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Granted that since apostolic times Christians have given free rein to their imaginations in treating this dogma. Granted that a well-intentioned zeal has pressed into the service of evangelism a grossly literalistic hermeneutic and even in the cases of theological greats like Augustine, Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards has painted lurid pictures that revolt both sense and sensibility. Granted that popular preachers – a Charles Haddon Spurgeon, for example – have been guilty of an unconscionably sadistic depiction of lost souls. How far, we must inquire, are any of these eschatological pronouncements warranted by sober, careful, reflective study? How far is a Jonathan Edwards, whose philosophical insight even non-Christians applaud, justified in this sort of exposition?
The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire, in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which shall always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day or night, vast waves or billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall ever be full of a quick sense, within and without; their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins and their vitals shall for ever be full of a glowing, melting fire, enough to melt the very rocks and elements. Also they shall be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments, not for ten millions of ages, but for ever and ever, without any end at all. [F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope (London: Macmillan, 1892) 57.]
Does sober, careful, reflective study warrant – no, demand – such a ghastly prospect? Does it force us to adopt an attitude that Walter Moberley stigmatizes as "unconceivable callousness"? Does it close our ears and minds and, much worse, our hearts to Langton Clarke's comment?
I remember once going through the dungeons of one of our old feudal castles, and looking down into the dark hole in the floor of the dungeon, the only entrance to or exit from an oubliette, one of those awful "places of forgetfulness." And I well remember thinking – How could the people above be so stony-hearted as to be happy and merry with all this going on beneath their very feet? And then it suddenly flashed across me that this is what is said of the blest in the world to come! – that they are supremely happy with hopeless and endless torments continually going on before their very eyes. [Quoted in Moberley, Ethics, 333-334.]
If a sober, careful, reflective study warrants – no, demands – that we agree with these all-too-common depictions, expositions and asseverations, then we evangelicals must apparently become schizophrenic. We must rigidly compartmentalize our psyches, keeping our normal mental processes and emotional reactions from contaminating our creedal commitments with sanity and compassion. What, therefore, does probing Christian thought warrant and demand?
Here as in so many other hard areas of orthodox belief C. S. Lewis proves to be an immense help – discerning, lucid, and above all clear-headed. Confronting the fierce objection to the very notion of hell drawn from not only medieval art but "certain passages in Scripture," he argues that three symbols dominate particularly our Lord's teaching: punishment, destruction, and "privation, exclusion, or banishment." "The prevailing image of fire," he suggests, "is significant because it combines the ideas of torment and destruction." Then in an extended passage he develops the reality portended through the Biblical literary forms:
What can that be whereof all three images are equally proper symbols? Destruction, we should naturally assume, means the unmaking, or cessation, of the destroyed. And people often talk as if the "annihilation" of a soul were intrinsically possible. In all our experience, however, the destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else. Burn a log, and you have gases, heat and ash. To have been a log means now being those three things. If soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a human soul? And is not that, perhaps, the state which is equally well described as torment, destruction, and privation? You will remember that in the parable the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is "remains". To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man – to be an ex-man or "damned ghost" – would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in itself and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature – already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner – would be like. There may be a truth in the saying that "hell is hell, not from its own point of view, but from the heavenly point of view." I do not think this belies the severity of our Lord's words. It is only to the damned that their fate could ever seem less than unendurable. And it must be admitted that as . . . we think of eternity, the categories of pain and pleasure . . . begin to recede, as vaster good and evil looms in sight. Neither pain nor pleasure as such has the last word. Even if it were possible that the experience (if it can be called an experience) of the lost contained no pain and much pleasure, still, that black pleasure would be such as to send any soul, not already damned, flying to its prayers in nightmare terror. [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1943) 113-114.]
Help in cracking the shell of Biblical literary forms and so extracting their intended teaching comes as well from Robert Anderson. Inspector of Scotland Yard in Queen Victoria's era, he was a gifted and prolific author of theological works. His discussion of eschatology, Human Destiny: After Death – What?, Spurgeon praised as the most satisfactory treatment of that problem he had ever read. After examining the theories of universalism, conditionalism, and annihilationism and showing their untenability from a scriptural perspective, Anderson states some of the prevalent misconceptions about hell. He then proceeds to undercut the case against eternal punishment by an appeal to revelational principles. Suppose with a minimum of editing we quote his own phrasing of this rebuttal.
