The Pragmatics of Belief in Hell (Keith DeRose)

The Pragmatics of Belief in Hell (Keith DeRose) December 29, 2008

I’m Keith DeRose. I’m a philosopher who blogs a bit on the side.
Rather than giving any more introduction to myself here, I’ll just send
those who are interested in reading about me to my web page, where I have a good deal of information posted, including links to some of my previous blog posts.

Tony thought it would be interesting for me to post some of my thoughts
about the pragmatics of believing in what we might as well call
traditional Christian doctrines of hell, so that’s what I’ll be doing
in the next few days. I should say right upfront that I have little
idea of what Tony thinks about such matters, or even whether he has
very specific views here. I’ll just be speaking for myself here.

By the “pragmatics” of the belief, I mean the effects of holding the
belief — what holding such a belief can do to and through the one who
holds it.  So I don’t foresee myself discussing whether such a belief
is true, or discussing Scriptural grounds for and against such a
doctrine in this series of posts. I’ve engaged in such discussions in
the past, and no doubt will again in the future. And I suspect I’ll
have occasion in this series of posts to refer to some of my past
engagements in the debate over the truth of such doctrines, as
background for the current discussion, which, again, will be about the
pragmatics of the belief.

Why even bother with the pragmatics of hell? I’ll take that up in a
subsequent post.  (Sorry for the teaser.) But to hopefully forestall
certain misguided comments: My current focus on the pragmatics of the
belief is not due to any general neglect on my part of the issue of the
truth of such a doctrine and the Scriptural case for and against it.
In fact, I’ve engaged in scriptural investigaions/discussions/debates
of such issues quite extensively in the past, and this will be one of
very few times that I’ve ever gotten around to writing anything about
the pragmatics of the issue. It’s just that this seems to be the time
to finally write out some of my thoughts about the pragmatics of hell.
And, again, I hope to have some things to say about why the pragmatics
are important.

For those interested in an on-line discussion of the Scriptural case
for and against traditional doctrines of hell: I have a reference for
you.  This summer, Real Live Preacher
announced that he would be taking careful critical Scriptural look at
the traditional doctrine of hell, and asked for e-mail input from
readers concerning what the relevant texts were, especially any that
support the traditional doctrine. That was in this post,
which includes a description of what he meant by the “traditional
doctrine” — which is basically how I use that phrase, too. (I was one
of the many who wrote him, suggesting what I took to be by far the
strongest text for the support of key elements of the traditional
doctrine.) He reported the results of his study in a series of video
posts in October here, here, here, and here.
I certainly don’t endorse everything RLP had to say — in certain ways,
I think the case for the traditional doctrine can be made more
convincing than is the way he construes it. But I thought it was a
very nice study, and well worth recommending.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You’ve got my attention… curious to see where this goes. This topic has followed me everywhere I’ve gone lately.

  • I would be very interested in this conversation as well, but first, what is “the traditional doctrine” and what makes it “traditional?”

  • Hey Virgil: I mean to be referring to basically the same thing that “Real Live Preacher” means by the phrase. What I’m using the phrase to denote are views according to which those consigned to hell suffer eternal torment — so there’s a commitment to endless duration and to the nature or character of hell being nasty enough to make the term “torment” fitting — and according to which those who are consigned to hell are those sinners who do not accept Christ by the time of their death. Different versions of the doctrine can have different ideas of what’s involved in saving “acceptance.” And we can make room for different ideas about some exceptions concerning who is sent to hell — like, for instance, those who die very young, those who don’t have the mental capacity to meet the acceptance condition, etc. For my current purpose — discussing the “pragmatics” of such a belief — such details are often unimportant, because they often have little impact on the effects of the belief. Of course, not all Christians have held such a doctrine, but enough have to make the label “traditional” at least arguably fitting.

  • Thank you Keith for taking this on. I’m currently working through the theology (and quite necessarily the pragmatics) of soft universalism, and the conversation around hell will no doubt be of use to me. AS an Episcopalian, I’m looking forward to, sorry Tony, something other than sex defining the conversation.

  • Albert the Abstainer

    It seems to me that the only argument in favour of this is fear of hell provides a goad to follow the rules. It may be that this has some applicability for those who are at the beginning of the journey, but later it becomes a problem for those who think about what it says about the God of their religion. The promise of heaven is also useful and problematic for precisely the same reasons.
    Personally, I think the utility of heaven and hell are offset by the problems that result from them. I will close with a favourite quote attributed to the Sufi mystic Rabia:
    “O Allah! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
    and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
    But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
    grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
    If God exists, then the one worthy motive is to seek God for God alone and nothing else. If God does not exist, heaven and hell become the tools by which people can be manipulated for good or bad by charismatic speakers. In either case, their utility is more than counterbalanced by their liability.

  • Keith DeRose

    Tony told me the Beliefnet folks might be through, deleting comments they deem inappropriate. I guess that’s what happened here — At any rate, *I* didn’t delete any comments. Someone apparently deleted an inappropriate comment, and also a few comments that responded to the inappropriate one (and that wouldn’t make sense w/o their target). I just want to tell those responders: I saw your comments before they were removed, and appreciated your welcome & expressions of interest.

  • Jon

    In your pragmatic discussion, can you offer any hints for how to communicate an orthodox or “traditional” view of hell? For example, when an angst-ridden atheist accuses you of shaping your theology in reaction to your diapers being wound too tight as a child? My blog recently got attacked because I offered a parallel between sports and judgment day, God thumping on the “bad guys.”