How Long Does Hell Last?
Cambridge, MA. I was intrigued to read in today’s New York Times (October 11) an article by Mark Oppenheimer on “conditionalism,” a theological perspective on the non-eternity of hell proposed, in modern times, by Dr. Edward Fudge. Read it yourself here.
In my morning scan of the paper, I put on the brakes at this piece, since I have scholarly as well as personal, Christian interest in the topic. I was intrigued partly due to my homily preparation for Sunday – more on that below – and partly because I am an inveterate comparativist. I have, as most readers of this blog will know, studied Hinduism most of my life, and learned much along the way. One well-known and to me attractive belief common among Hindus is this: the self is eternal; there are periodic, sometimes very long, periods of reward and punishment after death in heavens and hells of various sorts; yet in the end, that cycle, wearisome even during the heavenly episodes, thankfully ends, and all souls are liberated. (Yes, there are a few texts, such as Bhagavad Gita 16.19-20, that seem to speak of eternal hells — those who are born again and again, and never reach the Lord — but such passages are not normative for most Hindus.) All will be freed and be free; the immensity of time is there precisely to insure that none will be left behind. Rabindranath Tagore, in an essay entitled “Soul Consciousness” in his famous book Sadhana, puts it this way: “Once I met two ascetics of a certain religious sect in a village of Bengal. ‘Can you tell me,’ I asked them, ‘wherein lies the special features of your religion?’ One of them hesitated for a moment and answered, It is difficult to define that.’ The other said, ‘No, it is quite simple. We hold that we have first of all to know our own soul under the guidance of our spiritual teacher, and when we have done that we can find him, who is the Supreme Soul, within us.’ ‘Why don’t you preach your doctrine to all the people of the world?’ I asked. ‘Whoever feels thirsty will of himself come to the river,’ was his reply. ‘But then, do you find it so? Are they coming?’ The man gave a gentle smile, and with an assurance which had not the least tinge of impatience or anxiety, he said, ‘They must come, one and all.’”
In any case, as I started to read about conditionalism in the NYT, I was expecting a defense of the view that hell is not eternal; God welcomes the damned, the lost will be found. I was expecting, even in the early morning, that conditionalism would be a version of “universalism” or apocatastasis, the view, as old as the early Church, that all people will in the end be redeemed. Some think this was the teaching of the great theologian Origen. To maintain moral standards, preachers might accentuate the fires of hell – but in fact, God’s loud secret, the light that cannot be hidden under a barrel, is that all will be saved. I cannot but believe this to be the case, and suspect that even if I had not studied Hinduism I would have rejected the view that some are damned. (However: reading Gerry O’Collins 2008 gem, Salvation for All: God’s Other Peoples, confirmed my view that a generous and capacious view of salvation is also inherent in the Bible.)
Dr. Fudge agrees, it turns out, that souls do not burn in hell eternally. Yet I amazed to see that his real point, refined in terms of several Biblical texts, is not that hell will end and all be saved, but that after some period of intense suffering in hell, God obliterates the damned souls, ending their suffering by exterminating them. Indeed. Oppenheimer puts it succinctly: “Mr. Fudge’s inquiry into the nature of damnation resulted in his seminal 1982 book, The Fire That Consumes, in which he argued that the suffering of the wicked in hell is finite, that after a time their souls are extinguished. This view, called ‘conditional immortality’ or sometimes the more macabre ‘annihilationism,’ is in direct opposition to the traditional Christian view that suffering in hell lasts forever.” Souls do not suffer in hell forever. They suffer terribly for a time, and then God annihilates them. Thus goes this take on theodicy.
I disagree, but will say no more on that topic. Rather, it seems to me that speculating about all these matters may be a rather lpointless exercise, unless we go deeper. What do we gain by pondering whether some or all of them will be saved? Perhaps the real point is about us, not them. Consider this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 22:1-14, that astonishing story in which the invited guests not only will not come to the wedding of the king’s son, but do violence to the messengers: “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.” To this extreme manner of evading a wedding, the king responds with still greater ferocity: “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Such a wedding!
But since feast is ready, the king is determined to have the hall filled and the food eaten: “Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” I am not the Biblical exegete to explain all of this — rather, look at John Martens’ Word column for this week. My guess is that many a preachers among us will avoid the grotesque details of the parable, and focus rather on the last words in the passage: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Yet the real danger is still that we are speculating about others, not ourselves. We are spectators at the spectacle of the Gospel account, the violence and bloodshed. Out loud or secretly, as we leave the church, we sigh with relief that we are insiders, observing what happens to them who, because of their sins or their pride, fail to get inside the wedding, the kingdom, the Church. Back then, out there, some seem to be lost, by the justice of God — and thanks be to God that we am here, trying our best. God’s insiders.
This subtly poisonous attitude can, if we are not careful, ruin us here and now: what we think about them may be a disguise for a comforting word about ourselves, who don't go to hell, don't lose God's favor, etc. On the level of eternity at least, Hindus seem to realize that the duality of us and them is a dead end, and refuse to make exceptions: all beings, from the tiniest to the greatest, will in the end be free, and they may be right, however that salvation occurs. But if we stay within the logic of Matthew 22, the point is rather different and rather sharp, once we notice the verses I’ve skipped over, after all the new-found guests are seated: “When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was at a loss for words. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” You watched the show, the king is implying - but you didn't realize it applied to you as well.
That is to say, the point of pondering hell is to learn something about ourselvesnow. We think we are insiders, already at the feast, inside the door. But we are, we can be, that improper guest, who got inside but was not really ready for the feast. We see others, perhaps saved, perhaps in hell, perhaps annihilated — and are shocked to find that we are only passing judgment on ourselves: the ones in hell may be those who begrudge the salvation of others. To echo the Gospel from several Sundays ago: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20)