International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2005) 58: 103–123 DOI: 10.1007/s11153-005-3810-4
© Springer 2005
The Injustice of Hell S. KERSHNAR Department of Philosophy, Fenton Hall, Fredonia NY, 14063, USA (E-mail: [email protected]
Introduction This essay aims to establish two theses. First, hell is unjust. Second, God ought not (or perhaps cannot) impose hell on human beings. I speciﬁcally argue that human beings do not deserve hell because they either cannot cause an inﬁnite amount of harm or are not responsible for doing so. Also, since humans don’t have inﬁnitely bad characters, hell can’t be deserved on the basis of character. Since humans don’t deserve hell, God may not (or perhaps cannot) impose unjust punishments and hence may not (or cannot) send or allow persons to go to hell.
Basic concepts Before laying out the arguments for these theses, it is worthwhile to ﬁrst set out the two concepts that are part of these theses. First, I will use “God” to refer to the maximally great being. This usage is closely connected to the assertion that God is morally perfect. Second, I will assume that hell involves an inﬁnite net harmful state extended over an inﬁnite amount of time.1 By harm, I mean a setback to an interest.2 A harmful state is a net harmful one if it is a state during which it would have been better not to exist. My assumption here is that non-existence has a zero level of well-being, which is what allows us to make the comparison between existence and non-existence. The idea behind this assumption is that if, other things being equal, a person had to choose between a life with equal amounts of goods and bads for him and non-existence, he should be rationally indifferent. On my account, hell is distinct from annihilation, which is permanent cessation of conscious existence.3 My account of hell also
rules out theories of hell that allow that persons might suffer a ﬁnite amount of harm over an inﬁnite amount of time because the amount of suffering approaches a limit.4 For example, this might happen if a person has the following utility level for each of the successive days −1/2, −1/4, −1/8, . . . . My account also rules out hell that involves an inﬁnite period in which a person has positive well-being.5 Speciﬁcally, this is designed to rule out the notion that life in hell might be enjoyable and meaningful, but merely lack one good that is present in heaven. If one thinks my account of the term “hell” is too narrow, then he should substitute “inﬁnite-suffering hell” where I use “hell” below.
Other arguments from justice There are a number of arguments in the literature that attempt to establish that hell is unjust. Thomas Talbott argues that the existence of suffering beings in hell prevents the existence of heaven since the persons in heaven would feel pain at the thought of the suffering of those in hell.6 The problem with this is that it is not obvious that one ought to suffer inﬁnitely at the thought of others receiving their inﬁnite but deserved suffering. This rests on the notion that an attitude toward a state of affairs is less good or bad than the state itself and hence there should be limits on the degree to which one should feel pain at the thought of another being in pain.7 If this is correct, then obsessing over others’ pain is not virtuous. Elsewhere Talbott argues that since God’s nature is simple, his justice coincides with mercy and mercy doesn’t allow for hell.8 In the context of punishment, justice and mercy conﬂict since mercy calls for a punishment that is less than the deserved punishment.9 If two properties generate incompatible permissions, then they aren’t identical. Marilyn McCord Adams argues that since human responsibility is so lessened by psychological ﬂaws, it would be cruel to subject a person to hell.10 The concern with this argument is that it threatens to undermine parts of the free-will defense to the problem of evil. For example, if psychological ﬂaws so impair free will, God should limit the amount of harm that ﬂawed agents (e.g., Mao, Stalin, and Hitler) impose on others or restrict the victims who might be caused to suffer. Elsewhere she argues that perfect justice doesn’t result in persons deserving an inﬁnite amount of suffering.11 It is this argument that I develop here.
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Hell is unjust In this section I argue that hell is unjust. Here is the overall argument. (P1) If hell (for human beings) is just, then some human beings deserve an inﬁnite punishment. (P2) No human being deserves inﬁnite punishment. (C2) Hence, hell is unjust. I shall defend the two premises in turn.
