To Hell With Them? Part 4

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Baptism with Fire and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Resurrection:

“…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:13)

The fires of hell are a reality that cannot be dismissed in any honest reading of the New Testament. However, as I have stated throughout this series on Universal Salvation, the issue in question is what do the New Testament authors mean by hellfire, and how were these teachings received by many of the most venerable theologians in the early church. In later posts I hope to elaborate directly on the Scriptural texts on hell, and how they have been diversely interpreted, and in some cases catastrophically misinterpreted in the history of the church.

One of the most brilliant theological minds in the history of the church is St. Gregory of Nyssa – who along with his brother St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (commonly known as the Cappadocian Fathers) not only defended the doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ, but also gave us a clearer language to articulate these truths that are reflected even today in the most central doctrines of the church. All this to say, St. Gregory’s orthodoxy is beyond dispute, therefore we ought to take his teachings on the matter of Universal Salvation seriously even if, at the end of the day, we disagree. In one of his most important works, On the Resurrection, Gregory sits at the feet of the woman whom he names Teacher, she also happened to be his sister, St. Macrina. In this work they discuss the nature of the soul and the resurrection while Macrina’s own health is failing, and they both mourn the death of their brother Basil.

In one crucial section, Macrina uses an arresting metaphor for a ruined soul’s suffering in the afterlife  by first describing the scene of a family who must drag the mangled corpse of a loved one out from beneath the wreckage of an earthquake. Due to the catastrophic ruins left by the earthquake, even removing the corpse for burial might entail doing more damage to the lifeless body as it is pulled from the debris. As is the broken body, so is the soul that has been wrecked by sinful passions. She then goes on to say this as she describes the soul’s encounter with God –

Such I think is the plight of the soul as well when the Divine force for God’s very love of man, drags that which belongs to him from the ruins of the irrational and material. Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But, while He, for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire. – St. Gregory of Nyssa: On the Resurrection

Nyssa’s argument might seem odd, especially for my fellow Protestants (yes, I am still a Protestant). However, when we see the fires of hell presented to us in the New Testament with a proper understanding of aonian (which is mistranslated as ‘eternal’ when it clearly refers to a specific age, epoch, or duration), much of these theological issues ironed out in the early church snap back into focus. When John the Baptist says, ‘see the lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the cosmos’ [note, the word commonly translated as ‘world’ is cosmos in Greek, this is reflected in David Bentley Hart’s New Testament translation], he means just that – Christ is taking away the sins that have marred his creation in entirety. When Paul speaks of all things in heaven and on earth being summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) he means all things – there will not be one inch, one sub-atomic particle that will be stained by sin when all things are summed up in Christ because evil does not exist in his presence – it must be burned away. So, what we understand to be the fires of hell cannot be anything less than identical with the love of God as it encounters the evils that beset his creatures – yes they will burn, but only to the destruction of the evil, not to the destruction of the soul, which God made both good and for himself.

I could go on, but I don’t want to make these posts any longer than they need to be: for more on this series, see the following posts:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, The Harrowing of Hell, Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was

 

 

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Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was

As I continue with the series of Christian Universalism (apokatastasis), I want to point out this excellent article by Fr. Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Only when we begin to grasp some of the historical reasons why Universalism, which according to credible sources was the majority position in the early church, has been rejected. While the arguments for eternal hell can and are made in good faith, they were also leveraged for the sake of political and religious control. It is a lot easier to keep the population in check if you have control over their eternal destiny.

Eclectic Orthodoxy

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When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the Origenist debate in his letter that was read to the bishops at the formal opening of the council, but the Acts of the council, as preserved in the Latin translation (the original Greek text having been lost), neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the…

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To Hell With Them? – Part 3

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As I continue to work through this series on Christian Universalism, I think it is important to reiterate that the classic doctrine of Universalism (termed in Greek as apokatastasis) as developed by the Church Fathers and later Christians in the broad-stream of orthodoxy (Eastern, Catholic, Protestant) do not deny the existence of hell. Rather, the doctrine simply states that hell is provisional, or of an appropriate age, which ties into the biblical term most often associated with the fire of hell, namely that these fires are aionian (which has been dubiously translated as ‘eternal’). So, this series is intended to urge Christians in the mainstream of the historic strands of the Christian tradition to seriously consider this doctrine. As I have moved to embrace the Universal hope of the restoration of all things, what seems to me to be at stake is the total victory of God in Christ over all evil.

