The content of this somewhat ad hoc and briefer (for my standards) post arises out of a few conversations I’ve had with fellow Christians—in real life and on Facebook—about the (in)compatibility of the traditional idea of an eternal hell with God’s nature (as classically understood). But it especially derives from one on the FB post of a certain fundamentalist Christian (who is best left anonymous, even though he isn’t FB friends with me) that exhorted Christians, in the wake of the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks which claimed at least 50 Muslim lives, to preach (among other things) (1) the essential justice of a post-mortem eternal punishment (for the shooter and those not “true Christians”—i.e. the Muslims who died), and, perhaps even worse, (2) that, actually, God does not love everybody.
The second point probably needs a little more qualification (especially for those not acquainted with the nuances of Calvinism as a theological system), but I shall hope to hint in this post along the way at why such a qualification—that there is a meaningful distinction between God’s providential love for all and his special love for the elect (those “in Christ”), and that the latter is what really counts in the end for escaping an eternal hell—is practically meaningless as it doesn’t solve, but rather exacerbates the magnitude of, the main issues I will raise. One final note before proceeding about my sources (since I’m lazy to meticulously footnote right now): much of my exegetical and historical ideas below can be found and justified at length in the esteemed patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli’s lengthy tome The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Brill, 2013); meanwhile the more philosophical ideas can be found in, e.g., Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God (Wipf and Stock, 2014, 2nd ed.).
Probably the most important first point to make on this topic is that I do not object in principle to the idea of hell—only the idea that it has to be eternal. My reasoning is, firstly, linguistic. The Greek usually translated as ‘eternal’ [aiōnios] in, e.g., the phrase usually translated as ‘eternal punishment’ [kolasin aiōnios] at the end of Matthew 25 does not necessarily or even primarily mean ‘eternal’ nor (as usually assumed) a kind of retributive ‘punishment’. The Greek word that does refer unqualifiedly to eternality is aidios. But aiōnios punishment (or the counterpart aiōnios life) literally just means a punishment ‘of the age’ (whence English word ‘aeon’). Furthermore, assuming the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are indeed faithful transpositions of his words into Greek equivalents, there can be no doubt that the words aiōn and aiōnios correspond to various forms and uses of the Hebrew olam or the Aramaic alma, both of which most literally mean something at an immense distance, on the far horizon, hidden from view, and which are usually used to mean “age,” or “period of long duration,” or a time hidden in the depths of the far past or far future; but it can also mean simply an extended period, and not necessarily a particularly long one, with a natural term. (In any case, the age to which such uses of both aiōn and aiōnios refer is clearly the olam ha-ba, “the Age to come”: the age or world of God that is coming to this earth, the Age of the Kingdom or of that reality now hidden in God.) There really is no word in Hebrew that naturally means “eternity,” either temporal or atemporal, or any word that naturally means “forever”; the claim occasionally made by champions of the received view—that both aiōn and olam in scripture mean “eternal” typically rather than defectively—is not merely logically impossible to verify, but simply false. Nevertheless, the misleading translation of aiōnios became influential from the fourth century throughout the rest of Western Christianity, most notably when Augustine, who didn’t really know Greek (although his command of Latin was exquisite), made the catastrophic mistake—only too happily taken on for the next 1000 or so years by the educated minority elite to motivate the illiterate masses to behave out of the fear of eternal hellfire—to (mis)translate aiōnios as the Latin aeternum (from which we get the English ‘eternal’).
As with aiōnios, so with the word the Bible uses to describe the punishment of the age to come: kolasis. The nuance of the choice of this Greek word is often lost in English to suggest some vile idea of an eternal conscious torment of hell. Aristotle distinguished kolasis from timoria, the latter referring to punishment “inflicted in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction” (as he said in his Rhetoric). On the other hand, kolasis refers to correction; it “is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer” (ibid.). Thus Plato can affirm (in his Gorgias dialogue) that it is good to undergo kolasis, because in this way a person is made better. This distinction survived even past the time of the writing of the New Testament, since Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) affirms that God does not timoreitai, punish for retribution, but he does kolazei, correct sinners.
