Considering Hell and Confronting Sin

What is the Christian doctrine of Hell? How many people will be in Hell? Will they be there forever? Is it possible to repent once in Hell? Do you have to be Christian to be saved from Hell? Does it matter if you die as an infant before being baptized? Does it matter if you never hear the Gospel? Does it matter if your exposure to the Gospel is only cursory? Do you have to have a detailed understanding of the metaphysical nature of God? This episode surveys scripture and the history of Christian tradition on the subject.

Introduction

My experience of the Christian Gospel is primarily joyful. My favorite of the psalms, one that reflects my own feelings, is the final psalm, number 150:

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” (Psalm 150:6)

I also find the Gospel inexhaustibly rich and fascinating to contemplate. The best metaphor I’ve found for this is from Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), who compared contemplation of God to a looking at a fountain:

“The person who has drawn near to the fountain will marvel at that limitless supply of water that ever gushes out and flows from it, yet he would not say that he has seen all of the water. (For how can he see the water that is still concealed in earth’s bosom? The fact is that even if he remains for a long time at the gushing spring, he is always just beginning to contemplate the water, for the water never stops in its everlasting flow nor does it ever cease beginning to gush forth.) In the same way, the person who looks toward that divine and infinite Beauty glimpses something that is always being discovered as more novel and more surprising than what has already been grasped, and for that reason she marvels at that which is always being manifested, but she never comes to a halt in her desire to see, since what she looks forward to is in every possible way more splendid and more divine than what she has seen.” (Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 11)

It’s the joy and the awe that motivates my worship and contemplation of God. But I’ve recently come to appreciate another aspect of Christian experience: the seriousness of sin. I’ve come to appreciate this in the process of preparing for this episode. The motivation behind this episode was the problem of Hell. Or rather, one of the problems of Hell. There are at least two problems of Hell. The first is the possibility of actually going there. The second is the problem of believing in such an objectionable doctrine. The idea of Hell quite offensive. There are many reasons to object to the idea and reject it. Of course, if Hell is real, rejecting the idea of Hell won’t do much good. But there’s a bit of a catch-22: Hell is horrible so it is important to believe in it and respond to it, but because the idea of Hell is so horrible it keeps people from believing in it.

Is there a way to get over that hurdle? To use a kind of oxymoron, is there anything redemptive about Hell? In the process of preparing for this episode I’ve come more to think that there is; that Hell need not be just a source of embarrassment for Christians in the twenty-first century. And this goes back to the seriousness of sin. Sin is not pleasant to think about but it is very real and very serious. Sin is destructive of everything we are as living souls. The process of moving toward God and becoming more holy is a process of moving away from sin. So that in a very real way the joy and awe of Christian experience is consistent with rejection of sin. It reminds me of the lyrics to Paul Phillip Bliss’s hymn “More Holiness Give Me”:

“More holiness give me,

More sorrow for sin,

More joy in his service,
More purpose in prayer.”

Both joy and sorrow are consistent with ways of holiness.

What then is the Christian doctrine of Hell? This isn’t simple to answer because both scripture and Christian tradition have ideas that can lead in some different directions. How many people will be in Hell? Will they be there forever? Is it possible to repent once in Hell? Do you have to be Christian to be saved from Hell? Does it matter if you die as an infant before being baptized? Does it matter if you never hear the Gospel? Does it matter if your exposure to the Gospel is only cursory? Do you have to have a detailed understanding of the metaphysical nature of God? Different passages of scriptures can be understood to answer these questions in different ways. And different theologians have said different things in the course of Christian history.

The process of preparing for this episode was mostly exploratory, or at least it became more so as I got further into it. I had to abandon starting with any kind of conclusion for which I might have tried to gather supporting evidence. That just wouldn’t work. There was too much evidence to contradict any one conclusion. Instead I had to cast a pretty wide net and gather up from a broad range of perspectives. At least I tried as best I could. In what follows I don’t want so much to give answers to these questions as to provide resources to answer them. Some of the theologians I’ll quote here are well known. Others are pretty obscure. And I think there’s value in gathering all their ideas into one spot to consider together.

Even if I don’t have some final answer to the questions pertaining to the doctrine of Hell I can at least talk about the ways I’ve responded to this study, to the effect it’s had on me. Like I said, I’ve come to appreciate more the seriousness of sin and the importance of repentance. At the same time as I was studying the scriptures and theologians on this topic I also read Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I’ll also quote in what follows. I really appreciated the middle section of the poem; the Purgatorio. In Dante’s poem both Hell and Purgatory are populated by sinners, even people who have committed the same sins. In both Hell and in Purgatory sinners are subjected to suffering. But while the sinners in Hell remain self-justifying, self-centered, and unrepentant, the sinners in Purgatory are repentant. For the sinners in Purgatory their suffering is purgative; it’s cleansing, reforming, and healing. It’s painful but it’s also transformative. And isn’t that true to experience? Transformation is painful, even if it’s a satisfying pain, a joyful pain.

I don’t know the answers to all the questions about Hell. But I know that sin is serious and that I want to forsake it. I know that’s a difficult and long process. But the hunger and thirst for holiness and the joy that comes with it also motivates me to forsake sin.

So now I’ll turn to the sources, starting with scripture.


Scripture

I’ll focus here on New Testament writings, mostly because there’s not much about Hell, as we’re talking about it here, in the Old Testament. The Old Testament Sheol doesn’t really overlap too much with it and is more of an underworld where the dead reside. The oldest New Testament writings are Paul’s letters but we actually read the most about Hell in sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. As we go through these passages look for the things that Jesus picks as being worthy of torment in Hell.

Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, Raca! shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, You fool! shall be in danger of hell fire.”

The word used here is Gehenna, which is an actual place but also used to refer to a place of burning and torment.

Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

One thing to note about the passages read so far is that in each case the thing that merits Hell has something to do with sinful actions: giving insult, lust, wealth, sumptuous living. Nothing yet about choosing the wrong religion. This next passage even undermines the value of professing the right religion.

Matthew 5:21-23

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

Invoking the Lord and doing things in his name is not sufficient. Just actions are what matter. We see the other side of this in another passage in which workers of justice do not even realize that they are serving Christ.

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

What’s interesting about this passage is that those righteous people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and come to those in prison don’t even know that they are serving Christ. Maybe they’re Christians. Maybe they aren’t. But regardless Christ considers them his own because of their ways of holiness.

The passages quoted so far don’t speak much to the importance of believing the right things or belonging to the right religion. So let’s look at some of those.

Mark 16:15-16

“And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

This is one version of what is called the Great Commission. We find this in Matthew chapter 28 as well, though the Matthew version doesn’t say anything about condemnation. I consider this verse canonical but it’s worth noting that it is not found in the oldest manuscripts so may have been added later. For what it’s worth.

Here are a few passages from John on believing in the Son and his words:

John 12:48

“He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.”

John 3:18

“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

John 3:36

“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Those are quite straightforward and don’t require much comment. But it’s worth remarking that the idea that believing in Christ is required for salvation and that not believing in Christ leads to damnation isn’t coming out of nowhere. These passages certainly lend support to it.

I’ll also quote some passages from Paul. One significant passage is in Romans 9, about Jacob and Esau:

Romans 9:10-24

“When Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’ What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

This may be one of the most historically contended passages in the Bible. I don’t want to wade too far into all of that at the moment. But I at least want to introduce the subject. It may be the case that we just aren’t able to understand the justifications for God’s actions that seem unjust to us, because of our limited understanding. And there seems to be something of that idea here: “O man, who are you to reply against God?” We are just the vessels that God has created. It’s not our place to question the maker of the vessels. Still, I’m not sure that that’s the extent of it. Paul seems to speculate about reasons, even after saying that we aren’t authorized to make judgment of God. He speculates: “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known… that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy… not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” Paul seems to be avoiding definitive affirmations here. But he speculates that there’s a grand plan at work.

Romans 11:28-33

“Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

Paul sees God using people in different ways for a grand plan of mercy, even “mercy on all”. God commits people to disobedience that he might later have mercy, even, again, “on all”. Everything is ultimately directed toward mercy, even if there’s disobedience and wrath along the way. Or at least that’s one way of reading it.

Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles, had some interesting ways of correlating the religion of the Jews and the Gospel of Christ to things that Gentiles already believed. In his letter the Romans he said:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)

Even without the revealed Law, given through Moses, people still know many of the basic moral truths. Murderers aren’t without responsibility just because no one ever said to them explicitly that murder is immoral. There are things that are evident, as Paul says, “by the things that are made”. The world around us, in both the natural and human aspects of it, has order and regularity from which people understand basic moral principles. One theological term that has been used for this is “general revelation”, things that God has revealed by just creating the world.

Paul said something similar to the Athenians in a quite creative way, even appropriating Greek literature in the process. On the Areopagus he said to them:

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:22-28)

This is quite similar to something that Justin Martyr said later; that many people are practically Christians without even knowing it. They follow the Logos, the order that governs all things. The Stoics, for example, even called it Logos. Daoists call it dao. Hindus call in Brahman. John the Evangelist declared that this Logos is Christ, even if to others he is “The Unknown God”.

A few scriptures that lend themselves to very expansive and optimistic expectations about salvation and its reach:

John 12:32

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”

Ephesians 1:9-10

“having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”

1 Timothy 2:3-4

“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

There are certainly other scriptures that are relevant to the topic but I’ll leave it at that for now and move onto writings that come after scripture in the history of the Christian Tradition.

Christian Tradition

The other important source to look to for understanding Christian doctrine is Christian tradition. The benefit of tradition is that we don’t have to start from scratch as it were with each generation. Christians have been thinking, writing, and praying about the Gospel for many centuries. They’ve been corresponding and often debating with each other about the doctrines and through the process have worked through many of the questions that arise in scripture and Christian practice.

In what follows I’d like to share several quotations, starting with the early church fathers, through the middle ages, early modernity, and ending with the present day. Although I prefer tightly-crafted analysis to an encyclopedic catalogue I think there’s value in just collecting these quotations in one place to be able to hear their words directly. The idea here is to give a survey and a sense for the kinds of things Christians have been saying about Hell and damnation over the centuries. There are many common themes they all share but there are also some important differences of opinion between these writers. Rather than try to harmonize everything I’d like to just put it all out there. This is necessarily only a selection but I’ve tried to make it representative. And I’ve made an effort to share quotes that I even disagree with, or especially quotes that I disagree with, because I think it’s important to start with an accurate understanding of the tradition before deciding how to respond to it.

I’ll start with the second century A.D., the generation just after the age of the Apostles.

Ignatius of Antioch
died c. 108/140 AD

Ignatius of Antioch was especially influential in the early Church because he was so prolific. He was imprisoned and ultimately martyred. As he was led to his martyrdom, knowing of his forthcoming fate, he wrote to multiple church communities along the way. One of the issues he addressed in his letters was schism. In touching on this topic we see his understanding of the importance of the Church for salvation.

