Prof. Pruss on Hell and Free Choice

Prof. Alexander Pruss considers the traditional doctrine of hell and its alternatives:

The three salient proposals, then, are these (2 and 3 are quotes from Prof. Pruss’s post):

(1) The traditional doctrine: At death there can be no further changes in one’s eternal destiny.

(2) Imposition: God imposes moral transformation on those who do not freely opt to love him.

(3) Endless Second Chances: God ensures that those who refuse him nonetheless always have another chance.

According to the traditional doctrine, those who die in a state of grace go to heaven at death, with perhaps, according to RC doctrine, an initial stay in purgatory. Those who die unrepentant and unforgiven go directly to hell, where they remain for eternity. The second possibility is that God, wielding his omnipotence, simply forces a moral transformation upon sinners, psychologically altering them so that they duly repent and accept forgiving grace. The third scenario is that the unregenerate would have a postmortem, presumably non-punitive existence (perhaps something like the first circle of Dante’s hell), but would be endlessly invited to accept Christian salvation.

Pruss argues that the second option is unacceptable because it would involve a gross abrogation of personal freedom. He says: “It’s pretty plausible (pace compatibilists) that in Imposition, God takes away the agent’s freedom to refuse him.” The third option really reduces to the second, he says. Although you may be free on any given occasion to reject God’s offer of grace, you would not have the stamina to resist endless importunities over eternity. Endless nagging would eventually wear you down. Sub specie aeternitatis, option three gives you no more freedom than option two. By implication, then, neither seems to be an acceptable alternative to the traditional doctrine.

As a compatibilist on the free will issue, allow me to comment on why one kind of imposition need not be seen as an abridgement of freedom. For compatibilists like me, the paradigm case of a free choice would be to be allowed to choose solely on the basis of my beliefs, my values, and my desires. For instance, in an election, my vote is free if nothing interferes with my ability to vote for the candidate whom I sincerely believe to best represent my values and whose desires for the good of the country or community are most consistent with my own. However, I do not (or at least do not entirely) choose my beliefs, values, and desires. Ideally, my beliefs are determined by what seems true to me; my values are determined by what seems right to me; my desires are determined by what seems desirable to me. Seeming true to me, seeming right to me, and seeming desirable to me, are not, or at least not entirely, under my control.

Beliefs, then, do not appear to be totally under our control. Indeed, I would say that there are instances of what we might call “epistemic compulsion.” Perhaps the best instance of epistemic compulsion would be a genuine instance of an experimentum crucis. In July 1945, Los Alamos scientists had produced two designs for an atomic bomb, the simple, gun-design uranium bomb, and the more complex implosion-design plutonium bomb. They were confident that the uranium design would work and did not plan a test, but the plutonium bomb had to be tested, and hence the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. Many of the assembled Manhattan Project scientists were deeply dubious that “The Gadget” would work. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, bet that it would have a yield of only 300 tons of TNT—a fizzle. At 5:29 A.M. The Gadget went off with a yield of 20,000 tons of TNT. When the light “brighter than a thousand suns” filled the desert and the shock wave hit like an earthquake, there could be no doubt that The Gadget worked. Here we have a case of epistemic compulsion if ever there were one. All doubts were banished in that moment.

Epistemic compulsion, making the truth so plain that it cannot be doubted, is not a restriction of freedom in any pejorative sense. My freedom to believe is not unfairly or illicitly abridged by having the truth plainly demonstrated. Indeed, insofar as I am rational, I very much want my beliefs compelled in the right way, i.e. by a clear and accurate perception of the truth. The very measure of the strength and value of evidence is the extent to which it constrains our interpretive freedom. Many incompatible interpretations are possible when evidence is scanty or vague, but eventually we hope that the evidence will become so clear and compelling that wiggle room is reduced to nil.

Interestingly, Scripture in places also seems to endorse proofs that make doubt impossible, at least temporarily. I Kings, chapter 18 tells the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Elijah challenges the worshippers of Baal to a contest. Elijah will build an altar to The Lord and the priests of Baal will build one to their deity. The side that calls down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice will be proven to represent the true God. The priests of Baal try all day to no avail, as Elijah mocks and taunts them. Elijah then calls upon The Lord and a vast torrent of fire falls upon Elijah’s altar instantly consuming the sacrifice and even the altar itself. The assembled multitudes are given an overwhelming display of the power of The Lord, and they celebrate with a salutary massacre of the priests of Baal. This is about as good an instance of an experimentum crucis as one could want.

Suppose then, that after death I were greeted by angelic beings who then reveal to me in no uncertain terms the resplendent majesty, power, and goodness of God. I would then have no choice but to admit that the naturalistic/atheistic convictions that I had maintained in life were 100% wrong. It would also be clear to me that I needed to “get with the program.” I might wonder, as Bertrand Russell said he would under such circumstances, why I had not been given such evidence before. However, I would certainly not think that my freedom to disbelieve had been abridged in any harmful way. Indeed, I would be deeply grateful that the truth had (finally) been shown to me. The upshot is that, for the compatibilist, imposition, in the sense of epistemic compulsion would be not only permissible, but wonderful.

It is not even clear that epistemic compulsion would rule out freedom in the libertarian sense that, I imagine, Pruss favors. One could, like those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, simply refuse to consider any evidence, experiment, proof, or demonstration. Further, as I understand it, libertarian freedom encompasses the freedom to be irrational, to know the truth and to reject it anyway. Sadly, there are many instances of human beings who, even when confronted with hard, undeniable evidence, blithely and willfully persist in folly. Even when shown the indubitable truth, one might still choose, like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, to wallow in one’s own crapulence. After all, do not Satan and the fallen angels persist in evil even though they have known God face-to-face?

A viable alternative to the ones Pruss considers therefore seems to be for God to demonstrate, or at least offer to demonstrate, The Truth in a manner that makes it indubitable. This will not constitute an illicit violation of freedom either on the compatibilist or the libertarian sense. For many of us unbelievers, our rejection of the “truth about Christ” is not due, as I think Prof. Jerry L. Walls puts it, to “concupiscence and hardness of heart.” Rather, we do not believe because we cannot. The Christian message seems to us no more believable to me than the stories of The Prose Edda, and those latter ones are a lot more entertaining. Many of us have read the arguments of Plantinga, Swinburne, Moreland, Craig, Alston and others as well as the works of Christian apologists, yet, guided by our best lights, we are thoroughly unconvinced. If we are wrong, we would consider it a great boon to be shown that we are, in this life or the next.