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The same man who wrote this blissfully mournful setting of “Hear my prayer, O Lord” also wrote an annoying little ditty which begins, “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly in vain, / Since I am myself my own fever and pain.” Despite the musical love present in the former composition and lacking in the latter, the words of the latter are expressive enough: love, whether sacred or profane, is a fever whose cause isn’t incidental, its cause is you – who you are and what you love.
That might be a strange way to begin any theological musing, no matter how speculative. But bear with me. Judaism and Christianity are sister religions, springing from the same source. To put it in the driest of secular terms, Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish teacher. Not all Jews believe in an afterlife, but among those who do, this description of its punishments that @susanquinn shared with me seems fairly standard. This essay of sweeping scope by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan also contains several illuminating passages. Both writings describe Gehenom, hell, as a cleansing, either of the “dirt” of our sins (like socks getting “punished” in a washing machine) or of the “static and jamming” that reduces our awareness of our sins’ rightful shame. In neither description are sinners “sent to a different place” from the righteous. Rather, all souls go to the same “place”, and what makes it heavenly or hellish is the state of each soul experiencing it – how “dirty” it is, how much it still has to be ashamed of. As Peter Kreeft, a once-Calvinist Catholic theologian, put it, “In reality, the damned are in the same place as the saved—in reality! But they hate it; it is their Hell. The saved love it, and it is their Heaven.” Still, descriptions of hell as cleansing – as purification which educates the soul for God’s presence – ought to remind Christians more of Catholics’ conception of purgatory than the Christian descriptions of hell most of us are familiar with.
Hell is, after all, described in the New Testament as the place where “their worms do not die, and the fire is never quenched.” “Repent or perish,” we are admonished. And this perishing isn’t just physical death or blissful oblivion – no – but agonizing wormy flames of flaming judgment – forever! Because “the fire is never quenched”, those worms remain stubbornly alive. That same passage continues, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” So the wicked – scratch that, make that everyone – will be salted with fire. Fire is meant to season all of us, through which fire some of us, presumably, are in fact redeemed. This fire, moreover, is the fire of love:
A “choice of pyre or pyre”, redemption “from fire by fire” makes it sound as if we’re dealing with two sources of ignition here, one heavenly and one infernal, and that’s often how we imagine it. Nonetheless, it’s common among Christian theologians to doubt that this division is literal. Love burns. Christian mystics seem to agree on that. Love’s the fever you can’t evade because who you are and what you love is its source. The only way to break the fever is to repent of the love. Only, if the God calling us to repentance is the God Who Is Love, we can’t be called to repent of all love, just unworthy love. That leaves saints and sinners alike in an afterlife where we all burn. Quite apocalyptic, as befits the apocalyptic religion Christianity in fact is. Kreeft again:
Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are made of the love of God!… If God could stop loving the damned, Hell would cease to be pure torture. If the sun could stop shining, lovers of the dark would no longer be tortured by it. But the sun could sooner cease to shine than God cease to be God…The lovelessness of the damned blinds them to the light of glory in which they stand, the glory of God’s fire.
“For He is like a refiner’s fire.” It’s not a bad end for the mystics among us, who yearn to burn unendingly with God’s love. It’s a bad end for our dross, though, and for unwillingness to love since unwanted love is a torment.
It’s conventional Western Christian wisdom – though I’ve never been sure it had solid scriptural basis – that our willingness to love God is fixed at physical death. To die unwillingly to love God is to remain forever unwilling to love God, hence in eternal torment. Of course, we can ask, “How unwilling is unwilling enough to count?” and so forth, but many Christians simply find it “obvious” that postmortem repentance is impossible.
That has not been obvious to all Christians, though. Not even to all Christians who are venerated as saints in the West. Among the saints venerated in the West as well as the East, we may count Gregory of Nyssa:
Some of us are purged of evil in this life, some are cured of it through fire in the after-life, some have not had the experience of good and evil in life here. God proposes for everyone a participation in the goods in Himself which Scripture says: ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the minds of man’ [1 Corinthians 2:9]… The different degrees of virtue or vice in our life will be revealed in our participating more quickly or more slowly in the blessedness we hope for.
Isaac of Nineveh, venerated as a saint in the East but less well-known in the West, also considered hell (Gehenna) purgatorial rather than eternal. “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love,” he wrote, and added that “Love’s chastisement is for correction, but it does not aim at retribution… The aim of His design is the correction of men.” “[W]ith Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity. And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna.” Perhaps most intriguingly, Isaac remarked, “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you” and applied this logic to Gehenna: Gehenna is not an eternal condemnation for failure to repent before earthly death in order to satiate God’s “justice”, but is a means of redeeming souls.
Much of the usual Christian case for the eternity of hell hinges on the New Testament’s usage of the Greek word aiónios, the adjective form of aion, meaning “age” in the sense of epoch or era, and received into English as “eon”. Aiónios thus means epochal, age-enduring (Young’s Literal Translation translates it “age-enduring”), equivalent to the Hebrew olam. And yet it’s a longstanding Christian convention to translate aiónios as “eternal” when alluding to eschatological punishment, even if it’s not translated as “eternal” otherwise, and even though the Greek of late antiquity had a word for “eternal”: aidiois. Indeed, the biblical passages most typically cited to prove the eternity of hell rely on translating aiónios as “eternal”.