These things said, as I continue to work on some of the summary material most appropriate for a blog, I will continue to post resources. The fact of the matter is I can only provide an introduction to the topic. It will be up to the readers of this series to investigate the topic more fully. The encouragement I will urge my readers with is to not reject this concept off-hand – it is one thing to disagree with arguments that are understood, another thing entirely to dismiss them without understanding their substance.

Today’s post will provide some fantastic youtube interviews and lectures. The interview of Robin Parry is from a Protestant perspective and is probably the most accessible for those who aren’t necessarily theology buffs. However, the interview of Ilaria Ramelli, a Roman Catholic scholar and one of the preeminent experts on Universalism in the early church, and the paper delivered by the Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bently Hart are more thorough and theologically rigorous treatments of the question of Universalism.

Series Posts: Part 1, Part 2, The Harrowing of Hell

 

The Harrowing of Hell

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This post is related to the ‘To Hell With Them? series (Part 1 and Part 2) I am working through. However, I will take a more aesthetic approach here and share a brief but important section of my upcoming novel The Damned May Enter that deals with the Harrowing of Hell. In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ descends to the dead and proclaims the gospel, namely over sin and death and according to some accounts empties Hades of the souls imprisoned there. In this speculative, mythic parable, my storyteller Daniel DeVaux asserts that when Christ descends to Hades he is stepping through time to the end of the Age immediate prior to the final judgement. While this parabolic work doesn’t directly assert Universalism it does hint at it. The setting is at Daniel’s establishment – St. Jude’s Tavern, here is one of Daniel’s many tales that spins for the enjoyment of his friends and patrons:

… Daniel let his guests know that the coffee was finished and that he was ready to tell his tale. He told his interlocutors that he had been re-reading Homer over the past few months alongside his reading of the Cappadocian Fathers from the post-Nicene church. A flash of inspiration came to him while he read and be began working on a story during all the free time he had on the train ride out from Chicago.

Daniel cleared his throat and said, “Forgive the archaic way I wrote it, I suppose I imagined myself as Homer, maybe too much. Anyhow, I call this little story ‘The Harrowing of Hell.’”

__________

            The once murky waters of the River Lethe now ran crimson as they lurched along its banks where a willow tree rose and drooped in the languid air of death’s dark kingdom. The branches of the tree bowed down toward the waters gliding beneath them in a fruitless effort to forget why they should cast deeper shade in a land bound by shadows. Memories of the world above hovered over the winding river valley like an amnesiac mist in the last grey moments of twilight. A silent groan filled the wilderness of Hades. All was overwrought with drab lichen on the ruins of ancient stone towers, cobwebs and gossamers on bare tree limbs caught the ashes falling from the pallid sky. The only thing out of place in the halls of the dead since time immemorial were the muted splashes of a silent, mesmerized multitude crossing the bloody banks at a shallow bend of the Lethe near the horizon. Mournful echoes of a nearby owl punctuated the soundless landscape as Achilles and Hector sat beneath the branches of the willow. Both heroes were listlessly poking at the ground beneath them with their bronze swords as they discussed what had transpired earlier that day.

            Hector glanced at Achilles and returned a blank gaze to the river and said, “My heart is with Troy, dear brother. My soul still pines for the sea-swept winds that blow across the plains of Ilium where the Scamander flows. Though this Carpenter claims to be a King who holds the keys to death and hell, I cannot trust him. If he be God and man as he claims, then he, even more than you or crafty Odysseus, is to blame for the fall of my beloved home because he did not stop it. You may cross the River Lethe that now flows with his blood and have your many sins forgotten, but I have made up my mind. I will remain here in my virtue and savor the sorrow of Troy’s memory. Let God have his city, I have mine. That vanquished Troy lived but once is enough for me.”

