Thursday, January 21, 2016

Might the damned design their hell?

In my Death and Afterlife class, we were reading about whether immortality is worth having. The following has become clear to me: it is not easy to design an eternal life that isn't in some way hellish. An eternal life of fixed capabilities would involve the boredom of infinite repetition, and we could easily get bored with a life of growing capabilities, too, as things become too easy. To have a good infinite life, a human being needs something utterly exceeding our ordinary life--like the beatific union with an infinite God--or a very carefully fine-tuned life, say a life where our capabilities grow without bounds but the problems set for these capabilities grow in such a way as to neither be too frustrating or too easy.

This makes plausible the model of hell on which the life of the damned is just a life they designed for themselves. For the damned would be designing a life apart from God, and yet being wicked would not be able to wisely fine-tune such a life.

But I don't think we should embrace without restriction the model on which the damned design their eternal life. For some clever but still wicked people could design an eternal life of infinite recurrence and great sensory pleasure, with amnesia between the recurrences. Such a life, while nightmarish from the perspective of an outsider who knows that all the pleasures are a cycle of repetition and forgetting, could be blissful from the inside. Likewise, a wicked person could design an eternal life at the level of a contented pig. Again, to the outsider it would be nightmarish, but from the inside the wallowing would be delightful. However, I think the biblical picture of hell makes hell not only miserable from the outside but also from the inside.

Perhaps we should have this model of hell: The damned design their own eternal life subject to the constraint that there is no longer room for self-deceit, forgetting, drunken stupor or the like. On this model, God imposes suffering on the damned, but he does it by means of bestowing three good things: (a) ensuring the damned are no longer capable of self-deceit, deadening of the intellect or the like; (b) giving the damned autonomy over their own infinite lives; and (c) ensuring that the life does not end. In fact, God could simply bestow these three good things on damned and blessed alike.


Tom said...

It sounds a bit like the parable of the spoons or the Eastern Orthodox model of hell (one destination, two dispositions). There is also an episode of the Twilight Zone based on a similar concept:

Unknown said...

There's a passage in The Pilgrim's Regress (not Progress) which suggests that the pains of hell are beneficial to the damned in that they prevent the damned from increasing infinitely in their degree of wickedness. On this view, they are 'the last, worst mercy' which God is capable of providing those who have cut themselves off from all the better mercies. Still jolly real and painful pains, though. Seems plausible: punishment wisely administered in this life usually has the effect of deterring further misbehavior; it would be odd if eternal punishment did not at least (on the balance of probability) slow down the progression of sin.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I've found the idea of hell as a stopping of wickedness good, but I hadn't connected it with pains. (Despite probably getting the idea from the Pilgrim's Regress in the first place--I just didn't read carefully enough.) I can see how pain could do that.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Have you always taught a class on Death and Afterlife? And what got you into teaching one?