The following is a paper I wrote last year for a philosophy of religion class.
Arguments against the doctrine of eternal damnation have historically been of at least two sorts: theological arguments, which attempt to show (typically on the basis of divine revelation) that belief in eternal damnation is not a part of proper/orthodox Christian belief; and philosophical arguments, which attempt to show that eternal damnation cannot be true on purely philosophical grounds. In this paper, I intend to examine some arguments of the latter sort, as well as make a positive case for the justice of eternal damnation. I am writing as a committed Catholic, and so henceforth I will take “eternal damnation” or “hell” to refer to what the Catholic Church means by these names. Furthermore, I am writing from a specifically Thomistic framework. As such, I will largely be using the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in interacting with and responding to various arguments. In a paper of this scope, I obviously cannot defend the Thomistic system as a whole; so instead I will simply be arguing that given a Thomistic framework, the various arguments I consider against eternal damnation are not successful, and a positive case for the justice of eternal damnation can in fact be made.
II. Arguments Against the Justice of Damnation
For this paper I will largely be interacting with work by Buckareff and Plug which summarizes and defends a number of important philosophical arguments against the justice of damnation. Buckareff and Plug take it that the doctrine of damnation poses a unique “problem of evil” for theists who subscribe to it. They write that “such theists affirm the following two theses: (i) God exists, and is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. (ii) Some created persons will be consigned to hell forever.” Here they point to Marilyn McCord Adams’s argument that “(i) and (ii) are logically incompatible.” Here is Adams’s argument as they present it:
- If God existed and were omnipotent, God would be able to avoid (ii).
- If God existed and were omniscient, God would know how to avoid (ii).
- If God existed and were perfectly good, God would want to avoid (ii).
- Therefore, if (i), then not (ii).
Consider the similarity between this argument and the following statements from J. L. Mackie:
In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false.
Mackie presents a fairly standard version of a logical argument from evil. If we were to put it into propositional form, it might look something like this:
- Evil exists
- If God were omnipotent, there would be no limits on what God can do
- Therefore, if God were omnipotent, God would be able to avoid (1)
- If God were wholly good, God would always eliminate evil as far as he could
- Therefore, if God were wholly good, God would want to avoid (1)
- Therefore, if God exists, then not (1)
As we can see, there are significant commonalities between Adams’s argument and Mackie’s; and this is why the problem of hell is considered by many a subset of the problem of evil.
But let’s return to Adams’s argument specifically. What reason do we have for taking the premises to be true? The first seems true, if we suppose that there are not certain goods which God desires that necessitate (ii). In other words, in an absolute sense God’s omnipotence is surely such that it can avoid (ii); but God’s omnipotence might not be such that it can simultaneously avoid (ii) and achieve some other good which God desires and which necessitates (ii). Of course, this opens the question of whether God could be justified in seeking that other good given that it necessitates (ii), but this is a question for God’s goodness, not his omnipotence. And that brings us to the third — and perhaps most controversial — premise. Is it the case that God’s being perfectly good would entail that God would want to avoid (ii)? Answering this would require knowing what exactly is meant by perfect goodness. Specifically, we must know what premise (3) implies about the issue of whether a perfectly good God could have competing desires, such that God’s desire for some good which necessitates (ii) outweighs God’s desire to avoid (ii). Adams’s argument can only succeed if we take (3) to mean that God has no such competing desires; or that even if God does have competing desires, his perfect goodness requires that he would (or could) never choose anything which necessitates (ii), or that he could never be justified in choosing (ii) or in choosing anything which necessitates (ii). But what reason do we have to think that (3) means these things?
According to Buckareff and Plug, “there are at least three objections to the traditional doctrine of hell that directly challenge the compatibility of divine goodness with the existence of hell.” They label these the vagueness objection, the proportionality objection, and the diminished capacities objection. For the sake of this paper we will focus simply on the proportionality objection.
The essence of the proportionality objection is that “it is impossible for any individual to merit eternal punishment.” We can formulate the whole objection as follows:
- The amount of punishment a person may deserve is governed by the proportionality principle.
