1 Crime is rising because the fear of hell is declining— or so said Britain's Secretary of State for Education and Science John Patten in 1992. The British newspapers deemed the argument so preposterous that they gave it a lot of ink. Patten argued that Britain needed a renewed fear of damnation and hope of redemption in order to return to civility.
The secretary's essay not only drew sharp reaction in the press, it also sparked a considerable debate over the moral foundations of modern society. One critical editorial gives the flavor of the prevailing opinion. Entitled "Hell: who needs it?" it concluded with this parting shot: "We may well need to renew our sense of the bad and the good, but the renewal will not be prompted by thoughts of a dreadful eternity elsewhere, even if we imagine Mr. Patten to be there with us, sharing it!"
On our side of the Atlantic, the popular press has likewise regularly fed us stories about the need to "renew our sense of the bad and the good" and about how we need to rediscover America's moral foundations. Time and Newsweek have splashed former drug czar William Bennett and his "Virtuecrats" on their covers and sympathetically described their "crusade against America's moral decline." These now regular articles seem to take for granted that there is a moral void at the heart of our society.
While Christians should applaud this reopening of the debate about morality, we do not have to be satisfied with how it is being conducted. There is a tension, an ambivalence, that pervades this discussion. Oxford philosopher Basil Mitchell calls this tension the "dilemma of the traditional conscience." It is the quandary faced by those who affirm traditional moral convictions but who deny the theological framework that historically provided those convictions with meaning and motivation. Without the framework, it is not clear whether or why those convictions of right and wrong are true or why they should be followed.
Our cultural debate over morals and virtues does not meet this dilemma head-on. One Time article came the closest by offering the opinion that "interestingly, and perhaps reassuringly, some of the most thoughtful ethicists feel that the elements for an enduring moral consensus are right at hand—in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, with their combination of Locke's natural rights and Calvin's ultimate right." But this merely evades the issue. What remains unacknowledged is the obvious fact that for Locke and Calvin these rights are ultimately grounded in the will of a living God.
Perhaps it is time to admit that Mr. Patten was on to something.
2 I do not believe there is any adequate account of moral authority or of moral motivation on secular principles. More specifically, I believe we need God, heaven, and yes, even hell, to make sense of morality. Indeed, we need to define our very selves in light of these eternal realities. If there is no God, no heaven, no hell, there simply is no persuasive reason to be moral.
I do not mean to claim there is no reason at all to behave morally without these beliefs. A person might decide to adhere to traditional morality if he thought it a good thing that most people should behave that way. But there is a profound difference between being moral and believing it is a good thing to behave morally most of the time. This is a key point in the virtue tradition, and one of the main reasons for its appeal.
But there is a deeper reason why it ultimately makes no sense to be moral without God, heaven, and hell. Being moral is often at odds with self-interest. There are times when virtue may exact a large price and occasions when commitment to moral integrity can even cost moral agents their own lives.
An obvious example here is the young soldier who chooses to die for his country rather than to flee in battle. It is noteworthy that C. S. Lewis used this case in The Abolition of Man to illustrate the difference between those who stand within what he calls the Tao in their approach to moral education, and those who do not. By the Tao Lewis simply meant the consensus of traditional morality that he believed was held in common by all cultures. Here is his illustration: "When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgment discerned in noble death."
Those who reject the absolute authority of the Tao and attempt to reconstruct morality on some other basis Lewis gives the label "moral innovators." Such innovators are faced with a dilemma at this point: "Either they must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it." The latter course assumes—indeed, creates—a conflict between what is good for individuals and what is good for society as a whole. Another way to state it is to see the conflict as being between what is arguably moral (defending your country) and what is merely in one's self-interest (staying alive).
How can it be a sweet and seemly thing for the soldier to die for his country? Those who survive and remember him may view his death in this fashion, but of what value is that to him? How then can this mode of behavior be thought rational? If it is rational, how can it be right? For self-sacrifice to be rational, one must discover some clear justification for acting decisively against one's immediate self-interest.
Given the life-and-death context, one might feel like urging that we do not need traditional morality if it costs one's life. One could try to argue that we can preserve portions of the Tao without buying the whole (a common tactic in ethical debate today: e.g., adultery is good if it is victimless, mutual, and loving).