“Be not deceived, my brethren: If anyone follows a maker of schism, he does not inherit the kingdom of God; if anyone walks in strange doctrine, he has no part in the passion. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3–4:1).

Of note here is that Ignatius makes a point about correct teaching and belief. It is important not to walk in strange doctrine, i.e. heresy. Such do not inherit the kingdom of God and have no part in the passion of Christ.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp
155/157

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is the earliest work in a genre of “martyr acts”. Martyrdom was an extremely important part of Christian religion in the first few centuries prior to Constantine. Christians viewed the martyrs, like Ignatius and Polycarp, as the consummate exemplars of Christian life, following in the pattern of Jesus Christ himself. This is important to bear in mind as we see in these documents what to our sensibilities seems like an unhealthy focus on extreme violence, particularly in their images of Hell. But it’s important to remember that this kind of violence was part of their world. Being a Christian meant being open to suffering extreme violence in the form of torture, degradation, public humiliation, and death.

“Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortues, and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire. With the eyes of their heart they look up to the good things which are reserved for those who persevere, things which neither has ear heard nor eye seen nor has the heart of man conceived: but to them, no longer men but already angles, a glimpse of these things was granted by the Lord.” (2, 3)

Thinking about the eternal and unquenchable fires of Hell has not only moved people, through fear, to repent of their sins. It has also motivated martyrs and confessors to find the strength and resolve to accomplish superhuman acts of bravery and suffering for the sake of their faith. They could bear the fires of torture and martyrdom because they would be received into eternal life and joy instead of eternal hell and fire.

Justin Martyr
100-165

Justin Martyr is interesting because he was a Hellenistic philosopher prior to becoming a Christian. Because of that he brought a philosophical perspective to his theology that also made him something of a bridge between Hellenisitc philosophy and Christianity. One important concept common to both philosophies like neoplatonism and stoicism and Christianity is the logos. For philosophers the logos is the ultimate rational order underlying all things. For Christians the Logos is Christ himself.

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes [John 1:9]. Those, therefore, who lived according to reason [logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them. . . . Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason [logos] were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason [logos], whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason [logos] are Christians. Such as these can be confident and unafraid” (First Apology 46).

This is an interesting view to see written in the second century A.D. It seems quite modern and even sounds like some of the things we’ll see later in the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth century. It’s this idea that some of the truths found in their fullness in Christianity are also available in other traditions, which is a rather ecumenical idea. Still, something that we will see with even many of these theologians who seem more “open” and “inclusive” in their outlook –the kinds that more liberal Christians would like to quote– is that they are still just as firm in their hatred of sin and their passionate calls to repentance from it.

“More than all other men, we are your helpers and allies in maintaining peace; for it is our position that it is no more possible for the evil-doer, the avaricious and the treacherous, to hide from God, than it is for the virtuous; and that every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments.” (First Apology, 12)

Irenaeus
130-202

Irenaeus of Lyon is most well-known for his monumental work, Against Heresies. He’s actually an important source for information about various forms of Christianity in the early church, because he wrote about them. Before the discovery of many Gnostic texts in Nag Hammadi he was the only source for many of these forms of Christianity. We can certainly expect for Irenaeus, as one who dedicated so much of his life to the refutation of heresy, to believe that orthodoxy, right belief was quite important. The following quotations are taken from his work, Against Heresies:

“In the Church God has placed apostles, prophets, teachers, and every other working of the Spirit, of whom none of those are sharers who do not conform to the Church, but who defraud themselves of life by an evil mind and even worse way of acting. Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Against Heresies 3:24:1).

“[The spiritual man] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For they can bring about no ‘reformation’ of enough importance to compensate for the evil arising from their schism” (Against Heresies 4:33:7–8).

Tertullian
155 – 220

“But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending; and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility. Even the philosophers knew the difference between ordinary and secret fire. There is a great difference between that which serves man’s needs and that which is seen in the judgment of God, whether it casts thunderbolts from heaven or belches from the earth through mountain peaks; for it does not consume what it burns, but while it destroys it also repairs.” (Apology 48, 12)

This is a common idea I find in the Church Fathers. There’s a detailed interest in the nature of Hell fire and its regenerative power. Very much like the Myth of Prometheus, whose liver was devoured daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated overnight and consumed again the next day.

The interest in the nature of fire and its pains takes a few forms. For many of these theologians it’s only punitive and not redemptive. But for others it is both punitive and redemptive.

“Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this… Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians!” (Apology 50, 12)

“If your are inclined to draw back from confession, consider in your heart the hell which confession extinguishes from you, and imagine first the magnitude of the penalty, so that you will not hesitate about making use of the remedy… Therefore, when you know that after the initial support of the Lord’s Baptism there is still in confession a second reserve against hell, why do you desert your salvation? Why do you hesitate to approach what you know will heal you?” (Repentance, 12, 1)

Origen of Alexandria
(184 – 253)

“Let no one, then be persuaded otherwise, nor let anyone deceive himself: outside this house, that is outside the Church, no one is saved. For if anyone go outside he shall be guilty of his own death.” (Homilies on Josue, 3, 5)

Origen was one of the most insightful and ambitious of the early Church Fathers. Exceedingly prolific and knowledgeable of scripture, Hebrew, and philosophy. He was orthodox relative to his contemporaries but since he proceeded many of the councils that worked out orthodox positions on many topics he sometimes proposed ideas that were later rejected. One idea Origen is quite known for is apocatastasis, restitution, the belief that everyone – including the damned in hell and the devil – will ultimately be saved.

“The last enemy, moreover, who is called death, is said on this account to be destroyed, that there may not be anything left of a mournful kind when death does not exist, nor anything that is adverse when there is no enemy. The destruction of the last enemy, indeed, is to be understood, not as if its substance, which was formed by God, is to perish, but because its mind and hostile will, which came not from God, but from itself, are to be destroyed. Its destruction, therefore, will not be its non-existence, but its ceasing to be an enemy, and (to be) death. For nothing is impossible to the Omnipotent, nor is anything incapable of restoration to its Creator: for He made all things that they might exist, and those things which were made for existence cannot cease to be.” (On First Principles III, 6, 6)

Like Justin Martyr, Origen also believed that Christian truths were also available in other forms outside of Christianity itself.

“I do not know how it is, that after the foolish remarks which he has made upon the subject which we have just been discussing, he should add the following, that ‘God does not desire to make himself known for his own sake, but because he wishes to bestow upon us the knowledge of himself for the sake of our salvation, in order that those who accept it may become virtuous and be saved, while those who do not accept may be shown to be wicked and be punished.’ And yet, after making such a statement, he raises a new objection, saying: ‘After so long a period of time, then, did God now bethink himself of making men live righteous lives, but neglect to do so before?’ To which we answer, that there never was a time when God did not wish to make men live righteous lives; but He continually evinced His care for the improvement of the rational animal, by affording him occasions for the exercise of virtue. For in every generation the wisdom of God, passing into those souls which it ascertains to be holy, converts them into friends and prophets of God. And there may be found in the sacred book (the names of) those who in each generation were holy, and were recipients of the Divine Spirit, and who strove to convert their contemporaries so far as in their power.” (Against Celsus 4:7)

Clement of Alexandria
150-215

“Before the coming of the Lord, philosophy was necessary for justification to the Greeks; now it is useful for piety . . . for it brought the Greeks to Christ as the law did the Hebrews” (Miscellanies 1:5).

Another example of the idea that philosophy has also served as an avenue to piety toward God.

Cyprian of Carthage
210-258

Cyprian of Carthage is especially relevant to this topic because he coined the phrase “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”, “outside the Church there is no salvation”. It’s interesting that what became such a historically significant phrase was first written as a parenthetical:

“But if not even the baptism of a public confession and blood can profit a heretic to salvation, because there is no salvation out of the Church, how much less shall it be of advantage to him, if in a hiding-place and a cave of robbers, stained with the contagion of adulterous water, he has not only not put off his old sins, but rather heaped up still newer and greater ones!” (Letters, 72, 21)

Some theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger later Pope Benedict XVI, have even proposed that Cyprian’s comments here were very specific to the case of heretics and that he was not expressing a theory on the eternal fate of all baptized and unbaptized persons. Nevertheless, the idea is quite influential in the history of the Christian tradition.

Cyprian also had a strong view of the eternity of Hell and, like others of his day, contrasted the torments of Hell with the suffering of the martyrs and of persecution.

“An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there by any way in which the torments can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in infinite agonies… The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life.” (To Demetrian, 24)

“Oh, what a day that will be, and how great when it comes, dearest brethren! When the Lord begins to survey His people and to recognize by examining with divine knowledge the merits of each individual! To cast into hell evildoers, and to condemn our persecutors to the eternal fire and punishing flame! And indeed, to present to us the reward of faith and devotion!” (Letter of Cyprian to the People of Thibar, 58, 10)

Lactantius
250 – 325

“The Holy Writings teach us, however, that the impious are to be given punishments. Because they committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, so that in their bodies they can make expiation. Yet, it will not be that flesh which God put upon man. It will be similar to the earthly flesh, but indestructible and lasting forever, so that it will be able to hold together under tortue and under eternal fire, the nature of which is different from the common fire we use for the necessities of life, and which is extinguished unless it is nourished by fuel of some material kind. That divine fire, however, lives forever of its own accord and keeps strong without any nutriment. Neither does it have any smoke mixed in it. It is pure and liquid, and fluid like water. Neither is it driven upward by some force, as our fire is, which, because of the taint of the earthly body by which it is held, is compelled to leap forth along with the intermingled smoke and to fly up into the sky with a tremulous movement. The same divine fire, then by one and the same force and power, will both consume the wicked and re-create them; and as much as it takes away from their bodies, that much also will it replace, while it will be for itself its own supply of eternal food. This fact the poets carried over to the vulture of Tityus. Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which constantly regain their substance, it will only burn and inflict with a sense of pain.” (The Divine Institutions, 7, 21, 1)

Here’s another example of this interest in the nature of hellfire and its regenerative power. Lactantius even makes reference to Greek myth with Tityus who, like Prometheus, was punished by having his liver eaten daily and having it regenerate overnight.

Basil the Great
330 – 379

“It is one of the artifices of the devil, that many men, as if forgetting these and other such statements and utterances of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment, so that they can sin the more boldly. If, however, there were going to be an end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be an end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose that there will be an end to eternal punishment? The qualification of ‘eternal’ is ascribed equally to both of them. ‘For these are going,’ He says, ‘into eternal punishment; the just, however, into eternal life.’” (Rules Briefly Treated, 267)

This is a common idea in the early church, that the word “eternal” should be applied consistently to both punishment and to life.

Gregory of Nyssa
335 – 395

Gregory of Nyssa is another theologian who, like Origen, is understood by many to have taught universal salvation. There is some dispute about the exact nature of his beliefs on that subject. But there are certainly writings that point in that direction or something like it.

