It is not unusual these days to find that unbelievers like Richard Dawkins are very angry. In his The God Delusion he denounces the God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, and among the many insults he heaps upon the Most High (I counted over twenty in a single sentence) are assertions that He is “bloodthirsty” and “sadomasochistic” [sic: one assumes he meant to say, “sadistic”]. Such anger at the traditional view of the God of the Bible is not odd. What is odd is to find some ostensibly Christian writers agreeing with people like Dawkins. David Bentley Hart, for example, denounces the traditional view of God as “inventively sadistic”, “theatrically grotesque”, a “heartlessly capricious gamester”, and as fundamentally a “monstrous deity”.
Hart is referring, of course, to the Church’s traditional rejection of universalism. Hart feels that if one asserts that the aionion punishment of the wicked promised by Christ is eternal (as the Church clearly teaches), one thereby is left with a God who is a monster, and who is “inventively sadistic”. Therefore, Hart argues, since God is not a moral monster, the punishment of hell cannot be eternal. I will not here again make the argument for the traditional view of hell. Those wishing to learn it are invited to read a book on the subject. For now I would like to focus on the question of moral monstrosity, and ask the question: In the matter of human sin and divine punishment, who is really the monster?
Much of the emotional heat arising from the issue of eternal punishment finds its source in the pain one feels over the plight of those who are punished in hell. This is the engine driving the question for the universalists, and for some of them, like Hart, it seems to be the only question worth asking. It is as if the pain of the lost trumps everything else.
Given this, some universalists descend to ad hominem arguments, and assert that those who reject universalism must somehow delight in the eternal suffering of the lost. It is an easy game to play: when Scriptural exegesis and church history fail, there is always the ad hominem card to fall back on, like an ace in the hole. In this game, the universalist seems not to stray much beyond his comfort zone in the modern time, or ask if all previous ages were really populated solely by sadistic creeps—such as the authors of 2 Esdras and the Book of Revelation (see 2 Esdras 7:60-61, Revelation 20:10-14). But anyone can play the ad hominem game; that is why it is so uninteresting.
Given that previous ages were unlikely to have been populated solely by sadistic creeps motivated by a desire to revel in the pain of the lost, it is worth asking the historical question, “What were these people motivated by?” For example, what was behind such texts as 2 Esdras 7:60-61 or Revelation 20:10-14? Why were the authors of these texts apparently untroubled by the thought that the punishment of the wicked would be eternal? I suggest that they were motivated by a concern that moral monstrosity be adequately judged and finally eliminated from the earth.
We happy moderns have mostly never seen undiluted evil up close and personal. There are exceptions of course. Some of those exceptions are currently watching the trial of Harvey Weinstein with great interest. In previous ages some of them were watching the Nuremberg trials with similar interest. But in most ages those who suffered at the hands of evil men lived and died in the secure knowledge those evil men would never be brought to trial, and that such moral monsters would reign triumphant to the end of their lives, suffering no pangs of conscience, or diminution of their earthly happiness.
One needs to think hard about this, and reflect on the pain of those who suffered torture, rape, and the loss of families through genocide, gulag, and concentration camp. We quite properly reflect on the pain of the Jews who suffered in the Nazi Holocaust, and we feel at least some moral outrage at the thought that most of the evil men inflicting the pain got away scot free. We reflect rather less than we should on the thought that there are many evil men in the world apart from the Nazis, and that these also get away scot free, completely untroubled by conscience or social consequences.
The ancients, such as authors of 2 Esdras and the Book of Revelation, knew this world of pain and injustice only too well. Most of us here in the West in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have enjoyed an unusual degree of immunity from such evil and suffering. Speaking personally, I have never been bombed, arrested, tortured, raped, sent to a gulag, or seen my family or friends experience such things. When I think of those lost in hell, I therefore think mostly of their pain, and not of the justice owed to those experienced pain at the hands of the lost. That does not make me compassionate, just privileged and unusually lucky. But the ancients were not as lucky as I am. That is why, I suspect, for them the issue of the eternal punishment of evil men revolved more around the question of justice for the oppressed than the pain suffered by their oppressors.
