In a previous article I attempted to examine the Scriptural, patristic, and canonical evidence for a belief in Universalism, the belief that eventually all will be saved (including, according to many universalists, Satan and the demons). I concluded that the evidence all went the other way, and I reaffirmed the traditional teaching that the punishments of Gehenna will be eternal. I acknowledged in passing the legitimacy and even the necessity of trying to explain how a belief in the eternity of Gehenna can be combined with a belief in the love of God. I will attempt to do that now. But I stress that my aim is limited to trying to understand how a belief in Gehenna can be moral—making it palatable is beyond my power or intention. My goal in discussing hell is the same as C.S. Lewis’ goal when he discussed it, for, as he said (in his chapter on Hell in his The Problem of Pain), “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral”.
Orthodox writers can collect a number of voices who agree with Lewis that hell is not tolerable, and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has gathered a few of them in his essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” in the anthology The Inner Kingdom. There we learn of St. Silouan of Mount Athos gently rebuking a hermit who delighted in the damnation of atheists. Silouan responded that one in paradise looking down on the suffering of another in hell-fire should pray for the salvation of that one, for “love could not bear this”. Whether St. Silouan meant that one should pray for those in Hades awaiting the final judgment or that one should pray for those damned after the final judgment is not entirely certain, but his main point stands: a tender heart would grieve over the salvation of the damned and should not delight in it. (Tertullian apparently and famously thought otherwise, but a tender heart should also consider his historical context. It’s easier to feel compassion for one’s persecutors if one hasn’t suffered under them.)
We begin by examining the arguments of those impugning the traditional doctrine of Gehenna as eternal.
One objection to this doctrine revolves around the incommensurability between the sin and its punishment. One feels it would be monstrously unfair of God to punish a few years of sin and rebellion with an eternity of suffering. If “an eye for an eye” is the classic expression of justice, how could an eternal hell be just?
This objection assumes that time and eternity are both linear, and that seventy years in this life and age equal an approximate number of years in the next life and the age to come. But there is no reason to think that eternity is as linear as time, or that it is like time as we experience it, continued after the Last Judgment. Rather, time and eternity are related to one another as the foundation is to the house built upon it. If the foundation is laid wrongly and askew, the house will be even more askew, and the higher the house is built, the more askew it will become. We see this even in the drawing of lines. Say I draw a line as a base and then draw another line, intending to draw the second line at a 90 degree angle from the first, but instead drawing it at an 80 degree angle. Obviously the further the second line extends, the further it will go from its intended 90 degree place. At few feet from the base, it will be a certain distance “off”, but at a few miles from the base it will be even further off. Increasing the amount of distance from the base will do nothing to correct it.
This forms a kind of analogy between the relation between time and eternity. During this life, within time, a person makes decisions which effect his heart and his life and even his ability to make future decisions. (We see this last in the case of drug addiction: an addict is not free to choose not to use the drug, because his previous choice to use the drug has resulted in impaired ability to freely choose.) If in this life one chooses darkness over light and continues along that path so that darkness becomes second-nature, then this darkness and rebellion becomes the foundation upon which eternity must be built. One thereby sets oneself up for darkness and misery in the age to come.
Thus hell is not a matter of God choosing to torture a sinner for an eternity because the sinner sinned for seventy years. Eternity will last forever no matter what (that is what “eternity” means)—the only question is: on what foundation will one’s experience of eternity be built? If for seventy years the sinner has laid a foundation of rebellion and destroyed his ability to repent and be nourished by joy, then the eternity built upon it will be one of misery—not because God chooses the amount of punishment deserved, but because of the nature of time as foundational to eternity.
Another objection to the traditional doctrine of hell is the assertion that it somehow makes God into implacable tyrant. Surely, says the objector, faced with the pain and suffering of hell, anyone would repent! This being so, how could a loving God not forgive the now-penitent sinner and rescue him from his punishment? The objector paints a picture of God petulantly saying, “No, sorry, you had your chance, now it is too late!” (We do find this portrayal of hell in some primitive versions of it. See, for example, the Qur’an: “The dwellers of hell will say to its keepers: ‘Implore your Lord to relieve our torment for one day!’…But vain shall be the cries of the unbelievers”, Surah 40:49-50.)
