Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 1.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 2

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!


1. Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
2. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).

Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 3

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?

I started reading through your comments on Constantine but I only had access to the Google preview, so couldn’t read your conclusions! {both laugh} So obviously, with Constantine, in one sense he stopped the persecution of Christians, which was a relief, but on the other hand, as far as I can tell, he still had to play two roles: as the Emperor—who was a military man—and as a Christian. Do you think that had a positive or negative influence on Christianity?

Suddenly Christians have gone from being persecuted, to basically having the power of the State, and Constantine being a military leader, whether or not he was a Christian (I assume he was but I don’t know). But how do you think that played out? Do you think it did make Christianity sort of go in a negative direction when it came to militaristic things and violence, or do you think it didn’t really have a big impact?

Well certainly it had a big impact. But I think there’s a few different ways of narrating it.

There’s the John Howard Yoder way of narrating it, where it’s a fall of the Church. The Church was relatively peaceful and the church was a kind of visible contrast of the rest of the world before Constantine and then the churches becomes very worldly after Constantine and the church is no longer visible because it’s blended into the world, and we use acts of violence, and so on.

Then there’s the Peter Leithart way of reading it, which read it as the fulfillment of all the promises of God, or the Eusebius way of reading it, where God has been chastising the Christians through the persecution, only in preparation to give them the sword. So that we can wield the sword justly.

William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

Yeah… {in an unconvinced tone}

I don’t really buy either one of those.

Stanley Hauerwas was my dissertation director and so clearly I have been influenced by the Yoder kind of reading. I think a lot was lost when the Church began to wield the sword but I don’t think that you can read it as an Anabaptist would and read Church History as just the Holy Spirit abandoned the Church in the fourth century.

Yeah, that seems a bit too much.

Yeah, and the real Church survives only in small remnants.

I think instead of a kind of fall narrative of the Church, what we need to do is read Church History in the way that Yoder reads the Old Testament, which is kind of pedagogically. There’s a movement going on there, by which the people of God are being led towards greater and greater understanding of what God wants of them and that’s the way he looks at the all the passages about the conquest of the Holy Land, Joshua, and so on. Yoder looks at those incidents and says we shouldn’t impose a kind of moral reading on them and condemn them for unfaithfulness but read them as a faithful Jew would’ve—seeing them as kind of the way that God has miraculously saved His people and that God is ultimately in charge of the means of violence and that we should not take those into our hands.

I think that kind of reading the Old Testament is the way we ought to read Church History as well. We’re not always very clear about what we’re doing, we go through different historical periods where we’re trying to kind of discern what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ and we learn things along the way and something that we may have learned from the whole experience of Constantine is that when the Church wields the sword it’s not very good for the gospel, for anyone, but to narrate it just as a kind of fall into unfaithfulness is going to far. This was pretty much what the Church was hoping and praying for, that the persecution would stop and that the Emperor would become a Christian and so the Emperor becomes a Christian, what do you say? “Well, that’s great but you need to find a new job!”

{Both laugh} That’s easy for us to say!

Yes, it’s very easy for us to say. “There’s an opening at the bakery down the street…”

Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 1

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Violence and Theology?

Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed, I really do appreciate that! I’ve always been interested in:

  • theology—particularly how it applies to sort of everyday life.
  • politics—it often seems to be an application of one’s worldview.
  • economics—the way societies function in terms of distributing wealth and resources.
  • social justice—my wife is a social worker.

So is mine! {both laugh}
William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

So it keeps you thinking about social justice. And so there’s lots of things I could ask about but I just wanted to focus on one particular thing. I’ve listened to your lecture on religion and violence and how “religion” is a constructed term, that’s not very useful as it’s often defined to suit someone’s agenda. So I thought I’d try to narrow it down and ask you about whether some theology promotes, or excuses, or desensitises us to violence?

Yes.

Yes {both laugh}… Some atheists say that theology pretty much has no impact on what people do at all. Do you think that is an overstatement? Do you think that theology actually does influence the way we act?

Sure it does. I mean it does for some people so I don’t think there’s any question that there are some Islamic terrorists that take inspiration from theological ideas—no matter how distorted that might be—no matter what other kinds of influences there are in their lives. I don’t think there’s any denying that. The Crusaders were inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. And Islamic terrorists are inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. I don’t think it can be reduced to theological causes but I don’t see that there’s any point in denying that’s certainly in the mix of influences.

What I don’t buy is the idea that theology always has a kind of tendency, or a greater tendency than other kinds of ideas, to promote violence. Some people say, “Well, if you believe in God, then you have this kind of divine mandate for kind of extremism—it’s an absolute command that you can’t disobey”. But you can just as easily argue that if you have no God, then there is no kind of power looking over your shoulder and you are God, so you can do whatever you want. And you can make that argument very easily historically, with figures like Stalin and Pol Pot, and so on.

Yeah, totally. If I had more time I’d ask you about that more. But I think—you probably agree—that there’s also some theology that can actually promote peace? I guess, even nonviolence?

Right, yeah, absolutely. That was the subject of the Girard conference last week and I think that’s at the heart of Christianity—it’s certainly what I’d want to claim—this claim of nonviolence. God becomes incarnate, we kill Him, and He doesn’t retaliate.

Yes, I think there is a lot of positive things about Christianity. I think most theology is actually a positive influence.

Just War and Pacifism?

But just focusing on a couple of negative ones: the Just War theory.What do you think about the Just War theory, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ recent criticism or critique of it?

Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was Pope Benedict the sixteenth, in the context of the Iraq war, said we have to ask whether it’s even possible to talk about a Just War anymore. Oftentimes it’s presented as if there are two positions that a Christian can take:

One is pacifism and one is Just War—that these are two separate positions.

But I kind of see them as concentric circles because really at the heart of the Just War idea is the notion of nonviolence and therefore you have to justify any act of violence under very strict criteria. And so the Just War idea kind of draws the circle a little bit wider than a pacifist would. But nonviolence is at the heart of both of them.

I think I’m not sure if I’ve made up my mind whether to call myself a pacifist or not. For one thing there’s nothing at stake, I mean it doesn’t cost me anything and that I think is a really important consideration. But also I think that even if we took the Just War tradition seriously, it would have enormously radical consequences. If we took seriously the idea that we should not simply defer judgment on these matters to the nation state but that the Church itself should make these decisions about what qualifies as a justifiable act of violence or not. It would have enormous consequences, I mean many of the churches, including John Paul the second, the Vatican and so on, had grave reservations about whether the Iraq war would be justifiable.

Yes, I remember that.

So you can imagine how dramatic it would be if large numbers of Christians, or even Catholics, just said, “We’re going to sit this one out.” Not because they’re pacifists but because they simply judge that this is not a just war and so we can’t, in good conscience, fight it. But the Just War theory never seems to work that way. It only seems to work in terms of justifying acts of war once they have already broken out.

Yes, the bar seems very low! “We’re going to save them! That’s justified it.” But do they need saving??

I’d probably answer the same as you. I’m undecided, and again, because I’m not about to go off to war, it really takes the pressure off. So I’d want to be very, very, very sure that it was completely morally justified, and I think a lot of wars haven’t been—particularly in recent history…