Central to Hart’s thinking is that the idea of an eternal hell where sinners will be tortured forever without hope of redemption is inconsistent with the very nature of God and with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hart does not argue against an idea that sinners will face judgment, but he holds to the notion that justice itself demands that punishment serve some redeeming purpose and that God’s love does not take away hope eternally. Hart notes if heaven is really the place that individuals get to by their own efforts, then the logic of heaven turns out to be the ethos of hell.
…if we allow the possibility that even so much as a single soul might slip away unmourned into everlasting misery, the ethos of heaven turns out to be “every soul for itself”—which is also, curiously enough, precisely the ethos of hell. (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2078-2080)
Certainly, some described hell as that place where no one can see the face of anyone else, where each person suffers because they are so isolated and alienated from all other people because it is the place in which there is no love for others. Hart argues that ideas of an eternal hell come from Hellenic philosophy more than from Judaism:
In reality, the idea of eternal perdition for the wickedest of souls, in a place of unending suffering, appears to have been a Greek notion—mythological, religious, and philosophical—before it ever took (shallow) root in Jewish thought; it is certainly also an idea of only the most dubious “scriptural” authenticity. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2219-2221)
Some of the great thinkers of the early church struggled with the righteousness of an eternal hell:
It was precisely the absence of the banality of an eternal hell in Origen’s thought that allowed him to believe that all of life and all of creation have a meaning, one immeasurably richer and more ravishing than some tawdry final division between the winners and losers of the game of history: the fullness of reality that will be achieved when all being is perfectly united to God, and God is all in all. (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2230-2233)
Hart posits St Augustine and the Western theologians who followed him as being the root cause for the acceptance of an eternal hell in Christian thought as it fit their theology and logic.
If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. There is only the hideous truth of a monstrous deity presiding over an evil world whose very existence is an act of cruelty, meaninglessly embellished with the additional narrative detail—almost parodic in its triviality—of the arbitrary salvation of a few select souls who are not even in any special sense deserving of the privilege (else grace were not grace, and absolute power were not absolute power). This is in fact the ghastliest possible “dysangel,” the direst tidings ever visited on a world already too much burdened by unmerited suffering. (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2307-2314)
Many Christians hold to and even seem to relish that God created humans knowing they would burn in hell eternally or even created some for no other reason than that they would burn eternally in hell. Hart finds this hard to accept that people would hold to these views especially if they really read the New Testament or knew anything about God. Yet, some seem to find comfort in an order which requires some or many to spend an eternity in hell after a brief sojourn on a rather unhappy earth. Even when Eve and Adam sinned against God opening the entire human race to the effects of the Fall, the consequence which God allows is simply death. Genesis 2 and 3 make no mention of hell at all, let alone an eternal hell of torture for sinners. One would think if anyone deserves being sent to hell, it would be Adam and Eve for their sin dooms the entire human race and all of the cosmos to death. The effect of their sin has far more consequences than say those of Hitler since their sin effects all humankind. Yet, in the Orthodox Tradition, Adam and Eve, who never properly repent in Scripture, are shown as being resurrected from the dead in Orthodox icons of the harrowing of hell. Their resurrection from the dead is proclaimed every Pascha in the Orthodox Church as our salvation. There is no eternal hell for them, so why do we so readily believe there is an eternal hell for those born into the world of the fall who never have all of the advantages that Adam and Eve had? [see also my blog series which begins with Hell No?]
The man who wrote under the pseudonym of St. Dionysius the Areopagite offers us the following story to help us understand Christ’s attitude toward death and hell, and what we as His disciples should think about hell and Christ’s saving us from it:
“One day I was in Crete. The holy man Carpus welcomed me to his home. … he told me that one day he was exasperated by the infidelity of a man … (which)… had turned away from faith in God one of the members of his church… Carpus in his goodness should have been duty bound to pray for both of them. … Instead, Carpus for the first time in his life felt grieved and indignant. It was in this state of mind that he went to bed and fell asleep. In the middle of the night, at the hour when he was in the habit of waking of his own accord to sing the praises of God, he arose, still prey to unspiritual irritation, saying to himself that is was not right to let someone live . . . and he begged God to hurl his inexorable thunderbolt to put an end at a single stroke to the life of two unbelievers. At that moment, he said, the house where he was suddenly seemed to rock this way and that, then to split in two from the roof down the middle. A vivid flame appeared which came down on him; the sky was rent; Jesus revealed himself in the midst of a multitude of angels…
Carpus lifted his eyes and stood astonished at what he saw. Looking down, he told me, he watched the ground itself opening to make a black yawning abyss, and in front of him on the edge of the abyss the two men he had cursed, trembling and gradually losing their foothold. From the bottom of the abyss he saw snakes crawling up and wrapping themselves round the men’s feet trying their utmost to drag them down. The men seemed to be on the point of succumbing, partly despite themselves, partly quite willingly, since there were being assaulted and at the same time seduced by the Evil One. Carpus was overjoyed, he told me, as he contemplated the spectacle beneath him. Forgetting the vision above (Jesus), he was growing impatient and indignant that the unbelievers had not yet succumbed. Several times he joined his efforts to those of the snakes…
In the end he lifted his eyes and saw again in the sky the same vision as shortly before. But this time Jesus, moving with compassion, came down to the unbelievers and stretched out a hand to help them… then he said to Carpus, ‘Your hand is already raised. It is I whom you should strike, for here I am to suffer again for the salvation of humanity…moreover you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God… ”
Olivier Clement comments on the story:
“Carpus’s vision convinces him that to wish to damn anyone is to attack Christ himself, to annul his Passion and so to compel him to undergo it again; similarly it is to throw oneself, by one’s own actions, in the abyss.” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pp 300-301)
We see in this that some saints really did reject an idea of an eternal hell. So a story in the desert fathers offers the same idea:
“One day a soldier asked an elder whether God grants pardon to sinners. The elder answered, ‘Tell me, my good friend, if your cloak is torn do you throw it away?’ The soldier replied, ‘No. I mend it and continue to use it.’ The elder concluded, ‘If you take good care of your cloak, will not God be merciful to his own image?’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
God in his love punishes, not to take revenge, far from it. He seeks the restoration of his own image and does not prolong his anger. (Issac of Nineveh)” (Quoted in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pg. 299)
It is the same lesson that the Prophet Jonah, the Prophet of the resurrection of Christ, had to learn about his enemies, the Ninevites:
And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
Olivier Clement comments:
“The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the mediaeval West. What we find rather in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing.” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 298)
Even God’s ‘punishment’ is for the healing of humanity, not for its eternal torture.
Next: Is Free Will the Curse?