In my recent article on hell, I offered what I called a “lesson in ontology” (the study of being). It was a way of understanding what it means to say something is real and true, and the nature of existence as a gift.
But in describing hell as not “real,” many readers immediately concluded that I was saying that there is no such thing as hell. This occasioned legitimate questions about those verses in Scripture that speak of hell and judgment. Is there truly a judgment? Does it matter what we do with our lives?
The one figure in Scripture who says the most about hell and judgment is Christ Himself. Though many like to think of St. Paul as the “bad guy” of the New Testament (because of things he says about women, sexual activity, etc.), it is actually Jesus who speaks of “hell fire,” the “worm that does not die,” “outer darkness,” and such things. I have been asked to write specifically to these references.
But again, some basics.
Sin is not a legal problem. If we understand sin as the breaking of a rule, even a Divine commandment, then we will fail to understand the whole of our life with God, including salvation, heaven – everything.
Legal problems, however real we might perceive them, are not real. If I break a rule (say in civil society) then there is no problem unless and until someone enforces the rule and extracts a penalty. If I break the speed limit and no one sees me, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer gives me a warning, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer accepts a bribe, there is no legal problem.
And even if the legal problem is enforced, my problem, at its worst, is not legal. I might have a money problem (a fine), or a jail problem (incarceration), etc., but “legal” is simply a word that describes the nature of my relationship with those in charge of extracting money from me at the point of a gun (or other forms of violence). We permit such forms of violence through a social contract (the state).
But none of this has anything to do with God. To use legal understandings to speak of the Kingdom of God produces a caricature and only promotes deep misunderstanding (even heresies).
The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”
The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:
“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”
“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”
The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.
Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.
Much of the imagery (and thought) that surround judgment and hell are rife with legal imagery. Some of this is completely natural (doing no damage to the text) but much of it is from a centuries’ long habit of reading legal imagery into almost everything (such is our cultural heritage).
But sin, and its punishment, are not legal in nature. Were our punishment of a legal nature, then there would be no disagreement about hell as a temporary matter. For if our sins are finite in nature, then surely our punishment would be finite as well.
I have listened to hours and hours of explanations of how humanity’s sin is infinite and how the offense against God’s honor (or justice or righteousness) is infinite – but this is all “after the fact,” a poor human effort to justify an image of an eternal, infinite, punishing hell-fire.
Again, our problem is not legal in nature.
Sin is ontological – it goes to the very heart of our being and existence. St. Paul uses the word “corruption” (phthora) in a number of places to describe the work of sin:
For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Gal 6:8 NKJ)
Corruption is the word for what the body does when it dies – it rots. It is also a description of what happens in our lives when we live out of communion with God – things rot – they fall apart – they dissolve ever more completely – morally, spiritually, physically. It is like a disease process. It can only be arrested (and healed) by grace.
Every attempt to describe sin and hell with legal/penal imagery fails to do justice to the inward, ontological nature of our fall. It reduces the consequences of sin to externally imposed penalties and runs the risk of ignoring the entire body of Scripture (and human experience) that bear witness to a deeply organic character of sin and consequence.
Justice models tend to major in external imagery. Thus the fires of hell (as external punishing flames) and hell as a place become very important. The teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed famously by St. Mark of Ephesus, holds that the fires of hell are immaterial. The fathers of the Church often pierce the flames of hell with discernment and wisdom revealing their inner meaning rather than dwelling on crude images of torture and punishment. Thus St. Ambrose:
That gnashing is not of bodily teeth, nor is that perpetual fire made up of physical flames, nor is the worm a bodily one. These things are spoken of, however, because, just as worms are born of massive overeating and fevers, so too, if anyone does not boil away his sins…he will be burned up in his own worms. Whence also Isaias says: “Walk in the light of your fire, and the flame which you have ignited” (Isaiah 50:11). It is a fire which gloominess of sins generates. It is a worm insofar as irrational sins of the soul stab at mind and heart and eat the guts out of your conscience.(Commentary on Luke, 7, 205)
St. Isaac of Syria says that the fires of hell are nothing other than the love of God:
As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.
St. Isaac’s words are very helpful. The “punishment” is nothing other than love. But the tormenting character of God’s love is produced by the state of the soul, not by the external character of the love itself. It is a consequence of our own making.
When understood in such an intrinsic manner, hell does not cease to be a “threat” (as some fear), but the threat becomes more immediate and does not rest on the external action of a punishing God. It is a reflection of something already begun within us:
For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1Pe 4:17 NKJ)
However, the nature of our inner corruption often makes us blind to the very judgment at work within us. I often think of the character in Lewis’ gray town (The Great Divorce), who though in hell, has a small theological discussion group and needs to leave his excursion in heaven in order to return to present a paper. Its irony is too true to be humorous.
The caricatured wrathful, punishing God is the product of poor theological reflection (or none at all). His hell, no matter how justified, does not serve the intended purpose of its defenders (provoking sinners to repentance). It instead provokes skeptics to unbelief.
The subtleties of the inner torment and corruption of the soul may fail to satisfy those who prefer the punishing God. But they would do well to tend to the subtleties of their own souls and the corruption worked by envy and the joy at the punishment of others.
Judgment has indeed begun in the house of God.