Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Eternal Damnation for Supply Siders (and Germans)

In this hilarious skit, we have Brian Keith Dalton (Mr. Deity) explaining to a supply-sider why she deserves to be tortured by a sadistic Keynesian despite the fact that in all other aspects of her life she is an exemplary human being. The moral of the story, made explicit at the end, is that there is something inherently immoral about a deity that damns people for all eternity for their failure to believe the correct doctrines. Furthermore to be a believer means that one expects to spend eternity standing on the sidelines defending God to loved ones as they are tortured. Such a person is perhaps worse than the actual torturer.

As a Jew, I feel little need to come to the defense of the doctrine of eternal damnation. Even the Christian tradition regarding eternal damnation is for more complex than Christian fundamentalists and their secular critics seem to realize. (Origen, for example, believed that everyone, even Satan, will eventually be saved.) That being said, I feel the need to respond in defense of the notion of eternal damnation for intellectual error.

Is there an intellectual error that could justify eternal damnation? How about Nazism? We tend to associate Nazism with jackbooted mass murderers armed with gas chambers. The reality of Nazism was that it was enabled by millions of moral decent pious Germans (and later by people in occupied countries), who did nothing immoral themselves and might have even likely personally opposed the "excesses" of Nazism, but agreed to go along with the regime in some fashion. Some of them did so for pragmatic reasons such as rebuilding the German economy and stopping the very real threat of a Communist takeover. Others simply complied out of fear. It is certainly not my place to judge them; if I was in their place, I might not have done differently. The important thing is that we are dealing with people who we would deem good people, the kind we would want as our neighbors. Take for example Pope Benedict XVI, who by all accounts is a highly moral individual, but as a teenager was in the Hitler Youth.

Now imagine Benedict XVI coming before the heavenly tribunal only to be told that despite the upstanding life he led on Earth, he was damned for putting on that Hitler Youth uniform. His one real test in life was to be confronted with the army of Satan demanding that he join them. He had the option of not putting on their uniform; they would have killed him, but like the early Christian martyrs he would have been guaranteed a place in heaven. He put that uniform on and saved his life, but by doing so threw his soul away. God now hates him for all eternity and says that Benedict XVI made his bed and can now lie in it for all eternity with all the other popes condemned by Dante. This may not be how I would judge souls, but I am not God. If God did operate like this, I would think he was being tough, but would still have to acknowledge that he was acting within the realm of justice.

This brings us to the critical point of the position of the saved loved ones of the damned. In our German scenario that would be righteous Germans like Sophie Scholl and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These people opposed the Nazi regime and paid the ultimate price for it. Could we hold it against them if, from their thrones of glory, they waved at all their friends, who chose to live long full lives by not opposing Nazism, saying: "see we told you so, now burn in Hell for all eternity." In particular in the case of Bonhoeffer, a critical part of his theology was the tremendous "cost of discipleship." One could not hope to get to heaven through "cheap grace," but only by taking up the cross and being willing to literally die for Christ. This was what motivated his path to martyrdom; he believed he had no other choice and that the salvation of his soul required it.

I do not assume that Benedict XVI will burn in Hell for his Catholicism or even for being in the Hitler Youth. I certainly hope I will not burn for my sympathy with supply-side economics. That being said, the essential principle of eternal damnation for intellectual error is at least theoretically sound and in keeping with divine justice.