Hell and the Solidarity of Love

Can you imagine yourself enjoying perfect happiness and bliss in heaven if you knew that a beloved spouse, child, or friend was suffering everlasting torment in hell?

In his wonderful parable The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis presents an interaction between an inhabitant of hell, the Tragedian, and his redeemed wife, the Lady (chap. XIII). The Tragedian tries various ways to evoke pity in his wife; but she steadfastly resists. She will not be held hostage to the unhappiness of her husband.

“Stop it. Stop it at once,” she commands him.

“Stop what?” he replies.

“Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.”

This exchange troubles the narrator greatly. He feels that it is wrong that the Lady should be untouched by her husband’s misery, and he shares his concern with his guide, George MacDonald.

“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her?”

“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”

“What then?”

“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”

“Ye see it does not.”

“I feel in a way that it ought to.”

“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”


“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

To be honest, until fairly recently I have long thought that Lewis had given the irrefutable solution to our dilemma. There must be a point where the sufferings of the damned cannot affect the joy of the redeemed.

Two years ago I read philosopher Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott raises the question of the damnation of loved ones anew: If we truly love someone, if we truly will their good, if we love them as we love ourselves, how can their interminable misery not affect our enjoyment of heaven? I remember being impressed by the argument. Maybe Lewis was wrong. Hmmm, I need to think about this further … And then my son Aaron died, and the question acquired for me a burning intensity. And I immediately knew the answer: no!  Of course I could not be perfectly happy in heaven (assuming, of course, that heaven becomes my final destiny—may God make it so) if I knew that my wife, my daughter, one of my sons, my parents, or any of my departed relatives and friends were not also sharing with me the eternal life of Christ. Talbott puts it this way:

Consider first a curiosity about the nature of love. Not only is a disposition to love essential for supreme happiness; it can also be an instrumental evil, making a person more miserable, not less. Indeed, the more one is filled with love for others, the more the unhappiness of others is likely to jeopardize one’s own happiness. … Curiously, the very thing that makes supreme happiness possible—namely love—also makes us more vulnerable to misery and sorrow. If I truly love my own daughter, for example, and love her even as I love myself, then I simply cannot be happy knowing that she is suffering or that she is otherwise miserable—unless, of course, I can somehow believe that, in the end, all will be well for her. But if I cannot believe this, if I were to believe instead that she has been lost to me forever—even if I were to believe that, by her own will, she has made herself intolerably evil—my own happiness could never be complete, not so long as I continued to love her and to yearn for her redemption. For I would always know what could have been, and I would always experience that as a terrible tragedy and an unacceptable loss, one for which no compensation is ever conceivable. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul could say concerning his unbelieving kin whom he loved so much: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3)? Nor is there anything irrational about such a wish. From the perspective of Paul’s love, his own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the damnation of his loved ones would be. (p. 137 [1st ed.])

Yesterday I went back and looked at the exchange between the Tragedian and his wife and noticed something I had not noticed before: the Lady is able to ignore her husband’s misery because in her eyes he is no longer the same man. He has become someone else, or perhaps something else.

“Where is Frank,” she said.  “And who are you, Sir. I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”

“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place … Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:

“The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.”

The scene answers to Lewis’s conviction that the condition of damnation is eternal and irreversible. Once it happens, then there can be no other alternative than for the saved to move into a state of indifference and to see their reprobate loved ones as no longer being the persons they once were, perhaps because they no longer really are; perhaps they are no longer persons at all. As observed by others, at this point Lewis appears to move very close to the annihilationist position. Can it then be inferred that the blessed, and presumably also God, have ceased to love the damned, have ceased to desire their eternal salvation? I think the answer must be yes. How can one desire the salvation of those who are, by definition, irredeemable? Note the judgment of St Thomas Aquinas:

Mercy or compassion may be in a person in two ways: first by way of passion, secondly by way of choice. In the blessed there will be no passion in the lower powers except as a result of the reason’s choice. Hence compassion or mercy will not be in them, except by the choice of reason. Now mercy or compassion comes of the reason’s choice when a person wishes another’s evil to be dispelled: wherefore in those things which, in accordance with reason, we do not wish to be dispelled, we have no such compassion. But so long as sinners are in this world they are in such a state that without prejudice to the Divine justice they can be taken away from a state of unhappiness and sin to a state of happiness. Consequently it is possible to have compassion on them both by the choice of the will–in which sense God, the angels and the blessed are said to pity them by desiring their salvation–and by passion, in which way they are pitied by the good men who are in the state of wayfarers. But in the future state it will be impossible for them to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.