The defense of premise (P1) (If hell is just, then some human beings deserve an inﬁnite punishment) Premise (P1) rests on the assumption that if God imposes or allows a human being to receive an inﬁnite amount of harm, then that human deserves an inﬁnite amount of harm. To see this, let us consider whether God could allow a human being to receive an inﬁnite amount of harm that he did not deserve. One alternative is that human beings don’t deserve an inﬁnite amount of harm, but God permits them to receive it or imposes it anyway. The problem with this alternative is that this would indicate a defect in God. Consider the following Principle of Virtue. (1) If one person, A, can give a good, G, to a second person, B, and A’s giving G to B is morally good and good for B and A’s doing so is costless and A knows these things, then A is morally defective if he doesn’t give G to B. The idea behind this principle is that if a person can give a good to another that is not morally bad or bad for the recipient and it doesn’t cost the giver anything, then he ought to do so. His failure to do is excused only if he isn’t aware of these facts. The more basic idea is that the failure to be altruistic indicates an absence of beneﬁcence where it doesn’t interfere with a person’s projects, moral duties, or other things that ordinarily trump beneﬁcent reasons. One objection to this claim is that perfect duties are limited. Perfect duties are ones that are speciﬁc in terms of what is owed and to whom it is owed. The objector might continue that an agent’s perfect duties rest on a special relation (e.g., a child), a commitment (e.g., a
promise), or an injury (e.g., a duty to compensate). He might continue that duties to strangers are at most imperfect in that they give the agent discretion with regard to whom to beneﬁt and how to beneﬁt them. Hence, a person who fails to provide a person with a good (even a deserved one) still might satisfy all of his duties and hence this failure doesn’t indicate a vice. However, the difference between perfect and imperfect duties is likely explained by the value of autonomy. This explains why an agent’s having space to pursue his projects relates to the scope of impermissible interference by others and the realm in which a person has a liberty (absence of a duty) to pursue these projects. This in turn is explained by the fact that human autonomy is constrained by time, ability, and resources. Since these constraints don’t apply to God, it is doubtful that God’s virtue and vice tracks the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. On some accounts, God stands in a special relation to human beings.12 Such accounts rest on a quasi-familial relation. We need not address either this issue or what perfect duties such a relation grounds since God’s virtue will provide him with a sufﬁcient reason not to permit an individual to place himself in hell when he does not deserve it. A second objection is that persons place themselves in hell, so hell-related suffering is not something for which God is responsible. One version of this is that hell involves a separation from God that a human chooses for himself.13 The problem with this objection is that God bears some responsibility if he sets up the levels of wellbeing that a person receives from his choices. If God sets up a system whereby persons who reject God’s grace end up suffering, then he has in some sense caused their suffering. This is analogous to a school principal who sets up the punishment for student ﬁghting. If he sets up a system whereby the janitor forcibly sodomizes ﬁghters, then the principal is responsible for the ﬁghters’ suffering even if they have made themselves liable for it. Similarly, if God sets up a system where persons continually suffer in return for their refusal of God’s grace, then he is in a similar sense responsible for this outcome. Like the sodomy-punishment, if the resulting condition is wholly out of proportion to what the individuals have done, then God acts unjustly. It does not matter whether the suffering is caused by a morally responsible third-party (e.g., the janitor) or an impersonal mechanism. For example, the principal would be every bit as blameworthy if he set up a robot who would sodomize the ﬁghters. If instead, the negative wellbeing is proportionate to what the individuals have done, then they
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receive what they deserve. This brings us to the issue of whether some human beings deserve an inﬁnite punishment.
The defense of premise (P2) (No human being deserves inﬁnite punishment) Character as a ground of negative desert In this section I argue that no human being deserves an inﬁnite amount of harm. By “desert,” I mean a relation between some feature of a person and his level of well-being that when present makes or helps to make the world a morally better place. This is a species of the good since it is concerned with what affects the intrinsic value of the world.14 In contrast to desert, moral rights are a species of the right and involve two-person moral relations. Inﬁnite negative desert rests on an agent’s having done an act or acts of inﬁnite seriousness, having a character that is inﬁnitely bad, or some combination of these. Consider ﬁrst the question of whether desert rests on a human being’s act or character. Here are two formulations of the notion that character grounds desert. (2) Character Theory: Moral desert rests on an agent’s character.15 (3) Strong Character Theory: Moral desert rests on, and only on, an agent’s character. There appear to be four main arguments for (2). One argument behind this notion is that a person is constituted by her character and hence it is what should determine a person’s desert. The idea is that what should ground punishment is who we are rather than what we do. The problem with this argument is that desert rests on some factor for which we are responsible and on a libertarian account of free will, we are fully responsible for who we are only if we chose to be that way.16 The commitment to a libertarian account of free will might be thought to be required for any theist who adopts the free-will defense as a solution to the problem of evil. This is because a person’s responsibility must rest on factors that are in the end not traceable to factors outside of his control such as his environment or genetics. On a fundamental level, only an agent’s choices are not traceable to environment or genetics. Hence, this ﬁrst argument fails to support the Character Theory. It might be objected to that an agent’s character might be the result of his choices and thus something for which he could be
responsible. However, on this account, responsibility rests directly on the agent’s choices and only indirectly on the outcomes of those choices (e.g., his chosen character). If we view choices as a type of mental act, then this theory thereby asserts that desert fundamentally rests on acts. A second argument is that the Strong Character Theory explains why we normally focus on acts. We focus on acts because we can’t make reliable judgments of a person’s character. We further think that acts ground deserved punishment only in so far as they reﬂect character. This explains why provocation and duress excuse or partially excuse the agent. They excuse because they involve a disconnection between a person’s act and his character. The problem with this account is that the excusing effects of provocation and duress can also be explained in terms of their undermining a person’s responsibility for his acts. They do so by introducing emotional forces that overcomes a person’s ability to control his acts (and would do so for an ordinary person). Thus the role of excuses such as provocation and duress does not support the Strong Character Theory. A third argument for the Character Theory is that character is less subject to moral luck (external inﬂuences that affect a person) than other factors and hence a more appropriate ground for desert. Whether one completes a wrongdoing or merely attempts it is partially a function of moral luck. Consider the following case: Assassins. Two angry ex-husbands form a pact. Each agrees to shoot the other’s ex-wife. They are equally good shots having both served as snipers in the Marine Corps. The ﬁrst hits the second’s ex-wife and kills her. The second shoots at the ﬁrst’s ex-wife but fails to kill her because the particular bullet he loaded was defective, although he had no way of knowing of this defect. The idea here is that the difference between the two outcomes rests on factors outside of the men’s control. Since desert is intimately related to control, it can’t rest on whether someone succeeds or merely attempts to murder another. The same is true for whether an individual attempts to do an act. To see this, consider the following case, Pedophiles. Two men have powerful sexual desires to commit rape. The ﬁrst attempts to commit rape but can’t complete it due to the unexpected aggression by the woman’s beagle. The second has a cousin