            “Brother,” pleaded Achilles, “Have we not heard the echoes about this king for ages among the dead who have joined us? Yet today, at the very end of the age he has descended to us to proclaim his victory. You saw the Lethe turn to a river of his own cleansing blood when his feet touched these waters. All we must do is wade across the Lethe that meanders along these shadowed moors and follow him across the bridge he wrought over the unassailable chasm between us and Elysium. He has given us safe passage over the fiery waters of River Phlegethon that furrows ever deeper into that gorge. You and I watched millennia ago when the righteous souls who stood in Elysium alongside faith’s great Patriarch were snatched out of the underworld. Now we know where they disappeared to! He has made a way for us to lay hold of the same faith, to be numbered among Abraham’s blessed company. Why would you not go?”

            “I was a virtuous man in life, why should I now need the righteousness this Carpenter offers?”

            Achilles spat on the ground near where Hector sat, “Damn your virtue brother! Oh how you have loved it, and how it has destroyed you. I had little virtue in life, many of my days were spent in petulant vanity, but at least I sought immortality. I knew my days on earth could never afford me the glory I longed for. The gates of death are destroyed and the undimmed glory heaven stand open wide before us. Still, you morn for the Scaean gates that time will surely forget. The Trojans, the Myrmidons, and all the Achaeans with them, dead. Yet this Carpenter King, Son of Man and Son of God offers life and you would refuse it.”

“I gave you my answer,” said Hector as his voice fell hollow, “I have my city, let him have his.”

With fury and tears Achilles rose to his feet and grabbed Hector’s breastplate by the openings at the shoulders and ripped the great Trojan to his feet and pinned him to the trunk of the willow, “Through these long ages we have been brothers in blood and death. I sent you here only to follow soon after. All we have known is the sorrow of memory since. Brother, I beg you, come! Come with me, before your foolishness cannot be undone.”

Hector placed his hand on his brother’s golden hair and whispered softly, “I can’t,” then his eyes welled up with tears and anger as he shook and resolutely declared, “I won’t.”

Achilles wept. He tenderly kissed Hector’s forehead and bade him farewell. His love for the Trojan, great as it had grown since death claimed them could not compel him to stay, knowing what and Who lay before him. His feet carried him onward toward the horizon where the last of the host of the dead were wading across the Lethe and traversing the moors toward Hades fiery horizon. As he looked ahead he saw the greater mass of humanity crossing the bridge over the flowing magma of the Phlegethon. He gave one more glance to the lonely souls, Hector’s included that made the bitter choice to remain in Hades even when Heaven itself was opened to them and longed for the age when they would at last be free. As he crossed the crimson waters of the Lethe the pain and sorrow of the life and death that lay behind him were forgotten as he followed the Carpenter King to the light.

___________

Silence filled the room long after Daniel finished his story. Each person present appeared to be lost in thought as they pondered the tale Daniel wove. Hank drew slowly off of his cigar. Father Anselmo sat back in his chair with a cherubic smile drawn across his face. Reverend Jackson scratched at his brow. Jacob’s thoughts swirled in his mind as he began, at least in part, to understand what Daniel meant when he emblazoned the arresting sign above the entrance to his tavern. It occurred to him that to step into St. Jude’s was to take a stroll in Daniel’s mind, all of this aging man’s hopes and a lifetime of his thoughts were poured into his tavern. The place for sinners and saints alike embodied all that was precious to Daniel and Jacob felt the weight of the invitation to such a strange and wonderful place.

“Does this mean that you believe in Purgatory?” asked Father Anselmo as he broke the silence.

“No Father I don’t think so, all I mean by it is that there is always hope, that even the damned may at last enter after all is said and done” said Daniel.

