Skip to main content.
January 29th, 2003

Heaven and Hell

In light of all the talk about heaven and hell the last few days or so here, I decided to look again at Ted Sider’s paper on hell. Ted, most of you probably know, argued that the following problem poses a serious challenge for several popular theistic theories. On whatever criteria God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, there will be people who just make it over the threshold needed to get into heaven, and people who just miss and get sent to hell. By all accounts, the difference in lifestyle quality between heaven and hell
is quite noticable, and it seems unfair that people who only differ by a small amount, one prayer not said, one small charitable donation not made, could be justly treated in such different manners.


So I was thinking of a couple of ways God might deal with the problem. First, He might use lotteries. When each person gets to judgement, he or she is assigned a probability of going to heaven, depending on those features of their life in which we normally think getting to heaven depends upon. Roughly, the better she has been, the higher the probability. God then runs a chance process which has that probability of resulting in ‘success’, and one minus that probability of resulting in ‘failure’. If it turns out to be a success, the judgee goes to heaven, otherwise it’s downstairs.


This avoids Ted’s problem, at least at one level. As far as God’s role in the judgement goes, like cases are treated very much alike. If x and y are very much alike in their heavenly virtues, the probabilities of each of them going to heaven will be very similar. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one of them won’t end up in heaven while the other ends up in hell. For this reason, David Lewis somewhere describes similar (if less dramatic) systems of using lotteries for reward and punishment as being intuitively barbaric. But, you know, this looks a lot like those old librul complaints about the fact that we don’t have equality of outcomes in a just society. For some people, equality of inputs, equality of opportunity if you will, is less important than equality of outputs, or equality of outcomes. And here we have equality of inputs — it’s a great conservative scheme!


A more serious problem, perhaps, is what happens to people at the extremes. Imagine the case of some degenerate sinner who has just enough redeeming features to be awarded a 0.1% probability of winning the lottery actually beating the odds and going up. A little unfair, no? Or some almost perfect person having just one little flaw that means their probability of going to heaven is 99.9% rather than 100% losing the lottery. This seems a little bad. Reminds me of that man-on-the-Clapham-omnibus quote the Onion found after the last election: “You know, they say people get the government they deserve, but I don’t recall knife-raping any retarded nuns.” (The link isn’t to the Onion because they seem to not have complete archives.) Of course here it is afterlife rather than government, but the sentiment carries across.


So perhaps we need another way. My second solution is a little more radical. Traditional versions of the afterlife have everyone going to one or other destination for all of eternity, with perhaps a change of planes in purgatory. But why have this? Perhaps some people deserve some time in heaven and some time in hell. God could just decide that for every day or so, each person will spend a certain amount of time in heaven, and the rest of the day in hell. This way slight differences in the quality of the person’s life will lead to slight differences in the percentage of each day that that person spends in heaven and hell.


Of course, this will mean that hell loses a few of its characteristically nasty features. For one thing, it will hard to feel abandoned by God if he’s flicking you back and forth between the two supernatural realms. For another, the company of the damned won’t be quite so bad in these circumstances. Father Arnall put it this way.



The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. … They turn upon [their] accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.



Well, actually on my plan I guess it wouldn’t be. I imagine some of the conversations would be less like the rightfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium and more like this.



Still, I think there’s something to be said for this solution to Ted’s problem.


I should mention that the solution Ted mentions towards the end of his paper, and attributes to Jesus, doesn’t strike me as particularly bad either. At the very least, it’s a very intersting solution, probably more worthy of consideration than my little proposals. And it’s a better example of Jesus being a philosopher than Douglas Groothuis finds. The Groothuis article is kind of odd actually. He’s trying to defend the chimp’s claim that Jesus was a first-class political philosopher. And he doesn’t mention a single instance of political philosophy in the whole piece. From memory, the most prominent bit of political philosophy in the gospels is the Give Unto Caeser passage. And this passage suggests that the state owns all money in virtue of having its logo on it. This isn’t an unheard of opinion in political philosophy. Hobbes believed something similar, for example, though his reasons were a little more sophisticated. But it’s hard to square it with the GOP policies nowadays. (Amusing challenge: find the second occurrence of the word ‘political’, or any of its cognates in Groothius’s article.)


I’d talked to Ted about his article a bit while it was being drafted, but I hadn’t read the final draft until recently. And when I did what struck me was how much attention was now being paid to views on which whether one gets to Heaven depends on whether one has sufficient faith, rather than on how morally worthy one is. And I guess this is because it was pointed out to Ted that on lots of the theologies that he at least appears to be attacking, whether one gets to heaven really does depend on faithfulness rather than goodness.


This is probably just a consequence of a Catholic upbringing, but I find these theological views very hard to fathom. It’s very hard for me to see what’s praiseworthy about a God who rewards those who believe in Him for believing in Him, and punishes those who do not for not so believing. If God behaved that way it would seem, well, petty. Of course, this is no evidence that such a God doesn’t exist, but it is a reason to not praise such a God. I’m simplifying a lot here, I know, but I don’t see how a faith-based admissions procedure becomes more defensible, let alone praiseworthy, by being tempered with morally salient characteristics.


Of course, even on Catholic teaching good faith is a component of getting to heaven as well as good works. And I think that’s not laudable, but at least it’s better than all faith all the time. (I have a kind of biased view here because the order that ran my high school was even more focussed on good works, particularly education, than most.) And of course this doesn’t mean that the Catholic church has it entirely right about what counts as good works. If I had to bet (and according to some I do) I’d say God is less sex-obsessed than a sixteen year old with a Viagra habit. But maybe I should leave the last word to Joyce’s resident theologians Kernan and Cunningham. (This passage is from Grace.)



—Tell me, Martin, he said, weren’t some of the popes — of course, not our present man, or his predecessor, but some of the old popes — not exactly … you know… up to the knocker?


There was a silence. Mr. Cunningham said,


—O, of course, there were some bad lots… But the astonishing thing is this. Not one of them, not the biggest drunkard, not the most… out-and-out ruffian, not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine. Now isn’t that an astonishing thing?


How could you not like a church with that track record?

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Heaven and Hell”

  1. Keith says:

    “[W]hat struck me was how much attention was now being paid to views on which whether one gets to Heaven depends on whether one has sufficient faith, rather than on how morally worthy one is. And I guess this is because it was pointed out to Ted that on lots of the theologies that he at least appears to be attacking, whether one gets to heaven really does depend on faithfulness rather than goodness.

    This is probably just a consequence of a Catholic upbringing, but I find these theological views very hard to fathom. Itís very hard for me to see whatís praiseworthy about a God who rewards those who believe in Him for believing in Him, and punishes those who do not for not so believing. If God behaved that way it would seem, well, petty.”

  2. Keith says:

    Don’t know what happened, but the above comment is not mine. (I did comment on this post, but I guess those comments got lost when TAR moved.)