Philosophical Survey of Hell #1: Peter Kreeft

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. 

Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian

For Bertrand Russell, hell is an odious doctrine of Christian theology. He isn’t alone: many people, Christian and non-Christian alike find the idea of hell repulsive. They ask, how can a loving God damn people for all eternity?

Because hell is so controversial and difficult, I’m writing a series of posts summarizing what Christian philosophers have written about it. I don’t necessarily agree with what is said in these posts; I’m summarizing, not critiquing.

The first philosopher whose views I’ve explored is Dr. Peter Kreeft. He is a prominent Catholic apologist and author of over 80 books. Freshman year of college, I read his Handbook of Christian Apologetics and found the chapter on hell insightful. What follows is a selective summary of that chapter. 

Kreeft opens by acknowledging the emotional and intellectual difficulties of hell: “[Hell is] the most difficult [doctrine] to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.” However, he says we still need to defend it. Why? Because hell is clearly taught by Christ, Scripture, and the Church. If they are wrong, the foundations of Christianity crumble.

Kreeft articulates the concept of hell by examining several things hell is not. I’ve chosen three: 

One possibility is that hell exists, but only in this life. However this seems contradicted by Jesus in Mark 9:44-48. Perhaps it could be said that hell starts in this life, in the sense that our choices plant seeds that lead to eternal consequences. That seems plausible, but it’s very different from saying hell exists only in this life. 

Another misconception is the idea that hell exists but is empty. Kreeft finds this implausible because of Jesus’ warnings about those who are saved as few and his condemnation of Judas: “It would be better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24-25).

The third false idea is that the damned are thrown into hell against their will. Kreeft denies this: 

Some have taught or implied that hell is forced on the damned, that they are thrown into hell against their will. This would go contrary to the fundamental reason for hell’s existence: our free choice and God respecting it. 

The damned in hell do not enjoy hell, but they do will it, by willing egotism instead of love, self instead of God, sin instead of repentance. There can be no heaven without self-giving love. The thing the damned wish for – happiness on their own selfish terms – is impossible even for God to give. It does not exist, it cannot exist. 

If hell is chosen freely, the problem then becomes not one of reconciling hell with God’s love, but reconciling hell with human sanity. Who would freely prefer hell to heaven unless they were insane?

The answer is that all of us do at one time or another. Every sin reflects that preference. The skeptic objects that if we freely choose hell over heaven, we must be insane; the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and of truth. Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane.

Having discussed what hell is not, Kreeft examines three things hell is: 

First and fundamentally, hell is the privation of God. Because he is the creator of everything, God is “the only game in town.” Thus everyone who rejects God seals themselves off from him and his effects. This privation of God is the cause of the other two realities of hell. 

Second, hell is punishment. However, it is a punishment that is necessary, like a natural law. Hell is not like your mother slapping your hand when you grab a cookie, but rather it’s like spoiling your appetite by eating cookies before dinner. It’s a necessary feature of reality rather than a purely volitional act. Kreeft explains: “The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment.” If you reject the source of all goodness, you also reject all of the effects.

Third, hell is joyless and painful. Since the damned refuse the only source of joy, this must necessarily be the case: 

Since the God to whom we choose to open and love and obey is the sole source of all the joy in reality, our refusal of this God must necessarily be joyless and painful. Thus hell must have the aspect of pain as well as punishment. If God is joy, hell must be pain.

According to Kreeft, this extreme painfulness of hell makes the whole question of whether the fires are physical a moot point. Internal/spiritual sufferings worse than physical sufferings, so if we abandon the crude concept of hell as a physical torture chamber, it might be a worse place.   

So if hell is such a terrible place, how can those in heaven be happy if loved ones are in hell?  Kreeft answers by asking the question: can souls in hell impede God’s joy? Clearly not, so damned souls don’t necessarily stifle the joy of heaven. If God’s joy isn’t sullied by a populated hell, and we will be more like him and partake in his joy, then it seems like a populated hell won’t rob us of our joy either. How is this done exactly? We don’t know, but we can be assured that it will be done (Revelation 21:4). 

