can be worse than eternal torment?’ is ‘fiendishly dangling the threat of eternal torment’.

Now, there is plenty of evidence of severely ‘hellish’ conditions that many people around the world experience; however, that’s limited to here, in the real world of people's everyday lives. Bone-crushing poverty, disease, food insecurity, violence, cruelty, inequality, and the like. The true incentive to act well — according to principles of morality in relationships with individuals and communities — is not, I suggest, in order to skirt the threats of a hell designed to fiendishly punish us in an afterlife. Rather, the incentive is on the humanistic level of benefiting humankind — without, just as pointedly, the rewards of eternity in ‘heaven’. I propose that ought be enough.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. Your comments travel beyond the limits of the post, though. Theologians anyway will see that it presents a fundamentally new line of thought -- if I am right in saying it is new. I'll respond to your comments, though.

There is a great debate as to what is really real. In my (draft) book, I describe how much more there is to riding my bicycle than what I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. If there were not, I would be lost on my bicycle without anything to orientate me. Do I have a destination? Should I turn back now? Do I own this bicycle? Do I need a passport here? Do I have a purpose here? And so on. None of these things is immediately real to me, yet all of them are vital. Therefore, we may (and may need to) speak of destination, ownership, nationality, purpose, and so on. But are they real? And what else is real? You use a few suspect words yourself, one of them very suspect: morality. Yet you speak as though it exists. On what basis? And on what basis would the concept hell be inadmissible?

Note that I am not advocating for or against the existence of hell, but I am seeking to make sense of your position.

Martin Cohen said...

Re. Keith, people have variously compared hell to the monotony of suburbia and the chitter chatter of other people! Of course, the term is used in many different ways. Thomas says he is using it in a specialised, 'theological' way, but I am sceptical of such uses. If there is such a specialised language, why bring it to a blog for the general reader?! Then Thomas tell us there is a debate about what Is 'real', which yes, is surely a thing many philosophers do say, but equally the debate has been long resisted by the general public. (I like the example of the cyclist, by the way, Thomas!)

Tessa den Uyl said...

Interestingly, drawing conclusions seems a human necessity! What does it serve? The intellect cuts and pastes things apart and together to eventually exclaim: this is real! Is it? Our own unreality is the only reality we hold. Nobody sees the same, feels the same, comprehends the same etc. We’re just invoking rules to function in company, that’s all. Where does this leave us with hell and eternity?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid, everybody carries a little bit of ‘hell’ within, whether called under different names. We carry on centuries of past information and think we got rid of something? Our own body remembers things we cannot even imagine. How does that work for thoughts? Perhaps a stupid question but do atoms think? Not how we think but they function, and their functioning carries along something. Then if this part we cannot grasp about life, is perhaps the realest to our life?

If mankind has been so occupied with filling gaps of its (mysterious) existence, why would it not think of something like eternal grace or punishment is all too human, and therefor more generic than at first sight might appear to any non religious reader. To cut short on terms without placing them in a whole, I think we do harm ourselves by our own short-vision. And now I’ll reflect again on your thought experiment Thomas, which puts me into a certain blank, for I lack affinity with the subject from a theological point of view, though know this is my restriction.

Keith said...

You ask, Thomas, ‘On what basis would the concept of hell be inadmissible?’ A fair enough question, of course . . .

I propose that heaven and hell have no basis in experience; they’re not verifiable realities. Rather, they’re imaginative products of fictional yarns spun in ancient history, when ‘spirits’ roamed (their monsters under the bed). Heaven and hell are rather blunt instruments of fear — an inelegant system of reward and punishment — aimed at submission and to coerce behavioural compliance. All in conformance with what’s couched rather audaciously as revealed truth. Throw in what many perceive is the terror of death’s potential finality of the person (the end of consciousness), and we’re left with quite an existential brew. As such — the burden being to prove a positive rather than a negative — it’s incumbent on those who believe in heaven and hell to validate their existence, to provide confirmatory evidence of some reasonable, sufficient sort. I ask, accordingly, what is the evidence that rises to the level to adjudicate heaven and hell as ‘admissible’?

Keith said...

‘There is a great debate as to what is really real. In my (draft) book, I describe how much more there is to riding my bicycle than what I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. If there were not, I would be lost on my bicycle without anything to orientate me. Do I have a destination? Should I turn back now? Do I own this bicycle? Do I need a passport here? Do I have a purpose here? And so on. None of these things is immediately real to me, yet all of them are vital. Therefore, we may (and may need to) speak of destination, ownership, nationality, purpose, and so on. But are they real? And what else is real?’

As you’re undoubtedly aware, Thomas, Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 groundbreaking book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ has a lot to say on this subject, from autopilot, instinctual thinking to the critical thinking associated with higher-order consciousness. Both have appropriate roles in processing and reacting to information and shaping perceived reality, as the mind seamlessly switches back and forth to answer the bicyclist’s questions you pose here. Germane, I believe, to what you philosophically explore in your forthcoming book.

Thomas Scarborough said...

MARTIN. In response to Martin, according to various polls most of the public believe in hell. While one can't make that a criterion for truth, I think one should be reluctant to rule out the public. I think philosophers make too light of them. My own argument has been that philosophers tend to be more tied to an 'unacknowledged metaphysics' and are thus more likely to err. As for the monotony of suburbia, this brings to mind a metaphysical point. Assuming the existence of hell, could one get used to the torments of hell, as one might get used to the monotony of suburbia? Humanly speaking, probably yes. Yet, given the supernatural context of the thought experiment, can any divine torment ever wear off?

TESSA. In response to Tessa, I tend to agree with the opinion, 'Our own unreality is the only reality we hold.' Does this make it any less of a reality, and if so, how does it do so?

KEITH. With regard to Keith's 'It’s incumbent on those who believe in heaven and hell to validate their existence,' our processes of validation today rest largely on a ruthlessly stripped down reality. It is an illusory way of thinking which is destroying the world around us. The philosophers Kamlah and Lorenzen observed, physics investigates processes 'by progressively screening things out.' With such a view, one should be fearful of any validation! It is a serious question, though, what is real, and I am not convinced that I have answered it myself. We believe in and act on unreal things. Keith himself has 'morality' on his list. Would he care to validate that for us? Many philosophers would ridicule him for trying. 'Morality' may not be in the same category as 'hell' -- or is it? That is a sincere question for me. These are both perspectives on life, broadly based, yet without validation, which motivate us to act. With regard to Kahnemann, whom I have not (yet) read, his thought would seem to me to be preceded by Gelernter, who came to different conclusions.

Keith said...

‘Would you care to validate [morality]?’

Yes; thank you, Thomas. Two examples: Engaging in a serial-killing spree. An act of immorality. And giving one’s possessions to charity. An act of morality. Moral and immoral behaviours are lived. They are experienced. They are witnessed. They are concrete. They are confirmable. They are manifest. None of the same can be said of heaven and hell, which appear as fictional contrivances of imaginative storytelling. Moreover if, as you seem to suggest, morality and immorality don't exist (are unreal), by logical extension there’s surely a consequence: There would then be no basis (no grounds) for a heaven or a hell. Morality’s and immorality’s supposed unreality would close the door on heaven and hell.

‘[Daniel] Kahneman’s thought would seem to me to be preceded by [David] Gelernter, who came to a different conclusion’.

Again, Thomas, I appreciate your observation here. I’ve not run into Gelernter actually disputing Nobel Prize-winner Kahneman’s ideas discussed in the latter’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, based on decades of research in decision-making under uncertainty. As I suggested in a comment above, his System 1 and System 2 thinking seem germane to your 'riding my bike' scenario. However, you may well be right about Gelernter's refutation of Kahneman's case for slow and fast thinking. I’d be interested in following up for myself. Might you share with me a source where Gelernter’s actual refutation appears? (In the meantime, here’s an informative 1998 interview with Gelernter in The Atlantic magazine that you, and others here, might find of interest:

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. One can invert (quite successfully, I think) your first paragraph, something like this. 'The terrors of hell. They are lived. They are experienced. They are witnessed. They are concrete. They are confirmable. They are manifest. None of the same can be said of morality, which appears as fictional contrivances of imaginative storytelling. Moreover if, as you seem to suggest, heaven and hell don't exist (are unreal), by logical extension there’s surely a consequence: There would then be no basis (no grounds) for morality. Heaven and hell's supposed unreality would close the door on morality.'

How to find an escape from such thinking, and distinguish what is real from what is not? Classically, one has objects vs. constructs, where constructs depend upon a subject’s mind. But surely, everything depends upon a subject's mind. That is where things have their being.

Keith said...

I respectfully don’t believe the ‘inversion’ you refer to works, Thomas. The reason is that it appears you’ve arbitrarily chosen, midstream, to add two new words, radically shifting the original subject of ‘hell’ to ‘terror of hell’. That’s like changing the rules of chess midstream. The ‘terror of hell’ has a whole different meaning than just ‘hell’ — ‘hell’ being an imaginary place for which there’s no basis in reality (while the newly introduced concept of human ‘terror’ does, of course). In short, you suddenly changed the lexicon, and in doing so the entire meaning of your original anchor word, ‘hell’. The flaw in the inversion, therefore, is that there’s no longer an equivalence between the wording in my comment above — where I answer your question about ‘morality’ and ‘immorality’ — and your now-new ‘terror of hell’, its being swapped out for ‘hell’. I submit you’ve materially changed the fundamentals of the original discussion of ‘hell’s’ unreality.