This also accounts for the exultation in the coming judgment and justice of God that we find throughout the Bible. We need such a God of judgment, for if we are to survive the suffering inflicted by evil and impenitent men, we need to know that justice will eventually prevail—if not in this age, then in the next. As one writer (Miroslav Volf) said, “ Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.” In other words, there are monsters prowling about the earth. A God of love and justice will finally eliminate the monsters—for ultimately love and justice prove to be the same, as any victim of injustice will tell you.
Universalists usually assert that eventually, (happy to relate), such moral monsters will all be brought to repentance and will cease to be monstrous. After a time of suffering in the age to come (how much time we are not told—perhaps millennia or millions of years?) the monsters will finally come to see the error of their ways. The image is offered of God’s love beaming upon the monsters so relentlessly that eventually they finally understand, get it, and repent. Hart is very skilful at suggesting how this final result has been built in to our created selves all along so that a happy ending is inevitable.
The problem with this is that there is nothing in either Scripture or human experience to suggest that this is anything more than wishful thinking. Scripture, from one end of it to the other, offers examples of evil men who did not repent when they suffered, but simply hardened their hearts even more. One thinks of Pharaoh in Exodus (one of the first books of the Bible), and of those blaspheming God when they suffered His judgment in Revelation 16:10-11 (the last book of the Bible). Human experience also knows of evil men seemingly immune to the calls of conscience and the blows of suffering, and who retain their impenitent commitment to evil until the end.
Indeed, we are a race of monsters—or at least a race with the potential for moral monstrosity deeply embedded in our hearts. That is presumably why Christ described the common man in passing as “evil” (Matthew 7:11)—that is, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, each of us is capable of doing the unspeakable. How else can one account for the continued moral debacle that is human history? We are a race that rapes and enslaves and kills, to such an extent that these horrors are occurring somewhere in the world right now. These atrocities are not exceptional; they are the historical norm whenever circumstances have allowed it.
Most of us are protected from doing such things because we are safe, secure, warm, and well-fed. Take away these things (i.e. take away the veneer that we call civilization) and one quickly sees what human beings are capable of. This is not a new revelation. People like Rod Serling understood this in 1960, and passed along the information in a Twilight Zone episode entitled (significantly), “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”.
That is why salvation begins with repentance. Repentance is not just regret for the stupid things we have done, but a cry for God to save us from ourselves and to heal us and eliminate the moral monster lying hidden within us. It is a proof of God’s love for us that although we each have a monster living inside us, God still loves us and calls us to repent and to be His children. Or, in the words of St. Paul, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
We are the monsters. When God came among us in love to forgive the sinner and to heal the sick, we literally spit in His face and hung Him on a cross. Some of us repent, and find salvation. Some of us never repent, and remain monstrous (as the victims of evil can testify, even if their oppressors are never brought to trial). But if the eternally impenitent oppressors finally are brought to justice and are eliminated from the age to come, the God who brings justice to the victims and peace to the world is not the monster. Paraphrasing Pogo, we have met the monster, and he is us.
I read your book, and Hart’s. The part of his argument that makes a great deal of sense to me is this: God, according to our Tradition, knew those people would damn themselves. So, why create them in the first place? That’s the seemingly monstrous part. If I knew infallibly one of my kids would damn themselves, I would never have had him in the first place. Any finite good he would get from life would be cancelled by eternal loss. I understand what you are saying here, but there is also the problem that, usually, it isn’t just monsters consigned to hell, at least as people tend to imagine. I am not going to state, as Hart does, that all will be saved. I think that would be saying more than I can say, and be faithful to the Tradition. I will say, why God would create human beings, made in His image, that He foreknew would suffer eternal loss (and punishment?) troubles me, and makes it harder to see Him as totally good, although I know intellectually that He is. I don’t want faith to be something that saves me from God.