It’s a very short step from indifference to rejoicing in the sufferings of the damned. The redeemed do not rejoice in their sufferings directly, explains Aquinas (“To rejoice in another’s evil as such belongs to hatred”); but they do rejoice in their sufferings indirectly: “in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.”

In my judgment Talbott has the right of it. If we love a person, we can never be reconciled to their eternal punishment and misery. If we love another, their suffering must become our own. We are joined in a solidarity of love.

Heaven can never be truly heaven without my son.

Is my judgment being clouded by grief? Perhaps. Or perhaps Aaron’s death has caused me to finally apprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ truly.

(Go to: “The Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed”)

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33 Responses to Hell and the Solidarity of Love

  1. chalcedon451 says:

    An interesting continuation, Father. If, as seems to be the case from Scripture, there are people in hell, then there will be someone who loved them, and that someone would, on this calculus, be unhappy if they, themselves, were in Heaven. That seems to leave us with either apocatastasis, in which case all evangelism is a useless waste of time, as we are already saved whatever we do and believe here on earth, or our enlightenment when we are in Christ is such that we see with His vision. If it is the former, then one wonders why the Holy and Blessed Apostles felt the burning need to carry the Gospel message to the ends of the earth? As to the latter, that is simply a speculation. But it does not seem from Scripture or the Fathers that we have warrant for assuming hell is empty – much though I may (and I do, as neither of my parents was a practising Christian) want it to be.

    This is a most interesting series and raises some powerful questions. I am currently reading Ralph Martin’s book and finding it persuasive.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, John. Thank you for your comment. A couple brief responses:

      1) I do not accept the claim that if apocatastasis is true, then evangelism is a waste of time. If the gospel is indeed the most wonderful and transforming good news that has ever been proclaimed, then we will want to speak the good news to everyone we meet and to spread the good news as widely as possible. And I suggest that is precisely what happened after Pentecost. If we do not have the desire to enthusiastically evangelize today, perhaps it’s because we really do not believe that the gospel is good news.

      2) The question before us is not whether hell exists. Hell is an existential possibility for each of us. We know it intimately. Most of us dwell in it most of the time. If we die in our hell we will most certainly take it with us into the afterlife. (This, I take it, is the true meaning of the Catholic assertion that all who die in a state of mortal sin are damned.)

      The question is whether this hellish condition is redeemable after death. Is God helpless before it? Did he create the universe knowing that some (many? most?) would definitively and irrevocably reject him? Some philosophers have argued that the everlasting damnation of some (many? most?) is simply the inevitable consequence of God’s decision to create the world (collateral damage, as it were). Now perhaps this is true if one holds to a libertarian understanding of human freedom (but see my article “What Are the Odds?“), but it is certainly not an inevitable consequence if one holds an Augustinian or Thomist understanding of efficacious grace.

      So let me throw the ball back into your court: do you believe in efficacious grace?


      • chalcedon451 says:

        Thank you Father, I am grateful for your response.

        I wonder, here, whether we are not getting distracted by theological speculation? Efficacious Grace is a complex issue, whilst Grace and God’s love for us are a deep mystery. I have no idea why God’s Grace has led me to seek Him out, and yet left both my brothers entirely unmoved.

        I look at Jesus using the word Gehenna many times, and it seems to me that by it He means the place where those who are condemned in the final judgement will go. We are told there will be a judgement, and we are told there is a place of unquenchable fire, and, in the parable of Dives that there are those in that fire. However much I would wish that not to be the case, I can’t find myself at liberty to explain away Christ’s words.


  2. Oak Hill Studio says:

    I have come to the same conclusion as you. When I first became a Christian many years ago, although I may have been bothered slightly at the thought of being separated eternally from unsaved loved ones and of them going to hell (to my shame,) the clearer my vision of Christ has become and the more I have come to value and love others, the less acceptable (and really unreasonable) the idea of eternal damnation becomes.


  3. Terence says:

    Dear Fr Kimel,how do you know what the fate of your son is,do we not have to trust in God’s mercy and goodness ? If God is just, and judges perfectly, who is to say he won’t be in heaven? Having a brother so self destructive he is most certainly sending my parents to an early grave, C.S. Lewis’ comment ‘re the damned demanding happiness on their own terms and so holding joy hostage rings very true.Much of the insistence as opposed to hope for universal salvation seems very much like insisting God conform to our image. One key argument for universal salvation,if I have understood, seems to be that nobody could rationally chose damnation.This reflects the platonic idea that no one would chose to err if they knew the good or had complete knowledge.This seems to be wrong as far as we can judge from human nature but is certainly refuted by the example of the devil and his angels who being in the very presence of God in heaven deliberately chose the path of wickedness.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Terence. Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy and thank you for your comment.

