Sunday 24 September 2006

Ten propositions on hell

by Kim Fabricius (first posted at Connexions)

1. What is hell? Hell cannot be known in and of itself. As a negative to a positive, hell can only be known as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven is life with God, hell is existence without God.

2. Or, again – because God is love – hell is lovelessness. At its centre, hell is not hot; hell (as Dante saw) is cold, ice-cold. Or if, with most of Christian tradition, hell be aflame, “Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.62-63).

3. The opposite of love is not so much hatred as fear. The wilted tree of hatred has terror for its roots. Hell is the war of terror.

4. And hell is despair, utter despair. Dante again: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

5. And hell is power, absolute power – potestas absoluta. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you…’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

6. Heaven is communion, hell is isolation. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I. Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Paradise Lost, 4.75).

7. But more: “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely that my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Of one thing we can be sure about anyone who knows the population of hell: he himself will be in the census.

8. Hell is not about what God does, hell is about what we do, about the horrendous evils humans commit. We trivialise these evils and betray the world’s victims if we deny the reality of hell.

9. Yet hell is not a datum of faith in the creeds. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed). “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). We do not believe in hell.

10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty. “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.” Thus the church will not preach hell – “the gospel at gunpoint” – “it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (Karl Barth). “For the Lord will not reject for ever” (Lamentations 3:31).


Anonymous said...

One thought you might want to look up, it will take a lot of thinking, is that of Idealism (Bishop Barkley’s 3 Dialogs). This thought says that God perceives us so we are which lends me to think maybe Hell is not being perceived, thus have no purpose and vanishing like smoke in the wind.

Anonymous said...

Berkeley's dictum esse est percipi - interesting thought, m. An analogy: When God no longer looks upon our sins, our sins are not. Or try this: as evil has no ontology, so too with hell (or, perhaps, as the ontology of evil is entirely parasitic, so too with hell).

Also interesting that William Blake gave poetic vision to Berkeley's epistemology. Heaven, Blake said, is the world as it appears to the awakened imagination; hell, Blake would say, is for literalists of the imagination. Exactly: exclusivists - they suffer from a poverty of the imagination - except the over-heated kind!

Fred said...

Christ's descent into hell is creedal, however.

Weekend Fisher said...

Some strains of Eastern Orthodox thought lean towards heaven and hell being the same place, but that the presence of God is unbearable for some.

Which isn't fully Scripture-compatible, but useful as food for thought.

byron smith said...

Kim, thanks again for much food for thought (and in such edibly bite-sized morsels!).

Along with Deep Furrows, I'm curious about your take on Christ's descent into Hades in the creed: is this simply the place of the dead, or perhaps Jesus' experience on the cross?

And any reflections on C. S. Lewis' imagry in The Great Divorce?

Anonymous said...

Hi Weekend Fisher.

Yes, Gregory of Nyssa has a purgatorial view of hell:

"When a baser metal is mixed with gold, refiners restore the more precious metal to its natural brightness by consuming the alien and worthless substance with fire. . . In the same way, when death, corruption, darkness, and other offshoots of vice have attached themselves to the author of evil, contact with the divine power acts like fire and effects the disappearance of what is contrary to nature. In this way the nature is purified and benefited, even though the process of separation is a painful one."

Likewise Didymus the Blind (c. 313-398) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) - and of course Origin - had hell-less eschatologies. And you are right - here is useful "food for thought". Particularly as the apokatastasis panton wasn't anathematized until the mid-fifth century at the local Council of Constantinople under the brutal Justinian. And the sociology of knowledge is never more interesting that when it casts its eye on the relation between imperial rule and the development of doctrine: insistence on hell is a powerful tool of social control.

Deep Furrows and Byron.

I guess there will always be a hung jury on the credal descensus ad inferos. Certainly if we look to I Peter 3:18ff. for its biblical basis we hardly have the eternal cosmic concentration camp beloved of some fundamentalist tub-thumpers: hell here is more Hades than Gehenna.

Reformed dogmatics, following Luther and Calvin, took the descensus as the nadir of Christ's humiliation, suffering and death; so too, in their own ways, did both Barth and von Balthasar (with his astonishing theology of Holy Saturday, and his striking phrase "cadaver-obedience"). Interestingly, however, later Lutheran dogmatics took the descensus as the lift-off of Christ's exaltation. Personally, I don't see why we have to turn the dispute into a zero-sum game, even if the exegesis of the Lutherans is iffy. A full-blown harrowing, emptying of hell, if without specific biblical basis, seems to me to be an appropriate dogmatic inference, as well as a powerful image of Christus Victor.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, I didn't respond to your question about The Great Divorce. I must confess I haven't read it! I stopped reading Lewis after the awful The Problem of Pain. From what I have read of his other books on Christianity, including Mere Christianity and Miracles, I reckon The Screwtape Letters is the best thing he wrote.

Anonymous said...