“His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last — some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire, others having in their life here been unconscious equally of good and of evil — to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.” (On the Soul and the Resurrection)

“If a man distinguished in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. And if he have inclined to the irrational pressure of the passion, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterwards in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice, and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire.” (Sermon on the Dead)

“The Adversary himself will not doubt that what took place [in the Incarnation] was both just and salutary, if it be that he is to attain to the enjoyment of its benefit. Those who are cut and cauterized for the sake of a cure are angry with those who are curing them, and they wince in pain at the incision. But if a cure is effected by these means, and the pain of the cauterizing pass away, they are grateful to those who have worked this cure in them. In this same matter, when, after periods of time, the evil in our nature, which now is mixed with it and has coalesced with it, is expelled from it, and when those now lying prostrate in wickedness have been restored to their primordial condition, all creation will give thanks in one voice, those who have been punished in purgation as well as those who from the beginning had no need of purgation.” (The Great Catechism, 26)

What’s interesting about Gregory’s view, whether or not it is universalist, is that however many do end up being saved it is not without cost and trial. Sin needs to be purged. He calls it healing by fiery. A fascinating idea that we’ll also see in our day with Pope Benedict XVI.

And as with many of the other early theologians Gregoy was quite interested in the nature of this fire.

“The life of torment allotted to sinners is in no way equivalent to anything that torments the sense here. If one or the other of those torments is named in terms of something well known here, there is still no small difference. When you hear the word fire, you have been taught to understand something else than the fire that we know of, because of that fire’s having a quality which our fire has not; for that fire is never quenched, whereas experience has discovered many ways of quenching our fire. There is a great difference between fire that can be quenched and fire that is unquenchable.” (The Great Catechism, 40)

“The doorkeepers of the [heavenly] kingdom are careful and they do not play games. They see the soul bearing the marks of her banishment… Then the miserable soul, accusing herself severely of her own thoughtlessness, and howling and wailing and lamenting, remains in that sullen place, cast away as if in a corner, while the incessant and inconsolable wailing takes vengeance forever.” (Against Those Who Resent Corrections)

John Chrysostom
347 – 407

“That we are required only to know that God exists, and not to meddle needlessly into His essence, hear what Paul has to say: ‘He that is coming to God must believe that God exists.’ (Hebrew 11:6) And again the Prophet, accusing someone of impiety, does not accuse him of not knowing what God is but of not knowing that God is. ‘For,’ he states, ‘the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God!’” (Psalm 13:1) (Against the Anomoians, 5, 5)

This quote from Chrysostom stood out to me because one issue that’s come up in discussions about Hell is how detailed a person’s understanding of doctrine needs to be, especially of highly technical philosophical matters like the metaphysics of God’s nature. God’s nature is something I find fascinating to study and I find topics like transcendence, atemporality, aseity, and ontology quite interesting. But is this kind of understanding essential in mortality?

Chrysostom says it’s more important to know that God is than to know what God is. One issue with that though is whether an affirmation that God is without any detail about what God is lacks content and meaning. I think that’s an important point. However, I think what Chrysostom is getting at is less about propositional knowledge than about relational knowledge. It’s not just knowing about God but knowing God. And how does a person know God? In Christianity a person knows God through the Church community (the “body of Christ”), by loving other human beings (1 John 4:20-21), through prayer, and through other religious practices.

Jerome
342/347 – 420

“If all rational creatures are equal, and by their own free will are, in view of their virtues or of their vices, either raised up to the heights or plunged down to the depths, and after the lengthy passage of infinite ages there will be a restitution of all things and but a single dignity for all the soldiers, how far apart will a virgin be from a whore? What difference between the Mother of the Lord and–it is impious even to say it–the victims of public licentiousness? Will Gabriel and the devil be the same? The Apostles and the demons the same? The Prophets and pseudo-prophets the same? Martyrs and their persecutors the same?”

Augustine
354 – 430

Augustine of Hippo took a very sharp stance on this topic. I’m kind of an Augustine apologist. I really like Augustine and I want to defend him from his detractors, especially when they evaluate him unfairly. So even though I don’t assent to everything he said in what follows I try to read it with an open mind and with charity, critiquing out of nothing but respect.

“Whoever is separated from this Catholic Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ, no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living, shall not have life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” (Letters 141:5)

“A man cannot have salvation, except in the Catholic Church.” (To The People of Caesarea, 6)

“How can eternal punishment be taken to mean a fire of long duration, and eternal life be believed to be without end, when in the very same place and in one and the same sentence Christ spoke of both together: ‘Those shall go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal?’ If both are eternal, certainly it must be understood either that both are of long duration but with an end, or both are perpetual and without end. For they are related as being equal: on the one hand, eternal punishment, and on the other eternal life. But to say in this one and the same sense, eternal life will be without end and eternal punishment will have an end, is quite absurd.” (The City of God, 21, 23)

Another example where, as with Basil the Great, there’s this insistence that the word “eternal” be used in the same way for punishment and for life.

“The soul is so connected to this body that it submits to the greatest pains and departs; for the very structure of our members and vital parts is so infirm that it is unable to sustain the force which is brought to bear by great and extreme pain. But in the life to come the soul will be connected in such a way to the body that the bond between them will be dissolved by no length of time nor broken by any pain… Death will be eternal when the soul will not be able to possess God and live, nor to die and escape the pains of the body. The first death drives the soul from the body against her will; the second death holds the soul in the body against her will.” (The City of God, 21, 3, 1)

A few important ideas from Augustine that were later very influential on this topic. One is the damnation of unbaptized infants:

“‘An infant,’ [the Pelagians] say, ‘even if he be not baptized, by merit of innocence, since he has no sin at all, neither his own nor original sin, contracted neither on his own nor from Adam, –it is necessary,’ they say, ‘that he have salvation and eternal life, even if he be not baptized; but for this reason he is to be baptized, so that he may also enter into the kingdom of God, that is, into the kingdom of heaven.’… Is there eternal life, then, outside the kingdom of heaven? First, turn your ears away from this error, eradicate it from your minds. This is something new in the Church, previously unheard of: that there is eternal life outside the kingdom of heaven, that there is eternal salvation outside the kingdom of God. First, brother, see whether you ought not perhaps agree with us, that whoever does not belong to the kingdom of God, undoubtedly belongs to damnation.” (Sermons, 294, 2)

Another influential idea from Augustine is his highly developed theology of predestination, which would later be very influential in Protestant theology, especially Calvinism. Augustine understood the entire human race to be a condemned mass, a massa damnata. As such we would be entirely worthy of damnation. Anyone who is saved would be saved only by sheer grace undeserved. And those not saved would receive exactly what they deserve in their damnation.

“Therefore all men are . . . one condemned mass [massa damnata] of sin, that owes a debt of punishment to the divine and supreme justice. Whether it [the debt] be exacted, or whether it be condoned, there is no injustice.” (Ad Simplicianum 1, 2, 16)

“Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given. But why it is not given to all ought not to disturb the believer, who believes that from one all have gone into a condemnation, which undoubtedly is most righteous; so that even if none were delivered therefrom, there would be no just cause for finding fault with God. Whence it is plain that it is a great grace for many to be delivered, and to acknowledge in those that are not delivered what would be due to themselves; so that he that glories may glory not in his own merits, which he sees to be equalled in those that are condemned, but in the Lord. But why He delivers one rather than another —His judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out. (Romans 11:33) For it is better in this case for us to hear or to say, O man, who are you that repliest against God? (Romans 9:20) than to dare to speak as if we could know what He has chosen to be kept secret. Since, moreover, He could not will anything unrighteous.” (On the Predestination of the Saints, 1, 16)

And finally, Augustine also shared this idea that we’ve seen before that Christians truths are made available to other peoples in other forms:

“Yet, from the beginning of the human race, sometimes obscurely and sometimes openly, –whatever, as it seemed to His providence, was suited to the time, –He never ceased to prophesy. Before He appeared in the flesh there were men who believed in Him, from Adam to Moses, among the people of Israel, by divine ordinance the prophetic race, and among other peoples also. In the sacred books of the Hebrews there is mention of many from the time of Abraham who were not of Abraham’s stock nor of the Israelite nation who were not joined by any kind of alliance to the people of Israel but who were participants in His worship. Why, then, would we not believe that betimes there were other men, here and there among other peoples, who worshipped Him, even if we find no mention of them in those same sacred books? The salvation which belongs to this religion, the only true religion through which alone true salvation is truthfully promised, was never wanting to anyone who was worthy of it; and anyone to whom it was wanting was not worthy of it. From the beginning of human propagation to the end He is preached to the reward of some and to the judgment of others.” (Letter of Augustine to Deogratias, 102, 15)

Fulgentius of Ruspe
465 – 527/533

Fulgentius had a very strong view of the extra ecclesiam nulla salus doctrine.

“Anyone who is outside this Church, which received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, is walking a path not to heaven but to hell. He is not approaching the home of eternal life; rather he is hastening to the torment of eternal death.” (The Forgiveness of Sins, 1,19,2)

“Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that no person baptized outside the Catholic Church can become a participant of eternal life if, before the end of this life he has not returned and been incorporated in the Catholic Church. Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that not only all pagans but also all Jews and all heretics and schismatics who end this present life outside the Catholic Church are about to go into the eternal fire that was prepared for the Devil and his angels.” (The Rule of Faith, 80-81)

“The wicked therefore will have a resurrection of the flesh in common with the just but they will not have the gratuitous gift of the change that will be given the just; because from the bodies of the impious, the corruption, shame and weakness in which they were sown will not be taken away; and for this reason they will not be extinguished even by death, so that the never-ending torment to body and soul will be a punishment of eternal death.” (The Rule of Faith, 37)

Pope Gregory I
540 – 604

“‘But,’ some may say, ‘a fault that has a termination ought not be punished unendingly. Almighty God is undoubtedly just; and if what was committed was not an eternal sin, it ought not be punished by eternal torment.’ We hasten to answer that they would be correct, if the severe and just Judge were coming to weigh men’s deeds and not their hearts. For the sinning of the wicked does have a termination, because their lives have a termination. They would have wished to live without end so that they might be able to continue in their iniquities without end. For they seek more to sin than to live. And they desire to live here always, because if they could continue to live they would never have to stop sinning. It pertains, therefore, to the justice of the strict judge that those who were of such a mind in this life, that they willed never to be without sin, shall never be without torment; and no end of punishment is given the wicked man, because, so long as it was possible, he did not want there to be any end to his crime.” (Moral Teachings From Job, 34, 19, 36)

“Certainly the fire of hell is one; but it does not torment all sinners in the same way. For there each sinner feels its punishment according to his own degree of guilt… But it remains unquestionably true that just as there is no end of joy for the good, so too there will be no end of torment for the wicked.” (Dialogues, 4, 45)

Thomas Aquinas
1225 – 1274

I’ll just give a plug here for Thomas Aquinas as one of my favorite theologians. His monumental Summa Theologiae, from which all the following quotations are taken, is a superlative example of the integration of faith and reason. The Christian tradition is complex because there’s just a lot of it. And naturally there are many opinions on all the different topics. Aquinas is the best example of someone who draws from resources of scripture and Christian tradition in all its varieties. On every topic he quotes scripture and things that different theologians have said on the subject throughout history. Both for and against some position. Then he weighs the different sides and gives his own opinion. It is an excellent example of how rich and complex theology can be.

