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Time’s up for torment

20 December 2019

Death, judgement, heaven, and hell. David Bentley Hart argues that the Advent themes should be shortened by one

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Christ leads the dead out of hell: detail from an altarpiece in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (1381-82)

Christ leads the dead out of hell: detail from an altarpiece in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (1381-82)

ANYONE acquainted with children diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome or (more vaguely) as being “on the spectrum” knows that they are often acutely sensitive to, and largely defenceless against, extreme experiences: excessive noise, large crowds, overwhelming sensory stimulation, but also imaginative, affective, or moral dissonances.

So it was no surprise to me to learn that the seven-year-old son of friends — an extremely intelligent child, very much on the spectrum, gentle and quiet but also somewhat emotionally volatile — had fallen into a state of panic for three days and then into an extended period of depression as a result of a Sunday sermon in the course of which the homilist (a Dominican priest) had happened to mention the eternity of hell.

I do not know whether this was the first time my friends’ son had been exposed to the notion, but apparently it was the first time that he had consciously absorbed it. His reaction was one of helpless terror, both at the very idea, and at the picture of reality which it had opened up before him.

All at once, it seems, he had found himself imprisoned in a universe encompassed by impenetrable walls of absolute horror. Nothing could calm him until his father succeeded in convincing him that the priest had simply been repeating lies whose only purpose was to terrify people into submission.

Last I heard, my friends had ceased attending church altogether. I cannot really blame them. At least, it seems obvious to me — if, admittedly, only at a purely intuitive level — that their son’s reaction to that sermon was more than enough evidence of the sheer conceptual squalor of the traditional teaching on these matters. After all, another name for a “spectrum” child’s acute sensitivity might be “moral intelligence”.

As difficult as it may frequently make the ordinary business of life, a child’s inability to insulate himself or herself emotionally against the world’s harder edges also makes him or her incapable of the kind of self-deception that allows the rest of us serenely to reconcile ourselves to beliefs that, soberly considered, should make us recoil in revulsion.

Even if it were received dogma that hell was only the exclusive preserve of the very worst among us — Hitler, Brady and Hindley, Pol Pot — the sheer brutal banality of the very idea of everlasting torment should be enough to make us question the moral intelligibility of our creed.

Of course, as it happens, the traditional view has typically been far grimmer than that: it tells us that hell will encompass not merely the murderers and the monsters among us, but all sorts of lesser miscreants: the profligate, the wanton, the unbaptised, the unbelieving, the unelect . . . the unlucky.

 

FORGIVE me for taking a somewhat elliptical approach to my topic. I say all of this as prefatory to the exceedingly simple point I really want to make. Since the appearance this past year of my book That All Shall Be Saved (Yale University Press, 2019) (Books, 13 December), which argues that the only version of Christian confession which is not internally incoherent is one that proclaims universal salvation, I have been asked repeatedly what the effects of such a view would be on any Christian sense of evangelical mission, and how a universalist construal of the faith would alter the content of Christian preaching.

I find it a curious question, in part (admittedly) because I rarely pay attention to preaching of any kind, but in larger part because it seems to me that it would be much better to ask: what it is that Christians imagine they are called to proclaim in the first place. Precisely what is the “good news” that they think they have been enjoined to share with all peoples and persons?

Certainly, if one repairs to the example of the Apostle Paul — and there is no earlier or more authoritative preacher of “Christ and him crucified” in Christian tradition — one finds no warrant for telling others that God’s love for them is so immense that he will permit them to be tormented for ever and ever if they fail to acknowledge it properly.

True, Paul most certainly envisages a rapidly approaching divine judgement on this present evil Age, and on the “god” who presides over it; and he looks forward eagerly to the dawning of the Age-to-Come, in which the glory of God will transform all things (Romans 8.18).

No less certainly, he expects that there will be some kind of discrimination between those who are “Christ’s own at his coming” and those who are not, and that only at the very end (perhaps at a moment still more remote than this) will all things be restored to their proper good order under God’s direct rule, and God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15.22-28).

But nowhere does he so much as hint at the possibility of some postmortem condition of perpetual suffering for the reprobate. He does, of course, at one juncture mention an eschatological fire of judgement; but, according to him, this fire will either prove the soundness of one’s works in this life, for which one will then receive one’s condign reward, or it will burn one’s works away — but even then only so that one may be saved “as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3.13-15). If he imagines there to be yet another class among the judged, he very curiously neglects to say as much.

