Your intrepid blogger recently had the displeasure of engaging, online of course, with a group of armchair theologians dedicated to “Rethinking Hell”. These folk have their own Facebook and web pages dedicated to the idea of “Evangelical Conditionalism” – the practical consequence of which is that they believe damned souls do not suffer eternal conscious torment (or “ECT”, as they put it), but are punished, ultimately, unto non-existence. It’s an intriguing idea, and they believe vehemently that not only is it true, but it is vital to Christianity that hell is understood as an annihilating, rather than a perpetuating, torture.
These folk are, of course, all Protestants and “Bible-believers”, with all the accompanying approaches to faith. For them, hell is a matter of God’s justice – it’s a place you get sent against your will by someone else, and if you are sent there by someone else, it becomes a very serious matter to ask who, why and for how long? It’s an approach to hell that refuses to inquire too deeply into the human condition – “What in humanity is so flawed that its existence ultimately ends up in hell?” – and instead inquires of God’s condition – “What in Him requires this terrible place?”
It’s been a wonderful thing to discover that the Orthodox view of hell is so vastly different, and renders the sting of these questions largely redundant, because Orthodoxy is not concerned with a supposed legal status that a soul may hold, or a change in how God “feels” about us, but with the actual condition of a soul as it journeys towards death and the life to come. What saves us is faith that transforms us through our lives through theosis – the process of the soul becoming one with the energies of God. And either the soul humbles itself and seeks God, allowing God to heal the soul, or it seeks the World and moves away. So where our soul “ends up” is based on its actual condition when the final judgment occurs. And what is the judgment? Not a legal status, but nothing less than final, ultimate exposure to the Divine and Uncreated Energies of God. If we have lived in faith, this Divine Fire will illuminate and transfigure us, as Christ was transfigured! But if we do not know God, then final exposure to His Holy Energies will truly be the most dreadful experience imaginable!
Some familiar with the Western tradition of hell might complain that hell is unjust because God has not revealed Himself fully to us. But in Orthodoxy, hell IS God finally revealing himself to the damned. And since God is love and all-merciful, it is His mercy that He does not at this time, for no soul could otherwise suffer it. We see this in Genesis where Adam and Eve hid from God after their sin, and again when Moses cannot see God’s Glory and live. So since God could not reveal Himself to us without tormenting us through our own choice to separate, we see the necessity of the Incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ – the Way that God reveals and redeems. Not only that, but we see that this is the perfect expression of God’s love, a God-Man who suffers for us and with us, then destroys death by death, bestowing life and purifying us to receive His Light, so that it glorifies us and illumines us.
So hell is not God’s choice (God’s choice is to seek to save us through Christ!), but ours. It’s not something God “decides” for us, based on whether we jump through the right hoops to His satisfaction. It’s not contract law. Hell is the reality of discovering God exists and is Holy, after your soul chose to have nothing to do with Him and be unholy. There is no need to “justify” hell as if it was something separate that God creates. God is holy, and we create hell for ourselves by not being holy.
So you can see there is no real issue of God’s justice at stake in this view. It justifies God and avoids those pesky “How can a loving God…?” questions. This is also what the Conditionalists hope to do by saying that the torment has an end and that the end is annihilation/non-existence. But as you can see, to my mind it “solves” a problem that was never there in the first place.
It remains to ask, however: Is annihilation the true end of damned souls, or are they eternally tormented? It’s still an interesting question, not because of God’s justice, but because it would help explain the nature of our souls and bodies after our earthly death. It has no immediate impact on the major doctrines of Christianity or of the Gospel message, but it’s helpful for our understanding of what exactly it is that we seek when we seek to draw near to God. It gets into the specifics. And that is why I wanted to engage with Rethinking Hell and explore their arguments.
Unfortunately, their arguments are pretty awful. It all comes down to semantics, and what you think words mean. For example, when the Bible uses the word “destroy”, does it mean “annihilate unto non-existence”, or does it mean “you die, but your immortal soul is in deep trouble”? When the Bible says that the fire is “eternal”, does it mean the torment is eternal also, or that you get annihilated “but we thought we would mention the fire is eternal, even though an eternal fire will be unnecessary once you are annihilated”. I became, very early on, convinced that no good could come of simply examining the scriptures on this basis – the Bible can mean whatever you want it to mean ultimately, and especially when you start applying a “new” predetermined definition of a word, you can literally reverse millenia of established theology. The reality is that context is everything, and in the case of Christianity, context can only be found by examining the Holy Tradition of the Church. The solution can only be found by looking both at the Bible AND outside the Bible at Holy Tradition and the history of the Church Fathers’ thoughts on the subject – something hard for these Protestants to swallow when they are convinced… CONVINCED… that the Bible teaches conditionalism/annihilation and not the dreaded ECT. Sorry, no. And in fact, there are too many difficult passages of scripture present to seal the case. You can’t expound on the literalism of certain sets of scripture, yet dismiss others as metaphorical just to fit your preconceived viewpoints! There must be another standard to hold scripture to.
After quite some time of grappling with these folk, I can’t say that I am 100% certain that “ECT” is true and annihilation is false. I could still be wrong. But I think, based on my own reasoning, that it is far more likely that the damned do suffer eternally. And I shall explain why… in my next post. Stay tuned!