In my article “Hell, right doctrine, and right character” I proposed my thesis in the form of a rhetorical question:
Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?
In other words, the more that the consistent and clear acceptance of a doctrine frustrates the formation of one’s Christian character the less likely the doctrine is to be true. Let’s call this the Right-Doctrine-Right-Character Thesis. Whew, that’s a mouthful. So henceforth we’ll stick with this abbreviation: RDRC Thesis (yes, that’s a mouthful too).
The “consistency and clarity” qualification is important here, because folks can protect their character by holding character-undermining doctrines in ways that are inconsistent or unclear. Or, they can protect their character from the doctrine by playing a mystery card. I will say more about these coping strategies with regard to the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment both in this article and the next. But first let me say a further word about the RDRC Thesis itself.
Why the RDRC Thesis?
Now a person could ask: why should a Christian think that doctrine and character are related in this way? To be honest, this puzzles me. It’s like asking “Why think that a good umbrella seamlessly interweaves with keeping a person dry?” Because that’s just what good umbrellas do: they keep you dry. And that’s what good doctrine does: it forms right character.
The charge comes: “So you’re a pragmatist then? You think doctrine is about making good people? That’s it?”
No, that’s not it. Doctrines are also descriptive truth claims. If I say “God is triune” or “Jesus atoned for the sins of the world”, I make a claim that is true or false based on its ability to describe reality accurately. I don’t deny that for a moment. My claim is simply this: that accurate, truth-descriptive doctrines also do something else important: they make us more Christlike. Thus, if acceptance of the descriptive truth claim tends to undermine character formation, that is reason to reconsider the descriptive truth claim.
Protecting character by making hell smaller
In my last article I focused on hell as eternal conscious torment. I believe that when this doctrine is held with consistency and clarity that it has a corrosive impact on Christian formation. And that’s a reason to believe it is false.
But many folks profess to believe that hell is eternal conscious torment in a way that doesn’t obviously undermine their Christian formation. Doesn’t this falsify my claim? I would suggest that it doesn’t because closer inspection reveals that they hold the doctrine in ways that are inconsistent, unclear, and/or which appeal inappropriately to the mystery card. And so, rather than repudiate the doctrine of eternal conscious torment outright, they cope with it by proposing theories or descriptions which simply obscure the central claim, viz. that a subset of God’s creatures will be suffering unimaginable tortures for eternity.
My example in this article comes from that perennial theological bestseller, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. In the book the narrator travels from a rainy city which, it turns out, is hell/purgatory (depending on whether one opts to leave), and to the borderlands of heaven. This heavenly destination is so vividly real that even walking on the grass hurts the feet of the wraith-like visitors from down below. At one point the narrator asks his teacher where the great chasm to hell is, that chasm up which they travelled to arrive here on the edge of heaven. And so we read:
My teacher gave a curious smile. “Look,” he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.
“I cannot be certain,” he said, “that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.”
The narrator is incredulous:
“Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?”
“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.” (137-8)
Thus far the strategy seems to be this: deal with the horror by making it smaller. If hell looks like a crack to those in heaven, well then we’ve dealt with the problem, haven’t we?
Look folks, I’m a big C.S. Lewis fan, but this is an absolutely terrible way to attempt to ameliorate the horror of eternal conscious torment and it is worth our while to consider why.
Imagine, for the moment, that you are a medical doctor working with Doctors without Borders in Syria. Over the last year you’ve seen countless horrors, but the worst is the children. You’ve seen infants burnt to death, ten year old girls suffering fistulas from brutal rape, toddlers maimed by torture. Now you’re in Haifa for the weekend, sitting on a patio and unloading the horrors you’ve witnessed to a friend. “Why?” you cry out. “How can these things happen?” And he responds: “Look up at the stars, Doc. Do you realize that our universe could be a mere atom in the sea on an alien world in another universe? Doesn’t that boggle your mind? Kind of gives a different perspective, don’t it?”
I’ll tell you this: the only thing that would boggle my mind in that moment would be the fellow’s idiocy. And it isn’t just the egregious pastoral insensitivity that is at issue here. It is also the core thesis itself. Whether our universe is an atom in another universe or not does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the horrors you’ve witnessed. Positing a bigger universe (or multiverse) has never been an effective theodicy. (Nor, for that matter, is a bigger universe a reason to think God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. I call such thinking “The Pale Blue Dot Fallacy” in honor of Carl Sagan.)
By the same token, making heaven bigger than hell such that the latter is a crack in the ground of the former does nothing to ameliorate the horrors of eternal conscious torment.
Before concluding this discussion, let’s rejoin The Great Divorce, for the narrator is initially at least somewhat tentative about accepting that shrinking hell relative to heaven is a satisfactory response:
“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”
Fair rejoinder, I would think. But then the Teacher replies:
“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all.” (138)
At this point the thesis is a bit more sophisticated than simply declaring heaven bigger than hell. The Teacher now claims that the size differential extends to the contrasting states of joy/pleasure vs. sorrow/pain. In short, the joy of heaven is infinitely greater than the pain of hell.
One suspects that Lewis writes here under the spell of St. Augustine’s thesis that evil is not a positive thing with its own ontological existence: instead, it is the absence of good just as a shadow is the absence of light. This is nice as an abstract, metaphysical discussion. But does that provide any explanation for the horrors suffered by the Syrian children? Of course not. So why think it offers any meaningful response to the horrors of eternal conscious torment? It doesn’t.
Ultimately, this exchange in The Great Divorce is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, an insubstantial attempt to obscure the full horror of eternal conscious torment so that the doctrine and its corrosive impact on character can be confronted directly.