“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14-15).
“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’” (Matt 22:13).
Unquenchable fire and outer darkness—two very different images, yet when held together in creative tension, they may well hold the key to understanding the redemptive possibilities of Gehenna.
Why is it, asks Thomas Talbott, that most of us do not in this life experience alienation from our Creator as the objective horror that it truly is? The Bible tells us that sin is destructive to our spiritual and psychological lives, yet these consequences somehow remain hidden from us. Why so? Talbott offers this answer:
Because we initially emerge and begin making choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and illusion, we do not typically experience our initial separation from God, or even our continuing separation from him in his life, as a horror. To the contrary, the very conditions that make an earthly life possible leave God at least partially hidden from us; they also protect us from experiencing our separation from him as a kind of horror. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 185)
“Show me thy glory,” entreats Moses of the Lord. And the Lord replies, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:18-20). And so the Lord hides Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand, permitting him only to see the divine backside. Whether because Moses is a sinner or because he is a finite corporeal creature or because he is not yet sufficiently sanctified, God protects him from the full revelation of the divine nature. Even in theophany divinity remains hidden. But this hiddenness—or epistemic distance—in fact characterizes human life in this world. Talbott suggests that it is necessary to make it possible for human beings to grow into freedom and authentic personhood, yet it also brings with it the risk of error and sin. Because we do not presently enjoy the vision of our supreme Good, it becomes considerably easier to seek our happiness in temporal goods.
Presumably, however, all of this changes at some point after death, when each person is brought into immediate encounter with the living God. Talbott indulges in a little bit of creative speculation about this prospect. Consider the two very different eschatological images of the lake of fire and the outer darkness. Talbott suggests that we can plausibly think of them as metaphorically signifying “two very different realities” (pp. 185-186). The lake of fire represents the holy presence of God, a presence that brings forgiveness and refreshment of the Spirit to the penitent but misery and torment to the impenitent. “The misery of the lake of fire, therefore, is simply the way in which the rebellious and the unrepentant experience God’s holy presence,” Talbott comments (p. 186). Eastern Christians will immediately think of the popular essay “The River of Fire” by Alexander Kalomiros:
God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.
Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.
Those who hate God and obstinately reject his mercy, therefore, can only experience “the consuming fire of God’s perfecting love” as retribution and torture. They are incapable of recognizing Love as love. They cannot welcome this Love; they can only resist, curse, and abominate it—this is the source of their suffering. Immersed in the divine goodness, therefore, the damned inevitably endure the lake of fire as a “forcibly imposed punishment” (Talbott, p. 186). “It is simply not possible,” Talbott continues, “for those who cling to their selfish attitudes, to their lust for power over others, or to their delusions of personal grandeur to experience God’s holy presence as anything but unbearable torment” (p. 186).
Talbott then tentatively proposes a surprising interpretive twist. If the lake of fire symbolizes the holy presence of God, may not the “outer darkness” symbolize the “separation from the divine nature as far as is metaphysically possible short of annihilation” (p. 186)?
Even in the lake of fire one may yet retain the power to continue resisting God’s purifying love. For even as such resistance inevitably makes contact with the divine nature increasingly unbearable, it may also open up a theoretical possibility, at least, for this further choice: either one can submit freely to the purification that the lake of fire represents and begin to discover the bliss of union with the divine nature, or one can separate oneself altogether from God’s holy presence. The latter option implies separation from every implicit experience of God, including even an experience of the material universe. The brief New Testament allusions to the outer darkness suggest further that God may indeed honor such a choice. If, perchance, anyone in the lake of fire should retain the delusion that some good is possible apart from God, such a person would be free to act upon it and put it to the test. So even as Hitler tried to escape intolerable misery through suicide, perhaps some of those in the lake of fire may try to escape God’s presence altogether and thus leap from the lake of fire into sheer nothingness, otherwise known as the outer darkness. By this I do not mean to suggest annihilation (as if God would destroy forever what remains of his own image in even the worst of sinners); I merely mean to imply the loneliness and terror of living apart from every implicit experience of God. Nor is it even possible that someone rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both experience such a condition and continue to regard it as a desirable state. (p. 188)
Is Talbott speaking here of an objective or subjective state of affairs? Perhaps the distinction is meaningless. The undeniable point is that our personal orientation to God informs and determines our experience of God. If we have exercised our fundamental option in repudiation of God and consequently find ourselves immersed in the infernal fire, would we not seek a way of escape? And if physical escape is impossible, might we not retreat into our consciousness, building up wall upon wall of interior defenses, making nothingness our reality? Yet when we have succeeded as perfect a seclusion as we can manage, what would be the result? Happiness? Impossible. Perhaps while we live in the world we can entertain the possibility of happiness without God, but imagine now an existence stripped of creaturely goods and society, an existence of isolation, monotony, tedium, sterility, emptiness, death. Talbott cites a few lines from George MacDonald’s sermon “The Consuming Fire,” but these lines are embedded in a splendid passage that deserves quotation:
The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.