Have you read Lewis’ The Great Divorce? The book (a slim volume) is devoted to this very topic. In it he portrays a dialogue between a guide and a perplexed inquirer who is distressed at the suffering of those in hell. The inquirer says, “What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved”. Part of the guide’s reply runs, “That sounds merciful: but see what lurks behind it–the demand of the loveless and self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy no one else shall taste joy: that theirs’ should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.” If free will is allowed (which alone can bestow joy to those who choose God over self) then the possibility for its misuse is built in. A full reply to your point cannot be given here, but your point is a good one. I recommend Lewis’ book.
I’ve read it, many times, actually. Why make the ones who end up loveless and self-imprisoned? God could make free creatures that He foreknows will choose Him (He does, according to our teaching). He doesn’t make them choose Him, but He knows they will. If he knows who will choose against Him, why not just skip making those people?
What you are asking for is overthrow of real free will and human causation. For example: if God foreknows that my child will rebel, should He therefore afflict my wife with infertility so that she cannot conceive the rebel? What then of her free will? And why stop at total rebellion–why not intervene and make infertile women whose children will sin and inflict misery, so that no Hitlers or Stalins are possible? Freedom is either total or non-existent.
Much to think about in your reply. Thank you. I will say, for myself, if my child was to be foreknown (by God) to be damned, I would be very grateful to avoid conceiving him, although I would never know the reason why, on this side of things. I guess the sticking point for me is this: God knows the whole story, beginning to end. There could have, it seems, been another narrative. God could have only made the people He foreknew would be saved. As to Hitler and Stalin, as evil as they were, they are finite. They had finite lives, and could do only finite damage-although it was hideous, immoral, and needs to be answered for. That’s still different from infinite, eternal, loss/punishment. It seems that any good one would experience in this life would be negated by going to an eternal hell. It would be a tragedy on a cosmic scale if this only happened to one person. As a person who strives to be faithful to Orthodoxy, I would never say I know everyone will be saved, nor will I impugn the goodness of God. I will say, however, this is a serious intellectual, moral, and emotional, problem for me. Enough though. I don’t need to belabor the point. Thanks for your reply.
I cannot begin to construct an adequate narrative concerning the fallacies of universalism so I will give bullet points in no particular order.
I read David Bentley Hart as a polemicist not really a philosopher, historian or theologian. As a polemicist he is quite entertaining and introduces many good vocabulary words. The problem with polemicists is that they appeal, ultimately, to the passions.
Generally two types of people accept universalism, those who think they are more merciful than God or those who fear that someone they love has been consumed by evil and likely damned. I have great empathy for the second, none for the first. As such, it plays on good hearted people and twists their hearts.
A. There seems to be two types of universalism: 1. No repentance required; 2. Everybody ultimately repents. Either type makes a mockery of or ignores large portions of the Bible and the Tradition including the Nicean Creed, etc. (only some of which Father mentioned)
B. Both types of universalism are deterministic—sort of a ‘benevolent’ Calvinism. Thus denying that we are free, creative beings created in the image and likeness of God and giving a false understanding of God.
C. It tries to make doctrine out of what has not been revealed.
D. If I question the birth of anyone because God has foreknowledge of their damnation, I have to question my own birth and indeed the existence of all creation; thus universalism in ultimately a legalistic nihilism.
E. Universalism is a monstrous doctrine because it, not Tradition, makes God into a sadist who allows untold suffering over eons of time and, like Bill Cosby’s “angel” in his routine of the boy who fakes being sick to stay home from school. The “angel” comes in after school is over, waves a magic wand and says, “You are all better now, go out and play.” Universalism for all its appearance lacks depth and sobriety.
F. There is no need for the Incarnation nor the Cross, the Grave and the third day Resurrection, etc. (see E. above) Indeed, Jesus’ own suffering in the Garden and on the Cross are immaterial.
G. It makes ‘sin’ general, theoretical and ephemeral in nature and allows me, encourages me, to ignore my own sin even though I have caused pain and heartache to countless people on an almost daily basis since I was born.