Later in the chapter, Kreeft lays out several arguments for hell’s existence. The one that most intrigues me is the argument from free will. If God respects our freedom, then there must be a way to reject him and that’s what hell is. There is no way around this. God is a gentleman, not a rapist. He won’t force us to spend eternity with him. 

In fact, Kreeft argues that if there is no hell and salvation is automatic, then there is no free will. If we aren’t free to reject God and choose to spend eternity separated from him, then we aren’t really free. Kreeft expounds, “Free will and hell go together; scratch the idea of free will and you will find underneath it the necessity of hell.”

He then turns to the objection that the punishment of hell doesn’t fit the crime: how can temporal sins merit eternal torment? The answer is that hell is not so much a punishment added to sin as it is sin grown to its mature, rancid fruit: 

If sin exists, hell can exist; for hell is only sin eternalized. Hell is not so much an external punishment added to sin, as it is sin come to full fruition…

Hell’s punishment fits sin’s crime because sin is a divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime. Saying no to God means no God. The point is really very simple. Those who object to hell’s overseverity do not see what sin really is. They probably outlook at sin externally, sociologically, legalistically, as “behaving badly.” They fail to see the real horror of sin and the real greatness and goodness and joy of the God who is refused in every sin. We all fail to appreciate this. Who of us fully appreciates God’s beauty? The corollary immediately follows: who of us fully appreciates sin’s ugly horror?

In summation: Kreeft argues that hell is privation of God, punishment, and pain freely chosen by the damned. God’s love and forgiveness of sins is freely offered, and must be freely accepted. Unrepentant sinners don’t want God, and God gives them their choice for eternity.  

This post is a selective summary of chapter 12 of Kreeft’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics. If you’re interested in more depth on this topic, I recommend reading the whole chapter for yourself. He also has an FAQ on eternity that addresses some of these ideas.

Finding Motivation for Learning New Skills

A friend recently asked me how I motivate myself to learn new skills. It’s a good question. Typically, the first time we try things we’re bad at them, so how do we find the motivation to keep going? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Visualize being competent. Competence is intoxicating. The ability to create and get in the “flow” while performing a task is beautiful. Whether it’s an elegant chess gambit, a curving serve in ping-pong, or a cogent business presentation, there’s something intrinsically desirable about being good at a skill. When learning something difficult, I motivate myself by visualizing how enjoyable competence will be. It’s is not only enjoyable in itself, but competence is a large factor in your job satisfaction. Cal Newport argues that when it comes to enjoying your job, competence is far more important than having a preexisting passion (see his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You). 

  2. Bribe yourself. During college, one of my friends bought watches as a reward for achieving academic goals. Over the summer, I did something similar as motivation to study for a certification. I printed out a picture of a high quality microphone, hung it on my wall, and bought it after I completed the certification. Having a specific and tangible incentive for achievement is helpful for motivation.

  3. Think of the alternative. The thought of not progressing in skill and being stagnant is repulsive. The idea has a grayness to it that sounds like a slow death.

For further study, Jordan Peterson has an excellent perspective on this: https://youtu.be/D8NiOA78GwI.

Personal Experience and Rationality

In my previous post, I examined how people misuse the question, “Where is that in the Bible?” In this post, I’m going to discuss how people misuse their personal experiences. Let’s start with an example. 

Several years ago, Ann Coulter argued that single motherhood should be stigmatized because of its negative impact on children. I dislike her inflammatory rhetoric, and I don’t condone her recommendations. My interest is how irrationally the audience responded.

Early in the interview, Coulter says this:

A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock, if she wants to do the best thing for the child – it is overwhelming she should give the child up for adoption because the statistics both from the left and the right are overwhelming on what happens to illegitimate children. About 70% of juvenile delinquents, teenage runaways, pregnancies out of wedlock are committed by the children of single mothers. 

If you were in the womb right now, and you could choose whether to be black, white, rich, poor, the one thing you should hope for… is that your parents are married. 

