Like most kids I grew up playing war with toy guns. And I had the perfect setting for it too: our property included a large ravine that provided the ideal wild backdrop for an extended battle. And so my friends and I spent many Saturday afternoons engaged in military operations weaving in and out of the Ponderosa pines and the thick, dry underbrush as we looked to make the next kill.
I don’t need to tell you that I didn’t have a very good understanding of war. “War,” as William Sherman famously said, “is hell.” And I had no idea. To be honest, I still don’t really have much of an idea.
I have a much better idea of how horrible war is now than I did when I was a child. And here’s the important part: that understanding didn’t come from reading abstract discussions of casualty statistics and game theory and geopolitics and whatever else. Rather, it came through thick, emotive descriptions of war. It came through watching “Saving Private Ryan” and “Full Metal Jacket” and “Grave of the Fireflies”. It came through reading Shake Hands with the Devil and Wiesel’s Night and The Rape of Nanking. Through those thick descriptive and highly emotive accounts I came to understand much more clearly what war really entailed.
And that meant that I also understood much more clearly what was at stake in ethical debate about just war. I understood that much more clearly than I ever did by merely reading ethicist Paul Ramsey.
As we go through life we frequently appeal to thick descriptions for conceptual reflection. And thus it is no surprise that this kind of reflection is legitimate in theological reflection as well. (Please keep in mind that I have never said it is infallible. But that is no argument against it since we’re fallible beings by definition.) Thus, when people say, for example, that the elect will delight in the torment of the reprobate I think it is wholly to include as part of one’s reasoning about that claim a thick and emotive description as to what that claim actually entails. What would it mean, for example, for an elect father to delight in the eternal damnation of his non-elect daughter? Is that emotional? You bet it is. But irrational? I beg to differ.
The same goes for the doctrine that God might send an infant to hell for the imputed guilt of Adam. In order to consider what this entails it is important to have experiences with the beauty and unalloyed innocence of infants so we know what we’re talking about. If we have never held and fed an infant and have only read Augustine’s dismal account of infancy, we shall go into our assessment of the question with a deeply distorted view. But if we have held and fed an infant, then we have a toehold to build a scenario for conceptual reflection.
For example, we might consider a scenario in which an infant is born with a terminal illness, suffers greatly for that illness, dies tormented months later … and then is resurrected to face an eternity of unimaginable torment. Is that a possibly true scenario? Don’t ignore your emotional revulsion to that story. It is part of the very means by which you assess its possible truth … or necessary falsity.