      You ask, “How do you know what the fate of your son is?” Please re-read the article. Did I in fact claim to know the eternal fate of my son or of anybody else? On second reading I think you’ll find that I did not. God has not given me a private revelation. I am, rather, wrestling with the revelation given to us in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I do not claim to know anything. I live by faith, each day.

      You then ask, “Do we not have to trust in God’s mercy and goodness?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes.” What arguments like Talbott’s do is to force us to think more deeply about what it means for us to speak of God as a God of mercy and goodness. If we think that a populated eternal hell is inevitable, perhaps even necessary, then perhaps we are not really trusting in the mercy and goodness of God at all. Hence your suggestion that “much of the insistence as opposed to hope for universal salvation seems very much like insisting God conform to our image” can easily be flipped back upon you. Perhaps the long-standing conviction of an eternal hell (and I emphasize eternal, as not even Origen denied the existence of hell and its punishments; he denied only its eternal duration), is but a projection of the darkness of our souls upon God himself.

      I hope to finally get around to discussing human freedom as analyzed by Talbott next week (one step at a time), but I did want to briefly address the example of Satan. He would appear to be the perfect counter-example of a person who was utterly free and perfectly informed yet who chose eternal separation from God. I suggest, however, that we know absolutely nothing about either the nature of angels or of their fall from grace or of God’s ultimate plan for him. The words of Milton ring in our ears (“Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven”). The speculations of theologians, philosophers, and poets are simply that … speculations. Hence I do not believe that the example of Satan and the demons really help us here. We just don’t know what we are talking about. All we know is that they are our enemies.

      My next article will be a continuation of this one. I invite you to dwell on this argument from God’s love of the blessed a bit more. Can you imagine yourself being happy knowing that someone you loved deeply was experiencing eternal and everlasting torment? Does knowing that such a fate was freely chosen by your loved one make it any easier for you? How would you have to change to make this situation acceptable?


  4. I don’t have time right now to read all your responses; will do so later. But in case no one has mentioned it, I find it hugely irritating that Lewis puts into the mouth of his “master” George MacDonald, words that MacDonald would never have spoken (based on his writings). I wanted to point this out, because it was in my reading of The Great Divorce that I first heard of George MacDonald. Needless to say, I was surprised in reading his own words, to learn that he was a firm believer in universal reconciliation through Christ. I love CS Lewis, but he messed up here. It’s fine to advocate your own views, but I think putting them in context where they would be attributed to another, who did not hold them, was taking it a bit too far.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Actually, I think you did mention it already, Cindy; but this is a good place to mention it again. 🙂

      I agree with you. MacDonald would have disagreed emphatically with Lewis’s argument! One of my favorite MacDonald homilies is “The Consuming Fire.” And on this particular topic of the sufferings of the damned, we should all read his homily “Love Thine Enemy.”


      • Yes I did 😉 but it was on another post, so that doesn’t count! I’m just reading MacDonald’s unspoken sermons and read the consuming fire one a couple of days ago — haven’t gotten to the love your enemies one. People don’t talk that way any more, alas. His prose is amazing.


  5. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    I have just begun to read “The Evangelical Universalist” (at your suggestion). I would like to underscore your statement that “the question before us is not whether hell exists.” It is whether it is endless. If it is not everlasting, it may still be a very long and terrible “time”. How far off track would we be to think we can just eat, drink and be merry—for tomorrow we go to heaven!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Andy, for reiterating this important point. Neither Origen nor St Gregory Nyssen nor St Isaac of Ninevah nor Sergius Bulgakov believed that at the moment of death we would all be magically transformed into perfect saints. They all affirmed the existence of hell; but they believed that the torments of hell are purgative and would eventually convert each of the damned. They did not believe this on the basis of philosophy and logic. They believed this on the basis of Christ’s victory over death. I think this was true even for Origen, though I may be wrong.


      • I believe that was how, at least according to Metro. Hilarion Alfeyev, one could tell the difference between the universal salvation concepts of St. Isaac and Origen – the former believing it was not contingent upon any principle of necessity as if God is bound by nature or human nature to save all but upon the faithfulness and victory of God over death, that it was not simply a natural outcome of spiritual processes.


