Review of Sinners in the Presence of a Loving God by R. Zachary Manis. Posted by Jacob Williams on 2021-01-01. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently I stumbled across some articles detailing a bunch of drama at my alma mater. Apparently one professor accused Dr. Manis and other faculty members of holding heterodox views - including insufficiently hardline stances on hell - and nearly succeeded in getting them ousted from the university. Based on the classes I had with him and the content of this book, Manis seems entirely committed to a very traditional conservative evangelical worldview, so I highly doubt he's even "guilty" of the alleged wrongthink. Regardless, it's depressing to be reminded that there are people in positions of inluence who not only believe that a large swath of humanity is destined for eternal torment, but also are so confident of it that they would try to destroy the career of any colleague who even entertained uncertainty about it.
Anyway, in reading about that controversy I learned Manis had written this book. I was interested in it both because he was a fantastic teacher (even if I ended up adopting opposing views to his on pretty much every major question), and because the "problem of hell" played a central role in my rejection of Christianity. Explaining why God would allow evil and suffering at all is a difficult enough problem on its own, but standard Christian doctrine manages to make it drastically harder by insisting on the existence of neverending suffering after death. On the face of it, if you were all-powerful and all-knowing, don't you think it would be pretty easy to do better than a world in which millions of humans spend decades in poverty followed by an eternity in hell? Defenders of orthodoxy need an excuse - er, explanation - for why God actually couldn't have done any better than this dismal state of affairs.
At a high level, I interpret Manis's proposed explanation to be:
- Through pride and self-deception, some people arrive at a psychological state in which they will never stop rejecting God, despite the suffering this causes them.
- Why does God create people who might do that? Because that same freedom and control over one's eternal fate is a prerequisite for attaining "the highest possible creaturely good": salvation and "eternal communion with God".
- Everyone goes to the same afterlife, in which they experience at all times the unmitigated presence of God.
- Sinful humans naturally experience God's presence as torment, while sanctified humans naturally experience it as bliss.
- Why doesn't God just stay withdrawn from the damned to spare them the suffering? Because, since the damned are culpable in reaching their problematic psychological state, the badness of their suffering is not sufficient reason for God to forego the goodness of fully revealing himself.
- Why doesn't God just annihilate the damned? Because "the very presence of God is life-giving", so the goal of fully revealing himself necessarily entails keeping the damned in existence. (Manis suggests this only tentatively.)
The book is thorough and carefully argued, with several interesting ideas I hadn't encountered before. My main objections to the theory are:
1. It depends on libertarian free will, which I find very implausible.
2. It depends on features of human psychology that are probably contingent. For example, Manis speculates: "Insofar as the damned experience the divine presence to be agonizing, coming to love the Lord may no longer be psychologically possible for them, much like a prisoner of war cannot come to love the captors who subject him to daily humiliation and torment." (296) But what's "psychologically possible" varies from person to person and can be altered by our environment, drugs, blunt force trauma to the head, etc. If our eternal souls are at stake, why wouldn't God give us minds that are less overwhelmed by pain? The same goes for self-deception. Even if it's important to give us some capacity for self-deception, why not also structure our minds so that we eventually see through it after some period of time, so that we have to keep choosing to renew it from a relatively clear-headed state of mind?
3. Even given normal human psychology, it seems unlikely that someone would defy God forever while suffering for it. In my personal experience people may remain static for months or years in a miserable situation, but they usually change eventually, perhaps slowly over time. It's hard to imagine someone maintaining pride and anger for a literally infinite period of time in the face of excruciating torment.
4. I don't see why sinful humans necessarily have to be miserable in the presence of God. If it's a psychological response, then it seems like God could simply have given us different psychological traits, as mentioned above.
5. It's also hard to believe that God revealing himself to everyone is so inherently valuable that it outweighs the downside of causing intense widespread endless suffering. An analogy to human parents is helpful: what could convince a loving parent to prioritize being present with my child over not torturing my child in the long term? Does the parent really care much less about their child's suffering if they know the child's own choices are what makes the parent's presence painful?
6. I'm not sure the suggestion that God cannot annihilate the damned because his presence necessarily gives them life actually explains anything. He could still annihilate them by withdrawing, at which point they no longer exist and he is still present to everyone - people who don't exist aren't part of 'everyone'. Perhaps that's unsatisfactory if Manis thinks God's plan for the eschaton is, specifically, to be fully present forever with everyone who has ever existed. Given that premise, annihilation is out of the question, for the practical reason that nobody can be present with someone who doesn't exist. The premise about God's presence being life-giving seems superfluous. But we're still left with the question of: why is it so important to be present with these people, that you'd torture them forever to accomplish it?
If, like Manis, you're committed to treating the Bible as inerrant and to giving substantial respect to tradition, his theory might be the best one available for making sense of hell. I don't share those commitments, so it's unsurprising that I'm unconvinced. It's not as compelling as the competing theory of somebody just made up the scariest-sounding threat they could think of to bully people.