For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?', she replied, 'I want to die' .
We went to a lecture this weekend on Annihilationism given by Edward Fudge. Briefly stated, Annihilationism is the idea that souls in Hell are eventually destroyed and cease to exist. Though Fudge cast his claims purely in the light of truth and falsity, I couldn't help getting the impression that Annihilationism is put forward as a sort of "nice" alternative to the endless conscious torment envisioned by the Traditional Doctrine of Hell. Of course this begs the question of whether existence is a great enough good to be worth retaining in spite of any pain. I have heard proponents of the Traditional Doctrine of Hell assert that it is "nicer" than Annihilationism because at least it allows the damned the good of existence. There are other alternatives, however. George MacDonald was influential in propagating a modified form of Maurice's Universalism in which Hell is temporary and primarily purgative. This seems like a much "nicer" view than either Annihliationism or the Traditional Doctrine of Hell because in the end everyone will be saved. However, after seeing the torture and violation of Free Will that MacDonald's view entails as he imagines it in his last novel, "Lilith," the purgative view of Hell seems downright monstrous. It turns God into a cosmic torturer (for our good, of course). If we find that unsavoury, we could posit that all souls go to Heaven without any stop-overs. This might seem to be that than which no nicer can be thought until we imagine Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sadam Hussein, or any of the other great tyrants of the past century entering immediately into eternal bliss. It seems to make a mockery of any sense of ultimate justice. Finally, we could scrap all of this Christian theology and claim that when we die that's it (whether that means the death of the soul or the mere death of a particular personality associated with the soul before it is reincarnated), but denying anyone a chance for Heaven seems the "meanest" view of all.
So what are we left with? Well, perhaps we have to admit with Ecclesiastes and Homer that reality simply isn't "nice." Fudge, with a sudden flair of Fundamentalism, was right in asserting at the beginning of his talk that the question isn't "What is nice?" but "What is True?" (I am paraphrasing here). As Ajax exclaims at the moment when Zeus turns against the Achaeans "let the light shine on us and then let us die." Reality is more like a war zone than a tea party (though it may be much more like something else when compared with a war zone) and there is something admirable in saying "well let's know the worst and then face it head on." At any rate, it seems a whole lot more productive than quibbling about what's "nice."