When I first started reading the hell propositions, I felt pulled back in time to a day when I was a teenager in a church that emphasized the scare-tactic of preaching on hell all the time. I can't remember how many times I got saved! But by the end of the list, I found it strangely, well, comforting, especially with the Barth quote and the Lamentations verse. Well done. Thus spoke churchpundit!

Anonymous said...

While denying that he holds to the doctrine of universalism as well as annihilation, Donald Bloesh suggests that “Instead of viewing hell as a torture chamber or concentration camp presided over by the devil, I believe it is more in keeping with the deepest intuitions of biblical faith to envision hell as a sanatorium for sick, incurable souls.” He goes on to argues that the polarity of hell and heaven must be radically rethought. “Heaven is not beside hell but over hell. Hell is not parallel to heaven but preparatory to heaven. Hell is a penultimate, not an ultimate reality. It is a searing word of judgment before the final word of grace. At the same time, it is a means by which God conveys his grace to incorrigible sinners. Paradoxically the severity of God’s judgment attests to the boundlessness of God’s grace. Hell is a reality in heaven, not alongside of heaven. Only one kingdom will be left standing—the eternal kingdom of God.” P. 238. The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory. InterVarsity, 2004, pp. 224, 238

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Ray.

By the way, I've just started reading Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (1999) - not a name familiar in the UK, but presumably well know in the US? At least he has clearly provoked a reaction among the more conservative evangelicals in the States.

Anonymous said...

Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I.

Actually, I believe this is what Sartre was saying. Hell is other people because other people define our own self without our being able to control the other person. In the existentialist paradigm, existence is prior to essence, in that each person defines his/her own essence. In intersubjective relations, this is infringed upon by other selves who attend toward your being and contribute to defining it. This was intolerable to Sartre, because ideally it would just be me, myself, and I, but since essence is entangled with other people, hell is both myself and other people.

At least, that's what I got from reading a lot of Sartre (and Camus) in my philosophy class on existentialism.

Peter Smythe said...

It is something else to me that people philosophize about hell when Jesus provided a clear and specific account of it in Luke 16.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Doesn't the creedal statement about descent into hell come from a later elaboration? I thought the oldest versions we had of the Apostolic Creed simply went from "crucified, dead, and buried," to "the third day, he arose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty."

I ask because crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension are clearly part of the New Testament witness. The "descent into hell," depends on a particular interpretation of an obscure verse in 1 Peter--which may not even be the best interpretation of proclaiming to "spirits in prison." My tradition (Anabaptist), has always been wary of the authority of creeds (and never given our own confessions of faith creedal status) and I am especially wary of investing such central status to something with such a weak biblical foundation.

I like these propositions they are great for adult discussion groups.

Anonymous said...

10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty.

Jesus said Hell would, in fact, be quite full. Why would I "hope and pray" that He who is the way the truth and the light was wrong about anything? Nice sentiment you have there; bad theology behind it.

Thus the church will not preach hell – "the gospel at gunpoint"

Again, the only problem with you theology is that Jesus said differnt. Did He not preach under threat of Hell? He warned (threatened, if you will) of exactly those consequences on many occasions; Matt. 5:22,29 & 30; 18:9; Mark 9:43; or even "But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!" [Luke 12:5]

Anonymous said...

typo alert: I meant "the way, the truth, and the life" (from John 14:6 of course)

Anonymous said...

Jeez, Phil, your theology scares the crap out of me. I guess that's what it's supposed to do. However, while it might make folk fear hell, it'll never move them to love God.

Anonymous said...


If you believe that something I'm saying is directly unbiblical, then offer up solid exegesis to prove such and I'll concede then that it's "my" theology and not Scriptural. Otherwise, I've provided Biblical perspective, which makes it not "my" theology, but, well, you know.

I'm not saying that you have to be all-hellfire-all-the-time. Jesus wasn't and neither should we be. But a survey of the Gospel accounts shows that Jesus spent more time warning of the realities of Hell (to which he was clear that most would choose) than He did of the glories of Heaven. So what I'm arguing against -- no, what the Scripture argues against -- is the idea that warning of Hell is inappropriate in Christian ministry (as point 10 in this article asserted). It really saddens me when we've gone so far from honoring Christ as to boldly deride his ministry as unchristian.

The bottom line of proposition 10 in this article was: 1) pray and hope that Jesus was wrong/lying, 2) Jesus’ way of preaching wasn't perfect but in fact will drive many from God.

I quote Jesus and give a Biblical perspective, yet the (not "my") theology "scares" you. OK, is it "my" theology that scares you, or the consequences if what I'm saying is right that really scares you? If you're believing an imperfect Jesus, who drove people from God by preaching a less-than-loving message, and was wrong or lied about conditions in the afterlife, then such a savior cannot save and a sense of fear is quite justified. Only you know for sure, but rest assured, you will someday know for sure.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Phil.