Smuggled unnoticed into this picture of the penitent person in hell crying for mercy is the unexamined assumption that the people in hell remain more or less as we knew them in this life. (This was also assumed in the example brought to St. Silouan by his hermit friend.) We think of people we have known who were not really religious, but who were not openly evil either. We remember their good points, their virtues, perhaps their sense of humour. We remember their smiles as well as their frowns, and above all the times that they were good, and the times they admitted that they were wrong. It is this person, intact, as remembered, that we imagine enduring the pains of hell, and it is this which tears at our heart. Certainly love could not bear that. But I would suggest alternative picture of the lost.
We see this alternative described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on Hell already mentioned, and portrayed dramatically in his book The Great Divorce. There those in hell were literally shadows of their former selves. All that identified them as the persons that others knew or even as human had been burned away by the sin lurking and growing inside them. Or, to vary the metaphor, the cancer of sin and self-will had eaten away all their humanity, including their free will. All that was left was sin—the hideous lust, the unrelenting rage, the suicidal self-pity. If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment (as in St. Silouan’s scenario) we would not see a human being, much less the human being we knew (such as the atheist imagined by St. Silouan’s hermit friend). All the created humanity of the person with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy, and especially repentance, had long since eroded away to nothing.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us as an example of this horrible transmutation in an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining. Her damnation consisted of the fact that she was no longer simply a grumbler, but only a grumble. As Lewis’ guide and theologian puts it:
“The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”
The besetting sin or the interior spiritual cancer may not be grumbling or self-pity. It may be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and erode its capacity for joy and repentance. But the final result is the same. Sin ultimately destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes. Looking at the pile of ash after a conflagration, one would never guess that it had once been a beautiful wooden statue. It is the same with the damned: to quote Lewis again (from his The Problem of Pain), “What is cast into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.”
This view of the damned may help us in dealing with several objections. It may help us to see how “love could bear this”, because what would be borne and witnessed from paradise would not the torment of a human being, but the inevitable end of a process of self-destruction. The sting to the tender heart comes from the thought that “the torments of hell are going on now, and people are suffering”. But in one sense the people we knew or anything recognizable as a human being no longer exist.
Hell and heaven therefore are in no sense parallel to each other, as the objection presupposes. They are not two different compartments of reality, with heaven on the top-floor penthouse and hell in the basement. The saved in the final Kingdom of God will not stop and reflect on the disturbing thought, “Somewhere people are suffering in hell”, as we may now stop in our peaceful and affluent neighbourhoods and think, “Somewhere in the world wars are going on and people are dying”. To quote Lewis again, “The thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing”. The “remains” of human beings that constitute hell, the pile of ash—the lust, and rage, and self-pity, the psychic flickerings of rebellion and determined withdrawal into self that are all that remain out of what was once a person—these scarcely constitute reality. The Biblical picture of the end is one in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). In that new heavens and new earth, righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13). This is the vision which St. Paul described as God being “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), and this vision is true. Hell forms no part of this world, or of this reality. The entire cosmos will be lit up with the light of God. The lost will not dwell in this world; they will inhabit no corner of the cosmos. They are to be banished from it altogether, cast into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13) beyond the rim of reality “where being fades away into nonentity” (Lewis, in The Problem of Pain).
Another objection centers upon the supposed immorality of mere retribution. The objector asks, “What is the point of punishment?” Some punishment can be therapeutic, leading to the reform of the person punished. Some punishment can be a deterrent, warning others not to sin as the person being punished has sinned. But hell, the objector points out, fulfills neither of these two functions. According to the traditional understanding of an eternal Gehenna, hell’s pains will not produce repentance in the damned, so they cannot be therapeutic. And there will be no one left not already saved to profit by the example of their suffering, so hell cannot function as a deterrent either. Surely then the only point of their suffering is simple revenge—which everyone admits is unworthy of a loving God.