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in the FBI, who tells him about the bureau’s ability to investigate sex crimes and the extreme likelihood that the perpetrator would be caught. As a result of this information the second does not make such an attempt, but would have had he not had it. If the ﬁrst man had this information, he would not have made such an attempt. Again, whether the person makes an attempt is a function of external factors over which the agent has no control. It is hard to see, then, why merely having made an attempt should ground desert. The problem with this argument is that there is also constitutive moral luck, i.e., moral luck that shapes what character one has.17 This inﬂuence is obviously quite strong, which is why we think that it is important when raising children to have healthy environments. If the inﬂuence of moral luck prevents a factor from grounding desert, then this undermines the notion that character grounds desert. One might argue that moral luck shapes character formation less than other factors, e.g., acts and attempts. However, it is not clear what argument supports this claim. This is particularly true if we recognize the signiﬁcant role genetics plays in determining a person’s intelligence, personality, and life outcomes.18 It is not clear in what sense genetics plays a similar role in determining whether someone attempts to perform or performs an act, although it may come into play in so far as a person’s character explains in part his thoughts and actions. Thus, the problem of moral luck does not provide clear support for the Character Theory. A fourth argument from intuitions does support the Character Theory. Here our intuitions suggest that the world is a better place if virtuous rather than vicious persons receive increased well-being. Consider the following case, Opium. There are two persons with the same level of unhappiness, both of whom have a painful terminal illness. The ﬁrst is virtuous, although his role as a space explorer has not allowed him to express it by directly beneﬁting many people. The second is vicious but was unable to express this for the same reason. It intuitively seems that if we have enough opium for only one person (and it can’t be divided), then the world is a better place if we give it to the virtuous rather than the vicious person. These thought experiments seem a little hard to imagine since it is hard to believe that very different characters over the life of the
relevant individuals didn’t translate into a different number of wrongdoings. If one thinks that this difﬁculty does not undermine our conﬁdence in our intuitions, then this thought experiment and ones like it support the Character Theory. They do not, however, provide any support for the Strong Character Theory. Even if the Strong Character Theory were true, human beings likely have characters that deserve inﬁnite punishment only if they have characters that tend to produce acts that produce inﬁnite harm. The only factors that would prevent a person with an inﬁnitely vicious character from attempting to bring about inﬁnite harm would be external ones and these would not be present in all the relevant possible worlds. A character is constituted by her beliefs, desires, and the relations between them. Although the value of a human being’s character is not a function of the acts it tends to produce, this tendency is a good indicator of its value. The assumption here is that the content of the constituent mental states is likely reﬂected in a person’s actions in the actual world or ones he would have performed in near possible worlds. If this is correct, then we still need to explore whether persons can do or attempt to do acts that ground inﬁnite negative desert. In conclusion, then, there is some support for the notion that character grounds desert, but no support for the notion that acts don’t do so. If this correct, then in deciding whether human beings can deserve hell, we have to be concerned with both their character- and act-based desert. In addition, act-based desert is evidence of characterbased desert. The most obvious way that a person’s acts could ground inﬁnite negative desert is by his doing things that deserve punishment. I will explore this notion in the next section. An act as a ground of negative desert Retributivism is the dominant theory of just punishment. It addresses who to punish and how much to punish. These are captured in propositions (4) and (5). (4) Who to Punish: There is an agent-relative duty to punish the deserving and to avoid punishing the non-deserving. (5) How Much to Punish: A punishment is just if and only if it is proportionate to a person’s desert. The duty element in (4) captures the notion that retributivism is a theory of obligation rather than a mere permission. The effect of this is lessened if, as I believe is the case, the victim has the right to
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punishment and can waive it. The agent-relative aspect of the duty makes it clear that retributivism is incompatible with consequentialism. The latter theory requires that an agent punish the innocent or refrain from punishing the guilty when this brings about better results. The proportionality constraint in (5) involves a ratio scale, i.e., one with a true zero point and equal intervals between units of measure. Rights play a signiﬁcant role in retributivism. The wrongdoer forfeits some of his rights.19 This explains why the imposition of punishment does not impose on the punishing agent a duty to compensate the wrongdoer. This also explains why punishment of the guilty is morally permissible. The rights are forfeited against, and only against, the victim. This can be seen if we consider a thought experiment involving the state of nature. Consider a violent injustice committed in the state of nature (the state without a government). Speciﬁcally, Don shatters Jane’s nose. If Jane has a right to punish Don and he has a right against disproportionate punishment, and both are intuitively correct, then the right to punish must be held by Jane alone. Otherwise third parties could rush out and punish Don thereby either depriving Jane of her right to punish or allowing Jane to tack on a disproportionate punishment. Other persons are morally permitted to punish but only if they act as the victim’s agent. On this picture rights forfeiture aligns with and complements punitive desert. The argument for retributivism rests largely on its being the best explanation of some powerful intuitions.20 We intuitively think that having committed a culpable wrongdoing is necessary and sufﬁcient for punishment and that punishment should be proportionate to the culpable wrongdoing. By “culpability,” I mean “responsibility.” By “wrongdoing,” I mean “injustice bringing about harm.” The argument is that the best explanation of these intuitions is that the culpable wrongdoers forfeit their right against punishment with regard to the victim. This makes it permissible for the victim or her agent to punish up to the point of proportionality. The duty to punish is a reﬂexive duty that a victim owes herself out of self-respect. Both the forfeiture and reﬂexive duty are primitive features of punishment and hence cannot be derived from more fundamental theories of justice. Given this account of retributivism, the issue arises as to whether a person can deserve an inﬁnite amount of punishment. As mentioned above, this could be done because the agent is inﬁnitely vicious, because he does an act of inﬁnite seriousness, or because he does an inﬁnite number of acts that have ﬁnite seriousness. Let us consider these in turn.
