Many good conversations were had over my four days at Notre Dame University. One of the more interesting conversations occurred with one particular philosopher and concerned the topic of hell. (The philosopher will remain nameless since it is awkward to begin contacting people and asking for their permission to use their name in a blog post based on a casual conversation. Needless to say it is even worse to use their name without permission.)
This is how the conversation progressed. At one point I expressed my dissatisfaction with libertarian appeals to free will as explanations for hell (whether that is understood as eternal conscious torment or annihilation). The standard appeal against which I was reacting is that God respects our free will and so, as C.S. Lewis put it, the gates of hell are locked on the inside.
And what was my problem with this venerable form of argument? Well if an individual was going to refuse to be reconciled to God in eternity, I argued, why wouldn’t God simply override that individual’s free will at all the points where they would otherwise rebel with the end result being that they choose to be reconciled to God? In other words, (2) is more plausible than (1) where (1) and (2) are as follows:
(1) Damned uninhibited free will: God does not override a person’s free will and as a result that person’s free choices result in them being damned.
(2) Free will override: God overrides a person’s free will at all points necessary for that person to choose to achieve eternal shalom in relationship with God and a restored creation.
But if this is the case then why do Christian libertarians treat free will as if it is some sacred, inviolable thing that can trump even the eternal flourishing of creatures and the restoration of all things?
When considering the free will override, keep in mind the following two things which are important to avoid making facile objections to the proposal. First, the individual’s free will would only be overriden at some points. And so it is not like a person would become an “automaton”. They’d still have intentions, beliefs, desires and the like. And in many (most?) cases, they would still act freely. For example, they might freely choose on a particular occasion in restored creation to have a vanilla ice cream cone rather than a chocolate one. (Incidentally, such ice cream is not only creamier and tastier than any presently existing ice cream but also has all the nutrition of a bowl of raw broccoli.) Second, the person would never know the points at which their free will had been or was being overridden. Indeed, they’d never know that they ended up in heaven due in part to God’s determining intervention. Consequently, their “quality of life” in this eternal existence would be indistinguishable from a person who had completely unimpeded free will.
With those points in mind I issued my trump card: I invited my interlocutor to consider his reaction to the two scenarios if the person we were talking about was his own child. And so my question: if his child was an irrepressible rebel, would he prefer that his child have a damned, uninhibited free will, or that his child be subject to a free will override where necessary to ensure that the child would enjoy an eternal blissful existence in harmonious restored relationship with God and creation?
At that point he looked at me and replied with a “Come on, that’s an appeal to emotion” response. Yes, I agreed, it was most emphatically a bald appeal to emotion. But what is wrong with that? Many of the truths we believe most deeply and profoundly are believed because of our emotional aversion or attraction to particular states of affairs, events or propositions. So what? That is typically a powerful ground to guide or belief.
Consider how our most basic moral convictions are formed and guided by our deep attraction to certain things (the good) and aversion to others (evil). But don’t just consider it in the abstract. Consider it in the concrete. Do you want to contemplate whether genocide could ever be a praiseworthy or permissible action? Does your reading of Joshua compel you to do so? Well I ask you to read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, a harrowing account of the Rwanda genocide, and then consider whether you are still committed to that position that genocide could be a good thing. Let your revulsion at the narratives contained therein spill over to all past, present and possible genocides with the recognition that they are all moral aberrations, indeed that they must be.
And so it is here. Consider what it would mean for your own beloved child to be damned eternally (whether by being subjected to eternal conscious torment or a horrifying final execution) and ask whether in that extreme circumstance of a recalcitrant free will, you would prefer for the will to be overridden for the sake of your beloved. Of course you would. Free will override as a trade for blissful existence? That’s a no-brainer.
So why the trigger response against appeals to emotion? I think part of the prejudice against such reasoning arises from an erroneous assumption that it is somehow related to “crazy love” (cue Van Morrison), the kind of irrational and often irresponsible youthful infatuation that can lead an honors student to believe her drug addict boyfriend “Spike” cares more for her than do her own parents. Obviously that’s stupid. But it also has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of measured, fully rational emotional appeal I’m making here. I hope you can appreciate that there is a rather large chasm between our aversion to genocide or the damnation of our children and the irrational conclusions of an infatuated young adult.
Of course if this proposal is true then universalism seems to follow. Alas, that’s not quite true. I said that (2) seems more plausible than (1). And so it does. That doesn’t mean that (2) is true and (1) is false. But surely it does suggest a measure of care in formulating our appeals to free will as a justification for a hell eternal in duration or effect. And it does help us see that appeals to emotion in thinking through such matters can be most reasonable indeed.