Friday, April 22, 2016

Can a life of eternal pain be worth living?

Sally is in moderate pain and opts for a painless medical intervention that extends her life by one more day just because she wants to experience another day. Surely Sally is not being irrational. It's not irrational to choose to experience another day, even if that day involves moderate pain. Further, whatever the merits of a defense of euthanasia in the case of severe pain (in the end, I will reject euthanasia even in those cases), defending euthanasia in the case of moderate pain is implausible.

This suggests that it can be worth living for a finite amount of time in moderate pain. Moreover, it can be worth doing so even if there is no prospect of pain-free life afterwards. The rationality of Sally's decision doesn't depend on her beliefs about the afterlife. All this suggests a strong intuition that the experience of life, by itself, is enough to make life worth living despite moderate pain. But if it makes life worth living for a finite amount of time, why not an infinite?

Well, maybe an infinite life of moderate pain would result in extreme mental pain of hopelessness and ennui. But notice that this is a contingent consequence. A person who doesn't think much about the future can avoid the pain of hopelessness, and a person who doesn't remember having had many such days can avoid the pain of ennui. Thus it is logically possible to have a worthwhile infinitely long life of moderate pain without any great compensating goods besides the good of experiencing life itself, at least as long as one wasn't very thoughtful.

Thus, it is logically possible to have a painful but mildly worthwhile eternity in hell. It could be a life where enough of people's memories are wiped to prevent excruciating ennui, and where the people's minds have degenerated to a point where they don't care much about the future. (Would it be surprising if the minds of the damned weren't in tip-top shape?)

Now, one of the main reasons people reject the doctrine of hell is because they think that a loving and just God would not allow a person to exist for eternity in a state worse than nonexistence. But if it is possible to have a painful but mildly worthwhile eternity in hell, so that we need not suppose that eternity in hell is worse than nonexistence, this particular argument against hell disappears.

Objection: The biblical picture of hell involves not merely moderate but excruciating pain.

Response: Let's grant a literal picture of eternal burning. Now, being burned is normally an excruciating pain. Either divine goodness would rule out eternal excruciating pain or it wouldn't. If it wouldn't, the objection to hell disappears. But if divine goodness would rule out eternal excruciating pain, then it follows logically that if there is a God and eternal burning, then God does not allow that eternal burning to be eternally excruciating. Perhaps he provides fairly effective painkillers.


Anonymous said...

Christ said that it would have been better for Judas if he had never been born, so that seems to imply that being in hell is worse than non-existence. But you might say that this was hyperbole, so it doesn't necessarily prove the point.

Also, George Mivart's "Happiness in Hell" was placed on the index of forbidden books in 1893, almost certainly for advancing a position like this. But it's probably true that someone arguing the same position now would not be censured.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or one can take Jesus' statement *literally*. If Judas had never been born, then he would have died in utero, and so he would have gone to heaven or limbo, either of which is way better than hell, even though this would have deprived him of the joys of life on earth.

I'm not defending a limited happiness in hell, as Mivart seems to have. I'm just defending that it's worth living in hell. That seems to be a direct consequence of an Augustinian picture on which existence is always worth having as evil is but a privation. In fact, even if the sufferings in hell are excruciating, I'd still say that it's worth existing in hell. But I'm not defending that radical thesis here.

Michael Gonzalez said...

If it's worth living, even in hell, then the worst thing God could do is cancel your existence. On the one hand, He doesn't keep people alive for the sole purpose of torturing them; and on the other hand, He has delivered the worst possible punishment: non-existence.

Regardless of how this pans out from a philosophical point of view, I think the Scriptures openly teach that people cease to exist at death. The view of eternal suffering is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Eternal punishment, yes, but leaving someone forever non-existent is still eternal punishment. I especially think that passages like Ecclesiastes 9:6 and Romans 6:7, 23 strongly indicate that we have paid off the wage for our sin by dying, and so any further punishment would be above and beyond what we have earned (ergo, unjust; ergo, impossible for God to do).

No, continuing to exist forever is a gift (Romans 6:23 again). Turning back into dust is the consequence of sinning (as God made clear to Adam... interestingly, God said Adam would RETURN to the dust; implying that Adam would be in the same state he was in before God formed him and brought him to life: namely, non-existence).

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Zoe" in the New Testament (including Romans 6:23) is a lot more than existence.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Sometimes, perhaps, but Romans 6:23 is contrasting death with life. The wages of sin is to die. This fits with Ecc. 9:5, 6 which says "the living know that they will die, but the dead no nothing at all, neither do they anymore have any wages". It's taught throughout the Bible from God's statements to Adam onward. Surely when Adam "returns to the dust, for dust you are and to dust you will return", he is not "returning" to an eternal state of torment, right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is more to the wages of sin than physical death.

Nor is the biblical picture of death the same as the cessation of existence. It is well-established that the Old Testament has a picture of a shadowy abode of the dead, sheol.

Michael Gonzalez said...

And yet, the things said about sheol could just as easily be said about the common grave of mankind, with no consciousness involved at all. Indeed. Ecc. 9:10 specifically says there is no knowledge at all in "sheol", the place to which we are going. Psalm 146:4 says that thought perishes at death.

In any case, sheol is clearly where all the dead go; including the righteous. And it is the place from which they are to be resurrected (Job 14:13). Surely it is nothing like the "hell", "limbo", or "heaven" that you are talking about.

bethyada said...

So would annihilation be a worse punishment? The conditional immortalitists claim that eternal torment is worse.

As to your argument, it depends on the level of suffering. There is a point (possibly variable between persons) where suffering gets to the level that further living may not be desired.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Sheol isn't much like hell or heaven, agreed. On my view, it's a state that no longer exists after Christ's resurrection. But the point of bringing it up was to show that in Old Testament times it was already believed that there is existence after death.

I don't know if there was consciousness in sheol. It doesn't matter for the argument I am making. My argument needs existence, not consciousness. (That said, I think much of Ecc is meant to present how things *look*, not how things are. And many translations of Ps 146:4 say the *plans* come to nothing at death.)


There is a difference, however, between further living not being desired and further living not being worthwhile.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: Interesting points. But, how can there be eternal pain without any consciousness? I thought that was the main point of the thread (eternal pain after death)?

Also, what do you make of passages like Revelation 20:13, 14, which indicate that those in "hell" (Greek: Haides) are let out, then judged, and then tossed into the lake of fire along with death and hell themselves?