Whether sacraments are necessary for man’s salvation?

“Sacraments are necessary unto man’s salvation for three reasons. The first is taken from the condition of human nature which is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible. Now it belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments.

The second reason is taken from the state of man who in sinning subjected himself by his affections to corporeal things. Now the healing remedy should be given to a man so as to reach the part affected by disease. Consequently it was fitting that God should provide man with a spiritual medicine by means of certain corporeal signs; for if man were offered spiritual things without a veil, his mind being taken up with the material world would be unable to apply itself to them.

The third reason is taken from the fact that man is prone to direct his activity chiefly towards material things. Lest, therefore, it should be too hard for man to be drawn away entirely from bodily actions, bodily exercise was offered to him in the sacraments, by which he might be trained to avoid superstitious practices, consisting in the worship of demons, and all manner of harmful action, consisting in sinful deeds.

It follows, therefore, that through the institution of the sacraments man, consistently with his nature, is instructed through sensible things; he is humbled, through confessing that he is subject to corporeal things, seeing that he receives assistance through them: and he is even preserved from bodily hurt, by the healthy exercise of the sacraments.” (Summa Theologiae, Third Part, Question 61, Article 1)

Whether unbelief is a sin?

“Unbelief may be taken in two ways: first, by way of pure negation, so that a man be called an unbeliever, merely because he has not the faith. Secondly, unbelief may be taken by way of opposition to the faith; in which sense a man refuses to hear the faith, or despises it, according to Isaiah 53:1: ‘Who hath believed our report?’ It is this that completes the notion of unbelief, and it is in this sense that unbelief is a sin.

If, however, we take it by way of pure negation, as we find it in those who have heard nothing about the faith, it bears the character, not of sin, but of punishment, because such like ignorance of Divine things is a result of the sin of our first parent. If such like unbelievers are damned, it is on account of other sins, which cannot be taken away without faith, but not on account of their sin of unbelief. Hence Our Lord said (John 15:22) ‘If I had not come, and spoken to them, they would not have sin’; which Augustine expounds (Tract. lxxxix in Joan.) as ‘referring to the sin whereby they believed not in Christ.’” (Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 10, Article 1)

Whether unbelief is the greatest of sin?

“Every sin consists formally in aversion from God, as stated above (I-II:71:6; I-II:73:3). Hence the more a sin severs man from God, the graver it is. Now man is more than ever separated from God by unbelief, because he has not even true knowledge of God: and by false knowledge of God, man does not approach Him, but is severed from Him.

Nor is it possible for one who has a false opinion of God, to know Him in any way at all, because the object of his opinion is not God. Therefore it is clear that the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals. This does not apply to the sins that are opposed to the theological virtues, as we shall stated further on (II-II:20:3; II-II:34:2 ad 2; II-II:39:2 ad 3).” (Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 10, Article 3)

Whether the unbelief of pagans or heathens is graver than other kinds?

“As stated above (Article 5), two things may be considered in unbelief. One of these is its relation to faith: and from this point of view, he who resists the faith after accepting it, sins more grievously against faith, than he who resists it without having accepted it, even as he who fails to fulfil what he has promised, sins more grievously than if he had never promised it. On this way the unbelief of heretics, who confess their belief in the Gospel, and resist that faith by corrupting it, is a more grievous sin than that of the Jews, who have never accepted the Gospel faith. Since, however, they accepted the figure of that faith in the Old Law, which they corrupt by their false interpretations, their unbelief is a more grievous sin than that of the heathens, because the latter have not accepted the Gospel faith in any way at all.

The second thing to be considered in unbelief is the corruption of matters of faith. On this respect, since heathens err on more points than Jews, and these in more points than heretics, the unbelief of heathens is more grievous than the unbelief of the Jews, and that of the Jews than that of the heretics, except in such cases as that of the Manichees, who, in matters of faith, err even more than heathens do.

Of these two gravities the first surpasses the second from the point of view of guilt; since, as stated above (Article 1) unbelief has the character of guilt, from its resisting faith rather than from the mere absence of faith, for the latter as was stated (Article 1) seems rather to bear the character of punishment. Hence, speaking absolutely, the unbelief of heretics is the worst.” (Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 10, Article 6)

Whether the blessed in heaven will see the sufferings of the damned?

“Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” (Summa Theologiae, Supplement to the Third Part, Question 94, Article 1)

Dante Alighieri
1265 – 1321

I recently read Dante’s Divine Comedy for the first time. I was already planning to read it before starting to prepare for this episode but the timing worked out perfectly since Hell plays an important part in the poem. The Divine Comedy is a work of fiction and is not scripture or doctrinally authoritative. But I find it interesting and useful for a few reasons. For one thing, it gives an idea of what sorts of things a medieval Christian could believe. For another, the Divine Comedy is just a remarkable literary achievement with some profound theological insights. It is tremendously personal, written, as he says in the opening lines, midway upon the journey of life, finding himself in a dark wood. It’s sort of an account of redemption from a spiritual midlife crisis. Of the three parts the Inferno is the most famous. So it’s relevant to the subject matter of Hell and damnation. But I think it’s crucial to keep in mind the way the Inferno works instrumentally in the context of the whole poem, which is one reason I don’t think it should be read in isolation, as it often is. Everything in the Inferno has parallels in the Purgatorio and Paradiso. Dante uses examples of the ways that the unrepentant sinners in Hell speak and think to contrast them with the ways that repentant sinners, many having the same sins as those in Hell, speak and think as they are going through the process of purgation or have completed it. Dante is trying to map out a journey of redemption from sin, not indulge our voyeurism over the suffering of the damned. When we see the suffering of the damned we should always be thinking about how we as readers are similarly suffering because of our own sins and find hope in being redeemed from our sins like the people in the Purgatorio and Paradiso.

One of the things that’s troubling in The Divine Comedy is that many virtuous pagans are left in Hell. Not tortured but still in limbo, literally. This includes one of the main characters, Virgil, who is Dante’s guide and an extremely admirable character, one of the most admirable in all literature. Yet Virgil is not able to enter Paradise. Here’s a passage from Inferno:

“Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds—the many multitudes—
of infants and of women and of men.”

Note the presence of infants, though it’s hard to miss.

“The kindly master said: ‘Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.

And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.

For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.’

Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.” (Inferno, Canto IV)

Dante’s expectations for non-Christians is very restricted here. And I think it’s much more restricted than the bulk and consensus of Christian tradition. Still, this is something that a medieval Christian found natural to believe and it’s an important part of the Western literary Canon. So it’s worth mentioning.

It’s also important to know that there’s more to the fate of pagans in The Divine Comedy than just Inferno, Canto IV. The topic is revisited in the Paradiso. And even though it doesn’t resolve the problem it opens up more possibilities. Here’s a passage from Paradiso, Canto XIX:

“Now is the hiding place of living Justice
laid open to you—where it had been hidden
while you addressed it with insistent questions.

For you would say: ‘A man is born along
the shoreline of the Indus River; none
is there to speak or teach or write of Christ.

And he, as far as human reason sees,
in all he seeks and all he does is good:
there is no sin within his life or speech.

And that man dies unbaptized, without faith.
Where is this justice then that would condemn him?
Where is his sin if he does not believe?’…

No one without belief in Christ
has ever risen to this kingdom—either
before or after He was crucified.

But there are many who now cry ‘Christ! Christ!’
who at the Final Judgment shall be far
less close to Him than one who knows not Christ;

the Ethiopian will shame such Christians
when the two companies are separated,
the one forever rich, the other poor.” (Paradiso, Canto XIX)

So this sets out the problem. The man born on the shoreline of the Indus with no knowledge of Christianity who lives a just life. And he is not saved. Where is the justice in that? We could find consolation in the fact that at least some Christians will have it worse; they will be “less close to Him than one who knows not Christ”. But what good does that do for the Ethiopian or the man on the Indus?

In the next canto, Canto XX, I think we find something at least a little more satisfying and probably closer to the scriptures I quoted earlier. Dante sees two pagans in Heaven: Trajan, the Roman emperor, and Ripheus, a very minor character in Virgil’s Aeneid. So why are they there and not Virgil and other virtuous pagans? The explanation given for Trajan is kind of unusual and related to a strange medieval legend about him being brought back to life by the Pope. I’ll skip over that. I find the Ripheus story more interesting.

From Canto XX:

“When these souls left their bodies, they were not
Gentiles—as you believe—but Christians…

The other [Ripheus], through the grace that surges from
a well so deep that no created one
has ever thrust his eye to its first source,

below, set all his love on righteousness,
so that, through grace on grace, God granted him
the sight of our redemption in the future;

thus he, believing that, no longer suffered
the stench of paganism and rebuked
those who persisted in that perverse way.

More than a thousand years before baptizing,
to baptize him there were the same three women
you saw along the chariot’s right-hand side.

How distant, o predestination, is
your root from those whose vision does not see
the Primal Cause in Its entirety!

And, mortals, do take care—judge prudently:
for we, though we see God, do not yet know
all those whom He has chosen; but within

the incompleteness of our knowledge is
a sweetness, for our good is then refined
in this good, since what God wills, we too will.”

So, from the image God Himself had drawn,
what I received was gentle medicine;
and I saw my shortsightedness plainly.” (Paradiso, Canto XX)

This reminds me of Paul’s comments in Romans chapter 11 regarding the great mystery of predestination: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

I find Dante’s choice to use Ripheus here quite fascinating, mostly for literary reasons but maybe theological as well. First, as a character in the Aeneid there’s the connection to Virgil, which highlights the mysterious difference between Ripheus being saved and not Virgil. There’s also the fact that Ripheus is such a minor character so there’s not really anything about him in the Aeneid that can give us clues. It’s sort of a clean slate like Esau, not having done any good or evil before birth (Romans 9:11). Finally, there’s a fascinating detail about Ripheus in the Aeneid at the scene of his death:

“Ripheus also fell, uniquely the most just of all the Trojans, the most faithful preserver of equity; but the gods decided otherwise” (Virgil, Aeneid II, 426–8)

In Virgil’s Aeneid the gods of the Greek pantheon do not agree that Ripheus is most just and the most most faithful preserver of equity. How interesting then that the God of Israel, the one true God, elects this man for salvation, in refutation of the pagan gods.