“Even for agnostic hell-raisers?” asked Hank, at last bringing levity to the reflective room.

“Especially for you Henry, my old friend, especially for you.”

“Do you think it’s true?” asked Reverend Jackson.

“I think it’s a parable of sorts,” said Daniel, “Perhaps it points to the truth, but whether it is or isn’t is not for me to decide. Still I trust beyond what I know that all shall be well.”

Jacob remained in silence even after conversation resumed, filled with an ineffable warmth. He thought of the men he fought and died with, the men he sent to the grave for no crime other than the flag they fought for and felt hope in a way he had not before. The grist mill of prolonged combat had reduced his hopes for humanity to a flimsy powder that drifted away on the anarchic winds of war. However, some new and unfamiliar breath swirled about him seeking to find a way inside his hollow chest.

© Jedidiah Paschall

The work is copyrighted, all I ask is that if you share it, please link to this site.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

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I read a great post by Stephen Morrison over at his blog today. The link is below, he has some great quotes from one of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth. Here’s a couple:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside.

And lastly:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him.

 

Source: Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

To Hell With Them? – Part 2

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All shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

 

  • TS Eliot, FOUR QUARTETS – Little Gidding III

(For the 1st entry in this series see: To Hell With Them? – Part 1)

From the outset I must make it clear that what I am arguing for is a Christocentric Universalism that holds that the only means by which anyone experiences final redemption is through the person and work of Jesus Christ in history through his life, death on the cross, and resurrection where he conquers both sin and death. The cross, St. Athanasius (323-378 AD) maintains is Christ’s trophy over the grave, and by extension all evil. As the drama of salvation unfolds in the present age and the coming age, the totality of Christ’s victory over all evil be revealed. This is the fundamental basis for the Universal Hope.

With these things in mind, it is important to underscore the fact that this view on Universal Salvation is not an aberration in church history. David Bentley Hart offers in his New Testament translation, which demonstrates how widespread the belief in Universal Salvation was in the early church:

“Late in the fourth century [300’s AD]… Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, reported that the vast majority of Christians… assumed that ‘hell’ is not an eternal condition, and that the ‘ punishment’ of the age to come would end when the soul had been purified of its sins and thus prepared for union with God.”

Among both lay Christians and some of the finest theological minds that arose in the early centuries after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the belief that all would be saved as the ages of eternity unfold was so widespread that attempts to dismiss this theological position as obscure can only be done through ignorance (often blatant) of the facts.

The reasons why Universalism fell out of favor are complex, and as bound up in the political situation in the late Roman Empire (early Byzantine period) as it was in matters of church authority. Down through history the church has often leveraged the threat of eternal damnation in ways that were either wrong-headed, corrupt, or both. This is not to disparage those who hold to the notion of the eternal conscious punishment of the damned as a matter of principled conscience – this view is also well attested in church history. However, for much of church history Christians held to both views and this was no impediment to the unity of the church. While I will continue to elaborate on this view – the nature of blogging and my own time constraints will limit this discussion to only the briefest summary of the view and simple arguments for its validity. I will do my best to link to important sources as I continue through this series, but I leave it to the reader to research the matter on a deeper level in order to draw stronger conclusions one way or the other.

To Hell With Them? – Part I

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Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, to sins of will,

Defects of doubt and taints of blood;

 

That nothing walks with aimless feet,

That not one life shall be destroy’d,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete…

– In Memoriam, LIV – Lord Alfred Tennyson

 

Raymen’s dad was a neighborhood gangster who went by the name of Batman, and his mother was evidently a prostitute. I worked with Raymen and his sisters in a rough Puerto Rican neighborhood on the West-Side of Chicago for a Christian ministry that provided education on Saturday afternoons. He was a good kid, but there was a crisp fall afternoon when Raymen was having a particularly tough time behaving, so I had to pull him aside to redirect him. What should have been a routine conversation with a hyperactive boy turned into a life changing event for me, though to be sure it was simply another day in Raymen’s life. As I attempted to bring Raymen aside to talk to him, I saw the terror on his face as he proceeded to run away from like his safety depended on a quick escape. It was obvious that he was an abused kid, no normal child reacts with terror in the face of mild discipline. I spent the better part of an hour trying to find Raymen on the litter-strewn streets and alleys of his neighborhood, only to find him behind a dumpster with his head in his hands hiding. He asked if he was still in trouble, and I just pulled the poor kid in for a hug.

