Theistic Notebook

July 16, 2011

A quick and dirty parity argument about moral freedom in hell

Filed under: Reflection — David P @ 5:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Theists have developed a variety of free will theodicies in response to arguments from evil.  But some of them come with an interesting backlash, viz., that if we cannot sin in heaven then it looks like we don’t have morally significant freedom in heaven. I use moral freedom here to refer to the ability to choose between good or bad.  Now, many theists argue that this is a valuable thing; so valuable that it justifies God in permitting some evils which he might not otherwise have good reason for. But if moral freedom is valuable then why shouldn’t it continue to be valuable for an everlasting time in heaven (or the new earth for those who are eschatologically inclined)?  I am unconvinced by this type of criticism, but want to entertain it a bit to see if any other interesting conclusions follow.

First off, what does it mean to say ‘I can’t sin in heaven?’  Does this parallel my declaration that ‘I can’t run a mile in two minutes?’  In the latter case, we are talking about physical possibility: the general idea being that in the actual world (due to physical laws perhaps), it is not possible that I run a two-minute mile.  How does the former declaration compare?  Pretty well it seems, except that physical laws must be replaced with some other (new earthly or heavenly) constraints.  More interestingly, those who literally believe that angels ‘fell from heaven’ must reject this, or else explain why angels could choose to rebel but humans lack such capacities.  But not so fast!  Clearly there is a relevant difference between saying ‘I can’t sin in heaven’ and ‘I can’t choose to sin in heaven.’  If you don’t believe me: consider the obvious difference between saying ‘I can’t run a two-minute mile’ and ‘I can’t choose to run a two-minute mile.’  The former sentence records a fact about my ability; the latter about my freedom with respect to intentionally carrying out an act (of course, it would take a lot of confidence to intend such a thing).  Well, which is it?  I’m not sure, but let’s suppose the latter.

An important issue remains unturned here.  What about hell? Can people in hell make morally significant decisions towards good?  Some, like C.S. Lewis, have suggested that hell is locked from the inside; this assumes that persons in hell have a choice in the matter … and they choose to stay.  And a handful of theists might even see that as a good thing.  For instance, their stay in hell lends to the overall glorification of God’s justice while those in heaven lend to the overall glorification of his grace.  But why suppose moral freedom is possible in hell, if not in heaven?  And what are hell’s occupants receiving everlasting punishment for…earthly sin…rejection of salvation?  Here is one view: the damned are not receiving everlasting punishment for some finite number of sins committed during earthly life.  To the contrary, the damned continually sin and thus deserve continual punishment for an everlasting duration.  I call this the continual punishment thesis.  Sounds great, where do I sign up?  Queue: Al Pacino appears with a deal I can’t refuse.  But seriously, at first glance the continual punishment thesis might appeal to theists as a way out of the infinite punishment objection.   Roughly, this objection takes aim at the fact that punishment in hell is infinite (well, to be precise it is everlasting but the objections often specify it as ‘infinite’ and vaguely imply that it applies to duration or severity of punishment) and yet the sins which place one in hell are finite.  How can this be just deserts? And so we can see how the continual punishment thesis might run in response to the infinite punishment objection.

Obviously, free will theodicists should want to keep free will in heaven. After all, free will is valuable!  However, I haven’t run across any actual arguments to this effect.  But regardless, if they leverage moral freedom to justify certain evils in the world,  then surely they must find it odd that God achieves greater goods via morally significant freedom–on earth–and yet, in heaven (or new earth) we can simply dispense with this altogether.  Fair enough, the free will theodicist has some ‘splainin’ to do.  But now suppose they are tempted to accept the continual punishment thesis.  Can the free will theodicist remain consistent here?  I see a reason to think not.  If there is no moral freedom, then what does it mean to be punished or rewarded for an act?  And from this, we get a parity argument about hell: we can’t do good in hell, so we can’t receive punishment–for continual sins in hell–in the proper sense.  This has been a very rough, rambling and simplistic account.  There are many ways to carve up the conceptual terrain here, but it looks like there may be some problems with the continual punishment thesis, particularly for incompatibilist, free-will theodocists.

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2 Comments »

  1. If you have an annihilationist view of hell, like say, Glenn Peoples (http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2008/episode-005-its-one-hell-of-an-episode/) people in hell have no moral freedom because they are (eventually) destroyed (forever) – just like Sodom was destroyed, but the (metaphorical) smoke rises forever.

    I saw your post over there and when I read this I couldn’t resist 😉

    God Bless,
    -Dave

    Comment by Dave — July 21, 2011 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

  2. In the last paragraph you say, “We can’t do good in hell.” What’s your rationale behind this statement?

    Comment by Peter — July 21, 2015 @ 1:27 pm | Reply


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