You have heard, perhaps, a horrible scream in the dead of night. You may have heard the last shriek of a drowning man before he went down into his watery grave. You may have been shocked in passing a madhouse, to hear the wild shout of a madman…But listen now—listen to the tremendous, the horrible uproar of millions and millions and millions of tormented creatures mad with the fury of hell. Oh, the screams of fear, the groanings of horror, the yells of rage, the cries of pain, the shouts of agony, the shrieks of despair of millions on millions…Little child, it is better to cry one tear of repentance now than to cry millions of tears in hell. But what is that dreadful sickening smell?
—Rev. John Furniss1
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about eternal damnation: the fires of Hell. Why? Two reasons, really. First, for 2,000 years the Christian Orthodox Church (“Eastern Orthodoxy”) has not believed in “once saved always saved.” While we believe in the grace and mercy of God, we do not presume to know our eternal destination or that of any other; rather, we are encouraged to focus on working out our own salvation with God’s help. Second, and relatedly, we are encouraged to think of the “consequences” given in the Bible as only applying to ourselves…to me. After all, I am the chief of sinners. We witness to the world and pray for all; however, the eternal destiny of me and all others is ultimately up to God.
So, from that context, I’ve been thinking about the various images of Hell. The one above is obviously terrifying. Others express the terror in other ways, such as “people will be tied back-to-back, never seeing the face of another.” But that, it seems to me, is just a slow descent into eternal madness.
Here is a thought I recently had: Certainly anyone who actually believes in eternal torment—eon upon eon of unending agony and screaming that is beyond anything we can conceive—also doesn’t believe they might actually be there one day. How could one live in such fear of what may come?
To manage my own fear, I have tried a couple of things that may sound familiar: I have assured myself that having said the “sinner’s prayer” I am no longer under threat of eternal agony; I have also worked to tip the moral scale in my favor just in case God judges like America’s Lady Justice; and, I have compared myself with that “other guy” to find assurance that I’m not so bad…a “nice” guy. Still…
But, really, though, if I seriously believe that God may indeed pour out His eternal wrath on me, then I should be doing more, working frenetically(!), in fact, to ensure I don’t end up in screaming torment while the clock never moves.
And more, if I really love you, my neighbor, as Jesus says, then I should be willing to do anything for you…or to you…to ensure you don’t end up there. In the name of my true love for you, then, I should be willing to do anything , including horribly torturing you now, if necessary, until you accept Jesus, rather than allow you to experience eternal torture.
Imagine with me that we have “made it” and are in Heaven. What about those we love who didn’t make it? Jesus knew His friends upon His resurrection. Besides, it is the people we have known who make us who we are. So, it seems unlikely that God will perform a “blessed lobotomy” on us so that we forget those we love. Won’t that spoil our bliss?
Continuing, then, imagine we are in Heaven, and somehow looking over the railing at those suffering in Hell. Perhaps we can satisfy ourselves that “they” had their chance and that “they” are getting what they deserve (I pray I don’t get what I so rightly deserve!). One way that this has been defended over the centuries is exampled by this quote from Puritan preacher Johnathon Edwards:
The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude in heaven.
Edwards, and others before and since, have believed that seeing the agony of those who “chose poorly” or were “predestined for God’s wrath” would actually increase the joy of those in Paradise with God.
Approaching it differently, however, George MacDonald wrote this:
Who, in the midst of the golden harps and the white wings, knowing that one of his kind, one miserable brother in the old-world-time when men were taught to love their neighbor as themselves , was howling unheeded far below in the vaults of creation, who, I say, would not feel the need that he must arise, that he had no choice, that, as awful as it was, he must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and darkness and the fire, traveling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother?—who, I mean, that had the mind of Christ, that had the love of the Father?3
Perhaps you can see why this has been on my mind. In light of God Who “so loved the world” as to send His Son, Jesus, to be born, live, and die for the sake of the world so that death and sin might be defeated, it is hard for me to reconcile this with the belief that most of humanity (Matt 7:13-14) will spend eternity screaming in tortured agony. MacDonald’s version, not Edwards’ seems Christ-like.
