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The pagan’s fate? “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (1850) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Is there something essentially illiberal about revealed religion? The question is not as Dawkinsite as it sounds; the point it raises is an entirely general one. Put it this way. If religion depends on special revelation, that revelation must tell us things that we could not have known otherwise. Some of those things may be historical and biographical details, of the kind found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran; but some will consist of special precepts and commands, or of theological information which we could never have arrived at by unaided reason.

This in itself implies that those principles of duty or theological belief must differ in some ways from, or at least go beyond, what ordinary human reasonableness would have come up with. But there is a deeper and sharper problem here. The “liberal” view is that it is wrong to penalise people for failings which are not their own fault; good intentions and best efforts must be accepted as sufficient. Yet a human being who happens not to have been informed about the contents of divine revelation stands — if that revelation really does give the essential and otherwise unavailable key to eternal life — at a stupendous disadvantage. That people who have rejected Christianity should go to Hell may seem, at least to a believing Christian, entirely right and proper. But what about the ones who never even had a chance to accept it?

The problem raised by the idea that good pagans will burn in Hell-fire is more troubling than the other familiar problems that arise over the apparent injustice of God. There is the problem of undeserved pain and suffering in this life, for example, or the fact that we see wicked men prospering. In those cases, at least one part of the answer will be that the afflicted may be compensated in the next life, and the wrongdoers will be punished. By all means, let the wicked fry in Hell — but why should they find themselves frying alongside innocent and virtuous pagans?

The robust answer to all these questions is to say: God is simply not “fair”, if by fairness you mean the paltry and inadequate human version of that concept. God’s justice is absolute, more pure and more perfect than anything we can grasp. And it is bound up with the purpose for which He made us, which is also beyond our comprehension. How can the creature judge the Creator? Hath not the potter power over the clay?

In the Christian tradition, few thinkers have taken the robust line more robustly than Saint Augustine. Only those who believed in Jesus Christ, he declared, could be saved. Like other Fathers of the Church, he assumed that after the coming of Christ on earth the Gospel had rapidly become available to the entire human race, which meant that all post-Christ pagans were somehow guilty of rejecting the truth. For the period before Christ, Augustine allowed that God did grant miraculous prophetic knowledge of the advent of Jesus to some individuals (above all, the leading Jewish figures of the Old Testament). But whereas a more liberal-minded thinker might have used this escape-clause to claim that God had granted salvation to huge numbers of virtuous pre-Christian pagans, Augustine was scornful about the very idea that pagans could, by their own efforts, be morally good at all. Any virtues which are not animated by the love of God are, he argued, not in fact real virtues. They are self-regarding performances, tainted by pride — or, in the words popularised by a later writer in the Augustinian tradition, splendida peccata, shining or splendiferous sins.

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Adam Dodds
June 1st, 2015
9:06 AM
An interesting article that is clearly historical in nature, and thus unfortunately does not include in its viewpoint significant developments in recent years. For example, John Sanders' 1992 work No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, presents an argument that is biblically and theologically coherent, while also being 'generous' and 'flexible'. A summary of Sanders' view can be found in his journal article found at this link: Sanders' view, and others, show that the 'pagan problem' does not need to be nearly as big a problem as Malcolm suggests.

May 31st, 2015
10:05 AM
Thank you for this very diligent review. Shall now have to get the book!

May 29th, 2015
2:05 PM
Paganism today is the eruption of the visual western media (as Camille Paglia eloquently explains on Youtube and in her books.)

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