I’ve written on this subject many times and will not repeat here everything I’ve said before. (See the links below.) The aim of this post is not to present a general exposition and defense of the doctrine of Hell, but simply to consider what Geach had to say about it.
Geach had no patience for humbug, and he begins by clearing away some of it:
We cannot be Christians, followers of Christ, we cannot even know what it is to be a Christian, unless the Gospels give at least an approximately correct account of Christ’s teaching. And if the Gospel account is even approximately correct, then it is perfectly clear that according to that teaching many men are irretrievably lost. Men like McTaggart and Bertrand Russell have noticed this aspect of Christ’s teaching and decided that Christianity is incredible; they have thus paid Christ the minimal honour of observing what he has said and taking it seriously – an honour denied him by those who use their own fancy about the ‘spirit’ of Christ’s teaching as a means of deciding what Christ must have said or meant. It is less clear, I admit, that the fate of the lost according to that teaching is to be endless misery rather than ultimate destruction. But universalism is not a live option for a Christian. (pp. 123-24)
Now, I disagree with Geach’s remark that it is less clear from Christ’s teaching whether it is endless misery or ultimate destruction that is the fate of the wicked. (I think Christ clearly meant the former.) I also disagree with Geach’s view (which he goes on to express in this chapter) that the possibility of damnation, and indeed of any afterlife at all, are matters we can know about only from special divine revelation rather than via philosophical argument. These are topics I address in those earlier posts. But I think Geach is absolutely correct that universalism cannot possibly be reconciled with what the Gospels tell us Christ actually said. I have discussed the overwhelming textual evidence .
Geach notes a couple of important lessons to be drawn from the fact that Christianity clearly teaches the doctrine of Hell. For one thing, this fact poses a serious difficulty for one common skeptical objection against the Faith:
Christianity is often supposed to be a matter of wishful thinking; but the accusation can scarcely hold good against a Christian who firmly accepts the dogma of Hell, and believes that he and those he loves, just as they may die of cancer, are in jeopardy of Hell. (p. 134)
For another thing, if the dogma of Hell really were a wicked doctrine (as universalists maintain), then, as Geach argues (following McTaggart, who made the same point for very different, skeptical reasons) we could have no good grounds for believing a purported divine revelation that teaches this dogma (pp. 134-36). For example, it would be quite ridiculous to hold that the Bible really is divinely inspired, but then go on to say that it teaches a doctrine (the dogma of Hell) that is evil and must be rejected. For if scripture is wrong about something that important, why trust anything else it says? Its inclusion of the doctrine of Hell would in that case entail either that the deity who inspired it is evil and thus cannot be trusted; or (to add a little to what Geach says) that not all of scripture really is divinely inspired after all – in which case, why suppose the rest of it really is?
Though Geach does not make the connection, there is a clear similarity here to the argument It is no wonder that universalists try to pull off the trick of simultaneously straining hard to pretend to see their doctrine in scripture, while shutting their eyes tight lest they see the doctrine of Hell that is clearly taught there. Frankly to acknowledge what scripture actually says would require them to give up Christianity altogether. (Nor is it surprising that these purportedly more pacific souls are typically so nasty to those who disagree with them – gaslighting puts a strain on those doing it no less than on those subjected to it.) to the effect that theological modernism is self-defeating.
Geach makes an interesting related point against the claim that anyone is predestined to Hell:
[This] would make God directly responsible for the lies men tell in the same way as for the utterances of his holy Prophets, and thus the revelational basis of the belief is wholly destroyed. (p. 136)
In other words, if everything we do is strictly necessitated by God, then he is the author of lies in the same way in which he is the author of purported truths. So how could we tell which are which, in matters we can know about only through revelation from him? (To offer an analogy – mine, not Geach’s – suppose someone who communicated to you only via email not only sent you emails with messages he said were true, but also caused you to get emails, purportedly from other people, with messages you knew to be false. Why would you believe the first set of emails if you knew he was also behind the second set?) In Geach’s view, “predestinarian theories like those of Jonathan Edwards” are thus self-defeating in the way he elsewhere argues that modernism is (p. 136).
With the mainstream Christian tradition, Geach holds that damnation is not inevitable full stop, but rather is inevitable only given choices that we freely make. Still, it is inevitable given those choices. “God does allow men to sin; and misery is the natural, not the arbitrarily inflicted, consequence of sin to the sinner” (p. 138). But wouldn’t it be pointless for God to create a world in which some people end up never fulfilling the purpose for which they were made, even if this is a result of their own folly?
