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According to traditional Christian theism, we are free to sin, perhaps even to sin with a degree of impunity for awhile, but we are not free to sin with impunity forever. That, indeed, is part of the rationale behind the traditional understanding of hell as a place of punishment. If we manage to sin with impunity during our earthly life and fail to repent of our sin, then in the next life we shall discover that we have not escaped our punishment altogether. So it is not surprising, perhaps, that the brief allusions to hell in the New Testament, particularly as they occur in the words of Jesus, always picture hell as a forcibly imposed punishment rather than as a freely embraced condition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, those subjected to punishment not only do not choose their punishment; they are surprised to receive it. And in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man's torment (from which he begs relief) is hardly something that he has freely chosen to endure. He may have freely cho sen something - to live selfishly or disobediently during his earthly life, for example - but he has not freely chosen the punishment or the torment to which he is being subjected as a result of his sin.
Now when the traditional understanding of hell as unbearable suffering, forcibly imposed as punishment for sin, is conjoined with the idea of unending duration, we get the diabolical picture of an eternal torture chamber of some kind. And few religious thinkers today, even among the most conservative, are prepared to swallow an idea as unpalatable as that. Most would concede that an eternal torture chamber is utterly inconsistent with a supremely loving and supremely powerful being. But if that is true, then any theist who seeks to retain a doctrine of hell must revise the traditional doctrine in one of two ways: either by rejecting the idea of unbearable suffering or by rejecting the idea that the suffering literally endures forever. Over the past decade, a number of Christian philosophers have set forth a free-will defence, or perhaps even a free-will theodicy, of hell (1) and have therefore chosen the first alternative; they have in effect replaced the idea of unbearable suffering, which no one could free ly embrace forever, with that of a freely chosen life apart from God.
In what follows, however, I shall argue that free-will theodicies of hell require an unexpected assumption: namely, that we are free not only to act wrongly -- to sin, if you will -- but to sin forever with at least a degree of impunity. They require, in other words, the assumption that we are free to defeat God's justice forever, and without ever being forced to acknowledge the true nature of our selfish acts. I shall also argue that such theodicies are deeply incoherent in any case and that Christians should therefore reject them in favour of the alternative idea of hell as a forcibly imposed but temporary correction of some kind.
Freely embracing an eternal destiny
For all of their talk about freedom and being free in our relationship to God, those who propose a free-will theodicy of hell rarely, if ever, offer a clear explanation of what it might mean to embrace an eternal destiny freely. Here several preliminary observations are perhaps in order.
(1) It is easy enough to imagine how an eternal destiny might hinge upon a free choice of some kind. For suppose that I should choose freely whether or not to eat spinach on my next birthday, and suppose further that, unbeknownst to me, my eternal destiny in heaven or hell should hinge upon which choice I happen to make. Or suppose, to be no less absurd, that my eternal destiny should hinge upon whether I freely choose to eat escargot at some time during my earthly life. These would clearly not be cases of freely choosing an eternal destiny; much less would they be cases of freely embracing such a destiny in the sense to be explained below. And similarly for the case where my eternal destiny is thought to hinge upon my freely accepting Christ (whatever, exactly, that might mean) during my earthly life. If I regard Jesus Christ as just another human prophet like Mohammed, and therefore go through my entire earthly life without ever accepting the Christian claims about him, it hardly follows that I have freely embraced an eternal destiny apart from God.
(2) It is important, then, to distinguish between our free choices and their unintended consequences, the latter of which, by definition, are not freely embraced and may even occur against one's will. Hardened criminals typically do everything within their power to avoid a prison sentence, and not even drug addicts freely choose to become addicted to their drug of choice. Some addicts may freely choose to take a drug in the first place, or to begin experimenting with it, but they no more freely choose their addiction than someone on an unhealthy diet freely chooses to have a heart attack. It may sometimes happen, of course, that the bad consequences of someone's bad choices, even though unintended, are nonetheless foreseen as a potential danger, or perhaps in some cases as a practical certainty. For though most criminals probably commit their criminal acts in the hope of avoiding a prison sentence, a man full of hatred may commit murder in full public view, knowing that he will be apprehended immediately and punished in the end. The man's present hatred, in other words, may outweigh his present fear of punishment, and this might be true even where the likely punishment would be his own execution. But even in a case such as this, where the punishment is foreseen as a kind of practical certainty, it is not freely chosen; it is still forcibly imposed against the person's will.
(3) One might also freely choose a given destiny without a full appreciation of just what one is choosing and without, therefore, freely embracing the full consequence of what one is choosing. For just as one might freely choose to enter a teaching career without any awareness of how ill-suited one is for such a career -- of how much one will in fact hate the classroom once one walks into it -- so one might freely choose to live apart from God without any real awareness of what such a life entails. Indeed, one of the best ways for God to teach a hard lesson in this matter, or to teach one that one does not really want what one might think one wants, is simply to give a person what the person might think that he or she wants. But the important point is this: those who reject a caricature of God, as opposed to the real God, and choose to live apart from the god of some caricature, or choose some destiny without a full appreciation of what this destiny entails, have not yet freely embraced the chosen destiny, ho wever freely it might initially appear to have been chosen.
(4) Finally, there is the limiting case where one freely chooses an eternal destiny with a full understanding of exactly what one is choosing and one's choice is therefore unencumbered by any relevant ignorance, illusion, or deception. A necessary condition of such a free and fully informed choice, I contend, would be that one never comes to regret the choice at some later time; for whenever one does make a choice and then comes to regret it, one of two explanations will hold: either (a) one incorrectly assessed some aspect of the choice when making it, in which case it was not fully informed, or (b) some compulsion determined the choice, in which case it was not truly free. But some may want to question my own conviction about this. Is it not at least possible, they will ask, to make a free choice in the full knowledge that one will eventually come to regret it? Even if this were possible, however, the mere fact that one should later come to regret a choice in the sense of wishing that one had never made it in the first place would prove that one no longer fully endorsed it; and furthermore, if one should ever come to regret a chosen destiny, then one either remains free to opt out of that chosen destiny (even as one remains free to change a career long after choosing to enter it) or the initially chosen destiny comes to be forcibly imposed at the very instant that it comes to be regretted.
Now free-will theists often insist that genuine freedom requires a context of ambiguity, something other than full clarity of vision. But even if this should be true, so also is the following: when our free choices have unintended and unforeseen consequences in our lives, and these consequences are such that, had we foreseen them clearly, we would have chosen differently, then in no way have we freely embraced these …