  6. dino says:

    I read you answer on the other thread about the context of theological discussion and debate and the appeal to the authority of someone who has experienced theosis etc.
    My concern was more to do with “our ability to discern our error”, which is exacerbated the less we LIVE the ascetic life under a Spiritual guide. Our tendency towards secular reasoning on the Divine is intensified.
    It strikes me that Talbot’s description of love being held to ransom by a most dearly beloved human is subtly unlike St Paul’s…. This seems to me to be true of most who speculate on the matter of Hell and apocatastasis mainly through reason and emotion rather than through first-hand illumination of the Holy Spirit – as Saint Silouan at the end of his days (he speculated through reason, if you recall, in the beginning of his monastic life -to his detriment). Even if they were just a little freed from the shackles of reason and emotion, (and still far from theosis, perhaps in the path of katharsis or nearing the ‘stage’ of illumination), they can still “think” from a vantage point of considerably greater purity.
    The key, in simple terms, here is that we must never forget that the first commandment is the FIRST. The second commandment is not first for a reason. The 2nd is proof of the 1st. But if, as Elder Gabriela used to repeat, “if one loves one person more than any other person, they do not yet even know what true love is [not ‘natural’ but Holy Spirit inspired Love]”. A complete renunciation of all others and self -harsh as it sounds- is the prerequisite that monastics start with…!
    Our pure and attachment-free love for others (the second commandment) is bestowed on us anew after we have been perfected in our union with God. This does not directly shed light on the topic of universalism etc, but it sheds light on the topic of ‘speculation’ on universalism…


  7. John Ridley says:

    Thank you for this interesting post, Father. I appreciate your honesty in linking your theological reasoning with your personal experience, as they are truly linked in all of us whether we admit it or no.

    How do you think a reflection on the nature of Time (as Lewis discusses later in his book) might alter your argument? If we see heaven as a situation of future bliss, and picture God as being there in the future with us, then it is hard to imagine all those in heaven being happy in knowledge of the sufferings of those in hell. But in that case it may be that the failure lies rather in our imagination, where we have reached the limits of what the human mind, currently bound by time, can conceive.

    Also, do you think there’s any chance that the attitude expressed here is ultimately the same as that of the Tragedian in Lewis’ story? To demand that “Hell should be able to veto Heaven” is essentially to insist on a heaven that meets our terms and our understanding of love. “I won’t go to heaven if my loved ones aren’t there” sounds somewhat like a demand placed on God drawn from our perspective on the nature of love.

    Bringing these two thoughts together, I wonder if there is much difference for God whether some reject him presently, or in what we call “eternity”? In the same way that the future cannot blot out past atrocities, but can alter our perception of them, so we ourselves may be changed by heaven such that all the greatest joys and sorrows of earth weigh as a drop in a bucket. Otherwise I don’t know how to comfort people whose earthly desires will not be fulfilled in heaven – such as marriage or the bearing of children.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great questions, John. Let me take a stab at each.

      1) You ask how whether a change in our understanding of time might affect matters. I do not know. We, of course, tend to think of heaven and hell in temporal terms. Even when we think of timelessness we are abstracting from temporality. On the other hand, human beings, precisely as embodied creatures, appear to be constituted as temporal beings. If we think of heaven in some way as continual progression in theosis, as St Gregory of Nyssa did, this would mean that even in heaven we remain temporal creatures, though no doubt the redeemed time of the new creation is very different from time as we experience it today. But why would this change affect our love?

      2) You ask if the argument reprises the attitude of the Tragedian, who is trying to hold heaven hostage. But from a universalist position that is precisely what is not happening. The Tragedian cannot enjoy heaven until he repents of his attitude. The difference between the universalist and Lewis is that the former is confident that God will eventually bring the Tragedian, and all the damned, to repentance and faith. All things will be subjected to the Father and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

      3) I’ll attempt to address the concern of your final paragraph in an upcoming article. 🙂



  8. Mark says:

    Dear Father Aidan;

    I found it interesting that you stated you are not a pacifist. When I reason about love as you do here- the love I have for my son, or my wife- I must conclude that if I loved my enemies like this I could not kill them.
    Would I ever kill my wife? Kill my son? No matter what they do, no I would not kill them!

