Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Critique of 'The Great Divorce' - Why Hell Doesn't Make Sense

The Great Divorce is a stupendous read if you enjoy C.S.Lewis' writing style. It's crisp and to the point and it gives a unique view on heaven, hell, and how people in these realms relate to one another. The novel is first and foremost an apologetic fantasy work, meaning it uses stories and tropes to defend and expatiate the writer's point of view. One of the biggest critiques of hell is whether people deserve to go to it, and Clive attempts in this piece to calm those concerns. In the heaven he's described people do deserve to go there, because they are short-sighted and know no better, yet have a chance even in the afterlife to seek heaven. This is not the majority view among Christians, who believe non-believers do know better, yet choose the life they lead out of a rebellious attitude toward God and JC.

This blog post hopes to address both of these points of view. The argument below presents them both as fallacious and inconsistent with other aspects held dear in the Christian mindset. The open-minded reader should be left with an open question about their belief in hell. As with all my opinion writings, it is up to you to seek the truth, so read wisely. I like to call it brain candy, because you need to chew on it for a bit before the flavour comes out.

My juiciest point comes out under the title 'Final Point'. If you are scarce for time it sums up the argument pretty well.

Preliminaries for readers not familiar with the book:

Spirits: The dwellers of heaven; the saved (so far); the Christians who have been resurrected.
JC: Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
God: Standard Christian doctrine teaches he is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, and cannot interfere with human free agency. We will take these all as axioms in the following argument.
Hell: A place for those that reject the doctrine of the Lord JC. By Lewis' account, it is not permanent and its residents have the choice to go to heaven if they so desire. Standard Christian doctrine says once you die it is a permanent destination. Other doctrines lie on the hell-spectrum.

Let us assume two things: that the Spirits have free will, and that once you're a Spirit you never want to go back to earth/hell.

This means that as a Spirit, you have a perspective - a long-term perspective - that lets you see the awesomeness of heaven in all its glory. You have an awareness that this is the best possible outcome, and you constantly choose heaven over hell. In the broader context, you probably never think about turning against God because your long-term perspective does not admit it. Where did this attitude come from?

If the Spirit has this attitude because he's seen the incredibly glorious heavens, why aren't the occupants of hell shown the same perspective? If the Spirit has always had it, why him over others? Do there exist people who no matter what perspective or experience you endow them with, they'll always prefer hell? If so, why were they created in the first place / why are they kept alive in misery? If there exists someone who given some set of experiences and a good perspective will choose heaven over hell sometime in their lives, why not put them in this scenario?

Free will means you make a decision based on your experiences and your perspective. If it is working, like the free will of the Spirits, you will see that heaven is the preferred option. If it isn't working, then it is impossible to ever enter heaven because you never see it as the better option.

Picture Adam and Eve: they've been given very clear directives on what to do and what not to do - what is paradise and what isn't paradise. If they were like the Spirits Lewis presents us with, they'd always see the better option, and sin wouldn't have started. Why weren't Adam and Eve created like the Spirits, who have the free will God wishes to endow us with, but because their's works they would have always chosen paradise over fruity knowledge? Is the free will of Spirits different from the free will of humans/residents of hell?

One possibility is that heaven is a sort of filter for how short (or long) sighted one is. God wanted to see if people given limited awareness of what is good and what is bad, paradise and not paradise, would live through life hopeful of heaven. Short-sighted people would think earth/hell is better, and would choose that. People with more peripheral vision (Christians) know heaven is better. But then we're left with the question of why people are made short-sighted in the first place!

I've argued that it's possible to have free will like the Spirits do, yet constantly and continually choose heaven. Humans also have free will, but if they had the same perspective as those Spirits, they'd also choose heaven. Why we don't have that, or why some people have it while others don't, remains an open question not addressed by Lewis in a forthright manner.


Below is a conversation where the points made above are translated into verbal directives, to help emphasize the point. Let G = God. H = Human.

G: I am God. I present you with the choice to come to heaven, or the choice to go to hell. You are entirely free to choose either or.
H: I choose hell. My experience and perspective tells me that is the better option.

Case 1:
G: Your choice is because of your short-sightedness and your fears. I show you now the perspective that the Spirits have, who are sensible, and always choose heaven.
H: I choose heaven. My experience and perspective now tells me that is the better option.

Case 2:
G: You do not have the right attitude to choose the right option.
H: I do not have the capacity to know that heaven is the better option. If I did and I was sane, I would always choose heaven. If you give me the right perspective like the Spirits have, I will make that choice.