The objection requires us to look carefully at what is involved in damnation and what are the causes of hell’s sufferings. Once again the objection presupposes a psychologically intact person in hell, a human being as we experience human beings, persons capable of repentance. It presupposes a picture of God standing outside the prisoner’s cell, ordering external punishments, and that those punishments are the cause of the suffering. But what if the suffering is not solely (or even principally) the result of external divine orders, but the result of the self-chosen constitution of the damned themselves? If joy and life come only through self-denial, self-transcendence, and communion with God, what would be the result for someone who has destroyed all capacity for these things? God cannot give joy to someone lacking the capacity to receive it, any more than the sun and rain could nourish a flower which has plucked itself up by its own roots. The damned have chosen not to be open to the light, and so must ever be in darkness. If the damned refuse to eat the only food the cosmos provides (which is self-transcendent communion with God) they must go forever hungry. As is often said, the doors of hell are thus locked from the inside. The damned are locked within themselves, smothered by their own adamant choice, their capacity for self-transcendence eroded to nothing, and therefore are doomed to eternal hunger and misery. Like men who have torn off their ears in a fury of self-mutilation, they have become deaf to the sound of joy and incapable of receiving it. Their suffering does not find its ultimate root in divine retribution, but in their own eternally-fixed rebellion.
Yet another objection comes with an assertion that human will ultimately will choose light and joy by virtue of it having been created by God. Defenders of the Church’s traditional understanding of hell as eternal have always had recourse to the dignity and freedom of the human will. Briefly put, people are free to choose or reject God, and God will not violate their freedom by forcing them to choose Him. They have the freedom to reject Him, thereby destroying their own capacity for love, joy, and self-transcendence if they insist upon doing so.
For some objectors, like Dr. David Bentley Hart, recourse to the sovereignty of the human will is futile. In his essay God, Creation, and Evil, he asserts that “there could scarcely be a poorer argument”. He explains thus:
“Free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably”.
In a later note, he elaborates by saying that one cannot choose or not choose God the way you would a cup of coffee. One desires and chooses anything, he says, because one has an original intellectual appetite for God. He reminds his readers of what St. Maximus the Confessor teaches—that the natural will can will only God.
Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete. Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological backseat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree. And, as we have seen, the Scriptures are fairly clear that Gehenna’s suffering is eternal. But we must still interact with Hart’s assertions about the human will. I would respond that Dr. Hart simply underestimates the power of evil.
It is true that the natural will can will only God, but no one apart from Christ has such a free and untainted natural will. To quote Dr. John Meyendorff: “For Maximus, when man follows his natural will, which presupposes life in God…he is truly free. But man also possess another potential, determined not by his nature, but by each human person, the freedom of choice, of revolt, of movement against nature, and therefore of self-destruction…this is the gnomic will, a function of the personal life, not of nature” (from his Byzantine Theology).
The sad truth is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different. Dr. Hart might reply that such a thing could not be described as “free will”. I would not quibble about the term. But the fact is that a human being can reach such a depth that he does indeed will evil as evil, deliberately choosing to cut his own nose to spite his own face. Hart may reply that such a “deliberate” choice is not a “free” choice, but this doesn’t change the fact human beings are nonetheless capable of such self-destruction. Though lamentable, it is clearly observable that to see the good is not necessarily to desire it insatiably. Some people become capable of perverse rejection of the light, simply because they want to. Why did you do that terrible thing? “Because.” No appeal to reason or to joy can penetrate such self-chosen perversity. All such appeals founder on the terrible fact of the swollen and insane will.
Here we come to impenetrable mystery of evil. If Hell is “so nearly Nothing”, then evil also partakes of perverse unreason. And to see evil in its essence, we must turn from debating about men and look for a moment at the devil. It is true that universalists assert the eventual salvation of the devil, or at least (like Origen) allow for its possibility. But as the devil now is, we see in him the very form of evil. At the risk of overdosing the reader on C.S. Lewis, I would refer to his portrayal of the devil-possessed figure of Weston, the “Un-man” in his Perelandra. In this figure, we see unmasked the inner nature of evil as “a union of malice with something nearly childish…Deep within when every veil had been pierced [there was] nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness”. In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and commitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation. It is this evil, this disease, which swallows up and consumes the human will. If Christ possessed an unfallen natural will, and all men now possess a gnomic will, another term must be found for this damned will, which chooses puerile spitefulness in the face of joy. Such a will currently exists in the devil. How could one deny that it could not also come to exist in men in the next life?
