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Hell : The Logic of Damnation.

The hell, you say

When I was very young, those who wanted to scare us into goodness used the gimmick of the robin's wing to bring eternity home to us. Imagine, we were told, that the Earth is a ball of glass. Every million years, a robin comes and brushes its wing against the ball of glass.

This intrepid robin keeps coming back until it has worn the Earth away by brushing it with that little wing (the robins I then knew best were Irish and tiny compared with their American cousins). When it comes to time, it would be hard to find anything to boggle the mind more. If the robin were to skip a turn, I used to think, its brush against that glass orb would never be missed.

And then would come to punch line: By the time the robin had rubbed out this glass earth, eternity would be only beginning.

Now that I'm older, I'm still impressed. If there is an eternity, it's not something to mess with. Which brings us to hell. So much depends on whether there is a hell.

It might not be the most noble motive for doing good and avoiding evil and thus making the world better, but hell, if it existed, could certainly help to keep cowardly bad guys in their places. And, failing that, it should console the virtuous to know that the bad guys would get their comeuppance at a later date.

And at a more personal level there is the awful thought of one's leg, for example, burning up to the hip in cauldrons of really hot fire, while that tardy old robin procrastinates before coming back with its little wing to mark time.

Most people, if they are honest, will admit that the fire factor was a more compelling motive to stave off sin than the alleged loss of seeing God's face forever.

It is amazing that such a distasteful prospect should prove so popular for so long. Yet, since the dawn of history, hell has pervaded not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but most others -- an ultimate bottom line to brandish in the face of the iniquitous everywhere.

Then, in the last century or so, as reason gave belief a run for its money, the hot grip of hell has loosened.

"Hell is neither so certain nor as hot as it used to be," said philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1927, and since then it has progressively become one of the least trendy theological postures on the books.

If it was not denied outright, it was at least watered-down. It was rendered trivial and innocuous, for example, in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit," in which damnation is a few of your more rotten neighbors getting on your nerves for eternity.

On the other hand -- and in theology there is always another hand -- there are the words of Jesus, repeated and categorical and hammered home, not only to the effect that there is a hell but that it is a fiery and totally miserable place, and eternal, too.

Thus, reason and faith thrust and parry over the abyss, the two horns of life's biggest dilemma. The true believer needs no proof; for the true unbeliever, there's not enough evidence.

Into the fray leaps Jerry L. Walls, associate professor of the philosophy of religion at Asbury Theological Seminary, with Hell: The Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press, 224 pages, $26.95), a book likely to keep the fray alive.

Walls' first wrinkle, for all those liberal types who have written it off, is the observation that "hell is undergoing something of a revival in American religious thought."

In a 1990 Gallup Poll, 60 percent professed belief in hell, up from four decades earlier. Among the experts, "the doctrine was most widely rejected by liberal Protestant theologians and least widely rejected by Roman Catholics -- 66 percent of the former and 39 percent of the latter denied the doctrine."

"My concern here," writes Walls, "is with the question of whether the doctrine of hell is intellectually and morally defensible." Such an approach promises to put aside the blind leap of faith and nail down the very truth or otherwise of the doctrine of hell.

"Questions of truth are not determined by public opinion polls or majority vote," Walls writes. Right.

Yet, he concedes, there is a murmur of the heart to the effect that a really good God would find a way to let even the worst of us off the hook in the end. He quotes one Charles Duthie, who puts the question more beguilingly: "Do you or do you not entertain the hope that somehow, in the end, all men, even the worst, will be reconciled with him?"

Nearly all Christians said yes to Duthie, according to Walls. And no wonder, he goes on. We all want a happy ending, and it's hard to see how it could be perfectly happy if it excludes anyone. But Walls tilts his (logical) argument a bit, already in the first chapter, when he writes that he is "inclined to think" that many Christians "conclusively believe the doctrine (of hell) but wish it were not true."

In other words, concludes Walls, "the witness of the Christian heart cannot alone tell us whether such will prove to be the case."

If not the heart, that leaves the head. This is a dense book that systematically slashes and burns like an explorer in a rain forest in search of -- hell. Successive chapters examine the arguments in terms of divine knowledge, power, goodness and so on. This last, God's goodness, is, Walls says, the nub: "It has cast its shadow over our entire discussion."

(He sums up the previous chapter in a sentence: "We saw that it is possible, so far as omnipotence is concerned, that God cannot save all persons." This, on the face of it, sounds like second-rate omnipotence.)

