Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Concept of Hell in Philosophical Theology

There is no single concept of hell among theologians. Some prefer to do away with the idea of it entirely, in which case we are left with either annihilationism in which only those who are destined for heaven are raised and the rest remain dead, or else universalism, in which case all are destined for heaven.

Of course, these aren't the only alternatives to a literal interpretation of the Biblical teaching on hell. Many have interpreted the fire and brimstone imagery as figurative. I agree with this attitude, both for philosophical and exegetical reasons, but the exegetical reasons are not my concern in this post. Rather, I want to ask: what is hell supposed to be under this figurative interpretation?

A common view put forward is that hell is the absence of God; it is the separation from God. While this statement may shed some light for us, it also raises some difficulties for those of us who adopt an Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of God. For, under Thomism, God is Pure Being - the very essence of existence itself. This means that if one is entirely separated from God, he/she is entirely separated from existence. But, doesn't that mean that those in hell simply don't exist? If this is so, this should logically lead us to adopt annihilationism, in which case there really is no hell in the first place.

1. God is Pure Being. (Premise)
2. Pure Being is the essence of existence. (Definition)
3. Hell is the complete absence of God. (Premise, definition)
4. Hence, hell is the complete absence of existence. (From 1, 2, and 3)
5. Therefore, hell does not exist. (Conclusion)

What I propose as a solution is that we think of hell not as the complete absence of God, but rather one's subjective separation from loving God. Imagine two persons listening to jazz music. Person A loves jazz music, whereas person B does not. This will lead A to experience joy and B to experience dissatisfaction.

By analogy, imagine that at the point of death, and more pronounced at the resurrection, all experience the fullness of God's presence. Those who love God will experience heaven, and those who hate God will experience hell. The various degrees of love/hate will then determine the extent to which either heaven or hell is experienced.

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