Lately, I’ve been pondering some of Thomas Talbott’s arguments against the traditional doctrine of hell (in his 1990 Faith and Philosophy essay “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment”). He makes many interesting points, both in criticism of eternal conscious torment and in defense of universalism. One of the things he discusses is how damnation of the lost will affect those who go to heaven. I’m sure that most Christians have wondered how we could be truly happy in heaven if we knew that some of our loved ones were suffering the agonies of hell. Talbott addresses a few popular lines of response to this problem.
First, some argue that when we get to heaven we will be see the justice in God’s damnation of our loved ones, so it won’t cause us sorrow or otherwise undermine our happiness. But Talbott notes that seeing the justice in our loved ones’ punishment would not eliminate the sadness of their plight. After all, even when our loved ones suffer just punishment in this life, we are still reasonably sorrowful about it. Moreover, we could still regret that God did not move in the hearts of our loved ones to prompt repentance in them as he did those of us who are redeemed.
A second way of dealing with this problem is to propose that God will change our attitude towards our lost loved ones. In short, God will turn our love for them into hatred. We will despise them for their wickedness, just as God does (assuming that God truly hates those he damns, as the traditional view seems to entail). This approach is even more problematic, however, since (1) God commands us to love others, even our enemies, and (2) our love for those closest to us is so tied up with who we are that to so dramatically change such attitudes and affections would be to fundamentally alter one’s character.
So if these lines of response are of no help in explaining how we could be happy in heaven despite the on-going agonies of some of our loved ones, then what alternative explanation is more promising? If there are no better approaches, then chalk this up as another point against the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
Talbott recognizes that affirming the eventual annihilation of the damned does circumvent this problem, which is somewhat of a relief to me, as a conditional immortalist. Still, his analysis left me wondering whether even conditional immortalism supplies a sufficient shield against this problem. After all, might we not also be saddened that some of our loved ones were destroyed and that we will never see them again? This, too, appears to undermine our heavenly happiness. Clearly, the problem is not as severe for conditional immortalism as it is for the traditional view of hell. Given conditionalism, at least the sufferings of your loved ones will eventually end. Not so for the traditionalist, whose loved ones’ unspeakable agony will continue for eternity.