By the time I returned to the venue where we were running the afternoon program, Batman was waiting for Raymen and his daughters. He was a massive man, probably 6’2″ and 280 pounds and clearly high, though on what I did not know. His first words when I came in the entrance was, “where is that kid, I am going to beat him!” Evidently Batman was called by the ministry directors when he went missing, and he thought his threats would impress us with his abilities to deal with the situation, as if beating a seven year old boy was the appropriate actions for this ordeal. So, we were faced with the dilemma – do we call CPS and have Raymen and his sisters removed from the situation, or do we keep that household in tact since it was the only modicum of stability these kids knew? At the end of the day, we did nothing – I’m not sure it was the right choice, but given the alternatives it was the best of bad choices, or so we reasoned.

These sort of situations were common-place, as anyone who does work with inner-city youth will attest. I was a tutor at a boy’s home, again on the West-Side. One of my students was the son of a prostitute who lived in a car, and would turn tricks in the back-seat while this boy slept in the front. Another kid, a first-grader at the time, was relocated to this state-run home because his father would take quarters out of boiling water and place them in this child’s hands. What was most painful about these situations is the realization that I might be able to positively impact some of the kids I worked with, but the cold facts were that most of these kids didn’t stand a fighting chance. These boys would probably end up as products of their environments, in jails, gangs, or worse. They stood a good chance becoming like the monsters that shaped them and there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about it.

Raymen, and the host of other kids I encountered put me on the horns of an existential crisis. Were kids like these forever lost? Born into a brokenness they did not cause and a guilt they could not ever hope to bear? My suburbanite evangelical upbringing taught me that those who couldn’t demonstrate that at some point in their lives they made a “decision for Jesus” they couldn’t punch their passport into heaven. Only the fires of perdition awaited them. If this was true, the logical consequence (which David Bentley Hart has so cogently pointed out) is that humans don’t need saving from the effects of sin, they need to be saved from God himself.

This To Hell With Them series is going to explore the guts of one the most perplexing questions of heaven and hell and why I think that the universal hope for the eventual salvation of all is a logical consequence of a loving God who creates all things in Christ and will sum up all things in himself in the ages to come. Obviously this is a difficult topic, and it will doubtlessly be controversial, but there are sound biblical and theological reasons why I think that the concept of a Christocentric Universalism is not something that a Christian should dismiss off-hand as unbiblical or wishy-washy. It has been held and articulated by some of the finest Christian theologians in the early church, and has been a important though marginal discussion that the church has grappled with down through the present age. I will maintain that nothing, and no-one that God creates will ultimately be wasted, and that though the fires of hell are real (and to be avoided at all costs) these are not separate from the love of God, and they will in the end restore and repair all of God’s creation that will radiate eternally in Pentecostal Fire.

I will be arguing for this position from a broadly Protestant framework, and explaining why this gives strength and courage to the church to proclaim the gospel of Christ without shame or reservation – and should not be a hinderance to the call of the church to the world to repent and believe in Christ. The ultimate victory of Christ is bound up in the simple, unchanging love of God, and over the ages nothing will impede it. The Eastern Orthodox church has a legacy of allowing liberty for a range of teachings on heaven and hell, so the Universalist position while not held by a majority is not an impediment to Christian unity within their tradition. Fr. Adian Kimel’s blog Eclectic Orthodoxy (to which I will be referring regularly) is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in exploring this matter further:

Readings in Universalism

I also do deal with the question of the Universal Hope in my forthcoming novel The Damned May Enter.