Sunday, March 06, 2011

Does Anyone Believe in Hell?

What does it mean for us when almost no one any longer believes in Hell?

The New York Times has a story about Rob Bell--a popular evangelical pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan--who has written a book questioning the traditional belief in Hell. He argues that the young Christians in his church no longer believe that most human beings are condemned to eternal punishment in Hell. This story confirms what I wrote about a year ago concerning the declining belief in Hell.

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Heaven and Hell that can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

One of the conclusions from those posts is that most Christians have adopted the ancient heresy of Origen in that they assume that everyone will eventually go to Heaven. They cannot accept the traditional dogma of Christianity that most human beings will be punished forever in Hell for their disbelief in Christianity. Traditionally, Christians believed that Heaven and Hell were real places. Now, very few Christians believe that. At best, Heaven and Hell are psychological states in this life, and not real places in the afterlife. Almost no one today believes that sinners suffer eternal torment in Hell.

These Christians who cannot believe in Hell have adopted the position of Charles Darwin who rejected the idea of eternal punishment for unbelievers as a "damnable doctrine" (in his Autobiography).

This raises deep questions about the relationship between religious belief and moral conduct. The idea of eternal rewards and punishments was first formulated by the ancient Egyptians and Plato. The argument of Plato was that the morality of most human beings required a belief in the existence of a God who would reward good conduct and punish bad conduct in an afterlife. Those atheistic natural philosophers who explained the origin of cosmic order as a result of natural processes were condemned by Plato as subversive of moral and political order. This Platonic teaching was then adopted by medieval Christians. (Whether Plato actually believed this teaching is an open question, but it is clear that Plato and Plato's Socrates regarded this as a necessary belief for moral and political life.)

Even when John Locke argued for religious liberty and toleration in his Letter Concerning Toleration, he saw atheists as too dangerous to be tolerated, because atheism denied the foundations of moral and political order, which required belief in eternal rewards and punishments in an afterlife. He wrote:

Those are not to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration.

As I indicated in a previous post, belief in God can be explained as rooted in an evolved "theory of mind": our distinctly human capacity for reading "other minds" inclines us to believe in a supernatural mind with intentional agency. Locke shows this in his proving God's existence in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (III.3.27; IV.9-10). "That there are minds and thinking beings in other men as well as himself, every man has a reason, from their words and actions, to be satisfied: and the knowledge of his own mind cannot suffer a man that considers, to be ignorant that there is a God." From our intuitive certainty of the existence of our own minds, we can demonstrate the existence of the Divine Mind as the cause of our minds.

Believing in the moral agency of this Divine Mind supports moral and political order as founded on belief in God's moral law. In The Reasonableness of Christianity (par. 245), Locke argues that as "rational creatures," human beings have a "law of nature" or "law of reason" to guide their conduct. But most human beings cannot obey that law unless it is enforced by fear of eternal punishment in an afterlife.

The view of Heaven and Hell will cast a slight upon the short pleasures and pains of this present state, and give attractions and encouragements to virtue, which reason and interest and the care of ourselves cannot but allow and prefer. Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and will defy all competition. This makes it more than a name--a substantial good, worth all our aims and endeavors--and thus the gospel of Jesus Christ has delivered it to us.

Against this claim, however, Pierre Bayle--writing at the same time as Locke--pointed out that believing in Heaven and Hell had not prevented Christians from committing the greatest crimes. Moreover, Bayle observed, atheists could be moved by their natural temperament--by a passionate concern for winning a good reputation and avoiding social scorn--to obey the norms of good conduct. Consequently, there could be a society of atheists that would display all the virtues manifest in pagan societies that had not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This supported Bayle's argument that religious toleration should include tolerating atheists.

Thus, Locke's liberalism fell short of the expansive liberalism made possible by Bayle's extension of liberty to atheists. The crucial step was seeing how moral and political order could be rooted in a natural moral sense that did not require the religious belief in Heaven and Hell.

That step was confirmed by Darwin's evolutionary explanation of morality in The Descent of Man, which has been strengthened by recent evolutionary theorizing and empirical research on moral psychology. Darwin saw that morality depends on a combination of rational deliberation and moral emotions. "How far each man values the appreciation of others, depends on the strength of his innate or acquired feeling of sympathy; and on his own capacity for reasoning out the remote consequences of his acts. Another element is most important, although not necessary, the reverence or fear of the Gods or Spirits believed in by each man" (Penguin ed., 138). That religious belief is not absolutely necessary is illustrated by the abhorrence of incest, Darwin thought, because this is a naturally learned moral response that does not require "a special God-implanted conscience" (139).

