Hell and the Ethics of Abuse and Dehumanization

Critics of universalism (here referring to a vision of universal salvation in an Abrahamic framework) often indict their perceived theological opponents on moral grounds — if everyone is ultimately saved and there isn’t eternal punishment for evil, why should people choose to live a good life and act in morally upright ways? Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think the majority of people consider their moral lives through a framework of punishment (or at least certainly most people don’t need that framework in particular to navigate morality reasonably effectively and live in ways that show basic ethical concern), I think the moral consequences of a soteriological vision which includes eternal, conscious torment (ETC) is far more morally problematic.

If you believe that eternal suffering is a live possibility for human beings if they don’t conform to the right theological vision or live by the correct ethical code, basically any means are justified in order to urge others in the “correct” direction, as the consequence of them not getting these things “right” is ultimate in every sense of the world.

Think homosexuality is sinful and could lead to ETC in the afterlife for individuals who enter into same-sex relationships? Well, if your child comes out of the closet you are entirely justified in doing whatever you can to steer them away from homosexuality, even things which are self-evidently abusive and violate the sanctity of the unconditional love which should define the parent-child relationship. These transgressions are a small price to pay if they could possibly lead to the child entering heaven rather than experiencing ETC in the afterlife.

Think people of other religions will not be saved? Then your absolute number one priority in engaging with them will be proselytization, even if this is basically dehumanizing through treating religious others as relevant only insofar as their salvation is concerned.

Of course, truly traditional religion also has fundamental ethical constraints on certain kinds of behavior which would, if taken sufficiently seriously, bar one from engaging in the most extreme forms of religious coercion. But even so, a tension remains so long as one holds to a vision of ETC. Why should a commandment of non-violence be ultimate if violence is used in service of people’s salvation? Can’t this be justified given the self-evident ultimacy of eternal hellfire?

There are, certainly, also decadent forms of universalism, which can lead to a certain nihilism and moral relativism through an arrogant conviction that one is already saved regardless. I think there does, ultimately, need to be a robust account of divine justice, but an account which rests on ETC is both theologically incoherent (as scholars such has David Bentley Hart have elegantly shown as of late) and ethically disastrous within the context of our worldly lives.

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Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview