Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Ethan Allen vs Hell

A lot of the memories I have from my time at Harding University in the late 90s are fairly mundane. Among them is the time that a professor explained to the class why it was that hell is endless. This particular university identifies with the a cappella Church of Christ tradition, and despite their claim to going back to the New Testament alone for their doctrine, most of what they say is just poor retreads of stale arguments from Western Christian theology. And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Christian theology that my class learned that day that because God is infinite, any sin against him has an infinite quality about it, and therefore the punishment is infinite.

Ethan Allen (the hero of the American Revolution, not the furniture chain) took issue with concept in his 1784 book, 'Reason, the Only Oracle of Man.'

We may for certain conclude, that such a punishment will never have the divine approbation, or be inflicted on any intelligent being or beings in the infinitude of the government of God. For an endless punishment defeats the end of its institution, which in all wise and good governments is as well to reclaim offenders, as to be examples to others.... (McKanan, 2017)

The punishment conceived of in Western Christendom since the Middle Ages is entirely pointless, in that suffering is considered an end in and of itself. There is no aim to correct someone. The only object is maximum anguish that never ends. Yet, we're supposed to believe that this God loves us.

An aspect of this endless hell narrative that doesn't get much play any more is that the 'saved' in heaven have their rejoicing enhanced by the sufferings of the damned. Allen didn't let this pass unchallenged in his book either. 

But we are told that the eternal damnation of a part of mankind greatly augments the happiness of the elect, who are represented as being vastly the less numerous, (a diabolical temper of mind in the elect). (McKAnan, 2017)

It would indeed be a 'diabolical temper of mind' to enjoy witnessing the torment of others. I find it depressing that people thought this, and that some likely still do. When I was growing up what little I heard about hell included the thought that people in heaven wouldn't see it. That's what I also taught in my earliest days as an evangelical preacher, because it only made sense that it wouldn't be heaven if you could hear the cries of the damned. Theologian N.T. Wright also rejects the idea, putting it in terms reminiscent of some of C.S. Lewis' writing.

My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. (Wright, 2018)

In other words, somehow people are so capable of distancing themselves from all that is good that they degenerate into ex-humans, whatever that's supposed to be. It is some pretty speculation, but that's all it is, having no basis that I can see in the texts that compose the Bible.

It is with good reason that Unitarian Universalists have moved beyond worrying about an afterlife. There is no verifiable evidence that such exists, and if it does, we have no way of knowing what it's really like other than dying and finding out for ourselves (or not, assuming that's the complete end of consciousness and self). The same can be said of large swaths of religious beliefs, including any doctrines about deities, demons, and ghosts. There are more important matters to deal with in the here and now, and to me, any religious practice that doesn't contribute to our existence in this world really doesn't seem worth the time.


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Wright, N. T. (2018). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York, NY: HarperOne.