Further Thoughts on Hell

15 November 2006

These things I believe:

  1. Hell exists.
  2. People can damn themselves to Hell.
  3. God is infinitely merciful while being absolutely just.
  4. A person dies either in communion with God or estranged from God.
  5. A person in communion with God can die and immediately enter Heaven.
  6. A person who dies estranged from God (i.e., in a state of serious sin) is in peril of Hell.
  7. God has mercy even when we do not necessarily deserve it.
  8. God gives us grace that we do not necessarily deserve.
  9. Because of 6, 7, ans 8, God being infinitely merciful must somehow give at least some people who die estranged from him a chance to repent once dead.
  10. Anyone, given opportunity and knowledge, would not consign themselves to Hell.
  11. Because of 9 and 10, no one would end up in Hell.

The above is the kind of logical argument or proof that I detested in philosophy and theology classes. Whether it was Aquinas or Anselm or Descartes trying to prove the existence of God or anything else, I always was unconvinced and disappointed by them. Yet here I am doing the same thing.

Maybe this is really what their proofs tried to do: take a set of beliefs, and in an orderly fashion, explain how they relate to each other and how a conclusion is reached. Not a proof in the true mathematical sense (i.e., for all situations x, prove that y is . . . .), but a logical connect-the-dots of their own position.

I am trying to figure out how my belief in the infinite mercy of God, God’s absolute justice, and a historical, traditional, and orthodox belief in Hell mesh. I really have trouble thinking that anyone is in Hell; I even have trouble thinking that anyone might be in Hell.
Implicit in my “proof” is purgatory, or some version thereof. I don’t think we can truly understand what happens after death. It might be fruitless to try and impossible to define. I’m not sure “purgatory” is the right word for what might happen after death, but I have a hard time believing that God wouldn’t give everyone a second chance, a chance when the cards are laid on the table and everything is revealed: this is what you did, these are the repercussions it had, this is why it was wrong, and this is the fate you deserve. Then, I must believe, God would give an opportunity for repentance.

I recognize the above is still fairly heterodox, but I’m trying to work it all out. This also misses the point that Tripp made some weeks ago, that the message might be better understood as not what we are saved from, but what we are saved to. I agree with him, but to get to that point I think I need to figure this stuff out.

I’ve been considering expanding the above into a Wittgensteinian tractatus, but what would it be called? Tractatus Inferno-Theologicus?


16 Responses to “Further Thoughts on Hell”

  1. Larry Says:

    This is very interesting. And actually I think it is fairly orthodox, assuming orhtodoxy includes some conception of “purgatory”.
    Also, I find all of your assertions sound except 10. Perhaps that means I am a pessimist when it comes to Humanity in general. And actually Hell presents no problem for me if one ends up there in full knowledge of things.
    However, there is also a possitive assertion about human personality here, in some sense the life we live and form a person which survives death. From my spiritual direction I have seen how already people are stuck because circumstances and choices simply have already made them a certain type of person. Some choose to let go of themselves in the face of the revelation of their person, others hold more tightly that person that is mired in a complex web of behaviors and other persons.
    I see time and time again both in my self and in others the desire to hold on to what one has even if it is pitiful and painful then to embrace what is unkown but beautiful. It seems reasonable that for some maybe many death will have no effect on this tendency and hell will simply be more familiar and comfortable than the terrible beauty of God’s presence. Thus why I agree with point 2.

  2. “Hell will simply be more familiar and comfortable than the terrible beauty of God’s presence.”

    What an interesting, and less awful, sounding version of Hell.

    We can’t know what Hell is like, really, but mustn’t be much more awful than a familiar and comfortable misery?

    I might be taking your words more literally than you intend, but I’m pretty curious about this topic right now.

  3. Pastor David Says:


    I have found great assurance in the realization that much of our talk about the afterlife, the great day of the Lord, and the final condition of souls is largely conjecture. Every great theologian of the church, prior to proposing his/her view of the afterlife, has made clear that we are talking about our “best guesses” as to what will happen. Personally, I find that very freeing. I am very prepared to say “We don’t know what exactly it will look like, but here are some ideas … do you have any?”

    Martin Luther, in his 95 Theses, took an interesting perspective. Hell is the fear and despair (caused by a lack of love) in our souls when we are unsure of our salvation … heaven is the assurance of our salvation … purgatory is being somehwere in-between.

  4. Have you ever read the following by von Balthasar?
    Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?: With a Short Discourse on Hell

  5. Pastor David, that perspective *is* rather freeing.

    Fr. Stephanos, I haven’t read it. I’ll try to dig it up.