    The problem with my reasoning though, is that I am sick. Christ came to heal me- this requires a real transfiguration; a new creation. Sin at work in me is a wholistic cancer; my good habits and intentions and thoughts and emotions are as touched by my brokenness as the ostensibly evil things in me. Christ transformed the minds of his disciples; they became a new creation. Until that time I know that my reasoning and even my love are passionate things. They are not the Mind of Christ. I am coming to suspect that I do better not to even allow these ways of thinking to continue. They are distractions.
    When I asked my confessor about my reasoning that it would be wrong to kill an enemy attacking my family, because God-like love would not “prefer” my wife’s life over my enemy’s life, he said this to me:

    Dear Mark,
    I think the problem lies in speculation. When we propose hypothetical situations, only our ego can respond to “what would I do if.”
    God has given us His Word and His Spirit. The classic western error has been to speculate based on word alone. God’s Spirit is not with us in speculation. In fact, I doubt if the version of the word that we syllogize and philosophize with has much in common with The Word when we are done with it.
    God’s Spirit is with us and guides us into all truth. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which God’s commands seem to be opposed to each other. But we do not rely on God’s Word alone to find what is True (to conform to Him who is Truth). In every real situation God’s Word and Spirit are with us, guiding us and leading us.
    When we speculate, we are logically forced to prioritize, to rank God’s commands—as though we were the judges of God’s commands.
    Let us humbly submit to God’s Spirit, not knowing what we would do if. I am pretty sure that to say of ourselves that we would always do X or Y or Z is a recipe for pride, an invitation to God to humble us. I think it is best to confess both God’s Word and our weakness. God’s word says, “Turn the other cheek” AND I am a coward and a fool and full of fear. I pray, in God’s mercy that God will not test me beyond my power to bear it. I pray that I may learn to attend to God’s Spirit right now, so that when the trial comes (as a thief in the night), I will be able to submit to the Spirit and Word of God and be saved.

    I think this applies equally to our shared speculation about Universalism (as you’ve expressed it in this post- as distinct from the way you present it in unpacking Abba Isaac’s teachings).
    I am coming to believe that for myself, most of my efforts to “figure things out” through avenues of study, reading, etc., are fraught with dangers. They are huge distractions from prayer, for one. Why, honestly, do I spend far more time reading theology than praying?
    Clearly I find prayer boring and too slow to pleasure me. Clearly I do not believe that the theologian is the one who prays. Clearly I do not really believe that the mind must descend into the heart before it can see rightly. Clearly I do not believe that I can ever really have a “knowledge that surpasses understanding.” Clearly I do not believe St Paul when he teaches, ““Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on, “If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he aught to know it.” (from http://holynativity.blogspot.ca/2013/09/the-mind-that-cuts.html).

    I have my own life to live and I need to do what seems right for my own salvation.
    You have your own business, and you know it far better than I do. But these are the things I am thinking about lately, and for myself I no longer believe any benefit outweighs the detriment from my attempts at using my mind to “figure it out”. It is not helping me to continue reading speculation, and trying to “figure out” the bible or tradition this way.
    Is this not also the teaching of Saint Isaac? Why do we listen there (about his universalism), and not here (about his teachings how we should come to know God through prayer, ascesis, and silence)?

    But I will ask you prayers while I’m away, and I do thank God for you! Your contrary voice has been refreshing among so many silly oddities of mainstream modern N.A. Orthodoxy.
    -Mark Basil


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, your spiritual father’s counsel is sound. May the Lord bless you as you attend to your prayers and the spiritual disciplines.

      And thank you for your many good contributions to my blog.


      • Mark says:

        Thank you Father.
        I think I will be taking a break from all things internet-and-Orthodox. 🙂
        I’m going to talk to my confessor about this first. Do pray for me; I have enjoyed your blog.
        I do want to clarify one point: I am not going to leave blogging in order to go stand in my prayer corner for more hours in the day. I am going to leave in order to go garden more; attend to the needs of the few neighbours closest to me; and put more into my work (I’m a teacher).
        This, when done with concentration and obedience for Christ’s sake, is the “prayer” I will be turning to. I’m a married man and father, in the world afterall! But I can pray like a monk if I do these simple things in obedience and love for Christ, as my spiritual father taught me.

        -Mark Basil


      • markbasil says:

        Fr Aidan, I am lingering.
        While still milling about, as you’ve moved forward in your thesis, would you do me the kindness to answer, in all earnest (giving it thought and kindly sharing your thoughts):

        Would you ever kill someone you loved (forgive the intimacy but it’s part of the thrust: say a wife or child)?

        I ask because I am as “convinced” of nonviolence (if we love our enemies as God loves us), as you are of universalism. (for myself my reasons have very little to do with the answer to this question I’ve posed you- however this question is certainly relevant to both of our “obsessions”).
        Thank you for considering this question. I will wait for your response if you are willing to offer it.
        -Mark Basil


  9. dino says:

    Mark Basil,
    I agree wholeheartedly with the entirety of your above comment…


  10. Nicole says:

    My understanding of the love of God has been transformed much as yours had. C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce was what made me first think I could accept Christianity on “God’s terms” (or what certain spiritual leaders will tell you). The only reason I accepted that God could do anything so horrible as abandon one of his creatures (on the inside, otherwise wouldn’t there be something worth saving?) was because I believed that if I didn’t accept it minimally, God would send me to hell. I lived in terror for years of losing my salvation and I was gradually losing my mind. I have not read Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God, but have heard much about it and look forward to reading it. I hate to admit the only reason I haven’t read it already is because it was not offered in kindle edition. But in any case, I’ve listed the books I have read on my website that lead me to much of the same conclusions as yours. Thanks for another good post.