3 Here is where God, heaven, and hell come in. These are the resources that enable us to give a satisfying account to our young soldier (and everybody else, for that matter) of why we should not only behave morally but also be moral, and not only generally but always. For these are the best, if not the only, resources to make sense of how it is always in our best interest to be moral.
The doctrines of heaven and hell are the supreme articulation of the claim that we can neither evade responsibility for our actions nor the motives behind them. They represent the epitome of the notion that we never serve our ultimate self-interest by doing what is immoral, just as we always serve our ultimate self-interest by our steadfast commitment to do what is right in all situations, including those that are the most costly to us. In fact, the logic of heaven dictates that only by losing your life will you find it. We are eternal beings, being groomed for an existence that transcends our this-worldly goods. In heaven all forfeited good is restored in a better mode than before.
The recent papal encyclical (The Splendor of Truth) argues along these lines in its emphasis on martyrdom as a witness to Christian moral commitments. What so surprises and challenges current sensibilities is the fact that the whole discussion of morality is set in the context of eternity. Martyrs are described as those who "obediently trusted and handed over their lives to the Father, the one who could free them from death" (cf. Heb. 5:7). Morality has an altogether different basis if a sacrificial death is a life handed over to a loving Father who cares for his children than it does if such a life is given over to oblivion.
In our post-Enlightenment setting, this appeal to heaven is, ironically, likely to strike many as immoral. Any concern with self-interest may seem incompatible with genuine morality. The unfortunate result of this supposed conflict is that our society continues to fluctuate between between moral self-restraint ("smoking is bad") and immoral self-indulgence ("drinking is good"). Happily, this tension, with its disastrous consequences, is not inevitable.
To be sure, Christianity is opposed to self-indulgence, but this should not be equated with legitimate self-interest. Basil Mitchell makes this point in showing the positive moral significance of heaven and hell.
If a man longs for a heaven that is genuine communion with God and with other men, what he hopes for is not self-interested in any objectionable sense, for he desires this for others as well as for himself; and, if he does not, then he has not yet made the required metanoia—he has not repented. He has to be born again, but what he then receives is what he most deeply wants, a bliss that cannot be enjoyed without selfless devotion to God and to others. When understood in this way—a profoundly traditional way—the emphasis in the Gospels upon heaven and hell can be seen to fulfill morality, not to distort it.
Only with the help of heaven and hell can "the dilemma of the traditional conscience" be resolved. Because only an appeal to a reality that transcends biological survival will allow morality and self-interest to merge.
In one of Time's recurring articles on this subject, the essayist wrote: "If Americans wish to strike a truer ethical balance, they may need to re-examine the values that society so seductively parades before them: a top job, political power, sexual allure, a penthouse or lakefront spread, a killing on the market" (my emphasis). The "ethical balance" he has in mind is between service to self and service to society. So conceived, the balance represents a sort of compromise between a thoroughgoing self-interest and a selfless service to others.
Here is how heaven and hell change the picture. They bring God in! And at once everything looks different. No compromise is necessary. If we are eternal persons whose lives have an eternal context, then self-interest dictates that we follow the laws of heaven. Heaven is the true fulfillment of all human desire. And so without seeing ourselves as heaven's citizens, we cannot order our desires the right way. We will desire lesser goods (the goodness of sexual acts) over higher ones (the goodness of fidelity). In other words, we cannot redefine our wants without challenging the secular definition of who we are.
So the moral significance of hell is not to serve as a threat to deter uncivil behavior. Hell in its adjudication is the judgment of God, but in its nature it is the intrinsic consequence of pursuing the wrong means to happiness. It is the natural outcome of not considering carefully who we are and profoundly pursuing what will truly satisfy us. So understood, hell cannot be used in a simplistic way as a club to keep in line people who never seriously reflect on these basic questions about the meaning of life.
Or to put the point another way, if the ideas of heaven and hell are in fact lost on us, it is because we have lost our grasp on the larger matrix of convictions that give them life; for the concepts of heaven and hell cannot survive in any meaningful sense outside their natural habitat. Outside the context of God, eternity, goodness, evil, salvation, and ultimate human fulfillment, these notions will inevitably appear to be relics from the past that are all but unintelligible to us today.
