God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts, has tentatively offered a rather novel argument against God recently (Schieber has informed me that the argument is not original to him. He heard it briefly mentioned in an unknown podcast a few years ago and it got him thinking about how to formalise it). Schieber hasn’t developed his argument at any length, but helpfully provided this quick summary:

“If God is omniscient, he knows which persons would freely reject him if he were to create them as well as which persons would freely choose him if he were to create them.

If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, he would surely have created those who he knows would freely choose Him. However, God could have created Philosophical Zombies (Characters who look and act in identical ways to free creatures but lacking souls/internal mental lives) to play the roles of those he knew would reject him had he actually created them.

If he did, Hell would contain no conscious torment of persons. Heaven would contain only those who God knew would freely choose him. Those who God knew would freely reject him would never have been created.

In such a story, Free Will and Perfect Justice are preserved.”


The concept of a philosophical zombie might be a new and unusual one to some readers. Philosophical zombies are a famous part of philosophical thought experiments in the philosophy of mind. A philosophical zombie is exactly the same as a human being but lacks consciousness. They are not self-aware. They do not have thoughts, sensations, inner mental lives, or an awareness of personhood. However, they act just like any human does. They will form sentences, walk to work, sit at a computer, eat lunch, talk to taxi drivers, and tell jokes. They are effectively lumps of flesh acting a certain way but with no conscious life.

Now, not all philosophers believe the concept is a coherent one. I disagree with this and agree with comments made by Schieber in a Twitter conversation that it is easily within God’s power to make lumps of flesh look and act like humans whilst lacking any consciousness or inner mental life.

So, let’s unpack Schieber’s argument a bit further. Obviously his argument doesn’t apply to all brands of Christian theism. For instance, the open theist needn’t be much concerned by it since he or she will hold that God does not in fact know the future choices of free agents. Nor will the Christian pluralist – John Hick, for instance – be greatly disturbed since on his view God will eventually win everyone over to salvation. Furthermore, annihilationists – such as John Wenham or John Stott – will not be massively perturbed either since unbelievers will simply go out of existence.

Thus, Schieber’s argument need only concern Christians who believe (1) That God does in fact know the future choices of free agents; and (2), that unbelievers will live eternally outside of God’s presence – in Hell, however we choose to conceive of it.

In response to Schieber let’s grant:

1. God is omniscient and knows how any free person that He could create will act in any circumstances in which He might wish to create that person.

2. God is omnipotent and could have created as philosophical zombies those He knows will freely reject Him.

3. The ultimately unrepentant will live eternally outside of God’s presence.

Response to Schieber

It seems to me that there are certain assumptions underlying Schieber’s argument:

1. That in creating actual people God knows will reject salvation, God is in some way wronging them or doing them an injustice.

2. Sending ultimately impenitent unbelievers to Hell for eternity is unjust, and thus a bad thing.

3. A world with no Hell is better than a world with a Hell.

I don’t think Schieber’s argument works unless these assumptions – or others very much like them – are granted. I will argue that all are, in fact, false.

What the hell is Hell?

Let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Schieber refers to Hell as eternal conscious torment. At the popular level this idea raises images of people being burned in flames for all eternity, or perhaps tormented by demons as depicted in medieval art. However, this conception of Hell is not one which you’ll find frequently amongst theologians. Christian philosopher JP Moreland states categorically: “God doesn’t torture people in hell.” I have neither time nor space to explicate a full doctrine of Hell here. The precise nature of Hell is not spelled out in the Bible. Rather what we find are a number of different images and pictures pointing towards it rather than spelling out its precise nature. In the literature on Hell theologians tend to be in agreement on one thing: Hell is fundamentally a separation from God.

In orthodox Christianity God is the creator: a generous, loving being who wishes the best for his creatures. God’s purpose and will for us is that we should relate to and love Him. To this end God has created us with a degree of freedom – to seek, find and honour God, or to go our own way. How this pans out in each individual’s life is beyond my ability to say.

Now, I detect two differing understandings within orthodox Christian views of Hell as the eternal destiny of the unrepentant and I want to discuss both in light of Scheiber’s argument.

(1) The self-inflicted view, represented by Peter Kreeft and CS Lewis.

(2) The retributive view, represented by William Lane Craig.

Kreeft views Hell primarily in terms of a self-separation from God by the individual. He argues that the existence of Hell actually follows from the existence of Heaven and free will – as a place for those who freely reject heaven.

The central point made by Kreeft is best put in his own words: “. . . heaven and hell may be the very same objective place – namely God’s love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. . . The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.” Kreeft appears to think that the damned could turn and be saved but they choose not to. They refuse God forever, and therefore – as Sartre once remarked – the door of Hell is locked from the inside. This same point is wonderfully made by CS Lewis in his allegorical story The Great Divorce. In this book he pictures people who live in Hell (depicted as a grey, colourless, and comparatively insubstantial world – not a fiery torture chamber) going on a journey to heaven, but hardly any of them choose to stay despite the pleadings of the saints. The core point is that God allows free creatures – out of respect for their autonomy and human dignity – to separate themselves from Him if they choose. Thus, the damned choose Hell, and Hell’s existence stands as a testimony to the dignity of human moral freedom.

