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.