As Aquinas writes in Summa Contra Gentiles III.145:
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Does God damn you?
Modern defenders of the doctrine of eternal punishment often argue that those who are damned essentially damn themselves. As I indicated in a recent post on hell, from a Thomistic point of view that is indeed part of the story. However, that is not the whole story, though these modern defenders of the doctrine sometimes give the opposite impression. In particular, they sometimes make it sound as if, strictly speaking, God has nothing to do with someone’s being damned. That is not correct. From a Thomistic point of view, damnation is the product of a joint effort. That you are eternally deserving of punishment is your doing. That you eternally get the punishment you deserve is God’s doing. You put yourself in hell, and God ensures that it is appropriately hellish.
As Aquinas writes in Summa Contra Gentiles III.145:
Those who sin against God are not only to be punished by their exclusion from perpetual happiness, but also by the experience of something painful. Punishment should proportionally correspond to the fault... In the fault, however, the mind is not only turned away from the ultimate end, but is also improperly turned toward other things as ends. So, the sinner is not only to be punished by being excluded from his end, but also by feeling injury from other things…
[I]f a man makes inordinate use of a means to the end, he may not only be deprived of the end, but may also incur some other injury. This is exemplified in the inordinate eating of food, which not only fails to maintain strength, but also leads to sickness. Now, the man who puts his end among created things does not use them as he should, namely, by relating them to his ultimate end. So, he should not only be punished by losing happiness, but also by experiencing some injury from them.
Moreover, as good things are owed to those who act rightly, so bad things are due to those who act perversely. But those who act rightly, at the end intended by them, receive perfection and joy. So, on the contrary, this punishment is due to sinners, that from those things in which they set their end they receive affliction and injury.
Thus, as Aquinas had already stated in chapter 140:
[M]an exceeds the due degree of his measure when he prefers his own will to the divine will by satisfying it contrary to God’s ordering. Now, this inequity is removed when, against his will, man is forced to suffer something in accord with divine ordering. Therefore, it is necessary that human sins be given punishment of divine origin…
[B]y this we set aside the error of some people who assert that God does not punish.
End quote. So, for Aquinas, it’s not just that the damned, due to the fixity of their wills after death (as described in my previous post on this subject) perpetually choose something less than God and thus perpetually miss out on what would make them happy. It’s that they also suffer additional positive harms in addition to this loss, and that God ensures that this will happen.
This may sound hard to reconcile with God’s goodness. But in fact, on the Thomistic account it follows from God’s goodness. For inflicting on an unrepentant evildoer a punishment proportionate to his offense is a good thing, and the damned are precisely those who forever keep doing evil and refuse to repent, and thus merit perpetual punishment. Hence God, in his goodness, inflicts that punishment.
But if this is true, then why does hell seem to many people to be incompatible with God’s goodness? There are several reasons. First – and as no defender of hell can deny – the very idea of hell is, well, as scary as all hell. So, since it is usually bad to enter into a scary situation or to put others into one, it can seem bad for God to send people to hell. But of course, it is not in fact always and intrinsically bad to enter such a situation or to put others into one. For example, it is scary to undergo major surgery, but sometimes it is nevertheless good to do so or good to recommend that others do so. It is scary to go to war, but if the war is just it can nevertheless be good to go to war and to send others to fight it. And so forth. So, the fact that hell is scary does not by itself suffice to show that it is bad to send people to hell.
Second, when people approach this issue they very often miss the forest for the trees. They get hung up on the question of whether this or that particular offense is really worthy of eternal punishment, or the question of whether this or that particular harm is something a good God would inflict perpetually. Worse, they get hung up on some oversimplified account of how a certain offense might send you to hell, or on some crude caricature of what eternal punishment would be like. They ask rhetorically: “How could a single act of stealing (or whatever) send you to hell?” or “How could a good God allow you perpetually to be stabbed with pitchforks as you roast over an open fire?” or the like, and then, confident that no good answer could be forthcoming, they conclude that the idea of hell per se is suspect.