  11. C.S. Lewis was deeply disturbed by the question of eternal damnation, but he felt he could not refute what he believed he saw in the New Testament and church tradition as sure teaching. If one looks at “Last Battle,” “the Great Divorce,” and “Perelandra,” one finds C.S. Lewis moves towards a semi-Catholic form of annihilationism wherein the damned are “un-men” – that is, damnation and their own self-refusal of God has withered them away into nothings. Interestingly, this idea has parallels in the Old Testament – namely, that those who follow idolatry become like them, “un-men.” The apocalypse of Isaiah gives precisely that image when the righteous walk before a catastrophic landscape of those caught in their own horror – images found in Ezekiel and elsewhere, too. I would recommend Stephen Cook’s essay on ancient Israelite funerary beliefs, which can be found on his blog.

    At the same time, this belief in the withering of the damned is, of course, given firm support in Thomism wherein sin is acting against the teleology inherent in people and thus the undoing of the human condition, a frustration of the good inside as a form of pathology. Yet God keeps them in existence as existence is an absolute good despite their being caught in a false situation of deception. Dante graphically displays this pathology of sin by making hell a kind of psychiatric ward where the damned work out their conditions while isolated and no longer harming the world or society (cf. the wheat and chaff parable). Even St. Thomas attributed the “undying worm” to psychological distress in the soul. I would recommend Catholic philosopher Eleanor Stump’s essay on Dante’s own idea of how to reconcile that hell was an artifice of God’s wisdom – as he claimed (not that she agrees with him). This concept is seconded by St. Teresa of Avila who wrote that hell is the kindest place for those who do not want heaven – i.e., a kind of secure place for the damned caught in themselves. Of course, the problem remains as to whether a soul could ever, in actual fact, wither away so much as to lose that human possibility of repentance or working through that sinful pathology that we call hell. Even Plato believed earth was just such a place for therapeutic improvement before joining the gods in the realm of Forms; yet repentance was possible for him. Now the Scholastics saw existence being finalized upon death, repentance impossible. But not even Eleanor Stump finds that persuasive, as she explains in a YouTube interview on the Catholic conception of Hell (which I highly recommend).

    Ironically, this conception is not at all different from that of the modern Orthodox in its result – namely, that the eternal natures of the damned in their self-imposed withering makes forebearance in the divine presence painful. For St. Teresa (and C.S. Lewis, as the Great Divorce’s hyper-reality of Heaven afflicts the damned demonstrates), by contrast, God’s mercy to the damned is precisely an exclusion from such a painful experience by casting the damned in the “outer darkness,” the un-world.

    Yet that is not C.S. Lewis’ last word. Still uncomfortable with the eternal nature of Hell, he makes a cryptic scene wherein George MacDonald elusively refers to the transformation of Hell into Purgatory for the damned who manage to stay in the hyper-reality of Heaven – that is, “before” the closing of the final curtain of the Eschaton. His constant refrain is that from the perspective of the Divine even Hell becomes transformed into a joy along with earth as all truth is found out so that one might be seen as always having been in heaven – or in Hell. This same image is in the “Last Battle” where the final eschaton brings dissolution and a divine viewpoint collapsing of the “quantum uncertainty,” not unlike Schlessinger’s cat, of the soul in the afterlife. Eleanor Stump entertains the same idea from a Catholic perspective in the interview. Third, the Orthodox liturgy and Christian/Jewish apocalypses also acknowledged that Heaven and Hell are not finalized absolutely until their marriage with the material cosmos at the Eschaton. The apocalypses depict souls hovering over the Abyss but not in actual torture; the liturgy goes even further, suggesting that souls could be saved by the merits of the Church. Finally, I will only note that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the fires of Hell and Purgatory were, in fact, the same spiritual substance with the same source – that Purgatory could be categorized along with the Hell of the Damned (along with Abraham’s Bosom – that is, Sheol – with the righteous pagans and pre-Christian righteous) as part of the same afterlife. This accords well with Jewish conceptions of hellfire as the sweat of the cherubim and as the river coming forth from the Holy of Holies (Jewish: ; Christian: Book of Revelations, the icon of the Last Judgment). So it might be possible to collapse at least when on this side of the unfinished, historicized eschaton when wheat and chaff are still mixed to conflate Purgatory and Hell in a way that would allow the damned to work through their pathologies and be aided by the prayers of the saints – not to mention the Descent of Christ.

