The concepts of heaven and hell have a long history, but not as long as many think. For example, there isn’t sufficient reason to believe that any of the authors of the Old Testament had a concept of hell, or heaven for that matter. The assumption seemed to be that everyone went to the same place. Hellenistic Judaism would develop some different ideas on the concept, but still none completely like the modern notion of hell. The Egyptian concept of the afterlife developed in The Book of the Dead did have a concept of a judgment after death, but there were ways to get around it, such as learning spells to cheat the final test, among other charms and such that could guarantee one passage into the afterlife, as opposed to being eaten by a devourer of souls, which was not really a sort of hell. The Egyptian afterlife however was not any sort of heaven, it was more a continuation of what life was basically like before death. Old Testament authors often straightforwardly stated that everyone goes to Sheol when they die, the just and the unjust. Even the Greeks had only Hades, simply the place of the dead. They also had Tartarus, but this was hardly anything like the hell in the modern conception, as it was mainly a place for deities who were imprisoned, primarily the prison of the titans. 2 Peter makes mention of Tartarus as well, where the angels spoken of in the book of Enoch were imprisoned, similar to the Greek myth of the titans. Post-exilic Hellenistic Judaism did develop further ideas about the afterlife, but there wasn’t entire agreement there, as the New Testament demonstrates there was intense debate over the idea of resurrection, among other things. Hell, the concept of a judgment after death that entails some kind of negative consequences, as opposed to entering into some sort of heaven, or place of rest, an issuing of justice after death, is in many ways a uniquely Christian idea, one rife with controversy from the outset.
With the coming of Christ, and the announcement of a final judgment, the idea of hell was then the place of the damned, the place where those who had received the final judgment after death, and were deemed unworthy of entrance into the Kingdom, would then suffer outside of it. What exactly this all means is in all reality up for debate. The church in her days of unity had never really laid any exhaustive understanding of the nature of hell. It was however, for all intents and purposes, unanimously agreed upon that hell was in fact real, and that the wicked would suffer there. Questions as to the nature and duration of that suffering were in fact debated in the early church and beyond, and there was never any sort of ecumenical decree on the issue. There was the fifth ecumenical council, which was thought to have rejected a distorted interpretation of Origen’s universalism, but these anathema’s of Origenism have been effectively demonstrated to not actually represent what Origen believed about a universal restoration, and it is generally agreed that the council did not actually agree on this rejection of Origenism, but it was likely added after the council had met, by Emperor Justinian, who liked to play theologian. Thus the fact remains, no ecumenical council has made a determination on the nature and duration of hell.
My goal here, building on the work of ancient theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and a number more, as well as some modern theologians such as David Bentley Hart and patristics historian Ilaria Ramelli, is to demonstrate that the modern concept of hell is in fact contrary to the nature of God, and to discuss a plausible concept of hell more fitting to the nature of the God of scripture as revealed in Christ. The theologians and scholars I am drawing from do not necessarily endorse the exact argument I am going to lay out, but in large respect they are in agreement on the basic principle of the true possibility, in fact, near certainty, that the nature of God and the message of the gospel entails that all things will be reconciled to God whether in this life or the next.
I often discuss God as being infinite in nature. What this means is that God, if God is good, is infinite goodness. To get to the point quickly, it is unimaginable that any act performed by an infinite good can have as its final end a complete privation of goodness. It is not logically impossible that an infinite goodness can perform an act that is finite in the temporal sense, and so is ever increasing in goodness towards the infinite goodness from which it comes. However, for a complete privation, a complete absence of goodness to be the final outcome of a thing who has as its source infinite goodness, this does seem logically impossible. If God is infinite goodness, then it is necessarily the case that everything God does be a reflection of that infinite goodness from which it comes, since nothing that an infinite goodness does can be lacking in goodness so as to fall into a permanent state of evil, a permanent subtraction of the goodness which made it. In a temporal sense, a thing created by infinite goodness can display degrees of goodness, ever moving towards a display of the entirety of the goodness from which it comes. It is necessarily the case that if the source of all being is infinite goodness, then being must be a reflection of the infinite goodness in which it participates.
This does not preclude the possibility of some temporary evil, since creation is finite in its nature, it is not infinite as is God, which means it is in a temporal sense unfinished, it is ever moving towards completion, towards the infinite goodness from which it springs. What the fact of God’s infinite goodness does preclude is the possibility of any part of creation remaining in some final state of privation, some definite state of evil that is sealed and unalterable. Nothing God does can eternally remain completely unlike God. There is no equal and opposite force to God’s infinite goodness, there is no evil that can remain as such with equal power as God remains good. Only God is infinite, and therefore only God is immutable.
This being the case, that only God is immutable, and all that God does must be a reflection of who God is, it is necessary that, if there is a judgment known as hell, it cannot be the final state of those who endure it. If evil were the final state of those who endure hell, this would mean they are themselves immutable, an equal and opposite force to God’s goodness, incapable of change, and so incapable of being overcome by the infinite goodness of God. However, necessary to the nature of finite existence is change. Only the immutable are resistant to change, and only the infinite is immutable.