1. The destiny of the lost is a great mystery, but it is only one phase of the crowning mystery of Evil. There must be some moral necessity why evil, once existing, should continue to exist. . . . By redemption God has won the undoubted right to restore the fallen race to blessing. But who can tell what moral hindrances may govern the exercise of that right and power?2. In a sphere where reason can tell us nothing, we are bound to keep strictly to the very words of Scripture, neither enlarging their scope nor drawing inferences from them. But in contrast to this, the inspired words have been used in such a way as to produce a mental revolt which endangers faith.3. All judgment is committed to Jesus Christ precisely "because He is the Son of Man." Hence because He is both the Son of Man and God the Son, His justice and goodness and love are beyond all question and doubt.4. The Bible was not written to gratify curiosity. . . . As regards the destiny of those the Gospel fails to reach, it is absolutely silent. The fate of the heathen is with God. And "shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"5. The lost will not be sent to their doom unheard. Twice in Scripture they are represented as parleying with their Judge. Each one will be fairly dealt with. The record of each life will be laid bare. The books will be opened, and the dead shall be judged every man according to his works. Each sinner in the countless multitude to be arraigned at the great assize shall hear his indictment, and be heard in his defense.6. Instead of absolute equality, Scripture indicates an infinite inequality in punishment. There will be the "few stripes" and the "many stripes."7. The "everlasting fire" is not to be the Devil's kingdom; it will be his prison, not his palace. . . . The word-pictures which describe the shrieks and curses of the lost on earth, as demons mock their anguish or heap fuel on their torture fires, are relieved from the charge of folly only by the graver charge of profanity. There is no spot in all the Queen's dominions in which the reign of order is so supreme as in prison. So shall it be in Hell.8. Obedience will be the normal condition in Hell. To speculate how it will be brought about is idle. It may be that the recognition of the perfect justice and goodness of God will lead the lost to accept their doom.9. There are no idlers in a well-disciplined gaol: in God's great prison-house is idleness to reign supreme? . . . Are we to suppose that all the energies of the lost are to be consumed in tasks of aimless punishment? . . . May we not suppose that in the infinite wisdom of God there are purposes to the accomplishment of which even they will be made to minister? . . . Why assume that the lost will be battened down in some huge dungeon with no occupation save to bewail forevermore their doom?10. Scripture leaves no doubt that in the world to come sin’s punishment shall be real and searching. We know that it will entail banishment from God, and further we know that infinite love and perfect justice shall measure the cup each must drink. But beyond this we know absolutely nothing. [R. Anderson, Human Destiny: After Death – What? (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1913) 113-179.]
Confessedly these revelational principles with their undeniable admixture of logical extrapolation fail to remove all difficulties, but at any rate they make hell a doctrine that does not offend the heart and crucify the mind.
Help in clearing away rhetorical fog from this area of theology is also provided by Friedrich von Hügel. He distinguishes between, on the one hand, "the essence of the doctrine of Hell," which he takes to lie "above all, in the unendingness of that destiny," and, on the other hand, "the various images and interpretations given to this essence.” In contrast to saved spirits, he reasons, lost spirits "according to the degree of their permanent self-willed defection from their supernatural call" will persist in four tragic, destructive dispositional patterns and behavior orientation. First, they will persist in "the all but mere changingness, scatteredness, distractedness, variously characteristic of their self-selected earthly life." Only in hell they will feel far more intensely "the unsatisfactoriness of this their permanent non-recollection more than they felt it upon the earth."
Second, lost spirits will persist "in the varyingly all but complete self-centeredness and subjectivity of their self-selected earthly life." Only in hell they will feel far more intensely "the stuntedness, the self-mutilation, the imprisonment involved in this their endless self-occupation and jealous evasion of all reality not simply their own selves."
Third, they will persist "in their claimfulness and envious self-isolation, in their niggardly pain at the sight or thought of the unmatchable greatness and goodness of other souls." Only in hell they will experience their consciousness of this "more fully and unintermittently."
Fourth, lost souls will persist in the pains felt on earth – "the aches of fruitless stunting, contraction . . . the dull and dreary, or the angry and reckless, drifting in bitter-sweet unfaithful or immoral feelings, acts, habits, which, thus indulged, bring ever-increasing spiritual blindness, volitional paralysis, and a living death." Only "the very pains of Hell (will) consist largely in the perception by the lost soul of how unattainable" is the opportunity to endure the sanctifying sufferings which saved spirits endured on earth. That very perception will be an intensifying source of "fruitless pangs." [F. von Hügel, "What Do We Mean By Heaven? And What Do We Mean By Hell?", Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion (London: J. M. Dent, 1924) 216-221.]
Though all of von Hügel’s extrapolation is vastly removed from the wooden, offensive literalism of much traditional theology, it is closer, one surmises, to Biblical truth and eschatological reality.
Lewis and Anderson, together with von Hügel, help to make hell a credible dogma despite the residual difficulties that compel the exercise of a reverent agnosticism and a post-critical faith.
What to say, then, in conclusion? The issues we have been considering are unspeakably momentous, the most momentous indeed that can occupy the human mind. It is impossible to exaggerate the seriousness and urgency that the doctrine of hell imparts to life here and now. How better to express this than to repeat what James Orr affirmed as he came to the end of his masterful lectures on The Christian View of God and the World?
Scripture wishes us to realize the fact of probation now, of responsibility here. We should keep this in view, and, concentrating all our exhortations and entreaties into the present, should refuse to sanction hopes which Scripture does not support; striving, rather, to bring men to live under the impression, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" (Hebrews 2:3). [J. Orr, The Christian View of God and the World (New York: Scribner’s, 1897) 345-346.]JETS 24/3 (September 1981) 211-220.