In the third kneeling prayer of Pentecost, there is a boldness in which the Church pleads for the souls in Hell (Hades). It is a boldness that can stun the one who prays, easily wondering, “Are we allowed to ask for these things?” In general, all my life I have heard a rehearsal of the boundaries of hell. I have heard about who goes there, why they must stay there, why it is testimony to God’s justice that they be tormented there. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man will be retold, with special care to note that “there is a gulf fixed between them and us, and they cannot come here and we cannot go there.” And then there are the kneeling prayers of Pentecost.
I am deeply aware that many minds are troubled by voices of universalism (I hear these things tossed about regularly). I am told that people are not taking sin seriously, or that they are ignoring the tradition, and many such things. I have no arguments in that debate and cannot stake out a position on something I do not know. However, I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.
In Genesis 18, we read the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. “Three angels” come to visit him as they make their way to Sodom and Gomorrah to make a personal inspection regarding the reported sins of those wicked cities. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly on the agenda. That destruction (fire and brimstone) should be seen as an icon of the Judgment. What we see manifest in Abraham, however, is an argument with the justice of God. God proposes to destroy the cities, and Abraham questions Him. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. And then begins the amazingly bold argument of Abraham, increasingly importuning God with his pleas for mercy.
As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six. God agreed to spare the city if but ten righteous could be found there. As it was, only Lot, his wife, and his two daughters escaped.
I will play the role of Abraham for a moment. What if, instead of Lot and his family, Christ Himself dwelt in Sodom and Gomorrah? Would the presence of that single example of righteousness cause the cities to be spared?
I believe that the role of Abraham is the only right role for a Christian believer. He is the example of a righteous heart in the matter of God’s judgment. There are many other roles that can be played. We can be (and often are) the Analysts of Judgment (arguing with Abraham that his suggestions bear too little merit and that the demands of justice outweigh them).
I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.
Modern social theories have majored in grand explanations for human suffering. Economics, politics, war, historical movements and the like have all been tasked with the role of justifying “things as they are.” Those justifications are frequently used as the building blocks of various modern schemes to build a better world and eliminate the suffering. We have become somewhat numbed by such concepts. More numbing still, is the simple phenomenon of first-world life. Though suffering touches everyone, the mythology of first-world consciousness tends to view itself as somehow exempt, as the fixer rather than the victim. And so, we theorize rather than empathize.
We cannot imagine ourselves as slaves. But let’s try. We have all been taken captive or were born in captivity. We are abused, and, in turn, we abuse others (and ourselves). Some have chosen to work with their masters in a slave’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. There are good slaves and bad slaves, kind slaves and cruel. But we are slaves. There is certainly free-will, and choices that are made day-by-day. But the general context of slavery is not a choice and no separate action of the will occurs outside the context of that slavery.
Whose fault is the slavery? And what possible use is an answer to that question? Sit and explain to the slave the meaning of his slavery and its causes and you still have a slave. Perhaps he can start a discussion group.
This is not a first-world scenario. However, it is profoundly the scenario of Scripture. The liberation of Israel from Egypt, the great primal story of Passover, is a slave narrative. This same point-of-view is the context of the New Testament as well. Christ came to “set at liberty those who are held captive,” and to “seek and save those who are lost.” St. Paul describes us specifically as “slaves to sin.” The patristic and liturgical treatment of Pascha is almost exclusively that of setting captives free.
Perhaps the greatest sea-change in the Christian mindset has been the shift from slave to management. The contemporary first-world views itself as management, despite the fact that it is as much slave as the world has ever been. It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves. Only in that manner can Christ set us free. Managers, as such, cannot be saved.
And this brings us back to hell, justice and the heart of prayer. Only a slave knows how to pray for freedom. Only a slave can show mercy to fellow slaves, no matter how much they have come to resemble their oppressors. For our sake, Christ became a slave that He might free us all.
This is the heart of Abraham, who dared pray for the foolish and wicked slaves of Sodom and Gomorrah. We should enter that same heart whenever we pray. It is only the humble and contrite heart that moves the heart of God (or that moves with it). Think like a slave in order to think as free.