Darwin elaborated this point in explaining in his Autobiography the changes in his religious beliefs. By the second half of his life, his "skepticism or rationalism" led him to see how morality could be sustained as a natural disposition even without religious belief in eternal rewards and punishments. He wrote:

A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience. As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. (Norton ed., 94-95)

Thus, Darwin understood that while he had chosen a Socratic life of science as the highest life for him--a life devoted to intellectual understanding for its own sake--he could also live a moral life grounded in his natural sociality and reason. Frederich Nietzsche--Darwin's contemporary--adopted the same Darwinian stance in his middle writings (particularly, Human, All Too Human). But unlike Darwin, Nietzsche's religious longings were so deep that he turned back, at the end of his life, to a Dionysian religiosity.

Even with the "death of God" in the modern world, the evolutionary roots of religious belief are so deep in human nature that many human beings will continue--like Nietzsche--to yearn for some vaguely religious satisfaction--some nebulous sense of eternal purpose and meaning.

But if most human beings today have lost their belief in Hell, then there is no religious support for moral and political order, and we will have to rely on the natural moral sense of our evolved human nature.


Empedocles said...

This post seems to be a response to the comment I made on your previous post. "How far each man values the appreciation of others, depends on the strength of his innate or acquired feeling of sympathy; and on his own capacity for reasoning out the remote consequences of his acts"
I don't think Darwin, living in such a strict religious environment, understood how little sympathy people could have for another another absent the religious society, or how reasoning could be used exclusively to ones egotistic purposes. And he have the benefit of evolutionary game theory to see how the cheats would invade and overwhelm altruists. You just have to look in our popular culture, behaving altruistically is scorned as being a sucker. Materialism and egotism are celebrated by left and right alike. "By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses." This statement seems like an romantic, absurd fairy-tale to me.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Arnhart,

I´ve been following your blog for some time now. I think it covers really interesting subjects, and actually it covers exactly the subjects that are attracting my attention right now.
(Darwin and the moral sense, Darwin and Aristotle)

Within a month I have to start writing my bachelor thesis (history at the University of Utrecht). I've chosen to write about Darwin & Huxley in the tradition of the moral sense-philosophers (especially Hume and Smith). Do you have any recommendations (literature, blogposts) for me on this subject? Thank you very much for your help.

Yours faithfully,


Anonymous said...

I think you may have slipped there at the end. You somehow took the NY Times article as an indication that "most human beings today have lost their belief in Hell." But why would you think that, unless you somehow think that middle and upper-class Westerners are the only human beings alive today? Even if most American Christians don't believe in Hell (and I don't think the NY Times article shows even that), it hardly follows that most human beings don't.

Of course, it also hardly matters, because very few people are motivated to avoid serious wrongdoing by the belief that they will go to Hell if they don't. More often, one's belief in things like divine retribution is a consequence and effect of one's moral views; anyone who had no other reason to refrain from, say, rape or murder would either reject Christianity altogether or somehow rationalize their action.

It would be interesting to look more carefully at the data and find out how many Christians who reject the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment actually accept universal salvation. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that very few Christians today believe that a person absolutely needs to be an explicitly confessing Christian in order to avoid Hell (even the Roman Catholic Church does not teach that), but that most still think that it's possible to go to Hell if you are an especially wicked person.

Finally, you're not quite right to say that Hell was traditionally understood as a "real place." Eternal punishment has certainly been understood as a real state of the soul after death, but not literally as a place -- unless, of course, one somehow imagines that disembodied immaterial souls exist in space and occupy place, which is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart,

Rob Bell can be considered "evangelical" in name only. The vast majority of evangelical or fundamentalist Christians today continue to accept the teaching of a literal hell. A minority would hold some variant view of hell not being eternal, or that the souls of unbelievers will be destroyed at the final judgment.

Fanciful speculations positing an evolutionary origin for religious belief fail to take seriously documented supernatural manifestations, particularly among evangelical Christians, such as miraculous healings. Non-Christian religions have unexplained supernatural phenomena as well.

It really does take more faith to believe the beauty, complexity and order of the known universe happened by blind chance than that there is some Great Mind Who created and oversees it all.

You mentioned Noah's ark in a separate post, as well as continental drift. Most old-earth ID proponents view Noah's flood as universal (i.e., eliminating all land-dwelling creatures in a certain area) but not global.

Men like Dawkins have the guts to say out loud what evolutionists really think: God is a fantasy and religion does more harm than good, unless it can be used to keep the simple-minded in their place.

We're all fundamentally religious in the sense of having some framework for evaluating life, both seen and unseen, and the verities of the hereafter. Secularists have gained the upper hand by pretending their religion is neutral, while it has very serious and far-reaching consequences for society.

quaerite veritatem

Tim of Angle said...

"Traditionally, Christians believed that Heaven and Hell were real places."

Well, no. A more accurate statement would be "Traditionally, Western Christians believed that Heaven and Hell were real places." Eastern Christians have always known that Hell is being united with the Energies of God and perceiving those energies as fire rather than as light. See, for example,