Tuesday, April 08, 2008

[THO] Oh Hell

We finished off my Hans Urs von Balthasar course with a discussion of hell and Christian hope. It was fascinating. Balthasar, as some of you know, faced Rome over his views on hell. Nothing stuck, but the reason he ended up there is because he dared wrestle with the same issues that come up for me when you talk about hell. I know that some of my brothers and sisters take hell very seriously, for them the bad news of Tertulian and Augustine has won the day. But does it need to be so?

My big concern with contemporary views on hell is that it gets interpreted as a dualistic opposite to heaven. God is depicted as creating two options and arbitrarily tossing folks in one or the other. Theologically this is the problem of double-predestination. Personally I think this is a bigger heresay than apokatastasis, but lets drill in before we get to my own views. Suffice it to say that I think the whole issue of hell is too quickly simplified. When we do that we often violate the character of God as revealed through the Scriptures.

Apokatastasis is also a victim of easy reduction. The best way to understand it is as an insistance that all of creation will participate in the grace of God. But more often it is reduced to a simple universalism. I would insist it is much bigger than everyone is saved. But I'm not going argue for a condemned heresay, I don't believe you need to resort to apokatastasis to deal with the issue of hell in a way that refuses to violate the character of God.

Where we need to begin is with the character of hell. Moltmann tells us that anything we say about death is for the living, not the dead. Indeed this holds true for the classic passages in the Bible that speak of the afterlife. Job reminds us that the dead do not praise God. And if you have read here for any length of time you will know that my hope is in the resurrection, not some otherworld. But when I go down that road people assume that I don't believe in heaven or hell. The fact is that we really know nothing for certain of the afterlife. Even when a mystic has a vision of hell, who is that vision for? What is the purpose of that vision? The danger is that we become necrophobic and paint these comforting pictures around the whole idea of what comes after death. Death is a natural part of life. My hope is not that I won't die (Jesus is clear on this), but that God will have the last word, even over death.

When we try to describe hell it is most often in spatial and temporal terms. You might have heard the tapes of hell deep beneath Siberia. Oblate missionaries regularily used Dantian images of hell to try and convert the native North Americans - that worked well didn't it? And of course there are the Ray Comforts of this world who have a hell obsession and assault anyone not smart enough to just walk away. Hell as a physicality has to do with human perceptions of judgement. When salvation is reduced to a simple matter of justice then it becomes necessary to have two options - right and wrong. My contention is that justice is only a part of salvation and such a view overlooks the notion of freedom.

Is hell a place of devils and pitchforks? Or is hell the rejection of God's salvation?

There isn't a consistent picture of hell in scripture. Jesus draws on several images, enough that there is a reality He is trying to describe, but also enough to be certain this is more complicated than say an everburning hotel at the center of the Earth. Hell has to be a choice. If we make a strong causal connection between God and hell, then what sort of God do we have? Hell has to do with preserving our freedom. Hell has to be a real possibility if we are able to really reject God. To understand God in these terms we have to reflect on the gift that God offers. (Likewise, my argument for not using hell in evangelism rests here. The good news is what God offers.)

If hell is a choice, then it is a choice to alienate ourselves from God. God does not punish sinners in hell. Rather it is our rejection of the mercy of God. This is important because if we imagine a God who is punishing sinners for eternity, then is that consistent with the God revealed in scripture? I have a hard time supporting a petty God eternally prodding toasty sinners with the Crucified God. That kind of God does not inspire obedience (Romans 12:1-2) but rather apathy and fear.

Just to finish up, Balathasar insists on something that I think is beautiful. Balthasar insists that as Christians it is our obligation to hope for the Salvation of All. What an interesting take. I really believe that anything we say about hell must consider God's desire for all to be saved. Personally I think rejecting God is a freedom we have in Christ. It is consistent with God's expression of solidarity with humanity. It is consistent with the pains by which God wrought salvation. But another consistency is that, as Christians especially, we believe God has the last word.


Hank said...

Man, I'm glad I worked my way through the whole of your post, resisting the impulses to reply before completing the journey.

Hell is so much more complicated than what many people hold, but I still think it can be argued that it is essentially a living rejection of God, His Person, His Grace and His Mercy. As such there are many who are living a veritable 'hell on earth' even as we speak.

I also agree that God has to have the final word, and if not, then what sort of God is He, right?

But I'm still a little uncomfortable about preaching the mercy and grace of God (which is critical) without mentioning the reality of the alternative. I think we need to follow Jesus' example and acknowledge the reality of Hell as a state of existence, while at the same time holding out the hope that there is something better for those who trust in Christ.

Thanks for something meaty to chew on this morning!

One of Freedom said...

I'm glad you did too. Hell is a hard subject.

I do think that you are right about evangelism. My concerns are a reaction to the turn or burn type message. Something about that doesn't ring true for me. I wonder if it isn't just that we don't unpack the alternatives. But I think more it is that a 'no' to God is not equal to a 'yes' to God. When we say 'yes' to God, in any way, my experience is that God is abundantly present and willing to meet us in that response. But when we say 'no', God doesn't abandon us in a way that a future 'yes' becomes worthless. I have consistently found God abundantly able to redeem even my worst mistakes.