It’s possible Plato is to blame for all this:
[I]n stark contrast to its usage in the LXX and New Testament, Plato contrasts aion with time (chronos). Time, for Plato, is but a “moveable image of aionos,” and that of which time is an image is the unchanging, timeless realm of ideas, which transcends the ever-changing world we experience and perceive.
Given how much Christian scholars over the ages have valued Plato’s writings, it makes sense that they’d believe Plato’s usage of aiónios as timeless, eternal, unchanging, must be the best usage, even as they had no trouble translating aion and aiónios according to ordinary Greek usage where context clearly demanded it. The problem with eschatological speculation is that context doesn’t clearly demand it – cannot clearly demand much of anything, really. Age-enduring could be a literary way of saying “eternal”, after all; the possibility cannot be ruled out – see, for example, Matthew 25:46 (though what happens if a soul became righteous through the punishment?). And as Kallistos Ware noted, if age-enduring is not meant to mean “eternal”, why couldn’t the New Testament have been clearer on this point? Ware also notes that, along with the “hellfire” verses, we find other verses suggested total reconciliation: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ will all be made alive.” “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” “That God may be all in all.”
This leaves the nature of Christians’ postmortem relationship to the refiner’s fire ambiguous. If we accept that it is written that some find this fire endless, hopeless torment, then that by itself would call the possibility of postmortem repentance into question: why would rational creatures permit themselves to be tormented for all eternity if they were still capable of mending their ways? Yet merely asking that question cannot foreclose the possibility that the torment may be repentance leading to heaven.
Perhaps it’s wisest not to speculate. Whether eternal or not, “agonizing wormy flames of flaming judgment” don’t sound fun. Especially if they’re “age-enduring” – which may not be eternal, but certainly doesn’t sound short! Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Orthodox Church answers the question “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” with a cautious “yes”, emphasizing the speculative nature of such questions. Conservative Christians often seem to worry that answering “yes” to such a question discourages proper fear of God’s judgment, though, as if an age of torment during which wayward souls were painstakingly refined simply isn’t enough.
At some point, it’s hard not to ask, though, who is the threat of eternal damnation for?
It’s not for doubters since doubters’ doubts give them no reason to believe the threat in the first place. No, it’s only a threat if you already believe eternal damnation is a real possibility. Christians who feel compelled to believe that their religion teaches eternal damnation often admit that they find the belief crushing, that they only make themselves believe out of obedience. Belief in something less for its own sake than to demonstrate a virtue like obedience could uncharitably be called “virtue signaling”.
More charitably – and we should be more charitable – Christians know they’re expected to make sacrifices for their faith, and sacrificing the trust that an all-loving God who came to redeem all will redeem all is an obvious – and poignant – sacrifice to make: it’s a shard of reproach and despair embedded in the heart of the hope Christianity offers, a means of preserving the tragic vision in the face of a hope that “seems too good to be true”.
While I maintain it’s not necessary for a Christian to believe in eternal postmortem punishment in order to preserve a proper sense of the tragic, I do understand the tragic appeal of believing that God’s love is a fire damning some to eternal torment.
And yet as much as we may fear the eternal torment of this fire, Christians look forward to being burnt. “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.” That “try” means “try by fire”, also translated as “melt” or “burn”. Throughout Scripture, we meet God as fire – a consuming fire, as a fire that burns without consuming, as a refiner’s fire… Isaiah is unusually blessed for having been set upon by seraphs, literally “burning ones” (seraph is used most often in the Old Testament to describe venomous snakes – and more fantastically, dragons – presumably because their venom “burns”), who singe him with burning coal, thus taking away his sin. Pascal had his Night of Fire. And so on.
One St Simeon recorded,
Thou who art a Fire, consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator; but rather pass through all my body parts, into all my joints, my reins [mind], my heart. Burn thou the thorns of all my transgressions, cleanse my soul, and hallow thou my thoughts… chasten me, purify me, and control me; adorn me, teach me, and enlighten me. that from me, thy habitation, through the entrance of thy Communion, every evil deed and every passion may flee as from fire,
as a post-Communion prayer of thanksgiving. In this prayer, fire consumes the unworthy, but specifically the unworthy in each person, concentrating and intensifying what is worthy. Such prayers are commonplace, traditional, not esoteric: it takes no more than basic biblical literacy and a fervent heart to make them.
Christians teach that Jesus came to set the world on fire: the God-Man, whose will is all-redeeming love, wills all to be set ablaze, not just the wicked.
We attempt from Love’s presence to fly in vain, for God wills that we’re our own fever and pain.
Image is from John Newton’s hymn, “I asked the Lord that I might Grow”, the writer of “Amazing Grace”. “I asked the Lord that I might Grow” was written during a time of trial in Newton’s life, when his collaborator on the Olney Hymns Collection, William Cowper, went mad.Published in