This blog is a post script to the series on hell. The previous blog was Orthodox Hymns on Hell.
Writing the blog series on the Christian understanding of hell caused me to reflect on the fact that despite the emphasis the threat of hell has in much modern Christian preaching or the prominence the threat of hell has in modern end time Christian writings (like the “left behind” literature), hell as a place where God keeps sinners alive just to torture them is not the emphases of our Scriptures. The term “hell” is not part of the early Jewish Scriptures – for example it is never mentioned in the Adam and Eve story of the “fall” of humankind nor anywhere in Genesis or the Torah. Relatively speaking the terms “hell” or “Hades” occurs very seldom in the New Testament with the Evangelists Mark and John and the Apostle Paul never using the term hell, which after all was not a Jewish term.
This leads to asking the question do the New Testament writers believe in the idea of Apokatastasis – that in the end everyone will be saved? Is the power of God’s love ultimately greater than Satan, evil, death, sin, human rejection of God? The Scriptures surely do present God as being omnipotent, and they do not present Satan or evil as being God’s equal and opposite, not even close. Neither Satan nor death nor hell are eternal – none of them can resist the power of God.
However, the Christian Scriptures do clearly speak about a final judgment, a winnowing or separation of those who loved Christ from those who didn’t, of the righteous from the wicked. John in his Gospel even speaks of the unbeliever being “condemned” but does not spell out what that implies for he does not use the words hell or Hades and thus presents us a Jesus who does not teach those ideas either. Certainly the Christian Scriptures do present the notion of universal salvation – what Christ did He did for all of humanity – not just for Jews or Christians. God is the Lord of the universe, not just the Lord of believers. Christians should be careful not to read too much into what the Judgment Day will be like for the New Testament does use a language of metaphor and imagery to convey to us ideas of hell. Hell is not the ultimate goal God has for his fallen creatures; the entire story of the Gospels is about Christ overcoming those powers associated with hell – sin, death, demons and evil.
Discerning what the balance will be on Judgment Day between God’s love, mercy and forgiveness on the one hand and His justice, holiness and judgment on the other is for the Christian a heart wrenching experience which requires the Wisdom of God to discern. What will triumph in the end? I am reminded of imagery Chrysostom once used to contrast arrogance and humility:
To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots. For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility. The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance. So humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcome the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.” (St. John Chrysostom, ON THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, Homily 5)
Does God’s love triumph over justice? Or is justice an expression of God’s love? Part of the faith of Jews and Christians is that God as Lord of the universe is capable and free to judge the world as He chooses. God is not bound by karma – some universal rule of justice which binds all things even limiting God’s decisions and power. In the Western monotheistic tradition, God is able to forgive, grant pardon, and resurrect even the worst of sinners. He doesn’t exist just to enforce an impersonal law of justice. God is gracious and free to act even overcoming karma and the effects of sin on humanity. That is the notion of grace which when comprehended can so overwhelm the heart of those who think purely rationally and who see justice as triumphing over all in the end.
For the Christian perhaps the thing to consider is what should we hope for on Judgment day – justice or mercy?
If God is only just, and justice demands that even one sinner be cast into hell for eternity, won’t that mean that all sinners must therefore be justly punished, since as the Scriptures claim all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)? Pure justice demands punishment for all – equally and fairly.
On the other hand, if God is merciful, and even the worst of sinners can be forgiven, won’t that mean that the rest of us can be forgiven as well? Praying for the salvation of the world is what we do liturgically. We are warned of judgment and justice, but we pray and hope that God will show mercy on sinners, including ourselves. “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?” (1 Peter 4:17-18, NRSV)
We do sing endlessly in Church, “Lord, have mercy.” We do not respond to every prayer and petition by singing, “God be just” or “Judge us, O Lord.” Jesus Christ did not come into the world to condemn sinners but rather to save them (John 3:17). God could have condemned sinners quite well thank you without having His Son become incarnate and dying miserably on the cross. The coming of Christ into the world is Good News – Gospel. At Pascha we don’t proclaim, “Christ is risen and all sinners are condemned to hell.” Our message is that the risen Christ triumphs over hell in order to save humanity. He came to fill hell with Himself, not to fill it with the souls of those who don’t believe.