H. It makes sin God’s problem.
I. It assumes non-existence is preferable to life.
Here is a real life story of evil: My late wife and I were close friends with a couple who had, ultimately five children (three girls and two boys). My wife and the other woman met in LeLeche League when they were both pregnant –my wife with our son, and the other woman with her first. We spent a lot of time together in each other’s homes over 18 years and my son and her daughter even got together for mutual homeschooling learning sessions discussing Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Inferno. The husband seemed to be a decent man, worked to support his family a faithful Christian struggling like the rest of us. That was a lie. In fact he made a practice of sexually abusing his pre-pubescent daughters (starting roughly at their age 5). He was a friend of demons and had no compunction about any of it. None of it was his fault either. When my son was away at basic training, the man tried to mess with my son spiritually. The man sent his demonic friends to attack my son. I spent a whole night awake and praying in while that was going on because God let me know I needed to. It was a battle. I only found out later how much a battle it was as my son was doing the same thing on his end through the intercessions of St. Demetrios but much more intensely.
Now, I do pray for the man’s repentance, hope for it. But, I would have zero problem with him suffering in hell if he does not. He fully and consciously embraces evil. He continued to harass his children and ex-wife long after the divorce. Making ‘friends’ with people in our parish and having them approach his ex-wife accusing her of all types of bad stuff. I had to yell at a couple of them in our coffee hour to get them to back off. God will be merciful to this man, if he repents but the fact is that he actually prefers the company of the demons to that of God. Prefers the destruction and death to life. He even went to a close friend of his ex-wife, a RC priest, and “confessed” to the man all that he had done to twist the knife even more. The man left the RCC and became Orthodox as did his ex-wife in part because the RC Parish they were in supported the husband.
There is no amount of suffering on his part that will atone for the evil he has done and embraced. Yet, I reiterate: if he repents and lives a life of contrition, I am certain that Jesus will welcome him into the Kingdom, as will I.
Finally: Father, your description of history is too Hobbsian for me. As written, it ignores the real heart of our history, the revelation of God’s Providence.
Father bless! Two quick points:
One, you say above that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but does not God declare that *he* is the one who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so that he can punish Pharaoh and bring glory to himself (e.g. Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, etc.)?
Also, the desire for justice can very easily bleed into a desire for revenge that *does* take on an air of sadism. Tertullian wrote that Christians would be *entertained* by the suffering of the damned in Hell, and would find this much nobler than secular forms of entertainment such as the circus or the theatre. A couple of modern scholars coined the term “Tertullian ecstasy” to describe the delight that one takes in watching the painful punishment of the wicked.
God bless you! Two brief replies to your excellent points.
1) In the Exodus narrative, it seems clear that Pharaoh did harden his heart; a Hebrew view of divine causality (nuanced and balanced in later centuries; compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chron. 21:1) ascribed this hardening to God. My only point was that Pharaoh’s example shows that punishment does not always result in reform.
2) I agree that a desire for justice can bleed into a desire for revenge, but not all such desires do. Not everyone is Tertullian. And before dumping upon Tertullian (not that you are), it would be salutary to reflect upon the traumatic sight of the deaths that he had witnessed. His notion of finding the sufferings of the lost entertaining is not “on” for us (God declares that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked), but those dumping on Tertullian have not had to endure the sight of innocent women and children horribly tortured and slaughtered as he had to endure. We must disagree with him, but needn’t act as superior as modern scholars sometimes do.
I am with you, but I think there is at least some room for a multiplicity of speculations on what hell actually is, what it may be , etc. The “eternal conscious torture chamber” hell, the “eternal punishment hell” – if we’re going to hold to these, PSA ought to be back on the table as well. Asserting that the nature of hell is forever a “punishment” creates this dilemma and really the Calvinist view is the only one to my mind that can uphold it well. As you know, the Calvinist sees man as a moral monster from the get-go, with every seed of evil just waiting to be sprouted into full monstrosity. But even after the reprobate enters hell, the seeds are practically fed by hell so that they are perpetually moral monsters into eternity without any reduction in their sinning. This at least makes sense of why God would continue to “punish” them, if they were both only good for damning and hell exacerbated their sinning. Now maybe Orthodox could go along with this asserting that the damned, like Satan, continue in unrepentance and multiply transgressions eternally. Logically my brain calls out for annihilation and I know you’re against this. I don’t know what studies have been done within the Fathers but I’m guessing I’m out of luck here.