Act Theory #1: Some human beings do a single act that brings about an inﬁnite amount of harm A person can cause an inﬁnite amount of unjust harm to a person in a number of ways. He might cause an inﬁnite loss to a person of ﬁnite importance, he might cause a loss (ﬁnite or inﬁnite) to a person of inﬁnite importance, or he might attempt one of these. In this section, I argue that none of these grounds inﬁnite desert. Once we allow that moral luck does not completely undermine negative desert, the notion that mere attempts ground as much negative desert as completed acts appears to be less secure. In addition if one thinks that ﬁttingness explains different features of the good, then there is less reason to think that the two grounds are equivalent. Fittingness theory is committed to the following three claims. (6) Fittingness: It is ﬁtting that intrinsically good things be connected to (for example, receive or be directed at) other intrinsically good things and that intrinsically bad things be connected to other intrinsically bad things. (7) Degree of Fittingness: The ﬁttingness is a function of the proportionality of the connection speciﬁed in (6). (8) Fittingness and Value: This ﬁttingness relation makes states of affairs that obtain intrinsically good and does so in accordance with the degree of ﬁttingness.21 Relations that are not ﬁtting either lack ﬁttingness or are unﬁtting; a parallel set of principles applies to the latter. It should be noted that ﬁttingness theory does not rule out other intrinsic-good making properties. This relation explains the shared structure of virtue (it is intrinsically good that persons have a pro-attitude toward intrinsically good things) and positive desert (it is intrinsically good that beings who are or do intrinsically good things receive intrinsically good things). This theory aligns with two sets of intuitions with regard to the moral status of different attitudes. The theory explains why it does not intuitively seem to be as vicious for one person to take pleasure in another’s just suffering as it does in his unjust suffering. The explanation here is that the object of pleasure (an intrinsically good thing) is worse in the case of unjust suffering. For example, it does not seem as vicious for a rape victim or her family to enjoy the suffering of the rapist as he is pronounced guilty as it is for the rapist to enjoy the suffering of his victim.
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If this ﬁttingness notion explains such things as virtue and desert, then this would explain why attempts don’t ground as much negative desert as completed acts. In completing an act, an agent connects himself more ﬁrmly to a bad outcome (e.g., death or pain), than he does via a mere attempt. In a mere attempt, the bad outcome either doesn’t occur, so the agent isn’t connected to it, or it does but not through the agent’s thoughts or actions, thereby preventing a direct connection to him. This does not by itself show that a person can’t deserve hell in virtue of his attempts but it suggests a reason one might think this. One might think that a person’s making a mere attempt is a minor bad, speciﬁcally the bad that consists of a person’s having or making a morally bad thought or decision. It is hard to see how such a minor bad could ground inﬁnite punishment. To be sure this might be largely a function of moral luck, but as we have seen moral luck does not completely undermine moral desert. A human being can cause an inﬁnite loss to another of ﬁnite value only if the ﬁrst sends or helps to send the second to hell (or causes her to be annihilated). This might come about, for example, if one person sees another person about to accept God’s grace and then quickly kills him to ensure that he goes to hell. This creates a bootstrap problem because it requires that hell (or annihilation) already exist. In the absence of hell (or annihilation), a person can’t make it considerably more likely that another person goes there. Hence, God would need a reason independent of human desert that supports creating hell (or annihilating persons). In addition, it is not clear if one person can be responsible for sending another to hell since the person who is sent must already have warranted it. This independent warrant probably does not undermine the sender’s inﬁnite negative desert since the sender’s injustice is the foreseeable cause of the second human’s suffering an inﬁnite harm. This is analogous to the way in which a Maﬁa head is responsible for a prosecutor’s death when he orders an assassin to shoot him. A human being can’t directly cause an inﬁnite loss to an inﬁnitely important being such as God. This is because God is omnipotent and hence invulnerable to human beings. Even if such a being could cause such a loss, it can’t be done via an injustice toward God. Thus, if a human being, Al, causes another human being, Bob, to go to hell, God might suffer inﬁnitely from his recognition of Bob’s future. However, again this presupposes that God has another reason to create hell and this needs support. In addition, God could only punish Al based on what he did to Bob, not for what was done to God himself.
