Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Part of Lewis's chapter on Hell from the Problem of Pain

Without hell, can evil triumph?

First, there is an objection, in many minds, to the idea of retributive punishment as such. This has been partly dealt with in a previous chapter. It was there maintained that all punishment became unjust if the ideas of ill-desert and retribution were removed from it; and a core of righteousness was discovered within the vindictive passion itself, in the demand that the evil man must not be left perfectly satisfied with his own evil, that it must be made to appear to him what it rightly appears to others--evil. I said that Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress. We were then discussing pain which might still lead to repentance. How if it does not--if no further conquest than the planting of the flag ever takes place? Let us try to be honest with ourselves. Picture to yourself a man who has risen to wealth or power by a continued course of treachery and cruelty, by exploiting for purely selfish ends the noble motions of his victims, laughing the while at their simplicity; who, having thus attained success, uses it for the gratification of lust and hatred and finally parts with the last rag of honour among thieves by betraying his own accomplices and jeering at their last moments of bewildered disillusionment. Suppose further, that he does all this, not (as we like to imagine) tormented by remorse or even misgiving, but eating like a schoolboy and sleeping like a healthy infant--a jolly, ruddy-checked man, without a care in the world, unshakably confident to the very end that he alone has found the answer to the riddle of life, that God and man are fools whom he has got the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable. We must be careful at this point. The least indulgence of the passion for revenge is very deadly sin. Christian charity counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely. But that is not the question. Supposing be will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for him? Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side? And if you cannot regard this as tolerable, is it only your wickedness--only spite--that prevents you from doing so? Or do you find that conflict between justice and Mercy, which has sometimes seemed to you such an outmoded piece of theology, now actually at work in your own mind, and feeling very much as if it came to you from above, not from below? You are moved, not by a desire for the wretched creature's pain as such, but by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow. In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake. Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such ghastly illusion. Thomas Aquinas said of suffering, as Aristotle had said of shame, that it was a thing not good in itself, but a thing which might have a certain goodness in particular circumstances. That is to say, if evil is present, pain at recognition of the evil, being a kind of knowledge, is relatively good; for the alternative is that the soul should be ignorant of the evil, or ignorant that the evil is contrary to its nature, "either of which," says the philosopher, "is manifestly bad." (Summa Theol., 1, 11ae,Q. xxxix, Art. 1.) And I think, though we tremble, we agree.


Leah said...

Wonderful excerpt. I'm so looking forward to reading the book (it's in the big 'to read' stack by my bed.

Walter said...

My moral intuition cries out against the thought of eternal suffering for even the vilest of sinners. Would it not be better for God to simply annihilate the wicked versus keeping them in conscious torment forever?

There is no chance for rehabilitation nor pardon from an eternal hell. It seems nothing more than an ugly belief in eternal vengeance. I cannot in good conscience praise a deity that would do such a thing.

kbrowne said...

Although I hate the doctrine of Hell I do not disagree that evil people should be punished. I do not disagree that they should be taught that they are wrong. I do, however, disagree that they should be sentenced to endless pain without any possibility of parole. That, surely, is the essence of Hell. It lasts forever and there is no way out of it.

“Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side?”

Well, yes, he may choose to remain in Hell but can he choose to leave? If he has free will, can he choose not to remain what he is? That is the important question that Lewis avoids. That is what is so terrible about Hell. There is no way out. Lewis does not, here, address the possibility that the wicked man might want to accept that he is wrong and leave Hell.

As long as there is a possibility of leaving Hell it is not Hell, as traditionally understood. The traditional understanding of Hell is that there is no free will for those in Hell. They cannot get out.

I do not have ‘The Problem of Pain’ with me, so I may be wrong about this but I think it is in this chapter that Lewis admits that he detests the doctrine of Hell. He would have liked to dispense with it but he had to admit that Jesus believed in Hell. He deserves full marks for intellectual honesty and consistency but the doctrine remains destestable.

kbrowne said...

I would like to add something here that has nothing to do with Lewis. The doctrine of Hell is terrible whoever is sent there but part of the problem is that so many people go there who are not wicked. Lewis describes one very wicked person but, according to most Christian teaching, he will be sharing Hell with many ordinary decent people.

There are Calvinists who believe that people go to Hell simply because God has not chosen them for Heaven.

There are other Protestants who believe that people go to Hell simply because they do not accept Jesus as their Saviour.

Roman Catholics believe that people go to Hell if they die with one unforgiven mortal sin on their soul. Miss one Sunday Mass and you will be sharing Hell with Lewis' ruddy-cheeked evildoer.