You might as well stand on your own shoulders as deny that your exclusivism and doctrine of limited atonement isn't as theological as the views you oppose. The Bible never comes to anyone neat. In my view, people who think that they have some sort of unmediated, direct access to so-called "biblical truth" are a theological menace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil, Kim,

Thanks for the discussion and food for thought.

Phil, I wonder - and I'm not disagreeing with you here - but I wonder if what is appropriate for Jesus to preach, is not necessarily appropriate for us to preach? As in, as the Christ, the judge, he can certainly preach judgement, but, as Christ instructed the disciples when they went out to preach the coming of the kingdom, they only 'shake the dust off their feet' once they themselves had been rejected - they do not 'preach' judgement.

Also, there's always a definite context to Jesus' warnings - off the top of my head they are directed at those who are confident of their own righteousness; not sure what this might entail.

The question underneath all of this is the difficulty of deriving anything normative from the gospel narratives. But I'm not necessarily on board with proposition 10 yet either...

But it's a different thing as to whether we hope this, as opposed to teaching it as doctrine; a distinction that has been made before here.

Peter Smythe said...

In comment to Michael:

Acts 2:27 and 2:31 demonstrate that Jesus did go to Hades. As referenced in my other comment, in Luke 16 Jesus provides a true account of Hades.

John P. said...

a pithy rhetorical question has always been the bottom line for me in matters of hell and universal salvation:

"is it humanly possible to overestimate the love of God in Christ?"

this certainly does not resolve the issue, but allows the mysterium tremendum to remain...exactly that..and reminds us of our inability to judge in these matters.

i have posted two quotes recently on the topic of human judgment from Barth. They seem all the more relevant to this discussion. Check them here. (

Thanks so much for another wonderfully thought-provoking list!

Sam said...

Although I find universalism emotionally appealing and understand the inner logic that leads you to the position, I remain unconvinced of its exegetical basis. The most cosmically stunning universalist proof texts, such as Col 1:20, only function as such when divorced from their context - Col 1:23: "if you continue in your faith."

Yours in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Weekend Fisher,

"Some strains of Eastern Orthodox thought lean towards heaven and hell being the same place, but that the presence of God is unbearable for some.

Which isn't fully Scripture-compatible, but useful as food for thought."

I would have to disagree. I would like to point to four passages, all from NKJV.

Let God arise, Let His enemies be scattered; Let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, So drive them away; As wax melts before the fire, So let the wicked perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad; Let them rejoice before God; Yes, let them rejoice exceedingly. (Psalm 68:1-3)

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8)

These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power... (2 Thess 1:9)

This verse is often translated "away from the presence of the Lord," but the word "away" is not found in the greek text.

Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." (Rev 14:9-11)

God is truth and light, and I believe that hell is what those who hate God will suffer, when exposed to Him. In ancient times, the great thinkers said that man's end was to be "fully human," a happy and virtuous human. But what is happiness? In modern and post modern times, the word "happiness" has been reduced to mere contentment and how one "feels." But ancient thinkers -- both greek, roman and hebrew -- reckoned a happy man to be good and virtuous, and in line with God, other human beings, the creation and himself. Virtue, as Aristotle told us, is not just what we do, but also out attitude and our "inner self."

This is shown perfectly in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, where the talking beasts (a clear image of man) who looks upon him with hatred and disgust is transformed back into dumb beasts. Their Aslan-granted nature is abolished.

This is my image of hell. Maybe it's a mixture of eastern and roman theology.

Derek said...

I may be drawing a complete blank here, but from where we draw the idea that hell is eternal suffering? Things that come immediately to mind are phrases like "where the worm does not die" or the above mentioned passage of smoking rising forever from the sinner's torment. But are these figurative images enough to base an entire assumption of what damnation is? Am I forgetting something?

It simply occurs to me that if the Lord was raised in the body, and all humanity is to be raised in the body, the "universal resurrection," as Schmemann puts it, then what's to say that those raised in the body and damned are to suffer in the body for eternity? Are they, too, to receive an imperishable body? Are they too to be clothed in immortality? and if not, wouldn't their raised and condemned bodies be consumed and then be no more?

Unknown said...

Its probably that I don't fully understand what "exclusivism" is or what Kim was saying, but it scared me when he said: "You might as well stand on your own shoulders as deny that your exclusivism and doctrine of limited atonement isn't as theological as the views you oppose." Is Kim advocating that other religions are true as well? (sorry, again, if im mistaken)

Dan said...

This conversation is long done so this will go unnoticed i imagine. Micah, you are missing Kim's point. He is not talking about other religions - assuming you mean by other religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, et al and not simply other Christian camps than your own - Kim's point is that your statements are "theological" statements and NOT "unmediated, direct access" Biblical truth. This is the case even though you claim unmediated direct access Biblical truth by quoting biblical texts. You too are making theological statements based on theologically arrived at interpretations of the biblical texts.

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