This is because the right to punish is held by the victim and his agent and a victim is one who has been treated unjustly (more speciﬁcally, has had a moral right infringed on). Al no more violates God’s right than he does other persons who love Bob. My underlying assumption here is that if one person unjustly harms a second, punishment is owed for, and only for, the injustice toward this second person. Harm to third parties, even those who have a great interest in the second person’s well-being, does not ground punishment. Without an assumption like this, a criminal’s just punishment would depend in part on the number of persons who depend on the victim and whose interests are thereby set back. If this were the case, then a person who rapes a mother of three or a CEO whom many shareholders depend on for her unique business acumen would warrant more punishment than the rape of a friendless and isolated teenager. This would be true even if the latter is signiﬁcantly more damaged so long as the aggregate setback to third parties’ interests outweighs the additional damage to the teenager. This is counterintuitive. The deeper explanation for this is that the reason to punish is closely related to the value or expression of the victim’s dignity and third parties have not had their dignity impugned.22 A brief aside on annihilation might be helpful here. It might be thought that God has sufﬁcient reason to annihilate human beings even if he doesn’t have reason to send them to hell. The reason is that it is better that evil beings cease to exist rather than enjoy the beneﬁts of an afterlife. To see the problem with this, consider that such humans have either inﬁnite or ﬁnite negative desert. But they can’t have inﬁnite negative desert on the basis of what they did to other humans, since this desert rests on their having caused someone to be sent to hell or annihilated. This, again, requires that God have an independent reason to create hell or annihilation and it is hard to see what that reason could be. If these human beings have ﬁnite negative desert, then it is intrinsically better that they receive a proportionate amount of suffering and then enjoy the beneﬁts of an afterlife than be annihilated. In conclusion, I argued that a human being can’t deserve hell based on a single attempt or act. I speciﬁcally argued that inﬁnite negative desert probably can’t rest on mere attempts. Nor can it rest on harm to God since he is not unjustly harmed. Human beings can cause inﬁnite harm to each other via a single act only if hell already exists. This, however, would require that God had a reason other than the desert of particular human beings to create hell and it is hard to see what that could be.
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Act Theory #2: Some human beings do an inﬁnite number of acts that together bring about an inﬁnite amount of harm An alternative way a human being might deserve hell is if he commits an inﬁnite number of injustices that in the aggregate bring about an inﬁnite amount of harm. This might come about if persons in hell repeatedly commit evil acts over an inﬁnite duration.23 There is a problem as to whether one can do an inﬁnite number of harmful acts (or attempts) since this would involve achieving inﬁnity through successive addition. The concern is that this is not possible because no matter how many acts one has done, the amount is ﬁnite.24 I shall assume that one can do an inﬁnite number of wrongdoings through successive addition if he commits a wrongdoing during each interval in an inﬁnite sequence, although I am not conﬁdent about this assumption. Persons who deny that you can achieve inﬁnity through successive addition would likely deny that there are any inﬁnite sequences in the actual world, but this would then entail that hell does not exist. There is also an issue as to whether proportionality involves the mere summing of harms. The concern here is that individual injustices when summed together appear to justify a punishment that is disproportionately great. Marilyn McCord Adams illustrates this with the example of Jones who knocks out one tooth in 32 persons. The proportional punishment would seem to involve Jones having all of his teeth (there are 32) knocked out.25 Adams claims that this result is disproportionate since it is much worse for Jones to have no teeth than it is for each of 32 people to have lost one tooth each. The retributivist can accept this and argue that proportionality focuses on the net harm to each individual rather than the number of acts of a certain type (e.g., tooth removal). This concern raises the issue of whether a human being who causes short but intense pain to an inﬁnite number of persons deserves an inﬁnite amount of pain. The concern here is that a life of constant and intense pain involves greater net harm than the sum of the individual harms that come about through the agent’s injustices. Such a life is worse because it excludes higher-order goods that are not excluded by lives that include brief but intense amounts of pain. In this context, higher-order goods are goods in life that make someone’s life go better than an equal quantity of other (lower-order) goods. They include things like knowledge, virtue, and meaningful relationships. This problem arises even if pain is construed more broadly as a complex state whereby one has a mental state that he dislikes for its sake.26 This broader construal allows
us to include both emotional pain (e.g., the thought that one’s child has died) and to avoid physical sensations that some individuals (e.g., masochists) enjoy. Thus, it is not clear that the proportionate punishment for an inﬁnite number of individual injustices involves inﬁnite suffering. However, this is less clear if the agent imposes an inﬁnite number of injustices on another individual, since this might prevent the second from having a life with higher-order goods. More signiﬁcantly, someone who continues to commit unjust acts that result in his being punished would be irrational.27 The person who continues to commit such acts is unable to learn that his acts are wrongful or that they lead to undesirable consequences, or he has motivational defects. This inability to learn or motivate oneself in a desired fashion is possible for rational beings with ﬁnite lives, since they lack information or the time to properly discipline themselves. However, a similar failure over an inﬁnite period of time reﬂects either a substantially reduced ability to learn or an inability to motivate oneself in accord with one’s judgments. Over an inﬁnite period of time, a responsible agent grasps the nature of the good and right and that following it is strongly in his interest. The only explanation for his failure to think and do the right things would be an inability to control which desires get translated into action. This inability is sufﬁcient to hold the agent blameless for his actions and it is unjust to continually punish such a person. Such a punishment is morally equivalent to putting a person who cannot convert his short-term memory into long-term memory into the same situation and punishing him endlessly for repeatedly making the same mistake. This objection against inﬁnite acts also rules out a human being deserving hell because he has an inﬁnitely persisting evil character. The argument in the preceding paragraph assumes that persons can escape hell or its temporary analogue. This assumption is implicit in the notion that persons deserve hell because they repeatedly commit evil acts over an inﬁnite duration. However, my argument need not rest on the possibility of escape from hell. It could rest on the weaker assumption that persons eventually suffer a net harm over time (e.g., more pain or less knowledge of the good) through their repeated evil acts. Two objections might be raised here. First, an objector might assert that it is possible that a person who inﬁnitely repeats the same wrongdoing might be responsible but subject to weakness of the will. However, the failure to either recognize or correct this weakness eventually indicates a cognitive or volitional defect. Note that this response is
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independent of whether weakness of the will is itself a type of irrationality. Second, an objector might also assert that person who does an inﬁnite amount of wrongdoings might refuse to learn about the nature or consequences of his acts. However, this just pushes the issue one step back. This person either should recognize that he should learn these things or he again has a responsibility-undermining defect. Hence, a human being cannot deserve hell on the basis that he did an inﬁnite number of wrongdoings. This is because the performance of an inﬁnite number of wrongdoings involves such a failure to learn about the nature or consequences of wrongdoings that the agent would not be morally responsible. In addition, there is a concern as to whether a human being can do an inﬁnite number of wrongdoings.