Regardless, I think there is a way to be dogmatic about a literal, endless hell, without being clear on what hell is. It seems to me that if we are to believe that Christ’s Resurrection ensures the resurrection of all, we have to uphold the eternality of a person. I come back to this when my annihilationist tendencies crop up. Still, trying to square God not “needing” to punish with His commitment to eternal punishment or the experience of the reprobates’ eternal intolerance of the presence of Christ – it creates a lot of incongruities. I know heresy is usually a product of simplifying a dilemma, so I’m fine with upholding the Tradition’s view. Still, I’m curious though – would annihilation as an “eternal” consequence have fit with the Fathers. Do you know any who have addressed this?
God bless you Father,
Have you read my book Unquenchable Fire? I deal with some of these issues there. Lewis also examines the question in his The Great Divorce.
I think we are “stuck” with the notion of hell as punishment, since the word kolasis is used in Matthew 25:46, but I agree that we are free to define its nature. I deny that defining hell as “punishment” necessarily involves belief in an eternal torture chamber.
Thanks for your article, thoughtful as always. (Who am I to judge? But, being a typical citizen of the U.S., I have an opinion anyway, and will broadcast it even if the face of other opinions far more worthy of consideration than mine.) The article focuses on those whom we sense are moral monsters, and that is fine; one article can’t examine everything. What do ou make of Hell for those appear on the surface at least to have pretty high moral and ethical standards and lives vis-a-vis their fellow man, but still refuse to bow the knee to the Triune God? Do not misunderstand me; I do not dissent from Orthodoxy. And if there is no answer, that is fine with me. I don’t expect we can know everything. If an infinitely loving and self-sacrificing God, who loves the damned infinitely more than I do, couldn’t figure out and execute a way to save these people, I know neither anyone else nor I would be able to. But I was wondering if you had something to say about the eternal destiny of those who reject the Triune God but at least appear to otherwise live fairly morally and exemplary lives (but perhaps this exception is like saying, “they were very moral people, other than the fact that they were mass murderers and/or child molesters”).
Thank you for your comment. By way of partial reply, may I refer to my piece at:https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/the-wrath-of-god-and-christian-apologetics/ in which I deal with the question.
I don’t see that we should be caught up in justice to the degree of being jolly of another’s downfall and going to hell. Afterall God said, ” Vengeance is mine” and I think along with that He will take care of the justice. We probably get satisfaction when we see justice done, however I like to think of it more in terms of being set free from the oppressor/oppression because we had to endure it as part of our own Cross. Those around us teach us lessons as we do them – whether they are good or bad. Did we pray for them so they won’t go to hell? Did we try to help them when they turned to drugs, alcohol or stealing and even murder? Sin is the result of something deeper underlying and when life in the soul is taken completely over by sin and evil, then the soul is separated from God. Having said that, I believe that still a very small divine light is burning within the sinner. If he ends up in eternal damnation, the it is also up to God how that will be handled. I have wondered several times what going through hell in one’s mind is like – we have all had it to some degree, needing a way out, a kind word, love, mercy, forgiveness, a breath of fresh air, an end to pain, death of a loved one, abducted/abused children and the list is endless – hell is a place without hope and is without God and without the good things of God and no end in sight. If we repent, lament and live a sacramental life keeping our eyes focused on the things of Heaven, living a narrow path, then we will surely avoid hell.
I have not read Hart’s book; however, I trust your statement that “Hart argues, since God is not a moral monster, the punishment of hell cannot be eternal”.