In fact there are two sets of issues here which need to be kept distinct and addressed in the proper order: (1) Could there be an offense which is worthy of eternal punishment? And (2) Is such-and-such a particular offense an offense of that kind, and if so, what specifically would be the character of the eternal punishment this particular offense merits? To answer (2) we’d have to go case by case, and our answer would also presuppose an answer to (1). To answer this more fundamental question (1) – and (1) is the only question I’m addressing in this post – it is best to put questions of sort (2) to the side for the moment.
A third reason many people think hell incompatible with God’s goodness is that they lack (what is from the Thomistic point of view) a sound understanding of the nature and purpose of punishment. In particular, they fail to see why punishment in general is good, and hence, unsurprisingly, find it difficult to understand how this particular and especially harsh sort of punishment could be good. Moreover, they also have (what from the Thomistic point of view are) false beliefs in light of which eternal punishment is bound to seem bad. In the remainder of this post I want to develop these particular points.
Punishment is a good thing
In our forthcoming book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Joseph Bessette and I have a lot to say about the nature and justification of punishment in general. The reason is that many people go wrong on the question of capital punishment precisely because they focus too much on the “capital” aspect of the issue and not enough on the “punishment” aspect. When you properly understand the nature and purpose of punishment in general, the appropriateness in some cases of capital punishment falls into place quite naturally and inevitably. Now, the same thing is true of eternal punishment. People focus too much on the “eternal” aspect of it and not enough on the “punishment” aspect. When you understand the latter, the appropriateness in some cases of eternal punishment also falls into place naturally and inevitably.
I’m not going to repeat here everything we say in the book. Suffice it for present purposes to address how pleasure and pain relate to good and bad behavior and to rewards and punishments for behavior. Like everything else in Thomistic natural law theory, this can only properly be understood in light of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics – in particular, in light of the notions of a thing’s essence, the proper accidents or properties that flow from that essence, and natural teleology.
Aquinas argues that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness instead involves the realization of the ends toward which our nature or essence directs us. Pleasure is, however, in his view a proper accident or property of happiness (in the technical Scholastic sense of the word “property”). That is to say, it naturally flows or follows from happiness insofar as, in the normal case and in the long run, realizing our natural ends will be associated with a feeling of delight or well-being.
Now, as with other proper accidents or properties, the manifestation of this one can be blocked. Having four legs is a proper accident or property of dogs, but damage or genetic defect can prevent a dog from having four legs. Similarly, circumstances or psychological harm can prevent someone from taking pleasure in the realization of the ends toward which he is naturally directed. Nevertheless, in the normal case such pleasure or well-being will follow, just as in the normal case a dog will have four legs. (That pleasure has this close relationship to happiness without being identical to it is, I think, why people both often confuse pleasure with happiness, but also -- as in many people’s reaction to Nozick’s “experience machine” example -- tend to reject the idea that pleasure-seeking alone can ever bring genuine happiness. This reflects their inchoate sense that pleasure is not itself what makes us happy but is rather a byproduct of attaining the things that make us happy.)
Now, pain is, by the same token, a kind of proper accident of unhappiness in the sense of the failure to realize the ends toward which our nature directs us. Aquinas’s example, in the passage quoted above, of the “sickness” that can follow from disordered eating, illustrates the point. When we eat too much or eat things that are bad for us, we often feel bad as a result. That’s a trivial example, but the principle applies in general to disordered desires and behavior, i.e. desires and behavior that are contrary to the realization of the ends toward which our nature directs us. Such desires and behavior tend, either directly or through their effects, to lead to various painful or unpleasant consequences – a guilty conscience, a sense of dissatisfaction, feelings of frustration, anxiety, shame, humiliation, self-hatred, the contempt of others, and in some cases even illness and bodily suffering.