- The proportionality principle states that the degree of punishment that a person justly merits is proportionate to the level of her wrongdoing.
- It is possible for a person to deserve infinite punishment only if it is possible for a person to commit an infinite harm.
- It is possible for us to be guilty of committing an infinite amount of harm only if it is possible for us to commit (a) one action that brings about an infinite amount of harm, or (b) an infinite number of actions that each cause finite harm.
- It is possible to commit (a) only if one (c) causes infinite harm to a person of finite importance, or (d) causes any harm to a person of infinite importance.
- But (c) is not possible, because the only way to cause infinite harm to a person of finite importance is to send them to hell, but then hell would only exist to punish those who cause others to go to hell; and (d) is not possible because the only being of infinite importance is God, and according to classical theism God is impassible and cannot be harmed.
- So (a) is impossible.
- And (b) is likewise impossible, because our antemortem existence is only finite; and if we factor in our postmortem existence, hell would only exist to punish actions committed in hell, which is circular.
- Therefore, it is impossible to be guilty of committing an infinite amount of harm.
- Therefore, it is impossible to deserve infinite punishment.
But if it is impossible to deserve infinite punishment, and if hell is understood as entailing infinite punishment, then hell is essentially unjust. And if God is perfectly just, then God could not allow/inflict hell on any of his creatures.
If successful, the above argument supports Adams’s premise (3) by showing that eternal damnation is inherently unjust, so that, if God is indeed perfectly good and perfectly just, God would not desire (ii). The rest of this paper will be concerned with addressing the proportionality objection and Adams’s argument from a Thomistic framework, as well as making a positive case for the justice of eternal damnation.
IV. Aquinas and the Justice of Damnation
Aquinas divides justice into two kinds: commutative and distributive. Commutative justice “consists in mutual giving and receiving, as in buying and selling, and other kinds of intercourse and exchange.” Aquinas denies that this kind of justice belongs to God, since God is the metaphysically ultimate first cause of all things; and hence everything other than God depends totally upon God, whereas God depends upon nothing. Accordingly, nothing other than God could possibly “give” God anything, such that God thereby owed something in return. Distributive justice, on the other hand, involves distributing certain goods to others on the basis of what is proper to them. Aquinas writes: “As then the proper order displayed in ruling a family or any kind of multitude evinces justice of this kind in the ruler, so the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God.” Thus we can ascribe distributive justice to God.
The idea of the “order of the universe” plays a crucial role in Aquinas’s understanding of God’s justice. God did not simply create a single, individual creature; he rather created a whole universe of creatures, a whole created order. Since God, for Aquinas, is ipsum esse subsistens (“subsisting being itself”) whose essence is his existence and who thereby contains “within Himself the whole perfection of being” without any limitation or imperfection, God’s purpose in creating could not be to gain something which he lacked. Instead, God’s only end in creating was his own goodness: “The ultimate end of all things made by God must necessarily be the divine goodness.” And: “This, then, is the reason why all things were made: that they might be assimilated to the divine goodness.” In other words, God creates in order that others might manifest, participate, and share in his own super-abundant goodness and perfection. But God’s goodness and perfection so infinitely transcends any possible finite created thing, that no one created thing could on its own display very much of the divine goodness. So God creates many things, and many different kinds of things, all of which together are ordered to the divine goodness as their end. This is the “universal order” of things. Individuals within the universal order relate to that order as parts to a whole. It is the universal order as one whole which manifests God’s goodness according to God’s will; and so individual created things exist for the sake of the whole created order.
