This post will be a quick explanation of what originally got me thinking about the pragmatics of belief in traditional doctrines of hell and also of why I think it’s valuable to discuss the issue.
For about 10 years now, I’ve had a scriptural defense of universalism, “Universalism and the Bible,” posted on my web site. It’s drawn a considerable number of readers, and, over the years, many of them have written to me concerning it. Though the page was originally on the New Testament case for universalism, much of the e-mail was not. So, in the summer of 2003, I added a couple of appendices to the web page in response to the e-mail I received: In addition to one appendix on philosophical worries some people had about squaring certain universalist views with human free will, I also added one on the “pragmatics” of universalism, leaving the body of the web page — the part before the new appendices — as it was.
Much of the e-mail I received that I classified as being broadly about “pragmatic” matters consisted of warnings concerning the dangers of universalism. Here I’m not thinking about those e-mails that argued that the traditional doctrine of hell, rather than universalism, is what is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is dangerous to promote unBiblical positions. I got plenty of those messages, too, but didn’t count those as “pragmatic” warnings. I’m instead thinking of those messages that warned of bad effects that believing in universalism might have on those who would hold such a belief — usually effects on the morality of people’s actions or on their motivation for engaging in, promoting, or being responsive to evangelism. For my response to the some of these worries, see the relevant appendix to U&B, but my present concern is something that often accompanied such warnings: claims to the effect that there is no pragmatic downside to the traditional doctrine of hell. Many reasoned roughly as follows:
If people accept universalism or some other unsuitably “nice” view about the ultimate fate of humankind, there is a pronounced danger that holding such a belief will have this & that bad effect on them. On the other hand, there is no pragmatic downside to suitably horrific views on what the ultimate fate of at least much of humankind will be, like the traditional doctrine of hell. So we should be safe, and accept and teach the latter. If it turns out that God actually will, through Christ, eventually reconcile unto Himself all people, let’s let that be a pleasant surprise, and, in the meantime, accept and promote the safer view, since there is no cost to doing so.
What I have my eye on, though, is the thought that there is no pragmatic downside to believing in the traditional doctrine of hell, or other horrific views of the ultimate fate of much of humankind. That thought, of course, can be held by someone who doesn’t let pragmatics govern what views they accept. And it seems to be a very common thought.
And, in many cases, deeply mistaken.
“In many cases”: One of the first things that has to be said in a discussion of “the” pragmatics of a belief as hot (sorry for the pun!) as is belief in the traditional doctrine of hell, is what great variation there can be from one individual to another. Some seem barely affected by such a belief — to the shock of others who are profoundly affected by the same belief — whether the profound effect is to crush them or to motivate them to heroic and costly acts of evangelism.
My main purpose in discussing the pragmatics of hell is to bring to people’s attention the profound effects belief in the traditional doctrine of hell can have on some people. Those who aren’t themselves so profoundly shaken (for better or for worse) can easily fail to appreciate these effects. Where the effects are negative, my purpose in calling attention to them here is not to advocate that those beliefs be abandoned. (Again, I’m not a big fan of letting pragmatics govern one’s acceptances.) Rather, I hope that people might begin to think about what might be done about some of these harmful effects. Those who accept, and will continue to accept, the traditional doctrine of hell may still do well to think about how to address some of the crushing effects the belief has on some. At least being aware of the possibility of the belief’s crushing effects might improve their dealings with some people.
I wish there were serious studies on the effects of such beliefs on people that I knew about and could refer you to. (If anyone knows of such studies, I’d love to hear of them.) I’ve been in contact with a friend of mine who is a Christian psychologist, and who seems interested in looking into the matter. I’ll let people know if anything comes of that. In the meantime, I’ll be here posting some more anecdotal accounts I’ve come across in the hopes of at least getting people thinking about the issue.