Here too, though, this natural tendency can be frustrated. The pain or unpleasantness that in the normal case and in the long run tend to follow from disordered desire and behavior can be blocked, and rational animals like us are especially good at finding clever ways to block it. For example, we can hide our bad behavior so that others do not know of it and thus do not criticize or punish us for it. We can take medical steps to block the bodily suffering that can result from some such behavior. We can distract ourselves from feeling guilt, shame, or anxiety, by way of indulging in pleasure-seeking of various sorts. We can construct rationalizations of our behavior, and explain away the shame and guilt we feel by attributing it to others’ unjust criticism of us. We can, in other aspects of our lives, engage in morally good behavior and pretend that this minimizes or excuses our immoral behavior. We can encourage others who have the same vices we do to share in these rationalizations, distractions, and subterfuges. We can tell ourselves that since so many other people behave as we do and share our rationalizations, distractions, and subterfuges, they must not really be mere rationalizations, distractions, and subterfuges at all. We can even make of the rationalization of immoral behavior itself a kind of quasi-moralistic cause, and generate in ourselves such a pleasant frisson of self-righteousness from this that it can seem that our indulgence in the evil behavior is good and those who criticize that behavior are the ones who are evil. And so on.
In all these ways, then, what is in fact unhappiness – the failure to realize the ends toward which our nature directs us – can be made less painful or unpleasant than it would otherwise tend to be, and can even be masked by distracting pleasures and thus falsely seem like happiness.
Now, given what has been said, happiness – which is, again, the realization of the ends set for us by nature – without pleasure or delight in this realization entails a kind of defect or dysfunction. For pleasure or delight, as a proper accident of happiness, would naturally follow from it if everything were functioning as it should. Aquinas, following Aristotle, thus holds that pleasure “perfects” the operation of our faculties as those faculties realize their natural ends. Hence even though happiness is not the same thing as pleasure, perfect happiness necessarily requires pleasure or delight as a concomitant. The reward of those who do what is right will, accordingly, involve pleasure or delight. God will ensure that nothing prevents this in the afterlife, as it is sometimes prevented in this life.
By the same token, however, disordered desire and behavior – that which is contrary to the realization of our natural ends, and thus entails unhappiness – without pain or unpleasantness also involves a kind of defect. A life of evil behavior that is nevertheless more or less pleasant is just as dysfunctional as a life of good behavior that is nevertheless miserable, and both dysfunctions need to be remedied. Just as good behavior naturally ought to be associated with pleasure, a feeling of well-being, etc., so too bad behavior naturally ought to be associated with pain and an absence of a feeling of well-being. When the former correlation does not hold, things need to be made right by rewarding those who do what is good. When the latter correlation does not hold, things need to be made right by punishing those who do what is bad.
And that is the essence of punishment: restoring the teleological relationship, ordained by nature, between evil behavior on the one hand and the unpleasantness or pain that is its proper accident on the other. Punishing evil is thus like healing a wound, restoring a damaged painting, or fixing a leak. It is a matter of repairing things, putting things back in order, making them how they are supposed to be. And given the essentialist and teleological metaphysics that underlies the Thomistic natural law conception of morality, that cannot fail to be a good thing.
Aquinas describes it as a matter of “restor[ing]… the equality of justice,” by which “he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God's commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish” (Summa Theologiae I-II.87.6). Willing what is evil naturally tends to misery, but this natural tendency, like other natural tendencies, is sometimes unfulfilled. When it is, the result is an inequality or imbalance, viz. between the evil act on the one hand and the pain or lack thereof actually suffered by the evildoer on the other. Punishment is a matter of restoring this balance.
So, suppose someone wills to do some evil thing X, and that doing X or even just wanting to do it naturally tends to make the one who wills it feel guilty and ashamed of himself, tends to make others have contempt for him, and so forth. But suppose also that this person is able to hide his evildoing, or to convince himself and/or others that doing X is not really evil, or in other ways to block the pain or unpleasantness that naturally tends to follow from willing to do X. Then it would be the case that to put this situation right, this person should be prevented from blocking this outcome. He should be made to feel the shame, contempt, etc. that would naturally be the concomitant of willing or doing X. And he should be made to feel this as long as he refuses to stop doing X or to stop willing to do X. (Of course, there is also the question of who has the authority to inflict such punishments, how exactly they ought to be carried out, what sorts of circumstances might mitigate the guilt and thus the punishment, etc. But I’m not trying here to address all the issues that arise in the philosophy of punishment. The example is simplified and schematic for purposes of illustration.)
