Only Philosophers Go to Hell

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

HellThe Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists. Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? The Problem of Hell is a special version of the Problem of Evil, which is the general challenge that a just and loving God would not intentionally create a world with excessive misery, and yet we see the excesses all around us. Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here. At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies. But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity. Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one. That’s a problem.

There are two standard lines in defense of Hell. The first is the retributivist line, and the second is the libertarian line. We think that if either succeeds, only philosophers could go to Hell. This is because only someone who understands exactly what she is doing in sinning or rejecting God could deserve such a fate as Hell, and only a philosophical education could provide that kind of understanding. So, it follows, only philosophers can go to Hell.

Retributivism with regard to Hell runs as follows: Those in Hell are sinners, and sin demands punishment. Therefore, Hell is necessary; it is the place where that punishment is delivered. This seems reasonable as far as it goes, and it does work as a nice counterpoint to the regular complaint that sometimes the wicked prosper in this life – they will suffer appropriately in the next. But retributivism about Hell ultimately seems problematic. Grant that sinners deserve punishment. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment being visited upon those in Hell is objectionable. Sinners can’t do infinite harm, no matter how bad they are. But they get an eternity of torment. Punishment is just only when it is proportionate to the wrongs committed by the guilty. So even if Hell’s express purpose is to enact retribution on those who are guilty of sin, and even if the guilty do get what’s coming to them in Hell, making that punishment eternal is moral overkill. Again, disproportionate punishment is morally wrong, and Hell is guaranteed to be exactly that for everyone there.

Take a moment to consider some moral wrong you’ve done. Perhaps you stole a piece of bubblegum from the corner store. That was wrong. You know that. Now imagine that you were caught in the act, and you were given a beating for doing that wrong. And we’re not talking just any beating – we’re talking about a real drubbing, one that ranges from your legs, up to your torso, and then to your face. And it doesn’t stop. The people who caught you keep hitting you. For a week. For a month. For a year. Now, for sure, you got punished for your moral error. The problem with the punishment is that it was out of proportion to the seriousness of the wrong you committed. You stole bubblegum, but you got a year-long beating in return. The beating was much worse than the moral harm done in stealing the bubblegum. Now consider: Every sin is only a finite harm, but punishment in Hell is eternal. No matter how bad the sins of sinners are, they will always be punished disproportionately in Hell. That’s unjust.

One response might contend that the sin of those in Hell isn’t in the temporal wrongs they have committed in sinning, but rather, the sinners in Hell commit the wrong of rejecting God, the greatest good. That is their infinite error. Consequently, the sin of those in Hell is infinite, and so they deserve eternal (hence proportionate) punishment.

Notice that in order to deserve the full measure of that punishment in Hell, a sinner who rejects God must know exactly what she’s doing. If, say, the person who rejects God does so because she did not understand Him properly or because she did not know what she was rejecting Him, then she cannot deserve full punishment of Hell. She has made an error, but it was not related to her character, but consists in her failure to grasp the divine. She didn’t fully understand her actions. Only those who understand exactly what they are doing deserve proportionate retribution.

It seems clear that only someone with appropriate philosophical acumen could have that kind of understanding. Being familiar with a textual tradition is clearly insufficient, as the art of interpreting those texts is what’s required to take them appropriately. (No one takes Solomonic wisdom to consist in the threatening to chop up anything in contention.) Philosophy is what constitutes those interpretive moves. So, on the retributive theory of Hell, only a philosopher could justly go there.

The other going justification for Hell is libertarianism, the view that one freely chooses Hell as embracing an eternity away from God. God made Hell as a place where those who want to be away from Him can go. As C. S. Lewis put it, “the doors of Hell are locked from inside.”

Again, choosing is not simply a matter of what gets chosen, but it is also a matter of what the chooser thinks she’s choosing. A person who freely drinks a cup of petrol while believing it to be a cup of water does not really choose to drink petrol. Consequently, only those who know who and what God is can properly choose to be without Him. And only those with accurate philosophical understanding of God can be in this position. Again, only philosophers can go to Hell.

All this seems excellent news for non-philosophers. Socrates may have been right that the unexamined life is not worth living, but at least it keeps you out of Hell. But there’s some bad news, too. By way of the same kind of arguments presented above, we should hold that Heaven is reserved only for philosophers. If Heaven is our loving communion with God, it must be something we’ve knowingly chosen. God could not want us to enter into an eternity of loving communion with Him without our knowing what we are doing. And, again, only philosophers could understand what that choice amounts to. Only philosophers can go to Hell. And only philosophers can go to Heaven. Maybe that’s not such good news for non-philosophers. But perhaps there’s some comfort in the thought that non-philosophers might be able to avoid going anywhere for eternity.

Aikin and Talisse's Reasonable Atheism is available from Prometheus Books.