There is much more linguistic evidence and interpretations of examples from the New Testament I could mount from Ramelli’s book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis to further the case that the doctrine of apokatastasis—the Greek word for a final restoration, reintegration, reconstitution of all creation to their former and proper place in fellowship with God—was likely a tradition antedating Clement (and his disciple Origen of Alexandria) rooted in passages such as Acts 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 and followed by the following long list of first millenium Christian writers: Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, St Anthony, St Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St Macrina, St Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St Jerome and even Augustine himself (in his earlier years), Cassian, St Isaac of Nineveh, St John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St Maximus the Confessor, up to John Scottus Eriugena, and many others. But let’s now move on, secondly, to my theological and moral reasons for objecting to the traditional view of eternal conscious torment (or, for that matter, annihilationism, but I’ll focus on ECT for now). Now, it may be the case that punishment for such finite sins may well be meted out in some finite purgatorial way, but nevertheless I think this idea of punitive justice assumed by traditional proponents of ECT is far too reductionistic, ignoring the far grander New Testament vision of restorative justice, of all things (ta panta) being reconciled to God through Christ (apokatastasis), as, e.g., Colossians 1:20 proclaims: “…and through him to reconcile all things [ta panta] making peace through the blood of his cross [through him] whether the things upon the earth or the things in the heavens [eite ta epi tes ges eite ta en tois ouranois]”. That is to say, I do not believe that a punishment meted out in mere retribution, without any intent or hope for exacting compensation and reconciliation, can be justly called a “just punishment.”
To emphasise the sheer injustice of an ECT hell is also to anticipate the counter-response that often manifests itself in Christians so naively parroting the following assertion (as if, by merely asserting it, the idea of an eternal hell is thereby vindicated): “God is not only merciful; he is also just.” Where is the biblical warrant, I would ask in return, for thinking that divine justice requires something that divine mercy does not, or that divine mercy permits something that divine justice does not? Where is the biblical warrant for thinking that mercy and justice are separate and distinct attributes of God? At this point, I fear, many Christians read their own ideas (and their own philosophical misconceptions) into the Bible. We think that mercy is one attribute and justice another, so we read this into the Bible; we think that God’s love is an attitude of one kind and his wrath an attitude of an opposite kind, so we also read this into the Bible; we think that God punishes for one kind of a reason and forgives for another, and we tend to picture God as a schizophrenic whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose love pushes him in another; so we again read all of this into the Bible.
But when one actually turns to Paul’s letters in context, however, one finds that he challenges this whole way of thinking. According to Paul, as I read him, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgement, punishment. (This also explains the image, e.g. in Romans 1:18ff, of God’s wrath against sin (i.e. not against his creatures per se who fail to live up to the good image he created them to be teleologically oriented towards)—the image of wrath really just being a somewhat childish human expression of sin being a privation of the Good rather than wrath corresponding to any objective reality in God himself, which the classical doctrine of God’s intrinsic apatheia makes incoherent.) I think this is illustrated nicely in the flow of thought from Romans 9-11—which is sadly so often quoted out of context to make a statement like (I am quoting an actual person I dialogued with) “if there are any whom [God] wants to harden for his justice to be displayed, then they will be hardened, and his wrath would be directed towards their sin [forever].” But reading and following his whole line of thought across the three chapters, one can see that it culminates in 11:32: “For God shut up everyone [pantas] in obstinacy in so that he might show mercy to everyone [pantas].” This verse is the conclusion to the question of 9:14, which prompts the long, difficult series of reflections that end here, and which is posed in its most troubling conditional form at 9:22 (what if those who have erred or stumbled are merely vessels of wrath, whose only function is to provide a contrast to vessels of mercy?). At 11:11, however, Paul affirms that those not elected for service on the basis of divine foreknowledge, though they have stumbled, nevertheless will never fall; and at 11:12 and 25 he affirms that the estrangement of the elect and “those who stumble” is a temporary providential arrangement that allows the “full totality” [pleroma] of Jews and Gentiles alike to enter in; and here, finally, he affirms that there is then no actual distinction of vessels of wrath from vessels of mercy: rather, all are bound in sin and all will receive mercy. When we live a life of obedience, we experience his mercy as kindness; when we live a life of disobedience, we experience it as severity (see 11:22). Paul himself calls this a mystery (11:25) and admits that God’s ways are, in just this respect, “inscrutable” and “unsearchable” (11:33), but nothing could be clearer than his own glorious summation of the whole thing in 11:32.