Since hell is unjust, God ought not to impose it The notion that if hell is unjust, God should not impose it rests on the rather straightforward notion that God should not act in an unjust manner. My assumption here is that the moral content of justice is solely a function of the satisfaction of moral rights. There are other features relevant to the right (e.g., consequences, exploitation, and intention), but only moral rights constitute justice. This is because only moral rights delineate the range of duties and powers (abilities to change or eliminate various moral relations) that constitute the respect owed to persons in virtue of their autonomy. If this is correct, then justice allows discretion in deciding what punishment to impose only in so far as the victim (or her agent) waives part or all of her right to punish. In addition, this discretion only extends to punishment whose severity is less than or equal to the justice-based ceiling. Since human beings don’t do acts that result in their forfeiting their rights against inﬁnite punishments, such punishments would be unjust.
God’s duty to be just is not overridden In the context of divine punishment, God does not face considerations that would override the demands of justice. The consequentialist considerations that can override justice in the context of human actions would seem to be inapplicable to God because he could bring about the relevant consequences either by changing various causal laws or by manipulating the desires that shape human thought and action.
William Lane Craig disagrees with the above causal claim. Speciﬁcally, he argues that God must tolerate some persons going to hell in order to make the world a better place.28 This is because a large multitude can go to heaven only if some others go to hell. He speciﬁcally asserts that God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between the saved and unsaved.29 There are two reasons that this might be the case. First, there might be individuals who suffer transworld damnation, i.e., they are lost in every world that is feasible for God. Such individuals might be lost in every world in which they exist or they might be lost in every world in which they exist and a multitude of human beings are saved.30 Second, individuals might suffer contingent damnation. Under this scenario in any world in which a multitude of human beings are saved, there are some that are lost, although which ones vary between worlds. Craig assumes that God has middle knowledge (he knows how human beings will behave under different conditions). Given middle knowledge, God knows which human beings he creates will be saved, since he knows how they will respond to different circumstances. However, this knowledge is compatible with human freedom. Craig’s argument fails. Consider whether there are individuals who suffer transworld damnation. Such individuals cannot be damned in every world in which they exist, since this would be true only if their rejection of God’s grace followed from their essential nature and this would so greatly restrict their act-options as to undermine their responsibility for rejecting God’s grace. So if the optimal outcome involves unsaved individuals, their decision to reject God’s grace must be connected to the saving of the multitude. However, this is not true of a particular human being. There isn’t anything about the saving of many other human beings that necessitates that a particular individual choose to reject God’s grace. If there were, then that individual’s decision would be linked to some feature or action of others and this linkage would undermine that individual’s responsibility for this rejection. Nor does it seem to be true of some human being or other in every world. It is clearly and distinctly imaginable that a few human beings freely choose to accept God’s grace. Nothing changes as we add human beings who make such choices. This is not to say that God would determine their choices. Rather, it is to say that God would create a set of circumstances and then create only those human beings who would react to those circumstances (or ones that ﬂow from it) by freely accepting his grace. This, of course, assumes that God has either middle knowledge or foreknowledge, but Craig also
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assumes this. If God lacks both middle and foreknowledge, then he can’t know who will be saved.31 However, then it is not open to God to create the optimal mix of saved and unsaved since he wouldn’t know how the mix will turn out. It is also logically impossible for God to be a consequentialist. A consequentialist holds that there is an all-things-considered duty to bring about the best state of affairs. However, there is no best state of affairs. Rather there is an inﬁnite sequence of increasingly better states of affairs. This is true regardless of whether one adopts a totalist theory (the value of a state of affairs is a function of its total amount of good) or averagist theory (the value of a state of affairs is a function of the amount of good per relevant being). If bringing about the best state of affairs is a logically impossible task and if ought implies can, then God can’t have a duty to do so. Hence, if human beings don’t deserve (and hence don’t forfeit their right against) hell, then God has a duty not impose it on them. The duty not to impose hell unjustly is not overridden by the concern for consequences, hence it seems that, all things considered, God may not (or perhaps cannot) impose hell on human beings. If ought implies can and God is essentially just, then it follows that God can’t impose hell rather than it merely being impermissible for him to do so. The idea behind God lacking the ability to impose hell is that he can do something only if he has the power to choose it. And he has the power to choose something only if he can be motivated to do it. An essentially just being can’t be motivated to do unjust acts. Hence, if God is essentially just, then he can’t act unjustly. This argument rests on the controversial assumption that God is essentially just and I set aside the issues surrounding it.