William Lane Craig on the other hand sees hell primarily in terms of retributive punishment inflicted on the unrepentant by God because of their sin rather than primarily as a state the damned themselves choose to remain in. Responding to the argument that any sin only deserves a finite punishment Craig points out that the damned very likely continue to sin: “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense then hell is self-perpetuating.” (I should point out that Craig disputes the notion that sin cannot rightly receive an infinite punishment. He argues that rejecting Christ is a sin of a different order altogether, one of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore believes the case can indeed be made for an infinite punishment for sin). The central point here is that if the punishment of obstinate, unrepentant sinners is just then the existence of Hell is just, and not therefore an evil.

Through Hell and Back

We return then to Schieber after our brief excursus through hell.

Take two possible worlds: Zombixia and EarthWorld. Zombixia is identical to EarthWorld in all respects except that those who God knows will reject him are created as philosophical zombies – not as real people – and thus will not go to Hell for eternity. Is Zombixia preferable?

I think our brief discussion of Hell allows us to see that Schieber’s argument does not show that Zombixia would be preferable or that EarthWorld is somehow defective by comparison to it. In fact I think a reasonable case can be made for why EarthWorld is to be preferred.

On both the Kreeft and Craig models of eternal Hell God wills the salvation of every single person and every single person is such that they have sufficient opportunity to accept salvation. All can be saved. On the molinist model that I suspect Scheiber has in mind when he offers this argument, whilst it is the case that God knows that some person X will not accept salvation, it is the case that X remains free to accept salvation or reject it. The circumstances are “freedom permitting,” even though God knows that X will freely reject him. But X has the opportunity to be saved, he really can be saved, but he chooses not to be. That he has this opportunity is a great good – one that would be missing from Zombixia.

On the Kreeft model X freely separates himself from God, and his eternal destiny is thus the upholding of his dignity as a free moral agent. In effect God respects X as a person and grants him his will. CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God “thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God therefore doesn’t wrong the unrepentant by creating them; he grants them dignity, respects their will, and upholds their personhood. These are goods pertaining to EarthWorld that are missing from Zombixia.

Alternatively, on the Craig model X is punished by God for his sin. But, this punishment is just, particularly if X continues sinning, continues in his God-rejecting unrepentant course. Now, are we to think this is bad? I don’t think so unless we are prepared to defend the notion that punishment is inherently bad. Sure, it might be bad for X but does that mean that God shouldn’t have made X as a real person? Why should God allow those who freely reject salvation to have some sort of veto power over his creative activity? He creates them as real persons, gives them real opportunity for salvation, but X squanders the opportunity. I don’t see an injustice here that Zombixia lacks by comparison. On Craig’s model no one will be in hell except by their own moral guilt and choice to reject salvation. In Zombixia God has effectively allowed the ultimately unrepentant veto power over his creative will, and to limit the number of people over which he can extend his love and offer of salvation.

Moreover, there appears to be something of very significant moral value lacking in Zombixia. Say Billy Bob is a philanthropist who spends large amounts of time and money helping turbulent Tom, destitute Dick and homeless Harry. But Tom, Dick & Harry are not in fact real people in Zombixia. They cannot truly appreciate Billy Bob’s actions; nor do those actions really accomplish anything of moral worth in the lives of Tom, Dick & Harry. Not so in EarthWorld. It seems to me that there is therefore a clear value and purpose inherent to moral actions in EarthWorld that is lacking in Zombixia.

So, it seems to me that whichever model we advocate (I prefer a modified form of Kreeft over Craig, with the hope that John Hick is right!), EarthWorld and Zombixia each preserve free will and perfect justice. However EarthWorld has values that Zombixia does not and, indeed, cannot have. EarthWorld is a real world, with real significance. There’s no pretense here. There are real choices to be made, and crucially real opportunities for every person to come to salvation. Human dignity and moral autonomy are respected in EarthWorld in a way that they aren’t in Zombixia. X truly can be saved in EarthWorld, but has no such opportunity in Zombixia. It therefore seems to me that God has reason to create the former over the latter.

Stephen J Graham

1 Comment

Filed under God, Hell, Philosophical Zombies

One response to “God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

  1. I don’t think your defense of the Kreeft model holds up. Consider a Kreeft-Earthworld and a Kreeft-Zomboxia. In both worlds, the dignity, will, and personhood of all created persons is respected. The difference is just that in Kreeft-Zomboxia, all the created persons are persons who freely choose God. A hypothetical hellbound sinner, let’s call him John, isn’t wronged in any way if God creates Zomboxia instead of Earthworld, because John doesn’t exist in Zomboxia; Zombie-John does. But Zombie-John cannot be wronged, because he’s a p-zombie. If you think that not creating John wrongs John, then you have a new problem – the problem of all the hypothetical people God didn’t create.

    The only way I can see to defend this under the Kreeft model is to say this: the great good that obtains when God creates Earthworld instead of Zomboxia is not just that God respects the will of all created people, but that he creates both heavenbound and hellbound people *and then* respects both their respective wills. But why is this situation so much better than only creating heavenbound people in the first place?

    Skipping ahead, I’m not so sure there’s moral value missing from Zomboxia. On a Swinburnean soul-making account, a zombie-Tom, Dick, or Harry could still serve the purposes of soul-making for Billy Bob.

    And if Craig has things right, then (as he’s often said) there’s no transcendent purpose if naturalism is true. But if that’s the case, how much worse for a non-zombie hellbound person? Would anything that anyone does for such a person have the ultimate meaning Craig is after?

    Finally, why *isn’t* it the case that everyone, or nearly everyone, is saved? Unless there’s a strong argument for universalism, I see this as a huge problem for Christianity. Sure, free will is good, but people are often convinced to believe things or act in certain ways without their free will being affected. God could easily convince people without coercing them – in this life or the next.

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