No, this would not be pointless. Geach compares such people to non-human living things that are destroyed (say, by being eaten by other living things) and therefore do not fulfill their own individual purpose, but nevertheless still fulfill larger purposes within the natural order as a whole (such as providing sustenance to the animals that eat them). He writes:
Wicked men, who by their own choice fail to achieve their chief end, nevertheless have their place in the Divine order of things… But we must here imagine that a chisel volunteers to be used to hack the wood, in the fatuous malicious belief that the carver is thus enabled to do harm to the wood. Extreme villainy is the necessary means to produce such virtue as that of Thomas More or Maksymilian Kolbe: necessary, because the virtue is exercised in reaction to the villainy, the villainy is the subject-matter of the virtue. God allows the villainy in order to have the virtue. (p. 126)
Now, The damned will forever be miserable, but precisely because they will forever choose the evil that generates and merits this misery. Precisely because this misery is merited, though, Geach argues that their continued existence after death serves a larger purpose no less than their existence in this life does: (following Aquinas), repentance after death is metaphysically impossible.
In this life this wickedness serves to perfect the virtue of God’s friends; hereafter, the misery that comes from their evil will serves for the praise of God’s justice. God has never promised to make all men happy: on the contrary, as Butler argued in the Analogy, the lesson that a man may by his own foolish choice do himself irreparable harm is written in this world in letters that he who runs may read. Immortality accompanied by vice is, as Aristotle said, the greatest of misfortunes. (p. 138)
Now, some will object that it would make the saved miserable to know that their damned loved ones, or indeed anyone damned, is suffering. But here there is a failure of imagination. People too often imagine the weak but not altogether contemptible creatures so many human beings are, with their good aspects alongside their defects, struggling to be better but repeatedly failing. Then they imagine such a person suffering forever, and the punishment seems disproportionate to the failings. But , that is the wrong way to think about the matter. If one can imagine the state of a damned soul at all, it would be better to think, to a first approximation, of the sort of person who stubbornly refuses even to try to reform certain bad behavior, even when his loved ones gently plead with him to do so and even when he knows that it is hurting him.
If you have ever known such a person, you know that it is very difficult to feel sorry for him, or at least to feel sorry for him with respect to what he suffers as a result of such willfulness. One thinks: “If you simply insist on acting that way despite knowing what it is doing to you, you deserve what you get!” Now, the person who is damned is, after death, reduced to that sort of person, and to nothing more than that sort of person. Whatever residual possibility for good there was prior to death drops away, leaving only the impenitent core. Geach writes:
People say rather lightly that they could not bear for a damned soul to be punished unendingly; but someone confronted with the damned would find it impossible to wish that things so evil should be happy – particularly when the misery is seen as the direct and natural consequence of the guilt. At best they could wish that such a thing should no longer be; that such guilt and misery should no longer defile the world. (p. 139)
More on that last point in a moment. First let me note an interesting suggestion Geach makes about the nature of the pains of sense that will torment the damned. we looked at what Geach has to say about original sin, and about the manner in which nature has been damaged by the Fall. In this life, God permits sinful human beings to abuse the things that make up the natural order, as they do when they use these things to serve their corrupt purposes. But in the next life, Geach proposes, God will no longer allow this (p. 146). The damned will seek to use the objects comprising the natural world for evil ends, but will find that they are unable to do so. In this way they will be endlessly frustrated and tormented by a redeemed natural order. (To appeal to an analogy that is obviously mine rather than Geach’s, think of the damned on the model of those in the Marvel movies who are unable to pick up Thor’s hammer, despite its being to all appearances just one medium-sized object alongside all the others – the reason being, not that they lack physical strength, but rather that they are not worthy.)
As to the duration of the punishment of the damned, Geach tentatively offers a couple of speculative scenarios. One of them involves a branching timeline scenario with which I am not sympathetic given , and I will leave that to one side. The other goes like this:
Imagine a man condemned to work out for ever the decimal expansion of π: a dreadful fate for many of us to imagine. He would always have a new digit to work out, however far he got, so his task would never end. But if he worked out the first digit in half an hour, the second in a quarter of an hour, and so on, his speed of calculation doubling each time, then if he started at two o’clock no digit would remain to be calculated after three o’clock. (pp. 148-49)
While this is physically impossible, Geach allows, he thinks it is not logically impossible, and that a resurrected person could be freed from the mere physical impossibility. But then, he continues:
So an unending series of miseries could be fitted into a finite time-stretch. In that case, a man condemned to Hell might look forward to a series of miserable experiences of which he could say with truth ‘This will never end’; and nevertheless one day the Saints might be able to say of him and of all the damned ‘Thank God that’s over.’ (p. 149)
The scenario is certainly intriguing. But here too I’m skeptical. If we think of these ever shorter stretches of time within the hour as all actually existing, then it seems we face Zeno-type paradoxes. If, to avoid those, we take an Aristotelian approach of regarding the ever shorter stretches as existing only potentially within the hour, then we don’t have the actually infinite collection of miseries Geach posits. Hence, it seems to me, Geach’s proposal to avoid making Hell a non-stopper is a non-starter.