    While this remains historically plausible, I only question how this would accord with Christ’s parables concerning the impenetrable boundary between Abraham’s Bosom of the naturally righteous (as opposed to the supernatural graced with heaven) and Gehenna.


  12. The question, I think, becomes whether it is possible for a soul to actually be caught up in a self-delusion, no matter how painful or seemingly destroying to the self it might seem at the time (I’m thinking of the ‘whispering dragon on the man’s shoulder scene’ in the Great Divorce), forever.


  13. William says:

    Even from a universalist perspective, the question of how one in heaven handles any thought of loved ones in hell, because even in a “temporary” hell, the sufferings are real. This brings to mind St. Ephrem’s lines on these topics in his “Hymns on Paradise.”

    The children of light dwell on the heights of Paradise,
    and beyond the Abyss they espy the rich man;
    he too, as he raises his eyes, beholds Lazarus,
    and calls out to Abraham to have pity on him.
    But Abraham, that man so full of pity, who even had pity on Sodom
    has no pity yonder for him who showed no pity.

    The Abyss severs any love which might act as a mediary,
    thus preventing the love of the just from being bound to the wicked,
    so that the good should not be tortured by the sight, in Gehenna,
    of their children or brothers or family —
    a mother, who had denied Christ, imploring mercy from her son
    or her maid or her daughter, who all had suffered affliction for the sake of Christ’s teaching.

    There the persecuted laugh at their persecutors,
    the afflicted at those who had caused them affliction, the slain at those who had put them to death
    the Prophets at those who had stoned them, the Apostles at those who had crucified them.
    The children of light reside in their lofty abode
    and, as they gaze on the wicked and count their evil actions,
    they are amazed to what extent these people have cut off all hope by committing such iniquity.

    These lines perhaps seem cold-hearted (and maybe they are, in a sense, though I would never consider St. Ephrem himself to be cold-hearted), but you can also see mercy in them (for those in Paradise, in particular). I don’t think St. Ephrem expressed universalist leanings, although there are a couple of lines in these hymns that I quote below that do have an ever-so-slight hint of possible universalism. For instance:

    What I have told must suffice my boldness;
    but if there is anyone who dares to go on and say
    ‘As for the dull-witted and simple people, who have done wrong out of ignorance,
    once they have been punished and paid their debt,
    He who is good allows them to dwell in some remote corner of Paradise
    where they can graze on the blessed food of “the crumbs”…’

    How all this works for St. Ephrem isn’t entirely clear (to me anyway). One clue might be that he views Paradise as having “levels” or compares it to a mountain where some dwell on higher slopes than others. Some seem to attain dimensions and stature that others don’t, though nobody in Paradise seems to be awareness of the relative stature of themselves or others; it’s instead a matter of experience, and no comparisons are made between those in Paradise. Each enjoys glory inasmuch as each is able to receive it, and for each it is fulness. And of course, such differentiation has nothing to do with favoritism in God, but simply in the truth of each one’s state. Since St. Ephrem is particularly concerned to write about Paradise and not Gehenna, there isn’t so much said about Gehenna, but you can detect that he probably believes in similar “gradations” of experience in Gehenna. Just as he talks about “a remote corner of Paradise” above, he also talks about a place just outside the boundary of Paradise, which is on the outside but enjoys benefits from that garden simply by neighboring it.

    Have pity on me, O Lord of Paradise,
    and if it is not possible for me to enter Your Paradise,
    grant that I may graze outside, by its enclosure;
    within, let there be spread the table for the ‘diligent,’
    but may the fruits within its enclosure drop outside like the ‘crumbs’
    for sinners, so that, through Your grace, they may live!

    And elsewhere:

    And if none who is defiled can enter that place,
    then allow me to live by its enclosure, residing in its shade.
    Since Paradise resembles that table,
    let me, through Your grace, eat of the ‘crumbs’ of its fruit
    which fall outside, so that I too may join
    those dogs who had their fill from the crumbs of their masters’ tables.

    And may I learn how much I will then have received from that parable of the Rich Man
    who did not even give to the poor man the leftovers from his banquet;
    and may I see Lazarus, grazing in Paradise,
    and look upon the Rich Man, in anguish,
    so that the might of justice outside may cause me fear,
    but the breath of grace within may bring me comfort.