Dante doesn’t give details about how many other non-Christians might be saved in Heaven. We just know that many virtuous pagans aren’t. Dante was very conservative in his numbers but the underlying theology, about the mystery of God’s election and purposes, is sound, even if we think, as I do, that he was way too conservative on his numerical estimates.

John Calvin
1509 – 1564

John Calvin had a rich and complex theology that unfortunately often gets reduced just to his ideas about predestination. I’m not going to do anything to remedy that here because the following quote is about exactly that. But I’ll just mention that Marilynne Robinson has made me realize that Calvin deserves a more considered evaluation. It’s important to note that Calvin did not come up with the doctrine of predestination. It’s arguably in Paul of course and we saw earlier that Augustine had a very developed theology of predestination. One difference is that Calvin took a stronger stance in saying that God not only elects some people to be saved but he also said that God elects people to be damned, an idea known as “double predestination”.

“The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt subordinate to God’s purpose of eternal election. But if it is plainly owing to the mere pleasure of God that salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it, great and difficult questions immediately arise, questions which are inexplicable, when just views are not entertained concerning election and predestination. To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incongruous that of the great body of mankind some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction. How ceaselessly they entangle themselves will appear as we proceed. We may add, that in the very obscurity which deters them, we may see not only the utility of this doctrine, but also its most pleasant fruits. We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast—viz. that he does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.1)

John Henry Newman
1801 – 1890

“Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)

The idea of the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” is quite fascinating and coheres nicely with some of the ideas from the early Church Fathers about Christian truths being present in other forms to people outside the Church itself.

Karl Barth
1886 – 1968

The Swiss Calvinist theologian Karl Barth had a very interesting theology of election, which was quite influential even on important Catholic theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II. All of Barth’s theology was profoundly Christocentric, or centered in Christ. And this includes his theology of election. For Barth God’s election is first and foremost the election of Jesus Christ. All of history –creation, fall, and so forth– is centered on the Incarnation of Christ. Barth reworked the Calvinist idea of “double predestination”: predestination either to salvation or to damnation. For Barth this is a “No” and a “Yes”. In Christ, God says no to humanity but also yes, and the no serves the yes. Christ himself is doubly predestined. He is predestined to suffer from the wrath of God on the cross. Christ is rejected by God. But, the rejection serves the affirmation; the no always serves the yes. The crucifixion leads to the resurrection. God says no to Jesus on the cross in order to say yes to him in the resurrection. The yes is addressed to Christ and in Christ to all human beings. Barth proposed that God’s affirmation through Christ might indeed be unlimited and extend to all humanity.

“It is the concern of God that there should be these frontier-crossings… It is His concern what is to be the final extent of the circle. If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such (as in the doctrine of the so-called apokatastasis). No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced. Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind… But, again, in grateful recognition of the grace of the divine freedom we cannot venture the opposite statement that there cannot and will not be this final opening up and enlargement of the circle of election and calling.” (Church Dogmatics, II/2, 417-418)

“This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.” (The Humanity of God)

Here we see an interesting insistence on consistency that mirrors an insistence on consistency we saw in the early Church Fathers. Recall that the early Church Fathers, like Augustine (The City of God, 21, 23), had said that if eternal life really is eternal then eternal punishment also really has to be eternal. Here Barth’s logic has a similar structure but he is saying that if we cannot claim to know for certain that all people will be saved neither can we claim to know for certain that they won’t be. We’ll see this again in Hans Urs von Balthasar. It’s not a firm statement that all will be saved but a claim that we cannot place limits on God’s decision on who to save.

C.S. Lewis
1898 – 1963

“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.” (The Problem of Pain)

This is a view that is at once hopeful and at the same time uncompromising. If the doors of hell are locked on the inside there is hope for sinners to unlock those doors. That’s hopeful. But will we? Lewis, while hopeful, is also uncompromising in his conviction that sin is sin and that sin is a serious thing, that this fact is even foundational to the Christian message.

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about.” (The Problem of Pain)

“There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this [the doctrine of Hell], if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’” (The Problem of Pain)

“In all discussions of Hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves.” (The Problem of Pain)

The Second Vatican Council
1962 – 1965

The Second Vatican Council was one of the most important events in Christian history. Attendees included not only Catholics but also Protestant and Orthodox representatives. Among the councils of Church history I think it is among the most significant. Among its documents are some remarkable and important statements about the various Christian denominations as well as non-Christian religions.

“Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly condemned. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church – whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church – do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” (Unitatis redintegratio, 1964)

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” (Nostra aetate, 1965)

Hans Urs von Balthasar
1905 – 1988

Hans Urs von Balthasar was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. Relevant to our topic here, one of his most famous books was Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”? Balthasar was well disposed toward universal salvation but he insisted on distinguishing between certain affirmation of universal salvation and hope for universal salvation. He argued for the legitimacy and goodness of hope for universal salvation, an idea that, as we will see, is also supported by the Catholic Catechism of 1992.

“All of us who practice the Christian faith and, to the extent that its nature as a mystery permits, would also like to understand it are under judgment. By no means are we above it, so that we might know its outcome in advance and could proceed from that knowledge to further speculation… Are we therefore quite untroubled in the certainty of our salvation? Surely not, for which man knows whether, in the course of his existence, he has lived up to God’s infinite love, which chose to expend itself for him? Must he not, if he is honest and no Pharisee, assume the opposite? In attempting to respond to grace, did he allow God to act through him as God pleased, or did he presume to know better than God and act according to his own pleasure? On the basis of this reverential state of being under judgment, the question arises of just which form and scope Christian hope may, or may not, take… Man is under judgment and must choose. The question is whether God, with respect to his plan of salvation, ultimately depends, and wants to depend, upon man’s choice; or whether his freedom, which wills only salvation and is absolute, might not remain above things human, created and, therefore, relative… Now, since precisely this sort of assumption that divine qualities are finite is not acceptable, a dispute arises about whether one who is under judgment, as a Christian, can have hope for all men. I ventured to answer this affirmatively.” (Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”?)

These are the opening lines of the book and it’s interesting that Balthsar begins a book about hope for universal salvation with a statement about judgment. Not only that, but also that rather than presume to know that we have “lived up to God’s infinite love” we should “assume the opposite”. Balthasar is not making any kind of claim to man’s essential goodness. Rather he’s proposing that we not place limits on God’s freedom and will to save. The point is not that we deserve it. The point is that God is sovereign.

“’If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.’ However, I never spoke of certainty but rather of hope.” (Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”?)

“Tradition, which, as we will see, has long thought itself to know too much about the outcome of judgment. We might, however, make quite clear to ourselves how outrageous it is to blunt God’s triune will for salvation, which is directed at the entire world (‘God wants all men to be blessed’), by describing it as ‘conditional’ and calling absolute only that divine will in which God allows his total will for salvation to be thwarted by man.” (Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”?)

Here’s that call of consistency that I pointed out in Karl Barth. Theologians had insisted that “eternal” should have the same sense for eternal life and for eternal punishment. Here Balthasar is also calling for consistency in what we can claim to know. If we can’t claim to know that all will be saved neither can we claim to know that they won’t be.

“If it is said of God that: ‘God our Savior. . . desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim 2:4-5), then this is the reason for the fact that the Church should make ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. . . for all men’ (1 Tim 2:1), which could not be asked of her if she were not allowed to have at least the hope that prayers as widely directed as these are sensible and might be heard. If, that is, she knew with certainty that this hope was too widely directed, then what is asked of her would be self-contradictory.” (Dare We Hope “That All May Be Saved”?)

This is something I want to revisit in the concluding section. Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings are critical material for developing theological statements of Christian belief. The way we pray illustrates the way we believe.

Pope John Paul II
1920 – 2005

Pope John Paul II was influenced by the theological writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar and this was apparent in some of his own statements. He was certainly not a universalist, in the same sense that Balthasar was not a universalist. He did not teach that all people will be saved or that we know all people will be saved. But his statements show a fervent hope and trust that redemption through Christ is far-reaching.

“Christ won universal salvation with the gift of his own life: no other mediator has been established by God as Saviour. The unique value of the sacrifice of the Cross must always be acknowledged in the destiny of every man.” (General Audience, May 31, 1995)

“Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude. We are not dealing with the ‘abstract’ man, but the real, ‘concrete’, ‘historical’ man. We are dealing with ‘each’ man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery. Every man comes into the world through being conceived in his mother’s womb and being born of his mother, and precisely on account of the mystery of the Redemption is entrusted to the solicitude of the Church.” (Redemptor Hominis)

“Going back in mind and heart to her mystical experience that was completely focused on the Redeemer’s Passion, you are dedicated to discerning on the face of the Church reflections of the holiness of Christ, Redeemer of man, now for ever ‘clad in a robe dipped in blood’ (Apoc, 19,13), the everlasting, invincible guarantee of universal salvation.” (Message of John Paull II to the Abbess General of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of St Bridget)

Catechism of the Catholic Church
1992

To get an idea of how mainstream some of the more optimistic theologies are in Christianity I can think of few sources more authoritative than the Catechism itself.

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Paragraph #847)

“In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved.’” (Paragraph #1821)


Pope Benedict XVI
1927 –

The last theologian I’d like to quote is Pope Benedict XVI, who is actually still living as of this recording as Pope Emeritus.

Pope Benedict XVI openly stated doubt about the idea that unbaptized infants are eternally separated from God in a state of Limbo. In 2007 he authorized a commission and the publication of the document, called “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised”. This document states:

“The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in revelation.”

Something I admire about Pope Benedict in this episode is that he didn’t just choose to believe something based on personal tastes. I don’t doubt that he, like many before him, finds the notion that unbaptized infants are eternally barred from God’s presence very upsetting. That in itself is admirable and I’d be worried about anyone who it didn’t upset. But he also found it necessary to have research done on the topic. The commission amassed scriptural and historical evidence to investigate the question. That combination of rightly ordered sentiments with diligent study and reasoning is quite powerful.

The last quotation I’ll share might be my favorite. This is from his encyclical Spe salvi, or “Saved in Hope”. What I like especially about this passage is a combination that has come up in some of the foregoing writings. That is a combination of joyful hopefulness that affirms the seriousness about sin. That the hopefulness of redemption and salvation does not ignore the seriousness of sin but confronts it. The seriousness of sin makes salvation all the more glorious. As Paul said to the Romans: “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21) The Gospel is an integration of all these aspects.

From the encyclical:

“In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31), Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures; the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst. We must note that in this parable Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgement, but is taking up a notion found, inter alia, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced.”

“This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.”

“Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: ‘Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.”

“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the ‘duration’ of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our ‘advocate’, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).” (Spe Salvi, 44-47)

I think this is an excellent integration of the foregoing passages.

Conclusion

To wrap things up I’d like to revisit some of the things I talked about at the beginning, what I’ve learned and thought about as I’ve studied this topic more closely in the scriptures and in the writings of the Christian tradition. Studying the different passages and quotations has been interesting for me intellectually but what I’ve found most valuable has been the personal reflection on my own sins and how my religious practice addresses them.