God’s distributive justice entails that God gives to each what is properly due to it as a part of the whole. God owes nothing to any creature in an absolute sense, because God did not have to create that creature, or make it the kind of thing that it is. In an absolute sense, God owes nothing to anything other than himself. But insofar as God freely chooses to create, and in so doing brings forth a created order which is directed to himself, he thereby “binds” himself to give to the created order what is due to it according to God’s own will and ends in creating. In other words, God only owes anything to creatures insofar as he “owes” to himself to achieve what he has ordained. Since God’s purpose in creating is to manifest the divine goodness, God only owes to creatures what is proper to them such that they manifest the divine goodness according to God’s intentions. And since individual creatures are ordered to the universal order as parts to a whole, it is primarily that order as a whole which God is concerned in perfecting. Accordingly, God allows certain defects/evils in individual parts of his creation, for the sake of the greater perfection of the whole order. As Paul A Macdonald Jr. writes:
A perfect universe is not necessarily one in which the amount of good within it outweighs the amount of evil within it in the end (even by a lot). Rather, a perfect universe is one in which any evil within the universe, along with all of the good within the universe, contributes in the end to the goodness, even the beauty, of the world as a whole.
The above account explains both why God allows some to be damned, and why he is just in doing so. Aquinas writes:
Now it is necessary that God’s goodness, which in itself is one and undivided, should be manifested in many ways in His creation; because creatures in themselves cannot attain to the simplicity of God. Thus it is that for the completion of the universe there are required different grades of being; some of which hold a high and some a low place in the universe. That this multiformity of grades may be preserved in things, God allows some evils, lest many good things should never happen . . . . Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them.
In other words, God desires that his created order display both his mercy and his judgement (i.e. his hatred of evil and punishment of wrongdoing). And the way God wished to display his judgement was in ordaining that the wicked should suffer eternal damnation as proper punishment. This is not unjust, since God only owes to creatures what is proper to them with respect to the perfection of the universal order; and the universal order requires (according to God’s will to manifest his goodness in this way) that some suffer judgement.
What we have said so far is sufficient to respond to Adams’s initial argument. Premise (3) of that argument stated that God’s perfect goodness entails that God would want to prevent any creatures from being damned. But we have seen already why that is not the case. How should we respond, then, to the additional proportionality objection? The proportionality objections states that it is only possible to merit infinite punishment if it is possible to cause infinite harm. One way to cause infinite harm is to commit any amount of harm against an infinite being. Buckareff and Plug denied that this latter condition is possible, on the basis that God is supposed to be impassible and incapable of being harmed. In response we should say that God is indeed unable to suffer or be harmed in himself, but he is able to be “harmed” in the sense that it is possible for creatures to offend against his dignity by failing to render to him what is his due; and this is precisely what sin does. Indeed, Kershnar, who Buckareff and Plug draw on for the proportionality objection, defines “harm” simply as a “setback to an interest.” In itself, sin is contrary to the divine goodness and hence contrary to the perfection of the universal order. As such, sin in itself “harms” the universal order which God has created for his goodness; and is accordingly an offense against God. Punishment of sin, however, is not contrary to the divine goodness; and so God allows sin for the sake of punishing sin and hence completing and perfecting the universal order. Thus, sin is indeed an offense against the infinite dignity of God, and so can properly merit the infinite punishment of eternal damnation.
Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Benziger Bros. edition, 1947. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province Accessed online: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/index.html.
Aquinas. Compendium of Theology. 101. Translated by Cyril Vollert, S.J. St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book Co., 1947. Accessed online: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/Compendium.htm.
Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles. New York: Hanover House, 1955-57. Edited, with English, especially Scriptural references, updated by Joseph Kenny, O.P. Accessed online: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles.htm.
Buckareff, Andrei A. & Plug, Allen (2013). “Hell and the Problem of Evil.” In Justin McBrayer & Daniel Howard-Snyder (eds.), Companion to the Problem of Evil. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 128-143. Accessed online: https://philpapers.org/archive/BUCHAT-2.pdf.
J. L Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence” From Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254 (Apr., 1995), pp. 200-212. Contained as a chapter in: Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger. Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. Fifth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp 329-337.
Kershnar, S. (2005). The Injustice of Hell. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 58 (2):103-123.
Macdonald Jr, Paul A. (2015). Hell, the Problem of Evil, and the Perfection of the Universe. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 89 (4):603-628.