No Pragmatic Downside? (Keith)

No Pragmatic Downside? (Keith) December 29, 2008

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.

Now, I should quickly add that I don’t think it’s wise to let pragmatic considerations govern which views one accepts. And neither do many who accept the traditional doctrine of hell. Many accept that doctrine because they believe (mistakenly, in my opinion) that it’s what’s taught in the Bible.

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.

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  • Thomas Just

    In my experience, I think that most of the people that I have met, that hold these ‘traditional’ views, have not actually thought through the ramifications of those particular beliefs. I think there is a direct correlation between the effects and just how much the individual has actually grappled with the idea.

  • Pat

    This is a great topic. I can’t understand people who hold a belief in hell, and still choose to worship its architect. If anything is worse than torturing people, surely it is worshipping and adoring a torturer.
    How could anyone’s self-image survive proclaiming themselves to be worshipping a god who did such things? I would feel convicted of both evil and cowardice if I did so. That’s why I think most of the good people I know who claim to hold this belief really don’t believe it. However, it might also explain why so many people who do choose to defend the belief do so in a very fraught manner, as if it were the most important determinant of christianity. In a way, it is. It determines what kind of god one is worshipping.

  • Keith DeRose

    Pat: One of the greatest philosophers of the late 20th Century (I’m sure many would tag him as THE greatest), David Lewis, wrote a paper entitled “Divine Evil,” which is along the very lines you suggest. (Actually the paper was based on notes Lewis made for such a paper, but had to be written up after Lewis’s death by another fine philosopher, his friend Phil Kitcher, who had discussed the paper with Lewis.) The paper appears in a collection of papers by atheist philosophers, PHILOSOPHERS WITHOUT GOD:

  • Pat

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll look it up. George MacDonald also wrote a great deal about this topic, all of it available on the internet. I’ve also found a lot of wisdom in the books ‘If Grace is True’ and ‘If God is Love’ by Gulley and Mulholland.

  • Hey Keith
    As a fellow Calvin Grad, I would be interested to hear how your views on this topic have been informed by seeing a variety of Calvin individuals (namely, your own professors) pragmatically reconcile the belief in double predestination in their own lives.

  • Larry

    Doesn’t the traditional formulation of hell produce a God that many cannot worship? If this is the case, then by teaching the traditional doctrine of hell you might be condemning this people to hell! The traditional view of hell, and the image of the character of God that it conveys, can be positively harmful to evangelistic efforts, rather than helping them as the proponents of the traditional view usually maintain. How many of the people reading this could hold your child’s hand in a fire for even a second, yet traditionalists expect people to worship a God that who will “burn” not just a hand but an entire being, and not just for a second but forever, in hell.

  • Keith DeRose

    Pat: I’m also a big George MacDonald fan. And I also enjoyed IF GRACE IS TRUE — though I strongly disagreed with important parts of it. I express some of this in my little review here. The Lewis paper I mentioned is very much along the lines you suggest in your earlier comment: He not only wonders about how worthy-of-worship God is if a nasty doctrine of hell is true, but also spends a good deal of space discussing whether it is appropriate to admire or have other positive attitudes toward religious believers who worship God while believing such doctrines.
    Peter: I was a philosophy major, and certainly didn’t get the impression that my Calvin philosophy profs were into predestination. It’s an interesting phenomenon: Christian philosopher, even those who are in some ways Calvinist (who sympathize with other elements of Calvinism) seem not to go for predestination, even while that element of Calvinism has been growing in the culture at large. Starting with some input from the philosopher Dean Zimmerman, I discuss that a bit here and here. My Religion & Theology prof for “Reformation Theology” spent a lot of his energy trying to convince us that the predestination isn’t as central to Calvin’s theology as it’s often made out to be. He didn’t say he didn’t go for it, but he also didn’t say he did go for it, and all his downplaying of its importance certainly didn’t leave the impression that he was a big defender of that aspect of Calvinism. So I actually didn’t get much of a chance to see my profs reconciling a belief in predestination with other things — though this is probably a function of what my major was, when I was at Calvin (1980-84), and what R&T profs I happened to get.
    Larry: I hope in later posts to be picking up on the themes you sound in your comment.