Is God's goodness, then, first-rate? The author at the outset quotes John Wesley: "(God) is good, even to the evil and unthankful; yea, without any exception or limitation, to all the children of men." Now, that's goodness.

Furthermore, Walls identifies God's love with his goodness. This is important "because perfect goodness can easily take on moralistic tones and be construed as a cold and impersonal attribute" (although the author, covering all the bases, notes God can claim this colder or metaphysical goodness, too).

Walls, for a moment on page 86, tries to bring the issues down to earth. He outlines two examples in which God doesn't seem to be doing all he can to keep certain folks from hell. For example: Two women are brought up in the Christian faith, but then reject it. One is killed in an automobile accident while the other survives. The second now represents and becomes a saintly person, while the first is damned.

What if the first had survived? She, too, might have become a saint. Could not an omniscient God have foreseen this? Could not an omnipotent God have then done something about it. Wouldn't an infinitely good God have moved heaven and hell to make the kindest outcome happen? (The variations on this conundrum are infinite -- and vitally important to average lives if indeed there is a hell.)

Bertrand Russell led the charge against this notion of what seems to be salvation by chance. He wrote, "The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out; by this means they secured that these infants went to heaven."

And then the further conundrum: What if God, with his infinite foreknowledge, knew some of those infants would, if let live, grow up to be thugs and eventually be damned?

Surrounded by such puzzlers, Walls concedes that it is "objectionable to think the circumstances of one's birth or the time of one's death might be a factor in his damnation . . . because it means some persons are at a distinct disadvantage with respect to the most important thing in life, namely, eternal salvation."

John Wesley (on whom Walls relies heavily throughout, at least for the direction of his argument, if not for his conclusions) concluded this was "a mystery we cannot resolve." Walls agrees that, in handling this hot potato, "reserve and modesty are very much in order. But when God's goodness is so severely challenged, it is desirable to do more than appeal to mystery." You better believe it -- after slogging this far down the logic trail.

The basic assumption of Walls (and Wesley) here is that God will do all he can, short of destroying our freedom, to save everyone. It follows that a just God would give us all an equal chance, or, to flip the coin, that he would eliminate the disadvantages some have or seem to have. How?

By giving everyone "the optimal measure of grace."

And if you think that solves everything, you're forgetting that life is messy and, it seems, even an omnipotent God can't just make it unmessy. Optimal grace, for example, does not rule out adversity or old-fashioned temptation. It just helps you to cope, and "compensates for the unfair advantages."

Indeed, Walls waxes, optimal grace (or God, if you prefer) will work overtime if someone is rejecting it and stumbling down the primrose path to perdition.

Which brings us back to the two women involved in the accident: "I am inclined to say the one killed had not decisively rejected God. . . . If God knows this, it may be the case that God will give her the grace at the moment of death to begin to become what she would have become if she had not died."

And suddenly we feel that our non-nonsense author is backsliding: making excuses why an infinitely good God would, when the world's back is turned, find a way to shake up or coax even the iniquitous and let them in by the back door. Walls seems to be flirting again with "the witness of the Christian heart" to a happy ending for all, a position he seemed earlier to have rejected.

But that is not the last word either. Walls picks himself up and forges ahead into the eye of the mystery. He truly declares his hand on page 139: "I want to say something more about the nature of hell and why it surely is a place of misery."

Yet, before he gives the miserable details, he stutter-steps again: "Perhaps I have already said more than is warranted on the meager evidence available to us."

And this remark reminds us of the incongruity of the book's subtitle: The Logic of Damnation. The subject is fascinating, the treatment erudite, and the writing is fine, but only occasionally is logic the foundation.

We don't know hell any more than we know God. As we try to cope, to figure things out, we allow our imaginations to leap. We leap in all directions, sometimes with more logic than others, to create a reality, be it life or afterlife, that we can live with. Walls, who is gracious enough to give the opposition a fair hearing, quotes Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev to ironic effect:

It is a mistake to imagine that hell as punishment and retribution endured forever in some objective realm of being is the result of divine judgment. This is an invention of those who consider themselves "good." The human, all too human, idea of hell objectifies wretched human judgment, which has nothing in common with God's judgment.

The bad news: Just because the author doesn't prove there is a hell doesn't mean there isn't.

Michael Farrell is NCR's senior editor.
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 2, 1993
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