Some might say to this that God has chosen that they remain in this state in order to display the goodness of his justice. This invariably paints a picture of an evil god, not a good one. What this logically implies is that necessary to God’s self-revelation is the existence of an eternal evil, and if an eternal evil is necessary to God’s self-revelation then evil is necessary to God. If God cannot properly disclose his nature without the existence of some eternal evil state, then it is God who maintains the existence of evil in order that he would maintain his own self-revelation. In other words, necessary to the act of creation would be the permanent existence of evil, which means that there would be some part of the creation which does not and will not ever reflect the goodness of the creator. Some would say they are the means by which God’s wrath is demonstrated, but the fact remains, that if being a recipient of God’s wrath is their final end, then they by definition are created things which will not ever in themselves reflect anything of the creator, they are simply recipients of the apparent revelatory wrath of God, but they are not themselves revelatory of God at all. This would mean that some part of creation would in its essence completely fail to reflect anything of the goodness of God, and so all that would remain for them is to be tools that in themselves demonstrate nothing of God, except in their receiving God’s wrath against them. This still doesn’t logically workout, since this would mean that some part of the creation, some part of the overflow of God’s being as a donation to finite existence, would remain eternally evil, which would necessarily imply some evil in God, since the creation must be a reflection of who God is, thus any part of creation that remains eternally evil would imply that there is evil in God. Another way to put it is that those things which will never pass away are only those things which are of God, all other things will come to an end, and if evil has no end, then evil will never pass away, and thus evil would be of God.
Someone could simply say that it is a mystery of how evil can have no end, yet there be no evil in God. This is simply to refuse to address the question. It is an opting out of the debate in order to maintain a particular understanding of hell. The fact remains however, that even if God is good in spite of the fact that evil somehow endures on for eternity in hell, this would constitute a loss for God. This would mean that God who created all things to reflect his own goodness, failed to do so. God would have lost some portion of creation, some portion of finite existence that is continually upheld by God’s own will, to evil, to a complete photo negative of his own character. How this could possibly be reconciled with the good news given in the New Testament scriptures, one could only guess.
The ongoing existence of evil, even if imprisoned in hell, is no good news. How it constitutes good news to announce that some will be saved while a good many will be cast into a lake of fire to be tormented for all of eternity, one could only guess. Who could ever think it good news that they could save themselves, yet a great many they have known and loved will suffer an eternal death that never gives way to a final breath? Could anyone truly be glad to have their own soul saved, yet the guarantee of their child’s unending torment? How would they even be the same person, if in this life they would suffer hell for their child, yet in the next life their child’s suffering in hell will bring them some sort of joy?
Popular among Calvinists is the idea that God has predestined some to be the eternal inhabitants of hell in order that they would serve to be the receptacles of wrath, which would in some way be a benefit to those who are saved. As David Bentley Hart described this notion, those who are supposedly predestined to eternity in hell could aptly be described as the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” These would be those chosen from eternity to suffer in hell, slain from before the beginning, in order to bring about some benefit to those who would be saved. Thus, the damned are a predetermined sacrifice for the sake of the saved. They are chosen as pure demonstration of sovereign power, to no merit of their own or lack thereof, to suffer eternal damnation for the sake of some other’s eternal bliss. Only in such circles could the idea of non-elect infants suffering eternity in hell ever be a topic for debate, as it often was and still is an issue of contention in the world of Calvinism, although Calvin himself seemed to be unclear on the issue. Ultimately, under this model, it would seem as if the damned are owed some measure of gratitude, since their seat in hell serves to the good of heaven.
What about those scriptural texts that describe hell as eternal? The first and easy answer to that is that often times throughout prophetic scriptures hyperbole was used, and was used often. For example, Old Testament prophecies that were actually about the destruction of Jerusalem would describe it as the end of the world, sky falling and all. This was obviously exaggerated. Yet, hyperbole is likely not what is happening in the New Testament verses that address the topic of hell. What is happening in modern readings of those verses is actually a misinterpretation of a word often interpreted as meaning “eternal,” yet for the native Greek speakers of the early church, this word would have been interpreted in a variety of ways, such as “age”, and indefinite period of time, or “otherworldly. The Greek terms often interpreted as “eternal” in the New Testament are the two terms aionios and aidios. While aidios most certainly refers to a concept of the eternal, aionios is more a reference to an indefinite period of time or an “age.” In the references to hell in the New Testament, the word used is aionios. Early church theologians who were native Greek speakers, such as Origen, did not hesitate to interpret aionios as meaning “age” or some indefinite period of time, rather than as meaning an eternal duration. Thus even in Augustine’s day, Augustine himself could say that a great many Christians of that time were in fact universalists, and they were so without being unfaithful to the text of scripture. Augustine however, not knowing Greek, would have read the Latin translation of the New Testament, which rendered both aionios and aidios as the same Latin word “aeternus,” which actually does mean eternal. In Western Christianity, this Latin reading would become dominant, and so for much of Western Christian history, hell was seen as a place of eternal torment.
Suffice it to say, the concept of hell as being a place of unending torment, with no possibility for change in those enduring the suffering of hell, does not present itself with a very strong case. Or, the notion that hell is not an eternal place of suffering, but rather a place of rehabilitation in which the damned always have the potential of being overcome by the love and goodness of God, is a notion with at the least equally strong support.
Some suggestions for further reading on this topic are listed below. These would also constitute my sources for what I have written above.
- Augustine from Supporter to Opposer of Universal Restoration By Ilaria Ramelli
2. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart
3. God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo by David Bentley Hart
4. Saint Origen by David Bentley Hart