Marilyn McCord Adams on the Pragmatics of Hell (Keith)

I’m hoping to get more substantial posts on the pragmatics of hell up soon, but for now, a–somewhat dated, and quite brief–report, based on her pastoral experience, from Marilyn McCord Adams (author of Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God and of Christ and Horrors, both of which should be of great interest to many readers of this blog).  This is from a section of Marilyn’s essay, “The Problem of Hell” entitled “The Pragmatics of Universalism,” but what she’s really up to is comparing the pragmatics of universalism with my current topic, the pragmatics of fairly nasty doctrines of hell:

Surprisingly many religiously serious people reject the
doctrine of universal salvation on the pragmatic ground that it leads to moral
and religious laxity. Withdraw the
threat, and they doubt whether others–perhaps even themselves–would sustain the
motivation for moral diligence and religious observance. My pastoral experience suggests, on the
contrary, that the disproportionate threat of hell (see sections 2.2 and 2.3)
produces despair that masquerades as skepticism, rebellion, and unbelief. If your father threatens to kill you if you
disobey him, you may cower in terrorized submission, but may also (reasonably)
run away from home. -Marilyn Adams, “The
Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians,” in E. Stump, ed., Reasoned
Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology
(Cornell
University Press, 1993), p. 325

  • http://epinoiacafe.com Angela Harms

    I have never understood the idea the people would “be bad” without the threat of hell. Why? If you really believe in the incredible gift of God’s unsurpassable love, how could you deliberately cause harm? The more you believe in infinite love (and the less in the necessity of hell) the more loving, strong, and compassionate you become.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47 Keith DeRose

    I don’t really understand why that would be the case either. But I know that many people think this of themselves. I get a lot of different reactions from different Christians to my universalism, but a significant proportion (not all, by any means, though) of those who get VERY upset by it turn out, upon questioning, to be people who have used the idea of hell as part of their way of keeping themselves in line, and thus feel very threatened by the prospects of having that curb on their behavior taken away. (In most cases, my own suspicion is that they don’t really need that threat to keep themselves in line, and only think they do. But that’s easy for me to say & impossible for me to know.)

  • Larry

    I have also never understood the viewpoint that the threat of hell is necessary in order to get people to live a Christian life, as if living a Christian life is only slightly preferable to an everlasting hell! Living a Christian life is not a deprivation, or it shouldn’t be, or was Jesus just kidding when he said all of that “abundant life” stuff. Hell might be necessary if you have reduced Christian living to mere morality, sprinkling a few “thou shalt not”‘s into an otherwise secular life is a deprivation and a relatively hellish way to live. Life as a Christian should be so much more than that, though, Jesus calls us into His kingdom, and join Him in His work of redeeming all of creation, this is just the opposite of hellish, and for those who are living this way hell is a complete irrelevancy.

  • Charles Cosimano

    John Paul Sarte, in a rare moment of rationality, said that if his phone rang and it was God telling him to believe in him or he would go to hell, the only proper response would be to hang up the phone on him. A god that would create a Hell is not only one unworthy of being worshipped, he would be one that a person would go to Hell to get away from.

  • Tad DeLay

    I wonder if when people believe the traditional doctrine of Hell is necessary to reinforce a reason to be loyal to God, what they are really doing is grasping for any quasi-rational reason to support the belief in Hell that they’ve already decided on. So, instead of seeing Hell’s convincing quality as a reason for belief, this is only a masquerade for the decision that’s already been made about it’s existence.

  • Larry

    To tell you the truth I think that the modern church has so stripped the gospel of any positive content that without the possibility of a hell in the afterlife the gospel would have no content whatsoever.

  • ChrisM

    It seems more probable that religiously serious people who reject universalism would do so on lack of biblical support for the belief rather than on merely not liking the potential by-products (ie. the moral and religious laxity) created by accepting the belief. To do otherwise would be to commit a genetic fallacy, which I imagine only unserious people would do.

  • Larry

    That may be so, ChrisM (although I would disagree with you on its lack of Biblical support), but this post is about the pragmatics of the doctrine of hell, not its truth or falsity.

  • Your Name

    Larry, two things:
    1. The current discussion on the pragmatics of hell naturally leads to questioning the truth or falsity of the doctrine itself. If the doctrine inherently causes despair, and the argument that is being posited is because of such depair generation that the doctrine is “nasty,” then isn’t the logical solution to disgard it because of it’s hardship?
    2. If sins’ destructiveness is reversible (remember Jesus’ teaching about the yeast of the Pharisees? Yeast cannot be removed after it has been applied… hence corruption in the hamartiological sense is irreversible) and hell does not exist as a final containing of sin’s corrupting power, then there is nothing to redeem or to help in redeeming. Universalism is by definition a universal application of whatever soteriological milieu you subscribe to. Either nothing needed redemption or redemption is complete already. There is no “redeeming” work to cooperate with. You need another word.

  • http://dandannoodles.net Daniel

    A little off subject but I am interested…
    I think I agree with what MMA is saying in the quote but would like some clarification since I have not read the essay: I wonder if someone could give me a working definition for what MMA calls “religiously serious people.” I think understanding who MMA determines to be RSP would help me get over my initial gut revulsion and help prevent future eye-rolling. As a gradable adjective “many” (as in “many religiously serious people…”) is hard to swallow without knowing who RSP are.

  • Albert the Abstainer

    And first I walked to the gates of Hell to see if fear would stay my walk. And longing allowed me to have my corruption harmlessly burn away. Next I came to Heaven’s gate to see if joy and beauty would distract me from my walk. Again longing allowed me to set aside lesser desires to pass by their entrancing loveliness, and to continue to walk to my Beloved’s countenance. When finally I stood eye to eye with my Beloved, there was nothing to say, no word or form to speak, but perfect being only.

  • Your Name

    The idea that hell restrains bad behavior is hardly convincing considering that Radical Islamists, who believe in eternal conscious torment, kill infidels in the name of their god. Roman Catholics, in the past, killed Jews and Protestants, while believing in the Augustinian hell. Many Protestant groups (that followed Luther and Calvin) were known for executing those with whom they disagreed on subjects like the trinity, and these groups believed in hell.
    Universalism, ancient biblical universalism, as taught by Orthodox scholars, and many Baptists of the 19th century, inspired men and women to reach out to others in charity; free them from slavery; minister to their physical, as well as emotional and spiritual, needs. Biblical universalism has inspired lives filled with peace and love, not just towards one’s friends, but one’s enemies as well. It was this love for one’s enemies that reflected the nature of the Father – for He loved His enemies and gave His Son for those very enemies. This is a belief that Christians should not be ashamed of; we have a history of charitable and evangelistic works.


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