Thursday, August 13, 2020

Separation from God

The worst part of being in hell is separation from God. But Jesus did not become separated from God. So how could his suffering atone in place of our deserved punishment of eternity in hell?

Some theologians, perhaps of a kenotic sort, may hold that Jesus did become separated from God. But this is heterodox.

Here is perhaps a solution: separation from God in hell is the worst part of being in hell, but it’s not a punishment.

As it stands, this would contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (1035).

But perhaps we can distinguish two senses of punishment: retributive and non-retributive. Suppose that I am vain, and vanity leads to a fall, namely that I become a plagiarist. My plagiarism, then, is a kind of punishment for my pride. It is fitting. It is just. But it is not a retribution for my vanity. Here is one feature of this kind of non-retributive punishment: its lack is not an injustice. Suppose I am vain and instead of this leading to further vice, people notice my ridiculous vanity and start laughing at me, which hurts my feelings badly. In this case, I am much better off than in the case where my vanity led me to plagiarism, since I did not become more vicious. But notice that even though becoming more vicious would have been quite fair, my not becoming more vicious isn’t itself unjust. For it is the omission of due retributive punishment that is unjust.

This distinction in hand, we might say that separation from God in hell is non-retributive punishment. Many authors in the 20th century have argued that hell is a kind of choice one makes rather than a retribution. But with the distinction, we can say that this is true of the separation from God: that is what the wicked have chosen, and it is just that they get it, but it is not retributive punishment. There is, however, retributive punishment in hell, the chief part of which is the pain of separation from God. This pain, however, Christ could be said to suffer, for while not himself actually separated from God, he could take on himself the pain of separation on behalf of others, through perfect empathy.


Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

Is it dogma that hell is *separation* from God? I suppose, if so, the way to square that with omnipresence is to make distinctions about what "separate from" and "present to" mean? I'm at least initially inclined to prefer to think of hell as the way some people unfortunately experience the presence of God. Is that view heterodox to the Catholic Church?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, "separation" obviously doesn't mean to deny God's omnipresence. I think it means lack of relevant forms of union with God. It can't mean lack of *any* form of union with God, since participation in God is both a form of union with God and a necessary condition of creaturely existence. So, what are the relevant forms of union with God? Minimally, I think, (a) the beatific vision and (b) the kind of union that Christians have by grace in this life when they are in what we Catholics call the "state of grace". (And now it's clear that Christ wasn't separated from God, since everyone should agree that he always had at least (b)--and it is a standard Catholic belief that he also had (a) always.)

Could it be orthodox to think there are forms of union with God in hell besides God's omnipresence and the creature's participation in God? Maybe. Dante considered the pagan philosophers to be in limbo, with limbo being a part of hell. Yet some of the pagan philosophers might have believed in the existence of God and had some knowledge of what God was like--the kind of knowledge that Paul describes in Romans 1. That would be a kind of intellectual union.

A. B. said...

Christ can't atone perfectly w/out being separate from God but can take on the pain of separation through "perfect empathy"? What do we know about Christ that lets us make such determinations about him? I'm inclined to think both would be w/in his capacity as an omnipotent being

Alexander R Pruss said...

God being separate from God is a contradiction in terms.