I am unsure what it was that caused me to open Lessing: Philosophical and Theological Writings and peruse the table of contents in the SFU library stacks. But it was chapter 5, Leibniz on Eternal Punishment which caught my attention. Leibnitz’s Theodicy is perhaps one of the most significant works on evil and hell on my list of reading for Is There Anything Good About Hell? that I did not get around to reading, an oversight I am currently rectifying as I make my way through it.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), is better known as a dramatist than a philosopher, but in this short essay (p37-60) he defends Leibniz’ views on eternal punishment. It is questionable whether Lessing, a product of the Enlightenment, was a true believer. In spite of this, it is certain that he believed in the traditional hell, and he is responding in the essay to a misuse of Leibniz’s views by several authors, including Johann Lorenz Mosheim and Johann August Eberhard. These views are expressed not only in the afore-mentioned Theodicy, the only full work among his voluminous and variated output which Leibniz published in his lifetime, but also his preface to Ernst Soner’s Demontratio Theologica et Philosophica. I won’t rehearse Lessing’s arguments, but I will call attention to a few of his thoughts, which strike me as worthy of consideration.
“I admit that Leibniz treated the doctrine of eternal damnation very exoterically, and that he would have expressed himself very differently esoterically.” (p48-49)
“For if that retributive justice really does pertain to God, what finite intellect can define its limits? Who can presume to decide what criterion it has to adopt in imposing these punishments, and what it cannot adopt? The criterion of its own infinity is at least as probable as any other.” (48)
Leibniz’s preface to Soner’s work (perhaps previously untranslated in English):
“That work of Ernst Soner, once a highly respected philosopher in Altdorf, which he described as a theological etc. demonstration of eternal punishment, is praised by some as supposedly irrefutable. It is all the more harmful because few have actually seen it, for people tend to place a high value on whatever they do not know. I therefore think that it is often useful to publish works of this kind, which need only be read in order to refute or dispose of this received opinion which has been handed down for so long a time. It certainly cannot be denied that Soner wrote in a subtle and ingenious manner; but his demonstration suffers from a major omission, which I shall briefly describe lest any incautious reader should be deceived by his specious argument, which can be summarised as follows. Sins are finite, and the finite and the infinite are incommensurable. Therefore punishment must also be finite. He further attempts to show that sins are finite by rejecting the senses in which they can be understood as infinite, and he lists these sense as follow. ‘If the misdemeanours of the godless are supposed to be infinite or to be considered as such, then they acquire this infinite character either from within themselves or from the perpetrator, or from those on and against whom the offence is perpetrated, and either from some of those persons or from all of them simultaneously. But they cannot be infinite, or be considered as such, in any of these senses. Yet apart from these, there is no other possible sense in which they can be infinite, or be described as such. Therefore they are not infinite at all.’
What the theologians usually reply to this argument, which is based on the relation between crimes and punishments, can best be read in their own works. In the present context, I would prefer to indicate another flaw in Soner’s argument, namely his incomplete list of the senses in which something can be described as infinite. For sins can be described as infinite not just in relation to the object which is sinned against, i.e. God, or in relation to the type of sin or its degree of intensity or the other senses to which the author refers, but also in relation to their number. Thus, even if we should ourselves concede that no sin is infinite in itself, it can certainly be argued that the sins of the damned are infinite in number, because they persist in sin throughout all eternity. It is therefore just that, if the sins are eternal, the punishments should also be eternal. For evil men condemn themselves, as wise men rightly say, because they remain forever impenitent and turn away from God. God cannot therefore be held responsible, or accused of disproportionate severity in relation to the sin in question.” (p41)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Philosophical and Theological Writings. Translated and Edited by H. b. Nisbet Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005