There’s an ancient motto in Christian tradition that in Latin is “lex orandi, lex credendi”, meaning “the law for prayer is the law for faith”. The principle is that prayer and doctrine are inextricably linked and that if you want to understand the content of what Christians believe the best place to look is at the way we pray. For theologians the propositional content of their theology needs to remain grounded in the religious practice of prayer, liturgy, and sacraments. This is a principle I try to keep in mind for my own personal theological study. As I’ve been considering Hell and confronting sin I’ve noticed certain aspects of prayer where these doctrines come up.

For example, consider the Lord’s Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
(Matthew 6:9-13)

In this prayer we ask for forgiveness. That’s an essential part of this most exemplary prayer.

Another important prayer in Christian tradition is the Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer is derived from three scriptures; Philippians 2:11, Luke 1:35, and Luke 18:13. And it is one of my favorite prayers. This is often repeated sort of like a mantra. One example of that kind of practice is in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of hesychasm, a mystical contemplative tradition. If you think about the matric repetition of this prayer, or if you’ve ever tried it, you can see how it would bring you to confront sin and acutely sense your need for the mercy of Christ.

The Hail Mary also brings focus to our sins:

“Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

One more that I’ll mention, which I find quite interesting, is the Fátima Prayer prayed at each decade of the Rosary:

“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.”

Something especially beautiful about this prayer is not only the confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness but also the special supplication on behalf of others, actually on behalf of all other people, expressing the desire that Jesus lead all souls to heaven. What a wonderful supplication.

It might seem strange to find peace in the recitation of prayers that place emphasis on your sins. Our sins are those things that are wrong with us and are, by themselves, very upsetting to think about. But I think one reason that these religious practices bring peace is because they open us up to healing. Hiding our sins away and not doing anything to heal from them doesn’t do any good either. The purpose of these prayers is not to dwell on sin by itself or to bring shame gratuitously. The purpose is to be redeemed from our sins through the power of Christ.

It’s in this kind of lex orandi, this practice of prayer, that I consider the teachings about Hell. Hell is a fact; Christ is the solution. I think this is easiest to see just considering the world around us. The world is full of evil. We human beings create hellish conditions for each other with our sinful actions. When Jesus began his ministry he didn’t have to convince the people of Judea that the world was awry. They already knew that. His announcement was rather: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus announced a new regime of justice and light to replace the old regime of sin and darkness.

PREVIEW: Considering Hell and Confronting Sin

I’ll be releasing an episode soon with the title “Considering Hell and Confronting Sin”. Since it will be quite long I decided to make a short preview and summary version.

I’ll be releasing an episode soon with the title “Considering Hell and Confronting Sin”. Even though that sounds like it will be something of a downer I’m hoping it will be informative, useful, and even edifying. But I’ve realized the episode will be quite long and that many people won’t want to listen through the whole thing. Fortunately there will be a transcript with section headings that should make for easy skimming and skipping around. But I decided I should also make a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), summary version. So that’s what this is.

First of all, why study Hell? The main reason I took up the topic was because it’s a stumbling block. It’s an objectionable and even offensive idea. There are many reasons to object to the idea and reject it. Of course, if Hell is real, rejecting the idea of Hell won’t do much good. But there’s a bit of a catch-22: Hell is horrible so it is important to believe in it and respond to it, but because the idea of Hell is so horrible it keeps people from believing in it. My reason for taking up this topic was to address this stumbling block.

What is the Christian doctrine of Hell? I look at two major sources: scripture and tradition. As I kept digging deeper into the subject I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to start with a conclusion and then go looking for supporting evidence. In the first place that’s not a very good way to do things. In the second place there was too much evidence to contradict any single conclusion. Instead I had to cast a pretty wide net and gather up from a broad range of perspectives. The bulk of the episode consists of quotations from scriptures and theologians on the subject of Hell.

Theologians quoted include: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, John Calvin, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Some important questions about Hell include: How many people will be in Hell? Will they be there forever? Is it possible to repent once in Hell? Do you have to be Christian to be saved from Hell? Does it matter if you die as an infant before being baptized? Does it matter if you never hear the Gospel? Does it matter if your exposure to the Gospel is only cursory? Do you have to have a detailed understanding of the metaphysical nature of God? The quotes I have collected in the episode lend themselves to various answers to these questions.

Since the scope of the episode is more encyclopedic, more of a catalogue than a tight argument, I don’t really have a conclusion to summarize here. Instead, my main takeaway was the effect that this study had on me and that I hope it might have on others. Joy and awe are what primarily motivate my worship and contemplation of God. But while studying the topic of Hell I’ve come to appreciate another aspect of Christian experience: the seriousness of sin. Sin is not pleasant to think about but it is very real and very serious. Sin is destructive of everything we are as living souls. The process of moving toward God and becoming more holy is also a process of moving away from sin. So that in a very real way the joy and awe of Christian experience is consistent with rejection of sin.  Studying the different passages and quotations was interesting for me intellectually but what I found most valuable was the personal reflection on my own sins and how my religious practice addresses them.

I’ve especially come to notice the way Christians confront sin in the practice of prayer. Many Christian prayers repeatedly call our sins to mind. It might seem strange to find peace in the recitation of prayers that place emphasis on your sins. Our sins are those things that are wrong with us and are, by themselves, very upsetting to think about. But I think one reason that these religious practices bring peace is because they open us up to healing. Hiding our sins away and not doing anything to heal from them doesn’t do any good either. The purpose of these prayers is not to dwell on sin by itself or to bring shame. It is to be redeemed from our sins through the power of Christ.

A Life With the Holy Spirit

A life with the Holy Spirit is wonderful, exciting, challenging, and meaningful. One of my core beliefs is that there’s much more to reality and the possibilities of our existence than we can possibly imagine. Just a tremendous “more”. Greater in scope, finer in detail, richer in complexity and beauty. And this is something I can see most fully through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It’s like something I never could have imagined possible before experiencing it. A taste of the overwhelming joy that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit goes a long way to shift a person’s perspective on what kind of life is possible. It changes everything.

We see a lot in the news about each generation becoming more secular over time. The rise of the “Nones” (N-O-N-E-S), those who belong to or believe in no religion. There are many ways to respond to that. Maybe this is a good thing and will ultimately lead to a more peaceful and tolerant world. Or maybe it’s a troubling sign that the foundations of our culture and civilization are eroding. Lots has been written in support of both of those and I’ve believed both of them at one time or another. And still haven’t fully rejected either of them. There’s lots of interesting stuff to talk about there. But what’s interested me most recently and motivated my missionary impulse is more the religious life itself and what it means not to have a rich religious life. In other words, what is it that people are missing out on?

I think what’s got me thinking about things in this way is just my own experience, especially recently, in living a life with the Holy Spirit, knowing what that’s like and how wonderful it is. Wonderful, exciting, challenging, and meaningful. One of my core beliefs is that there’s much more to reality and the possibilities of our existence than we can possibly imagine. Just a tremendous “more”. Greater in scope, finer in detail, richer in complexity and beauty. And this is something I can see most fully through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It’s like something I never could have imagined possible before experiencing it. A taste of the overwhelming joy that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit goes a long way to shift a person’s perspective on what kind of life is possible. It changes everything.

So that’s what interests me most. I think it’s great that the world is becoming wealthier and healthier, more peaceful and tolerant, and that people have more opportunities. I want that to continue. For sure. But there’s even more. Possibilities to life that go even more directly to the core of who we are and what we can be. It’s challenging. It’s all-demanding and all-transforming. But astoundingly, it’s worth it.

Jesus gave a dramatic illustration of this in a parable:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

This is how I feel about life with the Holy Spirit. It’s worth giving up anything that stands in the way of it and it’s worth doing anything to have it. Imagine what it must have been like for the disciples to hear this from Jesus. Peter spoke for all of them when he said: “See, we have left all and followed You.” (Matthew 19:27) Admirable and astounding devotion. But why would they have done that?

There’s probably some mystery to that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed in his theology that the response of obedience evades justifying reasons and is attributable only to the “absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship). That might be. Certainly there was a call and there always is. Paul said there has to be:

“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)

The disciples heard the call and they obeyed.

“As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (Mark 2:14)

“And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:18-22)

They just got up and left everything they had and immediately followed Christ.

Even if the Holy Spirit is not something you’ve personally experienced, these examples should at least give an idea of the absolute power of its driving force. Imagine the kind of purpose this grants to a person’s life. Sometimes we’re just looking for a reason to get up in the morning, go out the door, and go to work. The Spirit got these people to get up, leave everything, and not look back for a moment, to follow Christ. That’s a maximal sense of purpose right there. You think about one of Jesus’s wonderful paradoxes: “he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Paul talked about walking “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The disciples had a completely new kind of life. They lost their old life but they found a new kind of life that was tremendously more alive.

Paul was someone who knew something about newness of life. His own life had taken a radical change in direction with his experience on the road to Damascus. From that moment on nothing was the same. Saul of Tarsus became Paul, servant of Christ Jesus. Like the other disciples he left everything and dedicated the rest of his life to Christ. Paul was a zealous missionary but we also see repeatedly in his letters his awareness that it is ultimately the Spirit that converts and transforms people. He told the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Though he was very adept in rhetoric and knowledgeable of Torah everything ultimately came down to the work of the Spirit.

This is important. The Gospel of Christ is not just a system of ideas, though it is certainly intellectually rich and stimulating. But it’s much more than that. And it defies standard categories. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

Paul plays up the unreasonableness of the Gospel, calling it “foolishness” to the “natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14). I think that’s a bit of a deft rhetorical overstatement. The Gospel is coherent, consistent, and rational. But many systems of thought are coherent, consistent, and rational, at least on their own terms. What makes the Gospel different? Now I do think the rich Christian intellectual tradition can go a long way to make it appealing to the intellectually curious. It opens up a space. I say that out of my own experience. But there’s more. And it’s that more that separates it from the rest so that it’s not just one more system of thought among others. And that is something that is communicated by the Spirit.

There’s something of the gospel that is incommunicable and even unimaginable by any other means. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, paraphrasing Isaiah:

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,

Nor have entered into the heart of man

The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

(1 Corinthians 2:9)

This reminds a little of Shakespeare’s Hamlet saying to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Paul says that there is more out there than most of us have ever considered. How can you come to know and experience something you don’t even know is there? Paul says:

“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10-12)

“The deep things of God”. This is where the vault of the heavens, the upper ceiling capping off the limits of our imagination and what is possible can get blown open and expanded. Paul wanted the Church to be able “to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

We see in Paul’s letters that he says many times that he’s praying for the Church so that the Spirit will be at work among them. He said to the Colossians:

“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:9-12)

This stands out to me because it conforms very much to my own experience with the Spirit. In particular, the effect of being “strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy”. One of the things I’ve noticed that follows my experiences of being filled up with spiritual light is a change in my natural inclinations. To be more patient. My sphere of concern is redirected further outward, away from my own interests. This just happens. And it’s wonderful. These “fruits of the Spirit”. Paul listed various fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? To have that kind of conversion of character? This is what it’s like to “walk in the Spirit”. And it’s not self-produced. It requires sacrifice and effort but the fruits come from the Holy Spirit.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

“Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:15-18)

Here’s another instance of the pattern in which a missionary prays for the church to be given the Spirit to illuminate and transform them. Paul says that, with the Spirit, the eyes of the understanding may be enlightened. This is the only way to be so enlightened because “no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11)

I imagine Paul’s desire for the Spirit to act on the church came from a place of deep love, which is itself a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13). This isn’t the kind of thing a person can just keep to oneself. It’s a sentiment I very much relate to and also feel deeply. The desire to see others experience the same power is persistent.