Thomas Scarborough said...

One could reword what I said, 'Belief in heaven and hell is lived ...' as opposed to 'Belief in moral and immoral behaviours is lived ...' where I think I would be making more reasonable substitutions.

Yet, again, the original post was not about the existence of hell, but a thought experiment for those who accept its existence -- perhaps those who do not. Personally I think it has a lot to contribute to the subject, as such.

When it comes to our spin-off debate, I think it is very difficult to say what is really real, on the basis of what we call validation today. There does seem to be a difference between such constructs as 'morality' and 'hell', in that the first is said to be this-worldly, the second other-worldly. Yet even that may not apply. Both exist as bundles of relations in the mind, neuronal configurations, each a distinct concept, with a unique label. What then separates them there? What legitimates either one or the other, or both?

The problem with validation of 'moral' behaviour is the one of Hume. One can establish that one gave one's possessions to charity, yes. But any talk of morality lies in another realm, beyond the usual rules of validation. Does one then have a valid concept? The same question might apply to (other-worldly) 'religious objects' as they are sometimes called.

Keith said...

I thank you, Thomas, for having introduced an interesting subject, and for the extended discussion. The points you introduce immediately above do help, I believe, to round out that discussion. At the risk of reductionism on my part, I think this quote, from your comment above, is central to what I was trying to get at: ‘There does seem to be a difference between such constructs as ‘morality’ and ‘hell’, in that the first is said to be this-worldly, the second other-worldly’. Your essay’s treatment of the subject matter at large, including the thought experiment itself, undoubtedly prompted much reflection on the part of readers at large.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith. Your own comments have been very useful to me, in a tangential way. They cast some light on related things I have been thinking about.

Dennis Christian said...

I wrestled with your thought question. Would the “sense-experience” of being in hell be any different for us if hell were temporary verses eternal? Yes, if you knew it would be temporary. But, I think your point is that, compared to heaven, the experience will be horrible no matter how long. It comes down to trusting is God’s perfect sense of justice. It will be an appropriately horrible punishment - so bad that you would be better off plucking out your eye or cutting off your arm to prevent the sin that would lead to that punishment. Jesus taught that God is not mocked - you reap what you sow – in this life or what comes after death. God is sovereign. You can’t outsmart Him, you can’t play Him, and you can’t have the attitude that hell will somehow be an acceptable alternative. God depicts it so severe in scripture to convince us not to go there whatever the cost. Why? Exactly because He does love us and does not want any of us to end up there.

Dennis Christian

Dennis Christian said...

Another answer if you take "my experience of hell" to mean the entire experience, not just the momentary suffering you are going through, which I think is what you meant. But, thinking about the entire experience, I have this answer:

If, in assigning you to hell after death, God gave you no information about it, then what you thought you knew about hell in your lifetime matters as to what you would experience. If you had believed the eternal view of hell, then your experience would be hopeless eternal punishment – the hopelessness as bad as the physical pain. If you had believed the limited punishment view of hell, your experience would be the same physical pain but with a hope or expectation that one day it would end. Even if you were aware of both views of hell or had not given hell much thought at all, it would hold out a possibility that someday the suffering would end, thus the experience would be better than no hope.
So, in answer to your question, would anything in my experience of hell contradict its eternity, or, as I think you mean, be different if hell were not eternal, the answer is YES. If you had hope that it was not eternal, then you would not experience the horrible hopelessness – and, assuming we can include the whole experience, when the duration of suffering ended, your hell would end. For that matter, even if you had no hope of it ever ending thus suffering the horrible hopelessness of it, if hell were not eternal, you would someday experience a wonderful surprise – it does end. So, the experience of hell is different if it is not eternal verses eternal, and the experience is different if you do not know or believe that it is eternal.
Of course, this assumes the Judge (God) did not declare the nature of your sentence to you. I personally think that God would make sure you understood why you ended up in hell rather than heaven, including telling you what He had done to rescue you from going to hell. In the Christian view, He would show you the gift of eternal life for you that you left unclaimed. He would explain the suffering He had done as Christ to pay for your sins so you wouldn’t have to. So, after explaining your sentence, your experience – hope of and experiencing an end day or not - would be based on whether, in truth, hell is eternal or not and on what God had told you about it.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Dennis. Your comments unfortunately slipped the net -- until now!

You see, if while experiencing hell you knew it would be temporary, it wouldn't be hell. Therefore hell, whether it is temporary or not, would have to exclude the knowledge that it is temporary.

In your second comment, you give the argument an interesting and worthwhile twist. This deserves to belong to other considerations in the article.

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