Suppose further, however, that this person perpetually refuses to stop willing to do X. Then the unpleasantness he ought to be made to feel must also be perpetual. But that is the situation of the person whose will is, upon death, fixed on evil, as described in my previous post on the subject of hell. Since such a person perpetually wills evil, God ensures that he perpetually suffers the pain or unpleasantness that ought to be associated with that evil. If, for example, this person perpetually wills X and willing X ought to be associated with shame and contempt, God ensures that the person perpetually suffers shame and contempt. The damned person is not permitted to avoid or block this consequence the way he might have avoided it in this life -- by way of self-deceptive rationalization, distracting himself in pleasure-seeking, duping others about his true character, etc.
“Gee, but it seems so mean”
Much more could be said, but that suffices to make the point that the goodness of punishment, including eternal punishment, follows from the general background metaphysical assumptions the Thomist brings to bear on this subject, as on moral questions generally. Part of the reason some find hell incompatible with God’s goodness, then, is that they don’t share a commitment to those metaphysical assumptions. But I think there are other factors as well.
Ralph McInerny once wrote that when discussing capital punishment with students who were opposed to it, he came away with the impression that what they really had a problem with is punishment as such. I think that at least to a considerable extent and with many people, the same thing is true of objections to the idea of hell. And it seems to me that the source of the hostility to punishment, in both cases, is the deep and pervasive influence liberalism has had on modern sensibilities.
By “liberalism” I don’t just mean modern Democratic Party style liberalism, but the whole liberal tradition, broadly construed, from Hobbes and Locke down to Rawls and Nozick. There are, of course, many differences, sometimes deep ones, between the various thinkers and political movements that have over the centuries been identified as liberal. But a core idea that runs through the tradition is the thesis that authority rests on consent. In its most extreme version, the idea would be that no one can be obliged to submit to any law or authority whatsoever unless he in some way consents to submitting to it. Not every liberal would go this far. For example, Locke holds that there is no political authority that is binding on us without our consent, but still allows that there is a deeper objective moral law that we are bound to submit to whether or not we consent to it. Still, the tendency of liberal thought has been in the direction of an ever greater emphasis on what Kant called our “autonomy” or status as “self-legislators” even in the moral sphere.
To be sure, Kant’s own application of this idea by no means led to lax moral conclusions. For example, Kant’s support for capital punishment was if anything even more hardline than that of us old-fashioned Thomist natural law theorists. But contemporary Kantian liberals have taken “autonomy” in a very different direction than Kant himself did. In particular, they typically take it to entail all the usual elements of modern lifestyle liberalism (i.e. permissiveness vis-à-vis abortion, sexual morality, and so on). And it is hard to see the modern autonomous liberal self, as contemporary liberals understand it, consenting to an austere moral order that entails everlasting punishment.
There is also the related liberal tendency to see punishment as in any case essentially a means of preserving social order, and perhaps also as a kind of therapy by which criminals can be made to reform, rather than as a way of making sure people get their just deserts in some metaphysical sense. Retribution, that is to say, tends to drop out of the liberal account of punishment in favor of a focus on protection, deterrence, and rehabilitation alone. Unsurprisingly, then, everlasting punishment seems pointless, given what the liberal regards as the point of punishment. For why punish if there is no hope of rehabilitation nor any need to protect others or deter anyone?
Traditional natural law theory, of course, rejects both of these key liberal assumptions. It holds that the binding character of the moral law – including the imperative to punish the guilty -- not only in no way rests on our consent to it, but is rooted in the deepest metaphysical facts about the world. And it holds that securing retributive justice is not only a legitimate purpose of punishment, but is the primary purpose of punishment.
So, someone whose moral sensibilities have been deeply molded by traditional natural law theory is likely to judge that the idea of hell, however disturbing, makes moral and metaphysical sense. By contrast, someone whose moral sensibilities have been deeply molded by modern liberalism is more likely to regard the idea of hell as completely senseless.
A further relevant element in contemporary liberalism is its deep egalitarianism. The contemporary liberal is always going on about widening the circle of inclusion, leaving no one behind, etc. The idea of hell, by contrast, is precisely about exclusion and leaving some behind forever – indeed, even taking delight in their perpetual exclusion. The human race is on this view destined for what C. S. Lewis famously called a Great Divorce, not a Great Group Hug.
Still, there is a sing along: OK, Squirrel Nut Zippers, preach it!