After some back and forth, the moderator responds: 

When you say things like that and you make these blanket statements based on statistics. I say to myself… I know so many good single mothers, so many heroic single mothers, I just can’t agree with you on that. I really can’t. 

Later in the dialogue, the audience gets involved: 

Woman: Do you have any children?

Coulter: Not relevant to statistics. 

Coulter’s response is excellent. The answer to the question is irrelevant to Coulter’s argument, and getting bogged down in facts about her personal life wouldn’t have furthered the dialogue. 

After explaining her positive experiences with single mothers, the woman concludes: 

You’re speaking about statistics, you have to live it to understand it.

There are at least two ways to understand single motherhood: the aggregate (studies and statistics) and personal experience. This woman seems to be saying that the aggregate aspect doesn’t capture the reality of single motherhood. She is correct in a sense. There is a first-person aspect of single motherhood that can’t be documented (at least not completely) by studies, but that isn’t relevant to the argument Coulter is making. She is talking about objective, statistically verifiable effects. So in the context of the discussion, the woman’s statement is a red herring. The other audience members commit this fallacy repeatedly in the rest of the interview.

I understand why people rely on personal experience. It’s easy and intuitive. Personal experience is crucial for evaluating a friend’s character or a client’s reliability, but it’s a poor choice for analyzing broad societal trends. It’s nonsensical to assert personal experience and think you’ve disproved a general pattern. That’s like a 6’3” woman using her height to dispute the claim, “Men are generally taller than women.” Her data point is incapable of disproving an average like the height of men and women. 

If you would like another example of irrational use of personal experience, watch Jordan Peterson’s interview with Kathy Newman. 

Why Willpower is Insufficient

If you’re trying to get work done, and but have a bad habit of checking Facebook every ten minutes, you might be tempted to think, “Oh well, I just won’t do that tomorrow.”

However, the “I just won’t do that” mindset is often ineffective because it relies solely on willpower.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes the nature of willpower:

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

So willpower is not a viable long-term solution to improving our lives. So what is? The answer is: Forming habits that are conducive to our goals.

How do we do this?

Shawn Achor outlines two helpful techniques in his book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life:

1. Put Beneficial Habits on the Path of Least Resistance

When trying to form a new habit, there is a certain amount of inertia that we have to overcome in order to get the ball rolling. Achor calls this “activation energy”  He says that in to make habits stick, we need to reduce the amount of activation energy it requires.

He provides an example from his own life. Achor wanted to practice guitar every night after work. However, after several weeks he had played only a few days.

Frustrated, Achor decided to try a new strategy, he put his guitar in the center of the living room instead of his closet. The difference was minimal, it saved him only about 20 seconds, but he found this reduction in required activation energy was enough to make him follow through with regularly playing his guitar.

Later in the chapter, he describes how he eliminated his habit of excessively watching TV.  Achor took the batteries out of his remote and put them in a drawer twenty seconds away. Sure enough, this small barrier to watching TV was enough to make him spend his leisure time in a more rewarding way.

I love these two stories because they demonstrate that improving our lives doesn’t necessarily require major changes, but rather if we can make good habits a little easier, and bad habits a little harder, our lives much better in the long run.

In my own life, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called BlockSite that blocks distracting websites. It takes under five seconds to disable it, but that is usually enough to keep me from getting distracted by YouTube.

Also, the block screen is hilarious:
block screen

2. Be Consistently Legalistic.

According to Achor, habits usually take around three weeks to form. During this period, sticking with the potential habit no matter what is essential to forming it:

At work, settings rules to reduce the volume of choice can be incredibly effective. For example, if we set rules to only check our e-mail once per hour, or to only have one coffee break per morning, we are less likley to succumb in the moment, which helps these rules to become habits we stick to by default.

After the habit is ingrained, then we can relax the legalism, but until then we should make it a rule never to deviate from the habit-setting course.