At this point many Christians would probably resort to a freewill defense of hell: “ah, but someone, even if faced with God’s mercy, could still choose to reject God for eternity”…which leads me to give my third and final reason why I have to come reject any idea of an eternal hell as harmful and false. Not many realise how incoherent this idea (often cited with an approbatory gesture towards CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce) really is on classical theism. Indeed, upon only a little philosophical reflection, the supposition that a human will can prevent an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good (etc.) God’s will, especially when any of the Good (e.g. through living a selfless life) that a person who (for whatever reason) rejected or didn’t hear of Jesus in this life might seek would naturally (if unconsciously in their minds) be identical to the Good that is God, makes about as much logical sense as a square circle. If God is defined as he has been classically—the non-contingent source for our existence and persistence in being who is infinite Goodness, Truth, Beauty in essence—I do not see how it is metaphysically possible for one to be finally separated from God (by eternal conscious torment or a final annihilation)…even if one argues that God gives us freewill (which I agree he does)—for true freedom is not (as most modern people assume) spontaneous choice to do whatever but to live according to the Good which our natures are created to be teleologically oriented towards. This is why the Arminian objection that God saving all in the end would be coercive is nonsense. As a quick analogy, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, would you be interfering with his “freedom” by preventing him from doing so? No, you would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness.
Incidentally, this is why I think those who, instead, liken God to a parent who bereaves that their child would choose freely to reject him, even after persistent pleas to accept him and turn away from their evil ways, reduce God to a nonsensical anthropomorphization that basically renders the word God meaningless. I have yet to hear of a coherent philosophical account that makes it plausible, much less compelling, that anyone who knew enough about hell to make a reasoned and responsible choice would actually choose hell: these views require either that God callously accepts the impaired decision of an impaired will, or that He designed some of us to have wills that, even if let out of their chains long enough to make a free decision, would point in the polar opposite direction from Himself. This is truly a limited God, and so not, I argue, the maximally great being he classically has been seen to be.
So how do we solve this dilemma? I propose reminding ourselves of the doctrine of imago dei—which is so often ignored or marginalised in these reactive defenses of received theological traditions (however incoherent and tenuously supported they are)—i.e. we are all created to reflect God’s infinitely good nature (analogically). Yes, we “rebelled” (as represented in the mythological account—by which I don’t necessarily mean ahistorical—of the ‘fall’) and so became in bondage to our sinful will. But it is important to emphasise that whatever fallenness all flesh is heir to is a corruption rather than a default orientation intended by our Creator. As Augustine so beautifully put it in his Meditations, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” But, if that is true, as I said to my Christian fundamentalist interlocutor—i.e. that God crafted the human soul to be oriented even in its fallenness toward home with Himself—one has to satisfactorily answer the question why certain souls would never ultimately find their way home…including, yes, the mosque shooter, Hitler etc. Although the idea of an eternal hell for such murderous, deluded persons “sounds sweet to the victims’ ears” (as my interlocutor also put it), we cannot (at least as Christians) allow the idea of retributive justice overtake the undoubtedly more Christ-like idea of restorative justice. As difficult as it is and as counter-intuitive it seems to the rest of the world who only sees an irredeemable monster, we should, as Jesus did in the story with the woman caught in adultery, empathise with the perpetrator of any crime (however atrocious), because we all, I think, have the potential within our own hearts to do similar evils if given sufficient opportunities (as much as we’d resist admitting it).
Thus I end with a final question to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters: why would a God who, while we are still sinners, loves us all (how could he not since he created us?) by dying for us (Romans 5:8) make some of us in such a way that we would not be attracted to His goodness, preferring a destiny where we’d waste away, all to His own bereavement? This is obviously not perfectly loving, nor is it—for those who like to retort “but God is also just!”—perfectly just. And remember, lastly, that it is Death, not the wayward will of one of His children, that is truly His enemy; He intends to put Death under His feet once and for all, swallowing it up in Life that He may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28); that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess (freely, as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa would add, not out of compulsion) that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).