An aside on the injustice of Quasi-Hell Given my assumption that hell involves inﬁnite suffering over an inﬁnite amount of time, my argument does not rule out God’s imposing a ﬁnite punishment extended over an inﬁnite amount of time. This might occur where a person is punished for an inﬁnite period but where his punishment approaches a limit. For example, God might impose the following level of utility on an individual: −100, −50, −25, etc. However, it is not clear what reason God would have for imposing such a punishment rather than merely imposing a proportional punishment of ﬁnite duration and then annihilating
the individual. Both punishments would by themselves have the same effect on the intrinsic goodness of the universe, although their instrumental value (e.g., deterrence) might vary. In addition, it is not clear how God would gain the moral right to impose even ﬁnite punishments. Unless a victim transfers her right to punish to God, he would not have this right. This is analogous to the way in which roving vigilantes in the state of nature don’t have the moral right to punish a particular wrongdoer unless the victim grants them this right. If the victim instead waives her right to punish (e.g., she forgives the wrongdoer) or transfers it to someone else (e.g., she transfers it to a commercial protective agency), the vigilantes may not justly punish the wrongdoer.32 In addition, the transfer of a right from one person to another might be thought to require that the second accept it.33 For example, Smith successively transfers ownership of his farm to Jones only if Jones accepts it. This is in part because the farm carries duties with it and in part because the previous owner should be able to determine if the transfer has taken place.34 If Jones refuses it or gives no sign of acceptance, then we intuitively think that Smith is free to transfer it to someone else. If God does not accept the offer of a right to punish, then he doesn’t gain the moral right to punish wrongdoers. Since he might, however, gain this right from an individual after her earthly death, this transfer might not be something that we can currently observe.
Conclusion In this paper, I argued that if hell for human beings is just, then some human beings deserve an inﬁnite punishment. I then argued that human beings do not deserve such a punishment unless God has an independent reason to create hell, and it is hard to see what that reason would be. Human beings probably cannot do a single wrongdoing that warrants hell. Nor can they deserve hell by performing an inﬁnite number of wrongdoings that cause ﬁnite harm since the commission of such acts would establish that the agent lacks sufﬁcient moral responsibility. Also, since humans don’t have inﬁnitely bad characters, hell can’t be deserved on that basis. Since humans neither deserve hell nor forfeit their right against it, it would be unjust for God to impose it. Since God may not (or cannot) impose unjust punishments, he may not (or cannot) send, or even allow, persons to go to hell.35
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Notes 1. This is the view found in such historically signiﬁcant authors as Augustine, The City of God, trans. John Healey, R. V. G. Tasker, (ed.), (New York: Dutton, 1972), Book 21, ch. 17 and Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1946). The traditional Christian view of hell is that God punishes some human beings by sending them to hell. Those sent exist there and cannot leave. Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 19, p. 25. My analysis of hell overlaps with this traditional thesis only in so far as it assumes that human beings exist in hell. 2. See Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), ch. 1. 3. Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 180–184; John W. Wenham, ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’, in N. Cameron (ed.), Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992), pp. 161–191; Clark Pinnock, ‘The Conditional View’, in W. Crocket, (ed.), Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 135–166. 4. By this, I mean to rule out theories of hell that allow that persons might suffer a ﬁnite amount of harm over an inﬁnite amount of period because the harm approaches a limit. James Cain, ‘On the Problem of Hell’, Religious Studies 38 (2002); Charles Seymour, ‘Hell, Justice, and Freedom’, International Journal of Philosophy 43 (1998): 84 n. 5 citing Thomas Flint. 5. Andrei Buckareff and Allen Plug in their ‘Escaping Hell: Divine Motivation and the Problem of Hell’, Religious Studies, forthcoming, argue for a hell in which the inhabitants have a positive level of well-being and need not be there for an inﬁnite duration. 6. Thomas Talbott, ‘Providence, Freedom, and Human Destiny’, Religious Studies 26 (1990): 239–241. 7. For an argument in support of this, see Thomas Hurka, ‘How Great a Good is Virtue?’, The Journal of Philosophy 98 (1998): 181–203. Hurka argues that the attitude toward an intrinsically good object is less valuable than the object itself. 8. Thomas Talbott, ‘Punishment, Forgiveness, and Divine Justice’, Religious Studies 29 (1993). 9. Jeffrie G. Murphy, ‘Mercy and Legal Justice’, in Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross (eds.), Philosophy of Law (4th ed.) (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 724–731. 10. Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, Eleonore Stump (ed.), A Reasoned Faith (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 313–14. 11. Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘Hell and the God of Justice’, Religious Studies 11 (1975): 433–447. 12. I owe this point to Andrei Buckareff. 13. This view can be seen in C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946); Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN:
17. 18. 19.