If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him—making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end—for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself–with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;—then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope. Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death. Is not this
to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
But with this divine difference: that the outer darkness is but the most dreadful form of the consuming fire—the fire without light—the darkness visible, the black flame. God hath withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure.
Perhaps not, therefore, two different realities but one indivisible reality experienced differently. There is only the consuming fire—the fire of love and deifying union, the fire of judgment, the fire of purgation, the fire of Nothingness and Being.
Talbott finds in the outer darkness the solution to the problem posed by libertarian free will. God need not violently impose himself upon the wicked. He need only allow them to know the nothingness they desire, in utter confidence they will find the condition a harrowing and intolerable horror. Finally, ineluctably, all resources exhausted, overwhelmed by despair and guilt, all avenues of escape closed off, the soul cannot but abandon hope—“O Lord, save me!”
Thus Talbott boldly speaks of predestination unto glory. When read through the glasses of the universalist hope, the words of the Apostle take on fresh meaning:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)
No need to indulge in the strained exegesis of the Calvinists and Augustinians (who restrict the elect to only a portion of humanity) or the Arminians (who insist that Paul is only thinking of the corporate election of the Church) or the Eastern Orthodox (who reconstrue predestination in terms of the divine foreknowledge). In Christ, declares Talbott, all humanity is divinely predestined to eternal bliss in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nor should we think that human freedom is therefore compromised. Why should the shattering of our illusions be judged a violation of personal integrity?
We thus return to the well-worn analogy of the grandmaster in chess … When a grandmaster plays a novice, it is foreordained, so to speak, that the grandmaster will win, not because he or she causally determines the novice’s every move or even predicts each one of them; the end is foreordained because the grandmaster is resourceful enough to counter any combination of moves that the novice will in fact freely decide to make. And similarly for the infinitely wise and resourceful God. He has no need to exercise direct causal control over our individual choices in order to “checkmate” us in the end; he can allow us to choose freely, perhaps even protect us from some ill-advised choices for a while, and still undermine over time every conceivable motive we might have for rejecting his grace. For once we learn for ourselves—after many trials and tribulations, in some cases—why separation from God is an objective horror and why union with him is the only thing that can satisfy our deepest yearnings and desires, all resistance to his grace will melt away like wax before a flame. (pp. 194-195)
Talbott goes so far as to speak of a “necessary universalism” and a “guarantee” of salvation. I confess that I remain uncomfortable with this language. “Given the nature of God’s love, wisdom, and power,” he avers, “it is logically impossible that his grace should fail to reconcile all sinners to himself” (p. 191). I understand the argument and assent to it, yet I try to avoid the language of necessity when speaking of God’s salvific work or even when speaking of the “necessity” of repentance, faith, and holy works. I am thrilled to proclaim the victory of our Lord’s resurrection and his eschatological transfiguration of the cosmos. God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28)—this is my hope. Yet I still judge the language of necessity alien to the language of faith. This may be a fine point I am raising—a difference, perhaps, without a difference—but I trust my instincts here. It’s a question of how we make the move from speculative reflection to proclamatory gospel. To speak unconditional promise in the name of the crucified and risen Christ is different than speaking of a necessity embedded in the structures of creation and the human psyche. When we preach, we tell a story of judgment, grace, and hope. Back in 1949 Thomas F. Torrance criticized an article on universalism by John A. T. Robinson: “If universalism is true—is a necessity,” he wrote—“then every road whether it had the cross planted on it or not would lead to salvation” (“Universalism or Election?” reprinted as an appendix to In the End, God, sp. ed., p. 146). Personally I think Robinson got the better of Torrance in their exchange, but I’m sympathetic to the latter’s concern. Would universalism remain a necessary truth even if Jesus had not died for our sins and risen into glory? I find The Inescapable Love of God to be a persuasive book, principally because of the acuity of Talbott’s philosophical analysis. I receive his arguments as bolstering my hope for universal salvation, but my hope ultimately flows from Pascha, not from the conclusions of syllogistic reason. … But I’m a preacher, not a philosopher.
My review of The Inescapable Love of God now comes to conclusion. I think it appropriate to give Dr Talbott the last word: “Contrary to what we might fear, the Creator and Father of our souls—the Lord of hosts and Kings of kings—is good” (p. 3).