Here is a guest post from my friend Nicole Hassoun, a philosophy professor at Carnegie-Mellon:
Below is, I hope, a potentially interesting ramble on God and love. Brad and I are thinking about working the basic argument up into something dry, boring, and publishable eventually. Since, however, some might find it entertaining as it is (my apologies to those who don’t), I figure it might be worth soliciting feedback on the basic idea at this point [so, unlike most posts on this blog, this post is open for comments]. Enjoy!
God and Love
Under the towering shadow of the Alps it is hard not to think of God. Does he exist? Could he? Every day on my way back to the cloister where I am staying I walk past a message scribbled irreverently on the medieval walls. “Neither of us can go to heaven unless the other gets in” and it reminds me of an argument against God’s existence or, barring that, his goodness, that captured my imagination when I was ten. It probably was not the reason I got kicked out of Hebrew school (because there’s no hell in Judaism), but I am not sure the monks would like it.
The argument applies to the kind of Christianity embraced by many of the nondenominational types that lived in the evangelical house at my Methodist university. As they told the story, you would be saved by accepting Jesus into your heart, anyone could be saved, and those who did not accept Jesus would go to hell. Being saved meant being in the presence of God in heaven and being perfectly happy. Going to hell meant eternal suffering. God, these nondenominational friends of mine proselytized, meant love. Or, at least, their version of Christianity embraced love as a virtue. There is certainly a lot in the bible that supports this interpretation of basic Christian doctrine (Luke 16:22-28; Matt. 13:42, 20:20, 10:32-34, 16:24; Isa. 33:20, 25:6, 65:16; Ps. 133:1; Eph. 2:4; 3:8; Rev. 21:1-4, 20:15)
Perhaps I have the story wrong, or maybe such Christians do not think of love the way I do, but it seems to me that several things are true of love. First, if I love someone, I cannot believe that that person deserves eternal suffering. Perhaps that means I do not love unconditionally. But, I am pretty liberal with my love. I love some pretty messed up people including someone with borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. I even love one psychopath. Second, when someone I love is hurt, that hurts me. I could not be perfectly happy if someone I loved was suffering for eternity. I cannot even conceive of such a thing.
But then it seems there is a problem. For, I could be saved while someone I love is not saved. (Hey, it is a long shot, Okay, but I °could° accept God into my heart and be saved on the version of Christianity at issue). Then I could be perfectly happy in heaven while a person I love is burning in hell. But if I love someone, I cannot even think this is possible. So I should not, if I love, believe in this kind of Christianity. It could not be right unless my love would disappear at the gates of heaven (or some such) and why, I wonder, would that be? Wouldn´t it be better if heaven had my love in it? Wouldn’t I be happier in love?
This problem may explain why Camus said he would not go to heaven if even one other person went to hell. Perhaps he loved humanity, unlike Sartre who said hell is other people. But it is possible that Camus was just convinced that no one really deserves eternal suffering and did not want to associate with any creature who thought otherwise. (The writing on his wall might say: I *refuse* to go to heaven unless the others get in.)
Of course, God could let people who start out in hell into heaven if they do what he requires. Or God could give me someone else to love. But that misses the point. While my loved ones are in hell, I cannot be in heaven. No one I love is replaceable, no matter how many others I love.
Nor does free will solve the problem. We cannot say it is only because people have free will that God has to allow love into the world, as if love were a bad thing. We would no lack free will if we could only love good people but God would not be as good.
Maybe we cannot understand what God and heaven are like. Maybe love and God can coexist. Unfortunately, the problem with this kind of answer is that it can be given for any problem – whether about God or not.
If one cannot but continue to believe in the version of Christianity at issue and falls in love with an unbeliever, one might find even more truth in Thomas Dekker’s exclamation — ‘O what a heaven is love! O what a hell!’ — than even the unbelieving can comprehend.
So, what should the faithful do? They might follow C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and complain that their loved one was holding their soul hostage. They might just stop loving people who do not believe. (My last boyfriend may have taken that option seriously when I told him about my reflections in Austria). Can we really blame our loved ones for not believing, though, if they do not intend to keep us from the pearly gates? Do those who would stop loving people because then they cannot go to heaven really know what love is?
A biblical response might be better. John (2: 4-11 15-16; 1-3, 10-24, 4: 7-5:3) tells us ‘we love the Children of God, when we love God.’ And the bible says our love of God, though it may seem incompatible with love of other humans, should not be thought so – or at least that might explain why Abraham’s decision inspired Kirkegard’s claim that love of God (if not God’s love) should give birth to faith. But unless one believes in the words of scripture, or has Abraham’s faith, it is hard to see why loving God should mean one’s beloved could not suffer in hell. Either faith or love must perish.
When I showed this to one of my friends, he suggested Christians take a Buddhist approach: Embrace suffering. If it is not bad, then neither is God. But, if suffering is not bad, what reason could we have to take care of ourselves or one another? Do I really love someone if I do not want to keep them from suffering? That was the friend I (perhaps unkindly) referred to as a psychopath – coincidence?
Most Christians I have talked to respond to this argument by putting a real twist on the ignorance response. They point out that we need not know our loved ones are suffering in hell. But when I ask them whether they would be just as well off in the matrix, they refuse the blue pill.
Perhaps I will ask the monks around here what they think…