But these objections rest on misunderstandings, or at least fail to take the argument on in its strongest form. To see what is wrong with the first objection, consider an analogy. Suppose someone is driving a car at 100 mph toward a cliff. Whether from the passenger seat or (hopefully, for your sake) by cell phone, you urge him to slow down and change course, warning that he is headed for certain death. Suppose a third party interjects: “Oh come on, resorting to scare tactics is a cynical, manipulative way to get someone to change his ways! Sure, you might terrorize him into slowing down, but only out of fear rather than a sincere appreciation for safe driving practices. Why not instead exhort him in a way that is likelier to transform his inward attitudes? For example, why not laud the beauty and reasonableness of safe driving? And why not reassure him that in any event we may have good hope that he won’t go off the cliff?”
Is this wise and morally refined advice? Of course not. It is foolish and sentimental advice, sure to result in the driver’s death. There are two problems with it. First, it treats the driver’s bad behavior and the prospect of his going off the cliff as if they were only contingently related – as if the bad behavior had no inherent tendency to lead one off the cliff, so that you may or may not bring it up when trying to reform the behavior. In reality, of course, going off of the cliff is the inevitable result of the bad behavior, and to leave it out is not only to fail to tell the whole story about the nature of the bad behavior, but to leave out the most important part of the story.
Now, in the same way, being in thrall to sins of greed, lust, envy, wrath, pride, and so on of its very nature tends to harden one’s soul into an orientation away from God and toward something less than God. And that means that the more hardened one is in such an orientation, the more likely that that is what one’s soul will be “locked” onto at death. One will, as it were, then go “off the cliff” toward which one had been speeding prior to death. But to be forever locked onto an end other than God is just what it is to be damned. So, to warn sinners of hell is not some unnecessary exercise in scare tactics, any more than warning the driver of his certain doom is. Rather, as with the warning to the driver, it is simply to give a complete description of where someone’s behavior will of its nature inevitably lead him if he does not change course.
That is the traditional Christian understanding of the effects of sin, and the Thomist tradition gives one possible way of understanding the underlying metaphysics. Whether or not you agree with that understanding or the proposed underlying metaphysics, the point is that it is a mistake to interpret the threat of hell as a mere scare tactic that has nothing to do with motivating inward moral transformation. On the contrary, it is precisely a warning of what a failure to achieve a genuine inward moral transformation will inevitably lead to.
But that is by no means to concede that scare tactics are always out of place. That is the second point illustrated by the driving example. If a guy is speeding toward a cliff, what charity demands is not reassuring him that everything will be OK, but precisely scaring the hell out of him so that he’ll change course. Similarly, sometimes warning someone of the prospect of hell can be the best way, maybe even the only way, to get him to reconsider the sort of evil life he is living.
Yes, fear of punishment is not the whole of the story of the moral life, or even the most important part of the story. No Catholic defender of the doctrine of hell denies that; on the contrary, such defenders emphasize that perfect contrition, sorrow out of love of God, is the only way a person can be saved outside of sacramental confession. But it simply does not follow that fear of punishment is never even part of the story. It can be precisely the first step in the process of inward moral transformation, even if it is far from the last step. Everyone knows that this is true in everyday life – that the prospect of prison, or financial ruin, or death, or loss of reputation or friends or family, can lead a criminal, a drug addict, an adulterer, or a greedy person, to reconsider the path he is on. There is no reason at all why fear of hell might not do the same.
It would also be quite silly to pretend that the argument from urgency is something defenders of the doctrine of hell have added to Christ’s teaching. No, the argument is rather that the reality of eternal damnation is the only way to make sense of the urgency that is already there in Christ’s own teaching. Consider some passages just from Matthew’s Gospel:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20, RSV)
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matthew 11:24)
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36)
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13:40-42)
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13: 47-50)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (Matthew 25:11-12)
For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30)
Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:45-46)
Now, I submit that anyone reading these for the first time and with no knowledge of the dispute over universalism would naturally take Christ to be saying that there will be a day of judgment where the wicked will be condemned forever, that there are sins that will never be forgiven, that this sorry fate cannot be escaped, that few will avoid it, that it is so dire that it is better to lose an eye, a hand, or even one’s whole body than to fall into it, and that there is a finality to this judgement that entails an urgency to repent now in order to avoid it.
Of course, annihilationists would say that the damned don’t suffer forever but are simply destroyed forever. I have argued against this view elsewhere, but what matters for the moment is that even the annihilationist agrees that Christ’s words entail an irrevocable condemnation of the wicked for their failure to repent of the sins of this life. What you cannot get out of passages like these is the universalist view that all will in fact be saved, that every sin will be forgiven, that no one will be condemned forever, etc.
There is a kind of Orwellian perversity to the universalist’s way of dealing with texts like these. Out of one side of his mouth, he admits – he has to, because it is undeniable – that such passages seem incompatible with universalism. It’s just that he modesty proposes that there are other ways of reading them that can be reconciled with his position. Even David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, acknowledges the “highly pictorial and dramatic imagery of exclusion used by Jesus to describe the fate of the derelict when the Kingdom comes” (p. 117). And he concedes that “the idea of an eternal punishment for the reprobate – in the sense not merely of a final penalty, but also of endlessly perduring torment – seems to have had a substantial precedent in the literature of the intertestamental period, such as 1 Enoch, and perhaps in some early schools of rabbinic thought” (Ibid.). But though he allows for the “possibility” of reading Christ’s words that way, he insists that there is “nothing in the gospels that obliges one to believe this” and says that we simply cannot make “any dogmatic pronouncements on the matter” (Ibid.). As I noted in a previous post, Hart also resorts to such agnosticism when dealing with passages in Revelation that don’t sit well with universalism.
Now, when you consider any one passage in isolation, you may or may not think the universalist can cobble together some sort of case. But the arguments are always strained, lawyerly in the worst sense of trying desperately to open up some loophole by which the obvious implication of the text might be escaped. (Again, see my previous post for discussion of some of the problems.) And when all the relevant scriptural passages are considered en masse, the idea that you can reconcile scripture with universalism just falls apart. The idea that none of the relevant passages should be taken at face value, and that the vast majority of readers have for two millennia been getting all of them that badly wrong, is just too silly for words. And that is, of course, why, as Hart admits, “just about the whole Christian tradition” (p. 81) has always rejected universalism.
But now the universalist speaks out of the other side of his mouth. Having cobbled together a tentative strained universalist reading of this passage, a tentative strained universalist reading of that passage, a tentative strained universalist reading of a third passage, and so on, he suddenly dumps the whole lot of these sophistries on you and pretends that they together amount to a demonstration that there is nothing in scripture that is incompatible with universalism. He pretends that the burden of proof is now on the critics of universalism to show otherwise. By such sleight of hand, what has always been considered heterodox is now presented as having the presumption in its favor, and what has always been considered orthodox is put on the defensive.
Thus do we have John Milbank matter-of-factly asserting: “Of course it is Edward Feser who is heterodox and not DB Hart.”
Yes, of course. And of course, we have always been at war with Eastasia.