There are, of course, various sociological and political reasons that I can think of to want to see people in my community, local and global, have a strong religious base. Many benefits from that. Along with certain risks and potential harms that misdirected religiosity can have. But beyond all those important secondary effects is the primary work of the Spirit itself in a person’s soul. Like the pearl of great price, a life with the Holy Spirit is something I would do anything and give up anything to have. It strikes to the heart of the human soul and satisfies its deepest need for meaning and purpose.

The Image of the Invisible God

In scripture Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”. As such Christ is supremely important to our access to and understanding of God. As God made his goodness pass over Moses and declared his graciousness and compassion, Christ shows us the Father in his words and in his works. Three important philosopher-theologians: Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas developed theories to explain the process of coming to see and know God in a form of “intellectual vision”.

One of the challenges of religious belief in modern times is that many of the things we are supposed to believe in and refer to in our religious practices are not things that we see or sense with our physical senses. God, for example. We might ask, as many have asked, “Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone?” Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be so seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary? Some of the explanations for this may sometimes seem kind of forced and unsatisfactory. I think this is something that has to be addressed. And I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject. Not just in terms of apologetics, justifying belief in God or any number of other things we don’t sense with the physical senses. But also interesting just as a way of thinking about the nature of reality and the kinds of things that make it up and undergird it. It gets into some very interesting theological and philosophical issues.

In studying this question my main sources for insight have been the scriptures and a set of important Christian philosopher-theologians. Three in particular:

1. Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253)
2. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
3. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

What’s interesting to me in looking at these three is their continuity and consistency. We might be tempted to think sometimes that people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago must have been less intelligent, educated, or sophisticated than we are in modern times. A few minutes of reading Aristotle can very quickly dispel that notion. And the same goes for these three. In most points I find that their ideas about God, and most things, are the most well-reasoned of any you could find from anyone, ancient or modern. Very few people today, believers or not, have thought about God as rigorously or deeply as they did. And when we look at God as found in scripture and explained systematically by these philosopher-theologians it makes more sense why the world is the way it is and why we stand in relation to God in the way that we do.

Let’s look first at some scriptures. There are many scriptures that talk about seeing or not seeing God. Some examples:

John 1:18 – “No one has seen God at any time.”

Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”

Exodus 33:11 – “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:20 – “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

Isaiah 6:1,5 – “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone! …For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Many passages about seeing God but apparently not all consistent. What to make of that? It could be that the passages are simply inconsistent. A consequence of the texts being authored and compiled by different authors and redactors. It’s certainly the case that it was compiled by different authors and redactors. So that’s one possible explanation. But I think there are more theologically interesting explanations. Apparent contradictions often have a lot of potential to provoke interesting philosophical insight. Whether or not that moves us closer to or further from truth is another question. It can do either. But I think in what follows it moves us closer to truth as well as philosophical insight.

The first of our philosopher-theologians, Origen of Alexandria, in his book On the First Principles (Περὶ Ἀρχῶν), makes an important distinction between things that are (1) not seen and (2) invisible:

“For the same thing is not to be understood by the expressions, ‘those things which are not seen,’ and ‘those things which are invisible.’ For those things which are invisible are not only not seen, but do not even possess the property of visibility, being what the Greeks call asomata, i.e., incorporeal; whereas those of which Paul says, ‘They are not seen,’ possess indeed the property of being seen, but, as he explains, are not yet beheld by those to whom they are promised.”

I think this is a very useful distinction that helps address some of the bafflement over why God would purposely conceal things from us. With this distinction we can see that in at least some cases it may not be that God is purposely concealing things that we would otherwise be capable of seeing, but rather that some things are just not visible by nature. Origen says of John 1:18.

“Moreover, John, in his Gospel, when asserting that ‘no one hath seen God at any time,’ manifestly declares to all who are capable of understanding, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if, He were a being who was visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because by the nature of His being it is impossible for Him to be seen.”

This pertains specifically to physical sight and the physical senses. No one sees God with physical sight. But the same verse says that “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The only begotten Son declares God to us. So we do have access to God but it is through other means than physical sight and senses.

Now, there are cases where deliberate concealment serves some instrumental purpose. Jesus apparently spoke almost entirely in parables, to the point that when he did speak directly it was very unusual. For example, in John 16:29 his apostles say: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!” But that was more the exception. Jesus deliberately made his teachings a challenge for his disciples. “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13) There are many potential reasons for this form of teaching. One is just the benefit of Socratic “midwifery”. Students sometimes learn things better when they have to work harder for them. So there is that. But I don’t think deliberate concealment is applicable everywhere. There are things unseen. But there are also things that are intrinsically invisible.

So there’s that distinction; between the merely unseen and the intrinsically invisible. But what kinds of things are intrinsically invisible? Would this commit one to belief in supernatural things? In a certain sense I’d say, “yes”, which might be off-putting if you lean more secular or have more secular commitments. But I’d also say that most people tacitly assume or take for granted certain intrinsically invisible things anyway; things that are beyond just those things that subsist in the natural world. Even if we don’t realize it.

One example is abstractions. We make use of abstractions all the time. Some examples are: quantity, quality, relation, causality, possibility. We use these kinds of abstractions to make raw sense data intelligible. For example, we project causation onto events. When one billiard ball moves toward another, comes into contact with the second, and then the second billiard ball starts moving, we say that the first billiard ball caused the second billiard ball to move (by collision and transfer of momentum). That makes sense but we don’t actually see that causation. We see events and those events are only intelligible to us in terms of causation. But we don’t physically see the causation itself. We only “see” it in the intellect. The sciences are essentially projects of characterizing non-physical structures, laws of nature, to explain the data of empirical observations and experiments. We don’t want just isolated data points. We want to be able to describe relations and make predictions.

This way of thinking about the world is by no means obvious. Augustine of Hippo described in his autobiography, Confessions, how he had a very hard time understanding non-material entities. He “could not imagine any substance, but such as is wont to be seen with [the] eyes.” This made it difficult for him to think about God.

“But what else to conceive of Thee I knew not… I was constrained to conceive of Thee… as being in space, whether infused into the world, or diffused infinitely without it. Because whatsoever I conceived, deprived of this space, seemed to me nothing, yea altogether nothing, not even a void, as if a body were taken out of its place, and the place should remain empty of any body at all, of earth and water, air and heaven, yet would it remain a void place, as it were a spacious nothing.”

This is a very natural way to see the world. And I think it’s the way most people think of the world today and even the way we are educated to think. The modern outlook is very materialist or physicalist. Materialism and physicalism are defensible positions. But they’re not the only defensible positions. And I don’t think they hold up very well to extensive philosophical scrutiny. And it’s that kind of philosophical scrutiny that ultimately led Augustine to think past his materialism. He encountered this in the work of the Platonists:

“Thou [God] procuredst for me… certain books of the Platonists.”

“But having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

This is the essence of the process of the natural sciences that we go through even if without thinking about it. We come to understand incorporeal truths “by those things which are made”. We infer causation from the observation of events. We develop theories about laws of nature from empirical data. In Platonist thought this is movement along Plato’s “divided line”, an analogy he introduced in the Republic, moving from visible things to intelligible things.

In Plato’s thought this process of intellectual ascent has a single ending point, which he calls “the Form of the Good” [ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (he tou agathou idea)]. Plotinus (205 – 270) called this ultimate principle “the One” [το ἕν (to hen)]. Augustine of course, being Christian, just called this God. The intellectual ascent ultimately leads to the Christian beatific vision, The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven.

Both Origen and Augustine have theories of a certain form of vision that is distinct from physical vision. For Augustine this is his notion of “intellectual vision”. Origen describes it as a kind of seeing as knowing. In On the First Principles Origen says:

“It is one thing to see, and another to know: to see and to be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known, an attribute of intellectual being… [the Son] did not say that no one has seen the Father, save the Son, nor any one the Son, save the Father; but His words are: ‘No one knoweth [ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginosko)] the Son, save the Father; nor any one the Father, save the Son.’ (Matthew 11:27) By which it is clearly shown, that whatever among bodily natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, a knowing and being known, by means of the power of knowledge, not by the frailness of the sense of sight. Because, then, neither seeing nor being seen can be properly applied to an incorporeal and invisible nature, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father, but the one is said to be known by the other.”

Augustine develops a similar idea, what he calls “intellectual vision”. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) Augustine distinguished between three sorts of vision.

1. Corporeal Vision
2. Imaginative Vision
3. Intellectual Vision

Quoting from Augustine:

“These are the three kinds of visions… The first, therefore, let us call Corporeal, due to the fact that it is perceived by the body and revealed by the body’s senses. The second, let us call Imaginative; whatever is not truly of the body, and yet however is to some extent, it is said imagination correctly already: and in any case it is not material, it may be however similar to the body, is in the image of the absent body, nor is the gaze distinguished from itself for that purpose. The third is called Intellectual, from intellect, due to the fact that it is mental, of the mind.” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.7.16)

Augustine demonstrates the use of these three kinds of vision by giving an example of three levels at which a person can understand the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) He says:

“Here in the reading of this one command, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew. 22, 39), occur three types of vision: one is of his eyes, which appears in the writing itself; another is of the human imagination in which one’s neighbor is thought of in his absence; and third of these, which is love as such, as seen by the intellect.”

This is a very simple example from which Augustine demonstrates multiple layers of understanding. And this is similar to the levels of ascent in Plato’s divided line with likenesses of visible things, visible things, and the ideas abstracted from them, visible to the intellect. In reading a text there is the physical visual sensation in which we see the ink imprinted on a page. But while reading that we also think about what things the ink refers to, which is a more sophisticated level of understanding. And finally we can gather general principles from the particular thoughts generated by the text. In the case of this example: from ink, to the thought of one’s neighbor, one eventually thinks about the general principle of love itself. And love as such has no visible image. It is understood thoroughly by the intellect, no doubt accompanied by corresponding sentiments. Augustine says of the things seen in intellectual vision that they “have no images resembling them. The objects of intellectual vision are perceived proprie (“in their own nature”), not imaginaliter (“through a representation”).