Case 3:
G: You do not have the right attitude to choose the right option, and you never will.
H: Why am I kept alive in hell, a place of misery? It is a fate worse than death. If I knew this I would have chosen heaven.

Case 4:
G: You do not have the right attitude to choose the right option, but someday your experience will lead you to choose heaven.
H: Please let that mindset come now, to stop my misery and bring me to heaven.

--Final Point--

Humans do not choose to be sane or insane. That is not possible. They do not choose to be short-sighted or long-sighted, because they don't know either way. These options do not get in the way of their free will - they can still make decisions based on what they know, but how they see their options is inherently flawed.

People in hell are being punished for having a disease they do not know they have. This is the case because if they knew they had it, they would recognize that heaven is the better option, and choose it. The points about Spirits (see above) suggests that people can be relinquished from this disease (i.e. free to see all the options) without interfering with their free will. As mentioned before, these questions have not found suitable answers in Lewis' work.

On a side-note, why do people decide to put faith in JC in their lives? What happens in the transition? Before their faith, their experience - everything in their lives - told them hell is better. After their faith, their experience tells them heaven is better. Their perspective changed, they made a transition from insanity to sensibility, and their free will decided on heaven.

Nothing changed the person's free will, but their worldview was challenged and that subsequently led them to the cross.

Imagine a person in a museum who says a beautiful painting is ugly but you realize their vision is terrible. You don't change their free will by giving them glasses. But you do enable them to make a perception they were unable to before. If Lewis' idea of hell is a bunch of blind people who will get to heaven if only they recognize the painting is beautiful, it feels cruel and unusual. Christians are the people that have stumbled upon the right pair of glasses by the events that happen in their lives - they had experiences that led them to try a pair. Until someone looks through a pair they'll never realize they're blind, and hell denies them the chance to do so. The painting is a metaphor for seeing heaven - if you have glasses you see that it's beautiful and you desire it. If you don't have glasses you see it as ugly and don't desire it. If you have faith you're still wearing glasses, because you see heaven as beautiful, even if you don't experience it to the same extent the Spirits do.

--Loose Ends--

We can argue that God doesn't want to change people's perspectives or their free will. This however goes against Lewis, who explicitly says the perspective of the heavenly Spirits is different once they've entered heaven. Perhaps he only wants to change people's perspectives once they've entered heaven. Also possible, but it contradicts our assumption that God desires the best of every person. We could assume every person goes to heaven, that everyone upon death experiences Case 1 above, but this goes against Biblical teachings.

Some simple examples come to mind. Christians frequently pray that God would 'help lead [name] to JC', 'bring love into their life', 'show [name] that you are good/great/awesome', etc. These prayers ask that God directly change someone's perspective to lead them to JC. This implicitly assumes it's in his power to do so i.e. to put their glasses on, show [name] that heaven is the better choice. If God loves them, and it doesn't interfere with their free will, it is imperative he do so. If God is not able to change their perspective, the prayers are vacuous and it contradicts our assumption He can do anything, not to mention he's able to do it with the Spirits.

One can argue that if you're given perfect sanity and only one option becomes sensible, then it's not really free will. This contradicts the assumption that the Spirits have free will, because they are perfectly sane. This is why this assumption was made in the first place. A fringe opinion is that the Spirits (Christians) can choose to go back to hell. I'll leave the reader to decide on this option should they consider it! I consider it sensible to say a perfectly sane being will always choose the better option, especially when it's as dichotomous as heaven and hell.

We can argue that the residents of hell do in fact see heaven as better and hell as worse, but decide against it because they prefer their worldly lives. However, we have presented sensibility as the ability to always choose the better option. If you truly see heaven as the better eternal option, you will strive after it. If that's not the case, you are not sensible. You are a blind tourist in the museum.

An interesting viewpoint launched by writers like SH is that free will in the classical sense is non-existent. SH gives the simple reason that because we don't know (and can't know) what we're going to think next, the idea that we're in charge of our choices is flawed. They change based on mood, environment, etc. and people fall into their mental circumstances similar to their physical ones - just like a disease can make you physically ill, a series of malevolent thoughts or actions could make you mentally ill. You can decide what to think about, but that decision is itself a thought, ad infinitum. This view holds individuals accountable for their actions, but bleeds with compassion for even the downfallen of society, who got caught up in the whirlwind of random ideas and random circumstances and were unlucky to end up how they got today. This view challenges the concept of what people 'deserve'. I mention this side-note to further perturb people's view of hell AND earth - what if our whole way of looking at people as good and bad is false? I request comments for anyone interested in this idea and its potential for unabated compassion.

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