Hell is, to say it mildly, an unpopular doctrine. Who wants to believe that some are deprived forever of the sight of God and are tormented for all eternity with pains greater than any Earthly woe? More particularly, who wants to believe it would happen to a loved one?
Would not a just God be more chillax about this whole evil thing and not damn anyone? Right? Right?
Gustave Doré, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
A note on methodology.
God, as it happens, does not take our beliefs into account when creating reality. (So unfortunate.) In the end, arguing what a just God would do has a sense of meaningless to it--God has already done it, and will not change His mind. This is the nature of an omniscient, omnipotent, and transcendent being.
But ignoring that, we can at least play god ourselves and see what we would do if thrust into the Divine throne. If we get the same result... haven't we succeeded?
So! Let's just dump Hell. Drop that table, sudo rm -rf /dev/hell && sudo apt remove damn, Human Wisdom, surpassing some, has here deconstructed me. It's gone. Hooray!
Now everyone, without exception, goes to Heaven, no matter how good or evil they are.
What does that lead to?
That is, all your life, all your work, all decisions you made and ever could make, boil down to this:
That's it. That's all. The function of your life simply returns a constant. You win. GG. The end. Everything you did meant nothing, because you'd win anyway. It's like a casino where the slot machines always spit out the same amount of money.
Nothing mattered, or ever could. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Enjoy whatever you do, because you have no choice in what ultimately matters.
Meanwhile, go on and murder, rape, and steal, because it will also be meaningless. Everyone's just going on up! HOORAY!
Let's try that again, but specify there is a Hell. Just a temporary one. Assign any bad deed a given time period or suffering level, multiply times jerkitude, subtract holiness deductions--whatever, let God do the sin return. All we care about is that there's a finite punishment for a finite evil. Phew.
So, after you die, your entire life is... This:
It's no different. Any temporal punishment is meaningless compared to an eternal reward. All we have done is reinvent Purgatory. Which, speaking as a papist, is a pretty awesome doctrine.
But not this form. Think about it. Essentially, even someone who hated God would eventually be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Empyrean to eternally worship and adore God. That's... kinda a jerk move. So much for free will.
Let's try yet again.
OK, so let's say people burn in Hell for their bad deeds, BUT they can come out if they change their mind. Otherwise, they can keep getting sucked around a vortex with their adulterous lover, buried in iron hot coffins, or turned into lizards, or what have you. But once they repent, FINE. Off to the celestial spheres.
All good now? What do we get when we mix it up and stick in the oven?
Um, hold on. Let's think about this. Is everyone still going to Heaven? What about the hypothetical maltheist? That is, will everyone eventually repent? Or can there be someone who still refuses, no matter how painful the fire, no matter how black the darkness, no matter how reptilian the lizard, to return to God?
What if they don't? Will God, in the end, respect this choice?
Then, at last, we get this:
Your life has meaning. Choose good or evil, life or death, and it matters. Your temporal life can set your eternal life. Any good deed, no matter how small, helps you to choose yes. Any evil deed, no matter how small, drags you down.
But why? It's simple enough. Choices--actual, real choices--are not inert levers pressed by the untouchable homunculous in your mind. They affect you: your brain wiring, your place in the world, and (dare I say it?) your soul. Whether you choose good or evil once contributes to making that same choice again.
Some of you might be interested in expanding those possibility further. That is, rather than two outcomes, offer an infinite number of outcomes. Let every good deed and evil choice be rewarded and punished separately. Now EVERYTHING matters! Yay!
Thus, the doctrine of merit. (But a full expounding on that would be a post for another time)
Appendix A: How about some of that good ol' Purgatory?
But wasn't that escapable Hell up a few sections so nice?
Purgatory is a doctrine we papists, the Orthodox to an extent, and some Protestants hold as an in-between. Specifically, anyone who dies unready to immediately enter Heaven gets cooked a little bit first. After that, they go to Heaven. Hooray! There's no chance of going to Hell once in Purgatory--it's a one-way elevator. Meanwhile, it's not exactly a pleasant place. St. Lidwina describes a vision of a part of Purgatory bordering on Hell, where a particular soul was at the bottom of a well covered in incandescent fire!
If you are so inclined, praying or doing penances for the dead helps them along. The literal poor soul St. Lidwina described was relieved by prayers and so ended up in... a higher section of Purgatory.
Appendix B: What about angels?
Some ask if Hell is empty. I always wince, because the question is "Is Hell empty of humans?" There are definitely angels in Hell, traditionally 1/3 of the original Heavenly host. While God could indeed save any of them, even Satan himself, this cannot occur, due to the nature of free will.
God assigned angels, like us, free will. Unlike us, it is impossible for an angel to change its mind, due to the nature of being a pure intellect. Thus, angels end up with essentially one choice at the beginning of their existence: whether to serve God or not. The LORD respects the choice of those beings, of whatever nature, that choose something other than Him.
Am I happy that Hell exists? No. Am I glad, nonetheless, that God offers an actual choice? Absolutely. I used to be a universalist (and a pseudo-Taoist, too.) Yet this is why strong universalism is unacceptable to me. A weaker universalism--merely that the brute fact that all humans eventually choose God of their own free will--is something to hope for. God does not have a damnation quota.
Next time, I'll be defending something which, I think, is even more unpopular than Hell. Stay tuned!