Virtues like love are important objects of intellectual vision. And intellectual vision of the virtues is closely tied to the intellectual vision of God. Augustine says:

“This spiritual nature, therefore, in which not the bodies, but similarities to bodies are expressed, having visions of an inferior variety, as that of the mind, even the light of intelligence… they do not have any similar material forms; even as the mind itself and all good dispositions of spirit to which they are opposed in their vices, which are correctly condemned and are even condemned in men. To what end is the intellect to be understood, except truly in some other way? And thus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, and so forth, of such by which he is drawn near to God (Galatians 5:22-23) and God himself, from whom all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Romans 11:36).” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.24.50)

The idea here being that the mind being able, through intellectual vision, to understand important moral abstractions like the virtues is also able, in a similar way, to eventually understand God, from whom these moral virtues emanate. There’s an interesting example of this kind of vision in Exodus.

In Exodus 33 it says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” Not only that but, “as a man speaks to his friend.” They were in close proximity, both in space (of some kind) and in their regard for one another. It is repeated, several times in this chapter, that Moses had found “favor”, חֵן (chen), in the eyes of the Lord. And this favor is repeatedly mentioned as the reason that the Lord grants Moses’s entreaties.

Whatever had happened in verses 11 Moses requests even more. In verse 18 he says: “Please, show me Your glory.” Your כָּבוֹד (kabod). God’s response is interesting. He says: “I will make all My goodness [טוּב (tub)] pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (verse 19) Moses asks to see God’s glory (kabod) and God responds that he will see his goodness (tub). God also declares his capacity to be gracious [חָנַן (chanan)] and to be merciful [רָחַם (racham)].

We see more of this in the next chapter, Exodus 34, in which God proclaims the name of YHWH, saying: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [רַחוּם (rachum)] and gracious [חַנּוּן (chanun)], longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֵסֵד (chesed)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) Traditionally this act of self-revelation is known as the Thirteen Attributes. This prayer, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is recited in times of crisis to beseech God to show mercy. It contains thirteen Names and descriptions of God, all of them referring to God’s compassion in various situations. In this remarkable theophany, self-revelation of God, to Moses what we have recorded is a revelation of attributes.

Isn’t that interesting? In what way would Moses, or any other person, perceive these kinds of attributes? Mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice? I think Augustine’s theories make sense here. We could think about them at the three levels of vision: corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual. There are the words for these attributes, taking physical form as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or sound waves in the air. Then we can imagine, or maybe remember, particular examples of these attributes in individuals, maybe people we know, or people in the scriptures, like especially Jesus Christ. And then we can perceive in the intellect the attributes as such: mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice. And when we do this we are closer to perceiving God himself.

Full perception of God would seem to be beyond our possibility in mortality. The third of our philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas, talks about this in his Summa Theologiae. This comes up in Question 12, Article 11: “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God”. Aquinas concludes:

“God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life. The reason is because, as was said above, the mode of knowledge follows the mode of the nature of the knower. But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence naturally it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form. Now it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things… This can be seen in the fact that the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and alienations of the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly.”

This is consistent with the statement by God in Exodus that:

“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

What followed after this is (maybe) an intriguing illustration of the partial but necessarily incomplete vision of God that a human may have in mortality. God says:

“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”’ (Exodus 33:20-23)

God says that Moses will see his back [אָחוֹר (achor)] but not his face [פָנִים (panim)].

What’s going on here? It would seem that Moses’s experience of seeing God must be limited. We might ask, as we asked at the beginning of this episode, is this limitation due to God deliberately withholding the complete vision? Or is it just an intrinsic limitation of the nature of the thing being revealed? To use Origen’s distinction, is the face, panim, of God merely “unseen” or is it actually “invisible”, not capable of being seen physically?

Rabbi Sforno (1470 – 1550) commented on this verse saying (in God’s words): “Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.”

Both Aquinas and Sforno hold that no human can see the essence of God on this side of death. Sforno says “an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things”. And Aquinas says that “Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things.” Knowledge of the divine essence can be approximated, as Aquinas says, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things”. But full knowledge and intellectual vision of God can only be received after physical death, which is why, like Moses, no mortal person can see God and live.

The issue of God and images is prominent throughout the Torah. Making images to worship, even images of the Lord God interestingly enough, are strictly forbidden. The golden calf may have been an attempt to make an image of the Lord God himself. But that didn’t make it any less egregious. The Israelites are given the commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶסֶל (pesel)]—any likeness [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

We find an expansion on this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

The text here is primarily concerned with the ethical issue of how the Israelites are to conduct themselves, what they should and should not do. But there’s an interesting hint here to a metaphysical matter as well that underlies the ethical. “For you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” It’s not just the case that the Israelites shouldn’t make carved images of the Lord; based off of some image that was present but forbidden for them to copy. There wasn’t even an image there. It wouldn’t even be possible in principle for them to make an image of the Lord because there was no temunah.

This is interesting to compare with a couple verses in the first chapter of the Bible:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)], according to Our likeness [דְּמוּת (demuth)]; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)]; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings are made in the image of God. Notably by God. The Hebrew words used here are not the same, but I think the concept is similar enough. In what way are humans created in the “image of God”, in the [צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim)]? One interesting thing about this tzelem is that it has both male and female manifestations. A lot of possibilities here but one thing I’ll observe is that attributes like humanness, maleness, femaleness, along with virtuous attributes like mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice are abstract concepts that in the philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas are understood most fully by the intellect, rather than through physical form or the image of physical form.

Aquinas developed his theory of knowing and seeing God extensively in his Question 12 of the Summa, Prima Pars: “How God is Known By Us”. First, Aquinas affirmed that it is indeed possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God:

“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect.”

Aquinas says that God is not only knowable but “supremely knowable”. God is “pure act”. Here he’s making use of the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. Aristotle understood God to be supremely and recursively intellectual, as “a thinking of thinking” [νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)]:

Quoting from the his Metaphysics:

“Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvellous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvellous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God. For the actuality of thought [νοῦ ἐνέργεια (nou energeia)] is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.” (Metaphysics 12.1072b)

“The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.” But what is the subject of that thought? Aristotle says: “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking (noeseos noesis)”. (Metaphysics 12.1074b)

This being the case, God is supremely intelligible by the intellect. Whatever limitations human beings have to seeing the essence of God in their intellect is due to limitations in the capacities of their intellects, rather than in the intrinsic intelligibility of God. Aquinas says:

“But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.”

Not only bats for that matter. Even we humans cannot see the sun directly. But that’s not because it’s not invisible, but rather because it’s too visible. It produces more light than we can handle. That’s a physical analogy. In the case of God the analogy is to intellectual visibility, or intelligibility. If we can’t see God with our intellectual vision it’s not because God is intrinsically unintelligible but rather because God is too intelligible, of greater intelligibility than we are able to understand. Nevertheless, Aquinas does think it is possible for created intellect to see God’s essence. It just needs the aid of divine grace.

In Question 12, Article 4 Aquinas responds to the question of “Whether any created intellect by its natural powers can see the divine essence”. Aquinas concludes that:

“It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power… To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.”

Aquinas is appealing to the fundamental ontological difference between created things and their creator. He says, “To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone.” God is the only self-subsistent being, whose existence is not derived from any other thing. For created beings it’s not natural to know this kind of self-subsistent being. But this kind of knowledge can be given by grace.

So Aquinas is quite optimistic about the possibility of a created intellect seeing the essence of God, with the aid of divine grace. What is the nature of that seeing? Is it with physical sight? Here Aquinas is consistent with both Origen and Augustine. Consistent with Origen’s concept of God’s physical invisibility.

In Question 12, Article 3 Aquinas addresses the question of “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” He says:

“It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ.”

Aquinas makes the case that the kind of sight in which the created intellect may see the essence of God is a sight of some other kind, other than physical sight. He uses the example of Ephesians 1:17-18.

“Likewise the words, ‘Now my eye seeth Thee,’ are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: ‘May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom… in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart’ may be ‘enlightened’”.

Wisdom [σοφία (sophia]) and knowledge [ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis)] may enlighten the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. In talking about “eyes of the heart” we’re clearly speaking of something other than physical vision. It’s seeing in another way.

Speaking further of this “intellectual vision” Aquinas says:

“The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace.”

“We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions.”

Bringing this is all to conclusion I’d like to look at examples from scripture in which we are able to see God through His self-revelation in Christ. Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God [εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου (eikon tou theou tou aoratou)]” (Colossians 1:15). That seems almost like an oxymoron. How can there be an image of something that’s invisible? I think that here again, as in many instances before, we have to think about the possible different meanings of the words so that they can make sense. Two important terms here are image [εἰκών (eikon)] and invisible [ἀόρατος (aoratos)]. Starting with the invisible, we could say that there are aspects of Christ that are physically visible and others that are physically invisible. Christ’s body is certainly visible. But since Christ is God he also has divine attributes that are invisible, just like those of the father. The senses in which Christ is an image are quite rich. Certainly he is a physical image in his body. Paul says that in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [σωματικῶς (somatikos)] (Colossians 1:9). Jesus himself also says:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)

and

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)

This can certainly pertain to Christ’s body. But Jesus also points to his words [ῥήματα, (rhemata)] and to his works [ἔργα (erga)]. Not only Christ’s body, which most of his do not physically see, but also his entire way of life, his words and his works, as recorded in the scriptures, show us the Father. And those certainly are available to us.

In Matthew Jesus says:

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

In inviting us to learn from Him Christ points to His attributes, that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. Recall how God revealed Himself to Moses when Moses had asked to show him his glory. God made his goodness pass before him and proclaimed his graciousness, compassion, longsuffering, truth, forgiveness, and justice.

Augustine proposed that we could move up through levels of vision from the corporeal to the imaginative to the intellectual. If there’s something to that I’d propose that the most fruitful way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In my Christo-centric theology Christ is always the Way [ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)].

So let’s return to the question at the start of this episode. Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone? Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary?

We see that the understanding of traditional Christianity, both in the scriptures and in the history of theology, is that seeing God is necessarily a different kind of seeing than that of physical sight. This is a consequence of God’s intrinsically invisible nature. As Origen said, it’s not that God could be seen physically and simply decides to hide Himself from us. Rather seeing God is a process of intellectual vision, with what Paul calls the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. So how is this done? At the end of the day it comes down to basic Christian practice. Reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship in the Church, and all the sacraments. All this theoretical background isn’t necessary to engage in the process. But if the question over why God doesn’t reveal Himself to everyone physically has bothered you it could be helpful. I find it helpful and think others may find it helpful, even though it’s quite demanding. We have the scriptures and we can read about Jesus Christ, his life, words, and teachings. As we read these words and think about them and put them into practice they will expand our understanding, so that we can grasp the fullness of these attributes in our intellect. This is the Way to the Father, always through Christ, eventually to be able to see, with the eyes of the heart, the very essence of God.