DiaBlogue: Ernie’s Ethical Inferno

Since Alan has so patiently and valiantly attempted to answer all my questions, I will finally answer his: “Do I believe in hell?” The short answer is:

Yes, I do believe that the Biblical descriptions of an eternal hell do refer to some sort of meaningful objective reality that await non-believers.

However — and this is crucial to his question — I actually think the biblical evidence for such a state is somewhat amibguous; rather, it is the philosophical evidence (based on my understanding of choice and justice) which convinces me hell exists. That isn’t to say I “know” hell exists (much less could “prove” it), just that this is what I “believe.”

Click [Read More] for the long answer.

The reason I’ve been harping on such seemingly esoteric topics as “epistemology” and “ethics” is that it is my attempt to think rigorously about those things which makes me believe in Hell. However — as I was trying to get at in my earlier argument — I think Alan’s arguments apply equally to the fact that “Life is unfair.” Thus, it seems to me that this is primarily an ethics question (about God’s justice) rather than a epistemic question (about evidence for the supernatural). That is, even if there was no afterlife, I believe Alan would still consider God unjust for the way He’s structured the natural world (assuming a Creator God even exists, of course).

Because of that, I believe the crucial question is Alan’s implicit definition of justice. As best I can tell, Alan has only attempted to define “injustice“, but I will invert and summarize that as “Justice only holds people accountable for what they could have reasonably known” [let me know if you disagree]. As mentioned before, I believe that statement is only about 80% true. In particular, I believe it has to be interpreted in light of three other philosophical “facts”:

a. Ethics: Choices have real consequences
b. Epistemology: Character, not facts, drive belief
c. Theology: God is just not fair

I think Alan would dispute (b), though I’m not sure about (a) or (c). However, I believe all three are essential for any kind of healthy world view (or social system). At any rate reaching a mutual understanding about all three (even absent actual agreement) is crucial to thinking properly (or at least having a healthy dialogue) about this topic.

I won’t even try to justify or “prove” all three of these here, merely provide some illustrative context and motivation as the starting point for future discussion.

a. Choices have real consequences

This “fact”, I assert, is an essential feature of any system of justice. If there is no such thing as “choice” (as some determinists claim), than all justice is essentially meaningless — then again, so is this discussion. 🙂 Once you grant the reality of choice, though — however provisionally — then you quickly realize the only robust definition of justice is one that hinges primarily on the consequences of choice. That is because…

b. Character, not facts, drive belief

To be sure, facts “shape” belief — not all beliefs are consistent with a given set of facts. However character — our intentions, prior knowledge, and wisdom — drives which facts we pursue, which ones we believe, and how much we trust what others tell us. Of course, this leaves us with the uncomfortable realization that what we actually believe is also determined in large part by accidents of culture and circumstances, which leads to…

c. God is just not fair

I fully concede the point: God — like life — is just not fair. There’s no way of getting around that. Then again, God never claims to be: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” I don’t particularly like that fact. Then again, I don’t really like the fact that quantum particles can be in two places at the same time; that doesn’t give me the right to ignore the fact, especially when faced with the evidence. More importantly, this highlights the crucial distinction between “justice” and “fairness” — that is, God can be just without being fair — which I believe is central to unravelling Alan’s argument.

If you connect all the dots (even if you don’t believe them), you end up with an understanding of Hell very similar to the one expressed by C.S. Lewis in “The Great Divorce” — rather than, say, Jonathan Edwards’ “angry God.” I think I can safely consider Lewis within the mainstream of evangelical and orthodox Christianity, even if he occasionally gives the fundamentalists conniptions. 🙂

At any rate, I am certainly willing to defend Lewis (and my) conception of Hell and justice as not merely being the appropriate way to interpret God, but also the most reasonable way to think about human justice. Further, I’d be happy to elaborate on these beliefs in a sufficiently systematic way for you (Alan, or anyone else who’s reading and has question) to critique. In the process, I hope we can jointly reach a deeper understanding of ourselves, our beliefs, and reality.