  6. Larry Says:

    I personally don’t see why it needs to be more awful than that! I find that fairly depressing myself.
    I guess I just aint that medival when it comes to my conjecture about hell, and I agree with Pastor David, and I recomend von Balthasar to you along Fr. Stephanos.
    What is terrible about hell isn’t some extremety of torture.
    If one seperates oneself from God because holding on to the self you know is more comfortable than God, I find that pretty terrible, something no medieval imagination of torture quite captures and seems to fit Jesus’ image of an unquenchable fire.

  7. It’s available on amazon.com

  8. No one knows what happens after death, but look at it this way: If you’re lucky you get to spend about 80 years alive, and then all of eternity dead. So why sweat it? Soon enough you will know.

  9. All of this seems so relevant to me now.. considering I just read The Divine Comedy and wrote a thesis on it.

  10. In steps 9, 10 and 11 we still have free will and can say no, as horrifying as that seems. So if 11 said ‘there may be no humans in hell’ you’d have stated Catholic belief.

    If you commit what is objectively a mortal sin (estranging one from God) but are not entirely responsible for it (as of course our opportunity and knowledge are limited) then there is purgatory. That probably would be the second chance you’re talking about.

    Before that there’s the particular judgement that happens shortly after death, at which you are told where you are going, heaven, hell or purgatory.

    What Larry wrote is good and correct too. There’s also the Eastern church father who thought heaven and hell were simply the same all-consuming love of God experienced as joy by the good and torture by the wicked.

    Some Orthodox have a notion that the intermediate state is really a holding tank for both final destinations but that would be heresy in the case of ‘praying somebody out of hell’, as benevolent as that sounds, because it denies free will.

    And yes, much of what we say about the afterlife, apart from Catholic doctrine, is conjecture.

  11. I guess I just have a really, really hard time believing anyone would ultimately choose hell, or that anyone would ultimately end up there.

    God’s infinite mercy? Yes.
    Humanity’s free will? Yes.
    Anybody in hell? I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

    I realize this may seem like a small, small leap to make, but it seems cavernous to me.

  12. David Says:

    This conversation is very interesting, and I am sure the afterlife is something that every person has wondered about. When we speak of such, none can difinitively say what heaven or hell really looks like. It is our best guess. But I would go one further and say that is is our best “educated” guess in that we are offered a glimpse through the window of Scripture.

    So many times Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” In these examples, we come to realize the magnitude of God’s love for us, though we know we don’t deserve it. Comparing the vast goodness of God in the kingdom of heaven that Christ speaks of, with other extreme, the “unquenchable fire” of hell, gives us quite an illustration of damnation, that is total separation from God.

    So, in that light, would a loving God ever stop trying to reconcile his created creature to himself? Good question.

  13. David,

    I think you’ve articulated a question that’s gone unasked, which is really at the heart of my difficulties with a (completely) orthodox understanding of Hell.

    People wiser and better read than I have assured me above that my views are mostly orthodox, but not completely so.

    I guess I have a hard time believing that the answer to the question you asked is true: “No, a loving God would eventually stop trying to reconcile his creation to himself.” I have a hard time buying that one.

  14. Tripp Says:

    I was pondering this stuff yesterday, and if God is merciful…I just wonder if he is always so, or until a certain date in the future…then he is not merciful.

    But then, if Christ is the model, I want to say that God always has mercy. Any ticket to Hell, if there is such a state, will be of our own choosing and not God’s.

    The unquenchable fire thing is interesting. I am glad I skipped that verse before I decided to follow Christ. I may not have followed.

  15. Larry Says:

    Is not the unquenchable fire simply the reverse side of God’s unending quest to reconciler all creation to himself. We incorectly I think detach hell from God’s grace and mercy.
    and Jorge, I guess I have not problem seeing that someone might choose hell over God, because I know the small ways I choose hell every day and must repent from those choices. And God’s unrelenting persuit of me even in my sin is painful and at times if I am honest unwanted.
    So, no I have neither difficulty with people in hell nor the unquenchable fire.
    What I reject is that anyone is “condemend to hell” after a any realization that what they have really always saught and desired is found in God, but no sorry your imigration form wasn’t properly filled out before you died. If hell exists and people are there I conjecture it is not because God holds them there against their will but becuase in someway the persist in their rejection of God, even as God persists in reconciling all things to God. This is not unimaginable to me though admitedly tragic.

  16. The Second Council of Constantinople, A.D. 543, rejected the idea of “apocatastasis” (or “apokatastasis”), i.e., that eventually all free creatures will share in the grace of salvation— even demons and lost souls.

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