    Allow me to dwell by the enclosure of that Garden, so that I may be
    a neighbor to those within, envied by those outside.
    Yet who is able to look, at the same time, on delight and torment,
    to behold both Gehenna and the Garden?
    May the crown of those within rebuke me for all my sins;
    may the punishment of those without teach me how great is Your mercy toward me.

    Who can endure to look on both sides,
    whose ears can stand the terrible cries of the wicked,
    who proclaim, in Gehenna, that the Just One is righteous,
    while the good utter praise in the Garden?
    The two sides gaze on each other in amazement,
    the works of each side, revealed, serve to admonish the other.

    And elsewhere:

    Blessed the sinner who has received mercy there
    and is deemed worthy to be given access to the environs of Paradise;
    even though he remains outside, he may pasture there through grace.
    As I reflected I was fearful again because I had presumed
    to suppose that there might be between the Garden and the fire
    a place where those who have found mercy can receive chastisement and forgiveness.

    Praise to the Just One who rules with His grace;
    He is the Good One who never draws in the limits of His goodness;
    even to the wicked He stretches forth in His compassion.
    His divine cloud hovers over all that is His;
    it drips dew even on that fire of punishment so that, of His mercy,
    it enables even the embittered to taste of the drops of its refreshment.

    Shifting a bit, your post suggested something else to me. In discussing Thomas Talbott’s ideas, he seems to be speaking of love in a way that takes for granted the passionate state in which we exist in this current life of ours. The Aquinas quote makes the key point that “In the blessed there will be no passion in the lower powers except as a result of the reason’s choice.” St. Maximos also makes similar statements, and he also appears to believe that passionlessness will also be the condition of those who do not enjoy the blessed life (I think he would say that their very passionlessness and their resulting dispassionate clarity about the truth of things is what constitutes or occasions their torment over being unable to participate in God). I think that when we think about how we love others (damned or not) in the next life, there’s a lot to consider concerning the differences between love marked by apatheia and love as we know it in our current passionate state. I suppose I don’t feel up to considering these differences with any depth in this already-long comment, but thought I might mention it just in case it spurs anyone else’s thoughts.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent comment. Thank you for the citations from St Ephrem.


    • Dino says:

      Saint Ephraim’s graded yet entirely personal perception of both Paradise and Hell has always been a big part of traditional Orthodox understanding.
      I repeat what I wrote in another one of these excellent threads:
      We think of Paradise (in this graded way) as the entirely personal appreciation that occurs in an amphitheater. All watch the same play (God’s presence), with equal views and aural perception (which holds true in an amphitheater that is properly designed). However, not all appreciate it equally. One might have entered the play almost by accident and know next to nothing about theater -yet still enjoys what he see. Another might be singularly obsessed with this particular play, overwhelmed with genuine admiration of everything that goes on, and with a sublime appreciation of every detail of the story he might even have a doctorate on. (Ok. this last one sounds like St Paul a bit 🙂
      There is no issue in this image of “intently looking” at others to “spoil one’s enjoyment”, (it’s dark in the audience and bright on stage) as all eyes are transfixed on the play…


  14. maryeholste says:

    I’ve been reading St. Symeon the New Theologian lately, and he has an interesting view on hell. He describes it as the state of a heart that does not love, which has therefore cut itself off from God who is, simply, Love. This shifts the whole discussion away from thinking of hell as a place. The only separation between us and God or us and our loved ones is one that we and they make ourselves. And although St. Symeon seems to believe very strongly in hell, I find it hard to believe that many people or anyone, for that matter, could be absolutely and totally devoid of love. His definition of hell gives a strong foundation for the hope of universal salvation, even if he doesn’t go that far himself. Here’s what he writes about God as Love: http://awidersunrise.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/love-the-star-which-always-shines-symeon-the-new-theologian/


  15. dino says:

    Wow! I just had a quackish re-read of this and it reminded me how much time can be spent on speculation; in contrast, here is how St Silouan solved the whole problem in one fell swoop (without any speculation):

    “A sinful novice, thinking that the Kingdom of God is similar to things “on earth”, thought: “if parents or relatives are absent, there can be no joyous celebration”, he thought that: “in heaven I will repine if I do not see my beloved relatives”…
    Thus he thought about six months. And, one day at the time of Vespers, the disciple looked at the image of the Savior and said the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner” and saw that the icon became the living Saviour, He filled the soul and body of the novice with ineffable sweetness, and the soul knew our Lord Jesus Christ and how the Lord contains ineffable beauty and realized that when the soul is full of Divine love, she can not remember anything else…!


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