  • Albert the Abstainer

    Alright, let me approach this somewhat differently, and it stems from what are usually held as the essential characteristics of God: omnipresence; omnipotence, omniscience.
    Hell can be seen as a state of maximal separation from God, and heaven as a state of maximal proximity to God. (If anyone has a problem with these two definitions, please let me know.) Specifics in terms of the forms that are used to portray these states are derivative, though the human imagination of poets like Dante (see: and painters like Hieronymus Bosch (see: create very evocative images that I expect have shaped the way a lot of people imagine these states.
    The only essential characteristic of the Divine that I will raise for your consideration is omnipresence.
    Omnipresence is the quality of being present throughout all places, times, states, and dimensions. If God is in fact omnipresent there is in fact no separation, only a perception of separation. God is no less present at the birth of Jesus or in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. The difference from a human perspective is that we have a persistent sense of separation, of having a distinct self. We experience existence locally and time linearly. To use the Genesis allegory, we know good and evil, self and other, duality. As soon as the rational faculty dominates and interprets; the sense of timeless unity, the Presence of God, collapses from our awareness. In other words, the underlying state is union, we just ordinarily occupy states which frame our experience in a duality.
    And so, as there is in fact no place where God is not, (if God is omnipresent), heaven as being ultimately proximate to, and hell as being ultimately remove from the Presence of God are fallacious in fact, even if in our minds we can imagine and occupy heavenly and hellish states.

  • Rob

    “Alright, let me approach this somewhat differently, and it stems from what are usually held as the essential characteristics of God: omnipresence; omnipotence, omniscience.”
    Are those biblical understandings of God, or Platonic-reasoned ones?

  • Albert the Abstainer

    “Alright, let me approach this somewhat differently, and it stems from what are usually held as the essential characteristics of God: omnipresence; omnipotence, omniscience.”
    Are those biblical understandings of God, or Platonic-reasoned ones?
    If you wish to say that God is contained within time and space, you are free to do so, but that makes the universe greater than God. If you wish to say that God lacks all knowledge, then such a God is ignorant and subject to error. If you wish to say that God is not all powerful, then there are forces that even God will be affected by and are outside of the Divine ability to alter.
    No, such limits cannot be imposed upon God, or the word is misapplied.
    God is not to be imagined or projected like some magical talisman, or placed within a frame to appease the needs of the ego. Rather the ego must relinquish its idols and attachments, to be so drawn into the Presence of God as to like a moth drawn to flame be consumed in the solitary brilliance of the Divine. If form (such as a book) takes precedence and imposes itself upon the mind of one who claims to love God, that person is deceived by an idol. He is like a groom who stands transfixed upon his bride’s veil, rather than being drawn by love to part all veils that stand between himself and his Beloved.
    God is infinite, and it only through surrender of our idols, drawn by longing that the soul finds its way back into the perfect Presence which is boundless and complete in itself. This is not a matter of appeal to a book or an authority held above what God imparts directly to each, and that is unbounded Presence.

  • Sam

    I am intrigued by your thoughts, there are pieces within your comment that I have often pondered, though rather fleetingly compared to you.
    This conversation is one in which I have been wrestling with since reading Brian McLaren’s final book in the NKOC trilogy, which spoke alive a lingering suspicion that my views on Hell were not well formed, nor well searched out, and entirely based upon “Fire and Brimstone” sermons from the pulpit and those hellacious paintings I studied in Art History. So to think of it in broader terms has only been a new phenomenon… and to be honest the more I read the OT and the Gospels, the more I lean towards a universalism bend.
    When I focus on Jesus’ words in the Gospels and ignore the Pauline epistles… I see more of a focus on living out a Kingdom in the here and now… A life that focuses on loving God and others. He does speak of Hell in Matthew 5, 10, 18, and 23… and those are no more threats then the are warnings against the consequence of sin – destruction, separation from God, nothingness… to the righteous life and to the wicked death.
    All of this is convoluted mess, which is why for now, I choose not to plant my flag on a certain “doctrine” but rather on Jesus, who instructs me to not worry about tomorrow, but do good, and love the unlovable… that is enough to carry without having to carry the fear of Hell upon my back.

  • I’m in a tough place these days with this topic, due in large part to convincing articles and books I keep coming across in favor of Universalism. I, like Sam, read “The Last Word and the Word After That” by McLaren, and it only increased my suspicions about a God who would shift gears in the NT so drastically.
    I wasn’t converted to Christianity out of fear- I fell in love with Jesus. Or maybe I realized how much he loved me and then I followed. Either way it wasn’t fear of Hell that drew me to this life. It was that I accepted an invitation to what I believed (and still believe) is the best kind of life. My motivation to “behave” is not only Christ, and not only Christ in me, but also the realization that this is the best way to live. That’s not just a bonus… it’s part of the gospel.
    I never quite understood how Jesus’ “good news” would actually mean that from then on most people would go to hell. I say “from then on” because the doctrine of hell was rarely mentioned prior to the formation of the NT doctrines.

  • Keith
    Hello, this is my first time commenting here. I found the site because my cousin told me to check out Tony Jones, apparently, he blogs here now? Anyhow, I recommend reading “Evil and the Justice” of God by N.T. Wright.
    Also, see “Surprised by Hope.” Excellent resources for understanding the overarching themes and teachings of the New Testament. I completed by BA from ORU in New Testament and now seeking my MA in Judaic Christian studies. Those books, among others- have been priceless in my study of theological topics for the last five years. 🙂