University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), esp. p. 13; Talbott, ‘Providence, Freedom, and Human Destiny’, 244. More speciﬁcally, since I think that states of affairs that obtain are the bearer of intrinsic value, it somehow makes states of affairs that obtain have greater intrinsic value. I leave aside the issue of whether desert-satisfaction does so by itself or whether it does so by affecting the value of well-being. The former view can be seen in Shelly Kagan, ‘Equality and Desert’, in Louis P. Pojman and Owen McLeod, (eds.), What Do We Deserve? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 298–314. The latter view can be seen in Fred Feldman, ‘Adjusting Utility for Justice: A Consequentialist Reply to the Objection from Justice’, in his Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 151–174. This theory can be seen in George Fletcher, Rethinking Criminal Law (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978), p. 800; Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1981), pp. 394–396; George Vuoso, ‘Background, Responsibility, and Excuse’, Yale Law Journal 96 (1987): 1661–1686; Michael Bayles, ‘Character, Purpose, and Criminal Responsibility’, Law and Philosophy 1 (1982): 5–20; and R. B. Brandt, ‘A Motivational Theory of Excuses in the Criminal Law’, Criminal Justice: Nomos XXVII (New York: New York University Press, 1985), pp. 187–188. In the more general area of moral desert this notion is set out in Kagan, ‘Equality and Desert’ and Thomas Hurka, ‘The Common Structure of Virtue and Desert’, Ethics 112 (2001): 6–31 The notion that desert must rest on factors that we control has been challenged. Fred Feldman, ‘Desert: Reconsideration of Some Received Wisdom’, in his Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 178–184. I claim that Feldman’s counterexamples (e.g., injured parties owed compensation) capture claims rather than desert. This point can be seen in Thomas Nagel, ‘Moral Luck’, in Gary Watson (ed.), Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 181–182. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002), pp. 372–378. This forfeiture account can be seen in Vinit Haksar, ‘Excuses and Voluntary Conduct’, Ethics 96 (1986): 321–324; Alan Goldman, ‘The Paradox of Punishment’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1979): 43; A. John Simmons, ‘Locke and the Right to Punish’, in A. John Simmons et al., (eds.), Punishment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 238–252; Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 365–366. The ideas in this paragraph come from Michael Moore, Placing Blame: A Theory of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), chs. 2–4; Stephen Kershnar, Desert, Retributivism, and Torture (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001), chs. 4–6. The intrinsically valuable states of affairs are broadly construed here to include both the states of affairs that obtain and that stand in the ﬁttingness relation and the relation itself. In context of punishment, the idea that punishment has an expressive function that is somehow tied to respect for the victim’s dignity this idea can be seen in Thaddeus Metz, ‘Censure Theory and Intuitions about Punishment’, Law and Philosophy 19 (2000): 491–512; Jean Hampton, ‘An Expressive Theory of Retribution’, in Wesley Cragg, (ed.), Retributivism and Its Critics (Stuttgart:
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29. 30. 31.
F. Steiner Verlag, 1992), pp. 1–25; Igor Primoratz, ‘Punishment as Language’, Philosophy 64 (1989): 187–205. This solution is put forth in Seymour, ‘Hell, Justice, and Freedom’,; 78–79 and Adams, ‘Hell and the God of Justice’, 433. The notion that one can’t achieve inﬁnity through successive addition can be seen in William Lane Craig, ‘The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe’, Truth: A Journal of Modern Thought 3 (1991): 85–96. Marilyn McCord Adams, ‘Divine Justice, Divine Love, and the Life to Come’, Crux 13 (1976–1977): p. 14, p. 16. There is a second reason to adopt this broader account of pain. In making the badness of pain depend on both the experience and the subject’s attitude toward the experience, rather than just one of them, this account preserves the notion that the intrinsic badness of pain should rest on, and only on, its intrinsic properties. The idea for this argument comes from Fred Feldman’s analysis of the nature of pleasure. Fred Feldman, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, Ethics 107 (1997): 448–466. Thomas Talbott argues that the notion that an agent might freely chose eternal misery for oneself and do so in full knowledge of what one is choosing is incoherent. Talbott, ‘Providence, Freedom, and Human Destiny’, 228. The choice is not incoherent in acts that are ﬁnitely wrong but extend one’s stay in hell. However, an agent that repeatedly makes them is irrational. William Lane Craig, “No Other Name’: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ’, Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989): 172–188. Ibid., 184. Craig’s argument focuses on the latter interpretation of transworld damnation. Ibid. I do not need to assume here that foreknowledge follows from middle knowledge. However, I believe that it does. If God knows how persons will act in various circumstances and he decides what circumstances obtain, then he knows how they will act. The notion that one can transfer the right to punish to a protective agency is implicit in Robert Nozick’s argument for the legitimacy of the state. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1974), ch. 3. The notion that acceptance (or uptake) is required for the transfer of property is found in Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 322–323. Ibid. I am grateful to Andrei Buckareff, Neil Feit, and Louis P. Pojman for their extremely helpful comments and criticisms of this paper.