Hell: It’s No Place to Go

XCEnthroned2This 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 DeathTrampledof 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 ChrysostomON 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 DeathTrampled2is 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.  

Do not be afraid little flock
Do not be afraid little flock

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.

Next blog:  Christ, Not Hell, Has the Final Say About Sinners

Orthodox Hymns On Hell

In my series of blogs reflecting on hell  I presented some comments about hell from the Scriptures, some Patristic Fathers and from a few current Orthodox Theologians.      The first blog in the series was Hell, no?    The immediate previous blog to this one was Contemporary Orthodox Theologians on Hell

PaschaThis is just an addendum.  Below are a few Orthodox Resurrection Hymns sung during the regular Octoechos cycle on Sundays throughout the year.  These hymns would be very familiar to most Orthodox.  Take note of their attitude toward hell.  Hell is not something to be feared, nor welcomed.   These hymns portray Christ as slaying hell, delivering us from hell, shattering the gates of hell, capturing hell, binding hell and destroying its powers.   Additionally the hymns portray hell fearing Christ.  

Orthodox Resurrection hymns portray hells powers as being destroyed by Christ.  They show hell being emptied of all its people because of Christ: of Christ entering into hell and defeating it.  They certainly do not portay Christ as using hell for his purposes, nor of Christ sending people to hell – he came to empty it and destroy it, not fill it with sinners.

When we Orthodox think about hell, we need to think what it is that we prayerfully sing and proclaim in church each Sunday when we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ from the dead.   Christ came to save people from sin, death and hell, not hand them over to these enemies of God.

Resurrection Tropar [Tone 2]:   When thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead! And when from the depths Thou didst raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!

Resurrection Kontak [Tone 2]:   Hell became afraid, O Almighty Savior, seeing the miracle of Thy Resurrection fromPascha2 the tomb! The dead arose! Creation, with Adam, beheld this and rejoiced with Thee! And the world, O my Savior, praises Thee forever!

Resurrection Tropar [Tone 3]:   Let the heavens rejoice! Let the earth be glad! For the Lord has shown strength with His arm! He has trampled down death by death! He has become the first born of the dead! He has delivered us from the depths of hell, and has granted the world great mercy!

Resurrection Tropar [Tone 4]:   My Savior and Redeemer as God rose from the tomb and delivered the earthborn from their chains. He has shattered the gates of hell, and as Master, he has risen on the third day!

Resurrection Kontak [Tone 5]:   Thou didst descend into hell, O my Savior, shattering its gates as almighty; resurrecting the dead as Creator, and destroying the sting of death. Thou hast delivered Adam from the curse, O Lover of Man, and we all cry to Thee: “O Lord, save us!”

Resurrection Tropar [Tone 6]:    The angelic powers were at Thy tomb; the guards became as dead men. Mary stood by Thy grave, seeking Thy most pure Body. Thou didst capture hell, not being tempted by it. Thou didst come to the Virgin, granting life. O Lord who didst rise from the dead, glory to Thee!

Resurrection Kontak [Tone 7]:    The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive, for Christ descended, shattering and destroying its powers! Hell is bound, while the prophets rejoice and cry: The Savior has come to those in faith! Enter, you faithful, into the Resurrection!

Next Blog:  Hell: It’s No Place to Go