For anyone who did read Hart’s book, may I ask? Did he provide his translation of the word – everlasting or the word – eternal? If anyone read his “translation” of the New Testament, may I ask how he interpreted (translated) our Lord’s teaching on the word – everlasting?
What did our Lord say regarding the word – everlasting?
Matthew 18:8, Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast [them] from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
Matthew 19:9 29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
Matthew 25:41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
Matthew 25:46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Cited 18 Feb 2020. https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/mat. I cite the KJV, since I believe that is the translation provided in the Orthodox Study Bible.
Is the Greek translation for the word – everlasting – αἰώνιος perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well):—eternal, forever, everlasting, world (began).
1. without beginning or end, that which always has been and always will be
2. without beginning
3. without end, never to cease, everlasting
If my Lord says that I have a choice – EVERLASTING punishment or EVERLASTING life,
First, I am going to BELIEVE everything He said. The choice IS everlasting. Those are His words, not mine.
Second, I am going to strive to be His disciple – to OBEY. I will repent, lament, and live a sacramental life keeping my eyes focused on Him.
Third, I AM praying John 3:36 for everyone. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
To Him and Him alone be ALL glory, honor, and praise for ever and ever and to the ages of ages.
I read once… The door to hell is bolted from the inside…
A street preacher had an argument with me. He would not let me go .He called me back again and again ….all about knocking on the Pearly Gates with a long list of sins to be registered, I think. He had doubts he would be let in with such a burden!
He seemed not to know much about asking for God’s forgiveness again and again, and getting up and going on trying to follow the Lord’s
commandments. I said that we will be in The Lord’s presence and how we feel about it will either Heaven or Hell but he was horrified.
However since he said a few words about the Nicene Creed which were hostile I have since come to the conclusion that he was an extreme Protestant of the type who live in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation and don’t bother about the other bits of the Bible . It seems in his eyes that it came to us inerrantly in one piece rather than being a collection of books put together by the Church after three hundred years or more of it’s existence. I finally got away from him by pleading exhaustion and sore feet after a walk in a park.
I got my views from C S Lewis and Orthodox books. I’m no theologian!
Street preachers are always interesting. When confronted with such, I remember the words of Woody Allen who said, “I have to go now because I’m due back on the planet earth.”
A very good reader .
I have the book, myself But it may not be easily available in bookshops or libraries
Of course there are two great meditations on the topic from William Shakespeare:
(from Hamlet, spoken by Hamlet)
I have been meditating on these two since I first ran across them in high school reading and seeing productions of the plays. A lot there.
Hart and co. propose a God who loves everyone so much that he can’t bear to exist without them. So he takes everyone who doesn’t love him to a torture chamber and tortures them until they love him back.
Because they don’t want God to appear to be a monster.
Fr. Stephen, yup.
Hello Father – I was reading your article and attempting to reference the passages in my Orthodox Study Bible… I do not have 2 Esdras 7:60-61. In the Orthodox Study Bible, 2 Ezra 7 only goes to verse 28. I did find those versus in a PROTESTANT bible… Should we be referencing such?
The book I cited is included in the Orthodox canon of Scripture, though for some reason, it is not in the OSB. It is sometimes called “3 Esdras” (thus Kallistos Ware in his The Orthodox Church (1980 version, footnote p. 208). It is found in The Common Bible (i.e. common to Protestants, RCs, and Orthodox) where it is called “2 Esdras”. It is absent from most Protestant Bibles. To help sort out the confusion of the OSB: their “1 Ezra”=”Ezra” in most Bibles; their “2 Ezra”=”1 Esdras” in most Bibles. The book found in other Bibles known as “2 Esdras” is missing from the OSB.
To save you looking it up, I quote the verses again here. They read: (verse 60:) “So also will be the judgment I have promised. I will rejoice over the few who will be saved, because they are the ones who made my honor to prevail now and through whom my reputation is celebrated. (verse 61:) I will have no regrets over the multitude who perish, for they are even now like vapor, the equivalent of flame or smoke; they burn and flare up and are quenched.”