 

What Charles Duhigg Taught Me About Motivation

Motivation is the drive to get things done. We all need it every day, and often it comes from the outside, like a boss looking over our shoulder. But how do we find motivation when there is no external source? How do we cultivate it inwardly?

Charles Duhigg in his book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity spends the first chapter explaining how to cultivate a mindset of motivation.

He first states that motivation can be learned:

Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way.

For Duhigg, there are two main ways that we can learn self-motivation.

  1. Cultivate an Internal Locus of Control

An internal locus of control is the: “belief we can influence our destiny through the choices we make.” We must internalize the truth that our actions largely determine what our lives will be like:

The trick, researchers say is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.

Duhigg documents how an internal locus of control improves people’s wellbeing:

People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer, and report greater professional success and satisfaction.

  1. Connect the Task to What You Care About Most

Duhigg advises starting with “why,” i.e., reminding ourselves about the overarching purposes behind our actions:

Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values.

Duhigg gives the example of marines struggling through a grueling training exercise at the end of a thirteen-week boot camp. It involved using wooden planks to cross a pit the size of a football field while wearing full gear and not being allowed to touch the ground.

“Why are you doing this?” Quintanilla’s pack buddy whezzed at him… When things are at their most miserable, their drill instructors had said, they should ask each other questions that begin with “why.” “To become a Marine and build a better life for my family.” Quintanilla said.

By linking the struggle to something he cared about, this Marine found the motivation to push through, complete his training and achieve his goal of providing a better life for his family.

For me, implementing this looks like asking: Why should I get off YouTube and focus on homework? Why should I get up early and start my routine? Why is it important to reply to this email?

When I remember to ask the questions, the answers kindle motivation.

 

 

Negativity Bias and Possible Solutions

Negativity bias is the phenomena whereby our brains are naturally predisposed to focus on, remember and be affected by negative experiences, far more than positive experiences.

Negativity bias was probably essential in helping our ancestors survive the stone age. Remembering where predators lurked (a negative fact) was far more crucial to survival than remembering the location of berries (a positive fact). You could find other food, but being attacked by a sabretooth tiger was probably fatal.

In the present, however, Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson calls negativity bias, “a kind of universal learning disability.” He describes some of the effects of negativity bias in his book Resilient:

  1. [The human brain] Scans for bad news out in the world and inside the body and mind.

  2. Focuses tightly on it, losing sight of the big picture

  3. Overreacts to it

  4. Fast-tracks the experience into emotional, somatic and social memory

  5. Becomes sensitized through repeated doses of the stress hormone cortisol, so it becomes even more reactive to negative experiences – which bathe the brain in even more cortisol, creating a vicious cycle

With a little introspection, most of us can probably recognize negativity bias in our daily lives. Have you ever experienced an unkind word that stuck with you all day? Contrast that with the pleasant things you probably experienced on that same day: a warm shower, tasty food, conversations with friends, or reading a good book. At the end of the day, do any of these experiences stand out as much as one unpleasant conversation? Probably not.

Negativity bias is an innate trait, so we can’t get rid of it, but we can mitigate its effects. Dr. Hanson emphasizes the principle of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that: “the brain is continually remodeling itself as you learn from your experiences.” No matter what bad habits or negative experiences you carry around with you, they don’t have to define your neurological makeup, because your brain is continually adapting.

This is good news because it means that as you practice, experience and emphasize certain types of behavior, your brain adapts and conforms. Thus, if you practice being positive, your brain will become more positive too.

This may sound good in the abstract, but what does this process look like in the specifics? Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and one of the leading figures in the field of positive psychology suggests these seven actions that can help us infuse more positivity into our lives:

  1. Meditate

  2. Find something to look forward to

  3. Practice Purposeful Acts of Kindness

  4. Infuse Positivity into Surroundings – like pictures of loved ones or a favorite houseplant

  5. Exercise

  6. Spend money on activities, not things

  7. Exercise a signature strength – a skill you have cultivated over time

I have found all of these suggestions helpful. Daily journaling is another practice that has been especially beneficial, as it focuses my attention on positive experiences that I have throughout the day.