4 In his 1984 Ingersoll Lecture on immortality entitled "Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument," Martin Marty maintained that the doctrine of hell is no longer "culturally available" in our society. Marty advanced this argument against those who press for the return of "God-talk in public education." These persons contend that if God is not restored to our schools, there is no proper basis for teaching values and civic virtue.
As Marty points out, however, this is not as simple a matter as it may seem. For the God who figured prominently in America's educational past, whether theistic or deistic, was a morally active God who held people accountable for moral wrongdoing, both in this life and in the life to come. In short, God played an important role in moral education because of the attendant doctrine of judgment. So we cannot bring God back into our schools in any morally significant sense unless we also bring back the doctrines of heaven and hell. And, Marty further argued, if we did unilaterally bring God-talk back into the classroom, the practical effect would be to reduce God to a mere "syllable." Since the idea of hell is culturally unavailable to us, Marty concludes that civil institutions should learn to develop moral systems that do not need to "invoke the syllable 'God' as an instrument for promoting 'traditional values.' "
Now Marty is correct in pointing out that the idea of hell has been linked with the idea of God in traditional Western moral education. I would argue, however, that there is more involved here than a historical link. There is also a logical link. More specifically, any idea of God worth believing entails the doctrine of heaven and also some version of the doctrine of hell—or at least judgment. I do not claim it entails the doctrine of eternal hell, although that is the account of hell that I believe is true. But some version of the doctrine follows from the idea of God.
Here is the essential argument: If God is supremely powerful as well as good, then he has both the ability and the desire to preserve and perfect his relationship with his rational creatures. A good God would not create us with the kind of aspirations we have and then leave those aspirations unsatisfied. The doctrine of heaven is the claim that our deepest aspirations can be satisfied in a perfected relationship with God and other persons. However, a loving God would not force this relationship upon us; indeed, he cannot do so if we are truly free. So we can, if we prefer, destroy our own happiness by rejecting the only true means to that happiness. This is the heart of the traditional doctrine of hell.
As a matter of logic then, any idea of God that does not entail reward and punishment is neither morally relevant nor worthy of our worship. He is certainly not a god Christians would recognize.
Now this has interesting implications for Marty's argument. If the idea of hell is culturally unavailable, this is because the idea of God is culturally unavailable. And when we reflect on the current state of our society, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that in terms of his actual cultural impact, God has been reduced to a syllable. If this is so, we are far worse off than Marty suggests.
I have my doubts, however, whether hell is really as culturally unavailable as Marty claims. There are signs that hell is being taken more seriously today than it was even a decade ago when he delivered his lecture. In 1991, U.S. News & World Report published a story entitled "Hell's Sober Comeback" in which it reported that belief in hell is on the rise among Americans. According to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans professed to believe in hell in 1990, compared to 53 percent in 1981. Belief in heaven rose from 71 percent to 78 percent during the same period. It is also noteworthy that several serious books and articles have been published about hell in the past few years whereas a decade ago Marty reported that a survey of religious literature turned up almost nothing.
Recently, a controversy erupted in response to a Church of England document that affirmed the possibility of damnation—albeit, on two pages in a 200-page document. The very suggestion, from a credible source, that hell might be a reality to be faced is still enough to elicit passionate reaction. This surely indicates that the issue of hell is far from dead in the public consciousness, even in deeply secularized Britain.
Cultural trends are, of course, mercurial and not easily read without benefit of several years of hindsight. So perhaps we should not make too much of this alleged change in the public mind. But it is also possible that the statistics cited above reflect a substantive change at a deeper level of our culture. For there has been taking place in the past several years a change in the intellectual climate with respect to belief in God and other religious matters. This too has been noticed by the popular media. In 1980, Time magazine observed the following: "In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening … in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse."
What is worth reflecting on here is the possibility that "hell's sober comeback" is at least partly a result of God's "comeback" in circles of sober reflection. A recovery of intellectually serious belief in God is a culturally significant development whose effects would likely, in time, include a renewed consideration of the implications of theistic belief. And if this is true, it is not too much to hope that it may enable us to recover some hard reasons to be moral, not the least of which would flow from a renewed vision of heaven and hell.
We cannot be moral without God, and we cannot have God without hell. Hell needs to make a comeback.
Jerry L. Walls teaches theology at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Ky.) and is the author of Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame).
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