Apart from this, Paul’s gospel is one of exuberant triumphalism. According to him, Christ’s salvific action in history was principally an act of conquest and liberation. In overthrowing death, Christ has also defeated all the spiritual — angelic or demonic — powers and agencies that preside over this cosmos from on high or that haunt it on earth, set free the captives once bound in durance in death’s kingdom, overcome everything that separates creation here below from God’s empyrean there above, destroyed all that alienates us from God’s love, and made all things subordinate to the Father.

In consequence of this, the New Age of the world is now coming, and it is urgent that we prepare ourselves to enter into the glory of a Kingdom that flesh and blood may not inherit, where even our bodies will be all spirit, beyond the reach of death (1 Corinthians 15.35-57).

It may be the case that Paul expected that some of us would pass away along with the old age of creation, hence his sense of urgency. Then again, however, there are a considerable number of formulations in his letters (Romans 5.18; 11.32; 1 Corinthians 15.22; 2 Corinthians 5.14-19; Philippians 2.9-11; etc.), as well as in the larger “Pauline corpus” (Colossians 1.19-20, 28; 1Timothy 2.3-6; 4.10; Titus 2.11; etc.), which seem clearly to announce a final redemption of everyone and all things.

Whatever the case, nowhere does he ever suggest the reality of an eternal hell of conscious torment.

 

EVEN if we repair yet further back, to Christ’s own language of final judgement in the Gospels, we fail to find most of the infernal imagery we casually assume to be part of his message. There is a single verse that, in most translations, seems to speak of “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25.46), but the original Greek delivers nothing quite so unambiguous, especially if one reads it within the context of the eschatological and apocalyptic expectations and terms of Christ’s time and place.

Jesus’s own metaphors for God’s punishment of the powerful, wealthy, and wicked are not only pictorial and metaphorical in form, but mixed and vague — intentionally so, one presumes. The majority have to do with the disposal and destruction of rubbish, such as chaff and darnel weeds being burned in furnaces. Even the word often translated as “hell” in the Gospels, Gehenna (“Valley of Hinnom”), is only, as Jesus employs it, a venerable Hebrew prophetic image of the disposal and destruction of body and soul (Matthew 5.29-30; 10.28; Mark 9.43-47). It is most definitely not an image of endless torment.

Even the language of “unquenchable” fire and “deathless” worms is merely an idiom borrowed from Isaiah 66.24 for describing the total annihilation of cadavers and carrion. But even this is only one set of images that, if taken literally, cannot be reconciled with others that also appear in Christ’s teachings.

Jesus sometimes uses metaphors of exclusion — say, being left outside in the dark to gnash one’s teeth in envy while others are inside enjoying a wedding feast — which are analogous to, if not exactly identical with, the metaphors for destruction.

When he uses metaphors drawn from his age’s practices of penal confinement and torture — which would seem to come closest to the later Christian mythology of hell — in those cases he explicitly describes the period of suffering as having a limited term (Matthew 5.26; 18.34; Luke 12.49, 59).

Perhaps the same might be assumed with regard to the darkness outside the feast. Who knows? It is all very powerful at a purely symbolic level, but clearly devoid of any precise dogmatic content, apart from the assurance that those who oppress the poor (the principal miscreants in Christ’s preaching) will encounter God’s judgement in the Age-to-Come. Even then, it is unclear to what extent these images should be taken as apocalyptic ciphers for the historical calamities that befell Judaea later in the first century. And, again, nowhere do we find explicit threats of a state of perpetual misery.

 

WHICH brings me back to the question prompting these reflections. It seems to me fairly obvious that, if we want a model of Christian preaching unpolluted by the noisome concept that the God of infinite intellect, power, and will — whose nature is supposedly revealed in the self-outpouring charity of Christ — would impose endless suffering on those of his rational creatures for whom he has failed to provide sufficient grace, we really need look no further than the New Testament.

I recommend Paul’s example. If he found it possible to proclaim the love of God in Christ, and the victory of that love over death and sin and all that separates us from God, without ever resorting to the hideous mythology of an unending hell, then Christians today would surely do well to imitate him, and ceaselessly to announce that “just as all die in Adam, all shall be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.22).

 

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, hell and universal salvation by David Bentley Hart is published by Yale at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18).

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