Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Anyone Going to Hell?

One of the most profound and spiritually rich books I’ve read (and re-read, which is rare for me) is Olivier Clément’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism. It is full of the wisdom of the fathers of the Church as well as the author’s own insightful commentary. That is why I hesitate to say anything critical about it, but it ends on a rather dubious note, for while he does state the teaching of the Church and the reasons for it, he still hints fairly loudly that somehow Christ is going to save everyone and therefore no one is going to Hell.

He seems to view Hell much as we would view purgatory: a transitory and progressive purification from all that is not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Probably most people who believe in love and forgiveness, and thus who emotionally recoil at the thought of the everlasting punishment of human beings, would prefer to understand Hell as a temporary rehabilitative state. That is a normal human reaction, but it does tend to project our own sensibilities upon God, even to the rejection of his explicit revelation. We have to avoid the danger of Gnosticism, in which we think we have some secret knowledge beyond what is revealed to the uninitiated masses, or worse, that we ourselves are somehow more merciful than the God of the Bible. The words of Christ cannot be reinterpreted so as to end up meaning quite the opposite of what He actually said. Scripture and Tradition cannot be forced to serve the mentalities of people who declare that they just can’t believe certain biblical teachings anymore.

I think that Clément is reaching a little too far when he interprets the sheep and goats of the Last Judgment and the weeds and the wheat of the parable as meaning “two kinds of character within each individual… Good seeds and tares are human dispositions.” He goes out on a limb when he asserts that they “cannot be interpreted in any other way.” For Christ Himself explains the parable and makes it quite unambiguous by saying that the wheat represents good people and the weeds evildoers, and that the good will end up in the Kingdom of Heaven while evildoers will be thrown “into the furnace of fire; there men [not evil dispositions or character traits] will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt. 13:41-42).

He seems himself to be ambivalent on the issue, for to his credit he writes the following: “Certainly the Church has rejected Origen’s theory that finally, after going through a multitude of spiritual states, all human beings and even the fallen angels would be reconciled and restored to their original condition. Such a conviction actually conflicts with Christ’s warnings so emphatically formulated in the synoptic Gospels. It also belittles the irreducible nature of our freedom.” The words of Christ as well as that freedom which is an essential element of the image of God in us do not allow us to accept the doctrine of universal salvation.

But there is a rather important moral corollary to the reticence about the damnation of souls, one that applies to our lives here and now. This, I think, it what lies behind Clément’s ambivalence. Some people seem actually to revel in the fact that certain souls will be damned, and they’re quite sure that their personal enemies will be numbered among those eternal unfortunates. Their grievous and un-Christian lack of compassion is all too obvious as they triumphally await the day when they themselves will receive their just reward, but all those “others” will be tormented forever in scorching sulfurous seas. But Clément would insist (and all Christians ought to also) that Hell is not merely the place where our enemies go, to our satisfaction. We have to abandon all self-righteousness and vindictiveness in the matter, or we may find ourselves on the wrong end of the impassable chasm.

St Dionysius writes about a Christian man who had cursed two evildoers and refused to pray for their salvation, praying rather that God would strike and destroy them both. Suddenly he had a vision of a great abyss, filled with snakes, and on the edge of it, the two men he cursed. The snakes were wrapping around their legs trying to pull them down. He was not only happy about this, he himself tried to push the men into the abyss. Then he saw a vision of Christ in the midst of the holy angels, and He came down to rescue the men who were being dragged into the abyss. Christ then turned and said to the “righteous” man who desired their damnation: “It is you whom I should strike, for I am here to suffer for humanity… you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God.”

So Clément writes: “The theme of hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognize them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved.” We can and should hope and pray that everyone will be saved, for this is praying according to the will of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved…” (1Tim. 2:3-4). But human freedom insures that there are no guarantees about this, and the possibility of people dying without repentance is a very real one. If we assume that Hell is only for others who have nothing to do with us, then we have already joined them on the way there.

“Those who receive baptism undertake to work for the salvation of all,” writes Clément. Remember the passage from Dostoyevsky I quoted a while back (Jan. 15, "House of Representatives"), about praying for those who are about to stand before the judgment seat of God, that He will have mercy on them, seeing the love and concern for salvation that passes between those for whom Christ died. We don’t have to deny Hell in order to pray and labor that all will go to Heaven. But before we blithely consign anyone to the flames, we have to realize the love God has for them and try to enter into it ourselves. “In Jesus, God is not one who hurls thunderbolts but one who lets himself be crucified.”

This Sunday the Byzantine Churches celebrate the mystery of the Last Judgment as part of our preparation for Lent, part of God’s call to repentance. It is a sobering reality, and our liturgical texts do not spare our delicate sensitivities for a second. The inescapable reality of the eternal consequences of our choices, along with the boundless compassion of God for the repentant, forms the heart of this spiritual wake-up call.

Is the love of God in Christ stronger than sin and death and Hell? Yes. Is human freedom capable of thwarting God’s will for our salvation? Yes. Is anyone in Hell? Mystics have seen visions that say “yes,” and the Scriptures clearly suggest that at the final reckoning there will be some on both sides of the great divide. As for me, I’ve no time to speculate on who or how many may be there, for I have my own salvation to work out in fear and trembling, and I must pray and labor for the salvation of all…