I am in no way suggesting that someone, say a Hitler, be given a “free pass to Paradise” after death. Life comes with consequences. However, to imagine that the consequence for turning from God in this “short” life is an eternal existence of agony seems counter to the love of God. Perhaps there may well be some age of unknown length for the resurrected unrepentant to have a change of heart. After all, God is infinite, not evil. God, we read in the Scriptures, will destroy sin, not relegate it to a corner of creation.
Of course I can see from my own life and my life’s experience that the threat of “consequences” is necessary to correct me and restore me to the right path. However, the threat of eternal punishment sounds like retributive punishment, since there is no possibility of restoration for the one punished. In fact, the idea of eternal, retributive punishment may do more harm than good. This, from a priest who has heard a lifetime of confessions:
The dogma of hell, except in the rarest of cases, did no moral good. It never affected the right persons. It tortured innocent young women and virtuous boys. It appealed to the lowest motives and the lowest characters. It never, except in the rarest instances, deterred from the commission of sin. It caused unceasing mental and moral difficulties…It always influenced the wrong people, and in the wrong way. It caused infidelity to some, temptation to others, and misery without virtue to most.
—Rev Rudolph Suffield (1873)4
I may well be wrong in my thinking. One day I may find that God’s love for all mankind does include some kind of eternal existence in the darkness with teeth gnashing–Satan and the unrepentant continuing to exist in some corner of creation. I pray not because I am the chief of all sinners and my repentance is so poor. Please don’t wish eternal punishment on anyone, even your worst enemy. Don’t say, “I hope there’s a special place in Hell for that person” as I once used to say. Rather, pray for everyone, forgive everyone for everything. Repent for everything and everyone. To hope another goes to “Hell” is to risk your own salvation; after all, we only love God as much as we love others. (1John 2:8-11)
The possibility of an alternate view of life after death–a larger hope–has been around a very, very long time. Summarizing the Orthodox Church’s general doctrine, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev writes:
The [Orthodox Church’s] teaching on [Christ’s] descent into Hades, as set forth in 1 Peter 3:18-21, however, brings an entirely new perspective into our understanding of the mystery of salvation. The death sentence passed by God does not mean that human beings are deprived of hopeful salvation because, failing to turn to God during their lifetimes, people could turn to Him in the afterlife, having heard Christ’s preaching in hell.5
Whether or not all followed Christ out of Hades is not held doctrinally by the Orthodox Church.6
If you are interested in reading more on a hopeful view of life after death, you can start with this list—click here. In light of the fact that there is good reason—argued for by many saints and scholars over the centuries—to have hope for the eventual salvation of all after death, why would anybody fight for the view of eternal punishment even for a single human?
We should have but one thought: that all should be saved.
—St. Silouan the Athonite
I’ll close with this story I recently read (paraphrased, as I cannot remember the source):
Imagine all of the “saved”—either by God’s election or man’s freewill choice, whichever you prefer—gathered expectantly before the gates of Heaven, all eagerly awaiting admittance. Amid the joy, the singing, the fist-bumping, the congratulations, and the tears, a rumor begins to spread, slowly at first, but quickly gathering speed. “Hey, I just heard that everyone who ever lived will be admitted!” Song turns to shouting: “No way would God allow that!”…“Not fair!”…”I worked hard for this!”…”Who do they think they are!”…”Where are their years of sacrifice like I had to endure!”…”Keep ‘em out, this is our place; we love God!” The joyous gathering becomes an angry mob at the injustice of it. And, in an instant, the mob finds itself in hellfire. And that was the Last Judgment of God.
1 Furniss, John. The Sight of Hell. Ch XI-X. A book written for young children. Published 1874.
2 Quoted in Allin, Thomas. Christ Triumphant. 45. From Edwards’ 1739 sermon entitled, “The Eternity of Hell Torments.”
3 MacDonald, George. Unspoken Sermons, Series I: “Love Thy Neighbor.” Quoted in Hart, David Bentley, That All Shall Be Saved. 156.
4 Allin, Thomas. Christ Triumphant. 7.
5 Alfeyev, Hilerion. Christ the Conquerer of Hell. 212.
6 Christ the Conquerer of Hell. Epilogue.