Did Hell give us humanism?

I’m always interested in the forms of religiosity promoted by American Movement conservatives: a sort of stripped-down, generic Christian-flavored theism in which God rewards good, punishes evil, helps out in a pinch, and doesn’t make any demands that aren’t compatibile with raising a family or running a modern state. I don’t know whether this stems from the need to reconcile religions and denominations that until very recently spent more time combating each other than they did fending off liberal secularism, or because they are pitching primarily to a demographic which likes to call itself Christian but which actually doesn’t know all that much about the scriptures and history of Christianity.

Of course, there’s no problem with trying to redefine and reshape religious values, but the irony here is that Movement conservatives tend to argue that this new syncretic faith has guided Western civilization and shaped our society from the beginning.

Here’s a column by Ross Douthat from a few weeks ago, A Case for Hell, arguing against the tendency of modern American churches to deal with the moral problem of Hell, infinite punishment for finite acts on earth, by arguing that Hell either might not be eternal or might not exist. (Universal salvation is not a new belief, dating back at least as far as Origen and quite possibly to Paul of Tarsus, and everyone from John Paul II to some scriptural literalists have offered some level of endorsement, but until recently it has been a minority opinion among American Christian conservatives).

The obvious counter-argument, raised by quite a few nonbelievers, is that it’s rather silly to argue whether Hell can be morally justified, because wishing it so doesn’t make it so, or not so. But I don’t think that Douthat is treating religious doctrine as actual tangible truths (he spurns “fundamentalists”) but instead is treating religion as a useful myth for defining and preserving values.

Basically, Douthat argues that”to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices.” Ie, if God will find a way to bring every human soul to his bosom, then humans aren’t exercising their freedom to decide their own fates. I think that this argument is a rather twisted false dichotomy — there are plenty of ways to conceptualize a choice-shaped afterlife without positing eternal misery into which you only fall after you die, and from which you can never leave, and where, presumably, your choices are no longer meaningful. Also, the “choice” offered by a Hell-casting God isn’t really a choice at all: either do it my way, and go to my heaven, or be cast into the outer darkness. It doesn’t matter whether or not your Hell turns out to be a traditional Lake of Sulfur or a CS Lewis-y zone of unending dreariness– the rules of God’s universe offer one destination which offers joy, while the other is defined by misery.

(A lot of Douthat’s points seem to echo Lewis’ The Great Divorce, an apologetic allegory which seeks to justify how a good God could allow a Hell, taking swipes at caricatures of progressives and liberal Christians along the way. Basically, Lewis posits that the damned can still enter Heaven if they overcome sins like stubbornness and pride. It really only is compatible with free choice if you accept that people would willfully turn their backs on joy, again and again, all the way through eternity, and if you think it’s ‘choice’ when the whole system is rigged so that you can’t make yourself happy on your own terms.)

However, what really spurred me to bloggery was the assertion that linked Hell to freedom of choice without so much as a nod to the tradition, which predominated over the vast majority of Christian history, that human beings’ capacity for choice had very little at all to do with their eternal fates. Starting with the 5th century Augustine/Pelagianism debate and running well into the Reformation, I think that there was a fair consensus that salvation came not as a consequence of human actions but by grace of God, administered either by the Church or by an individual’s act of faith. Theologians might quibble over whether or not an otherwise totally-depraved human might make the leap of faith by his or her own agency, or whether or not the choice was predestined, whether human beings could lapse or whether salvation, once aspired to, was then “permanently secure”, whether works had no meaning at all or whether works inspired by grace also contributed to salvation. But the point was that you surrendered yourself unto God.

So much for philosophical freedom of choice — the choice here was best a binary decision, you could choose to either be in God’s hands and under His control or outside (in the hands of the Devil, as many churches would explain it). In practice, however, even those churches and thinkers which affirmed predestination decided that, just to be on the safe side, one’s options to take the non-Godly path ought to be blocked as best as possible. Augustine argued for “persecut[ion] in the spirit of love” to “recall from error” and hinted that pain could be used to open a heretic’s eyes to the truth, an argument which the medieval church took and ran with. Calvinist commonwealths in both Europe and America tried to suppress ungodly behavior altogether.

The fate of a human soul was just to important to let its owner decide what to do with it.
Douthat quotes Anthony Esolen, a translator of Dante’s Inferno who also wrote the “Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization”, as saying that the idea of hell was essential to the emergence of humanism. Someone who knows the period better may correct me, but this assertion seems to me to be fairly easily punctured. The seminal humanist writer on the value of human choice, Pico della Mirandola, author of the Oration on the Dignity of Man, focused almost entirely on man’s capacity to improve himself and appears in another work to be universalist: “a mortal sin of finite duration is not deserving of eternal but only of temporal punishment.” He was basically the equivalent of today’s liberal universalists: working within the prevailing religous discourse (Catholicism) but trying to make it a bit less pessimistic.

At any rate, the humanists were more or less a footnote to the terrible transformative apocalypse of Western Christianity that was to come: the Wars of Religion, nearly two centuries of bloodshed in Germany, the Low Countries, the British isles, France, Bohemia, and elsewhere in Europe. It was not until around 1700 that the idea was popularized that it was wrong, or unpragmatic, to try and prevent people from choosing the wrong faith.

Since then, of course, Christianity has been evolving — but I would argue that it was secular doctrines about choice and freedom which shaped the theology, rather than vice-versa. We lack polls from the 18th, 19, and early 20th centuries which can determine whether a belief in damnation declined as a belief in personal freedom increased. However, I think what is less controvertably refuted by the historical pattern is the belief that there is any essential Judeo-Christian pattern of belief, rooted in eternal consequences to finite acts, that upholds the importance of human choices. Rather, it was a reaction to the Church’s attempts to limit decisions that was a natural outgrowth of the idea that finite acts have infinite consequences. The Hell-obsessed West spent a very long time denying and downplaying human choice, until the entire dismal edifice collapsed in a shower of blood that gave birth the secularism we know today. The gradual fading away of Hell-belief — first in those European countries which experienced the worst of the religious wars, and subsequently in the United States — is an outcome of confidence in the dignity of mankind and the value of human choice, not the other way around.

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