This is especially so since after human beings leave this world through death, they will share with the devil one thing: a direct vision of God. At one time, our tradition asserts, the devil was an unfallen angel, and like all angels enjoyed the direct vision of God. Hart might insist that to see the good truly is to desire it insatiably, but the devil once saw the good truly and he did not desire it insatiably. Instead, he rejected it absolutely, with the result that his will was transformed into what it now is—not a gnomic will like ours, capable of deliberation and choice, but one fixed in hopeless rebellion and futile spite. It seems that there is something in the combination of the direct vision of God and definitive choice that fixes the human will into its final choice. Those oriented towards the light see God after this life, and the choice for God fixes them into a place of joy, bringing healing and true eternal freedom, restoring their natural wills. Those oriented towards the darkness see God and their rejection of Him fixes them into a place of eternal ruin, as their humanity and capacity for joy and repentance utterly break apart. Their gnomic wills become transformed to a will like the devil, their souls decaying and collapsing into ash and phantom nonentity. That is why Christ condemns them into a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), because they have now become petrified ruins, devoid of hope, like the devil and his angels. It is not true that the will ultimately will choose the good because the will was created by God. The devil’s will was once also created by God, but the Scripture is clear that he will be “tormented day and night forever and ever”, as one who has forever rejected the good (Revelation 20:10).
Finally, we examine the objection that the eternity of hell involves the defeat of God’s will. God wills that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and God sent His Son to save the whole world (John 3:17). How could it be that God’s will suffer defeat, and that love could not finally win? Our reply brings us to the final mystery, as well as to the necessity of asking ourselves about the nature of God’s final victory.
Much of the pang and disquiet one feels about asserting that God’s will shall not be finally done comes from the fact that this flies in the face of our desire for a happy ending. By using the term “a happy ending” I do not mean to denigrate. For me scarcely anything is more important than a happy ending; the desire for one is built into our spiritual DNA, and is almost indistinguishable from the virtue of hope. Animals take things as they come; human beings hope for happy endings. A desire for a happy ending is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
That is why the Scripture asserts emphatically that history will indeed culminate in one, in what Tolkien famously called “a eucatastrophe”. Julian of Norwich declared that at the end, “all manner of thing will be well”, echoing St. Paul’s declaration that at the end God would be all in all. We have suggested above that this will be so, in that all the cosmos will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. All that is, all that exists, will then be filled with light and joy. The lost have no place there, for they will have declined into mere phantoms, fading into nonentity, as creatures who no longer are. This fact may be mourned, but it cannot stand in the way of joy. Otherwise the lost would possess a kind of veto over the saved, and their misery possess a veto power over joy.
Here is the final and all but impenetrable mystery—that joy will triumph in spite of those who would wish otherwise, and the world will not eternally be held captive to wills that refuse it. God’s victory and our triumph and joy do not forever hang upon the devilish dog in the manger and the black puerility that would destroy it. Mere and sterile philosophizing might declare that the loss of the single soul means the overthrow of God’s will and the defeat of love’s sovereignty. It is not so. A glance at the final verses of the Apocalypse (Revelation 22:14-15) reveals that it is not so. In that apostolic and apocalyptic picture, outside the city are the dogs and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves lying. They have chosen their own cramped and airless souls instead of joy, and have been pushed outside the city, into the outer darkness, beyond the rim of the world. Inside the city, God is all in all, and every manner of thing is well. Everyone in the world is blessed, for they have washed their robes and have the right to the tree of life. Love’s victory does not depend upon us, and cannot be thwarted by anyone, including the churlish impenitence of the lost.
The doctrine of hell is not tolerable. But it is consistent with morality and with a belief in the love and final victory of God. Its presence in the Scriptures does not indicate an inconsistency there, but simply that reality and the depths of the human response to God are more varied and complex than philosophers might first imagine.