Like you said, it is complicated.

I guess if someone seeking God were to ask me I'd definitely affirm hell as a self-alienation from God. But I'd definitely not lead in with a discussion of hell. The God of life has so much more to offer than a reprieve from hell.

Have you given any thought to Christ's relationship to hell as in Holy Saturday? I know that has to play in big with Balthasar's thoughts on hell.

Anonymous said...

Hey Frank. Interesting post bro. I have always found it odd the way many of our brothers and sisters concieve of heaven and hell in such physical terms. Physical (sensual?) pleasure as a 'reward' for spiritual and moral accomplishment, and or physical punishment for moral and spiritual failure. Just an observation...

I like the idea of hoping that all will be saved. But like you said, the picture is bigger than that. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have canonized many saints, but never have they canonized anyone as being in hell. At least, as far as I know.

I hear you about the images of hell in the Gospel. I don't think they are to be taken literally. I think rather they point to a reality much more horrific than the images portray.

I like Peter Kreeft on hell. He sees it as certaily not physical, and not punishment either. For Kreeft, the redeemed and the damned are in fact experiencing the same ultimate reality. Both are in the same place, but their perception of it very different. Imagine a opera lover at a heavy-metal concert or vice versa. I believe that God never ceases to love those who will reject Him. It is His love for them that is their torture. The fire of His love is what is consuming them.

I agree that it isn't the wrath of God in hell, it is His love. "The Wrath of God" is our own wrath projected upon God. Kind of like our children when they are angry for whatever reason, may perceive our loving advances as an evil and a threat. Hell is not punishment for sin, hell is sin itself. It arises from within us. It is ultimately as you say the rejection and loss of love...

One of Freedom said...

Balthasar makes that point too, the Church has canonized many saints, but it has never made the final pronouncement of eternal damnation on anyone.

Anonymous said...


Many thanks for your post. You raise the issue (towards the end of the post) of human rejection of God and you suggest that this 'is a freedom we have in Christ'. May I invite you unpack what you mean here? In what sense can rejection of God really be spoken of as a 'freedom'? And, are you proposing that the 'hell is locked from the inside' defence (eg. CS Lewis, von Balthasar, et al) is the most acceptable way to proceed?

These are genuine (and unbaited) questions. I look forward to your responses.


One of Freedom said...

hey Jason!

The issue of freedom is one of God's refusal to violate human freedom. It springs from the contemporary discussions of human capacity: if we are capable of God then we, conversely, are capable of not God. So hell serves as a theological construct of the real possibility of rejecting God. This one I don't see another way around that makes sense.

This phrase "locked from the inside" is new to me. I must confess I've read more of Lewis' fiction than his theology. If you mean by that that we can choose to leave hell but God cannot enter in on our behalf, that doesn't fit with the notions of Holy Saturday Balthasar holds. I would insist that our freedom make hell a reality, but that hell is a mystery I really hope I never figure out completely.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response. Let me ask you a follow up question: Why do you suggest that human freedom necessarily means that a loving God might not violate it when it is in the best interest of the objects of God's love?

On the question of hell being 'locked from the inside', this is Lewis' way of describing hell as the situation created by human rejection of grace, while God's hand remains eternally offered. Lewis does not have anything like von Balthasar's Holy Saturday in mind.

One of Freedom said...

Christ is the reason I make that claim about freedom. If God wanted to then God could have turned the whole thing around. But consistently, and definitively through Christ, God reveals a character of working within the created order.

As a secondary issue though, I would propose that theodicy also insists on God not violating human freedom. If God bends the rules arbitrarily, then what kind of God refuses to intervene when grown men pluck out eyes and cut off the ears of children, leaving them for dead? Because that is the reality our theology must account for.

I really should read Lewis at some point. I read some of Mere Christianity way, way back. I do have a bunch on my shelf though.

Looking forward to any follow up questions.

One of Freedom said...

Oh. Forgot.

I'm not sure what to do with the perpetual outstretched hand. I'll have to think about that. It does denote the posture, but I still have a sense of finality in terms of hell.

peoplespastor said...

Hey Frank...long time brother. I had to respond to your post on hell as I read your mentioning of Ray Comfort....ha. Somethings never change. You still in school? I am about to finish my Masters in Community Counseling. Well good to see you are still blogging away!

Way of the Pastor

One of Freedom said...

Wow. It has been ages. Ray made it into one of my papers this year. I was giving examples of the bredth of contents of the gospel message in Evangelicalism. It was really quite sad because I was to see if love was a common feature and had to really search hard in Ray's books to find any reference to love (other than the one that warned about moving to love too quickly! That one nearly made me throw the book accross the room.) But I did find some things, but it was slim pickings.

I'm just wrapping up my MATh and I was accepted to the PhD next year. It is pretty exciting. I was just emailing another evangelical at my school and saying we need to have an Evangelicals at St. Paul brunch!

blessings bro, drop in anytime.