The Hermeneutics of Perdition: When Hell Trumps Gospel

(Go to revised version of this article)

In his article “Christian Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?” Fr Lawrence Farley invites us to examine Scripture closely, in the confidence that if we do so, we will see that the hope of final reconciliation is false—so perspicuous is the Bible in its literal meaning. For the author eternal damnation functions as a kind of hermeneutical key. Is there a conflict between divine love and eternal punishment? No problem. Hell wins: “A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us.” Is there a seeming conflict between the Apostle Paul’s teaching about eschatological punishment and his teaching on universal restoration? No problem. Hell wins: “Since this teaching about the eternity of hell is so unambiguous, Paul’s other words (which everyone acknowledges contain more ambiguity) must be interpreted in the light of them.” Not to do so, the author tells us, would pit Paul against Jesus.

Here, I suggest, is the critical flaw in Fr Lawrence’s presentation. Instead of interpreting the texts on Gehenna in light of the good news of the Paschal Mystery—Christ’s atoning death on the cross, his harrowing of Hades, his glorious resurrection on Easter morning—the author does the opposite. His fundamental mistake, in other words, is hermeneutical. He begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ ostensible beliefs regarding divine judgment and everlasting punishment, and then proceeds to read the entire New Testament through this lens. Instead of interpreting the Bible through a hermeneutic of Pascha, the author reads it through a hermeneutic of perdition, with tragic consequences for preaching, evangelism, and the spiritual life. Hell trumps gospel; eternal retribution overwhelms the divine love and mercy; the joyful expectation for our Lord’s return becomes dread; the good news is reduced to conditional promise and law. It’s but a short step to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the revivalist tent meeting.

The dominical teaching on Gehenna and final judgment can only be properly interpreted when it is comprehended within the entirety of Christ’s saving work, as elaborated in the apostolic testimony. Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, is the hermeneutical principle of all eschatological and theological assertions. Hence if we could establish that St Paul in fact preached apokatastasis in the name of the risen Christ, then we would need to regard Jesus’ judgment sayings as reconcilable with the universalist hope. Pascha overturns our religious expectations and compels us to envision anew our understanding of God. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey so memorably expressed it: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all, and the glory of God in all eternity is that ceaseless self-giving love of which Calvary is the measure” (God, Christ and the World, p. 41; also see Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God).

We begin with the Old Testament:

In the Old Testament we find the following consistent themes:

1. God loves everyone, even idolatrous Gentiles such as those of Nineveh (e.g. Jonah 4:11);

2. God hates sin and judges sinners (e.g. Psalms 11:5, 34:16);

3. God judges sin with some reluctance, preferring the repentance of the sinner to his destruction (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11).

In all of these themes (the Scriptural citations for each could easily be multiplied) we see that although God loves everyone and judges with reluctance, He does nonetheless judge with severity those who persist in sin because He is implacably hates sin. This binary theme of God as the lover of righteousness and hater of sin runs throughout the Old Testament. God is the judge of all the earth, and His punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.

Fr Lawrence is not, of course, presenting a full portrait of God as revealed in the Old Testament. He is highlighting a dimension of the divine character that he believes Christian universalists downplay or ignore, namely, the divine opposition to immorality and wickedness. The righteousness of YHWH manifests itself in holy wrath, judgment, and retribution; and it is this righteousness, now projected into eternity, that is confirmed in the teaching of Jesus regarding Gehenna.

But before turning to Jesus, a preliminary comment: Fr Lawrence proceeds as if the options are restricted to apokatastasis and eternal damnation; but this is inaccurate. A growing number of biblical scholars have begun to explore a third option, popularly known as annihilationism or conditional immortality. Annihilationists believe that the judgment texts of the New Testament are best understood as teaching the divine obliteration of the impenitent (see David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, and Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes). This is the second death, these scholars tell us—nonexistence. Hence we should not too quickly  jump to the conclusion that the dramatic dominical imagery of unquenchable fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth obviously refers to everlasting punishment.

Now on to Jesus:

The theme of the age to come of course comes to the fore in the New Testament. And here, Christ speaks quite categorically: the punishments of Gehenna are eternal. He warns of the impenitent being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and there is no suggestion that this punishment will be temporary. Indeed, He teaches that in Gehenna, the “unquenchable fire”, the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48). If the Universalists are correct, then the worm will indeed die and the fire will indeed be quenched, but Christ here says the opposite. In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, Christ explicitly says that there is a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26). Granted that this is a parable and not a behind the scenes peak at eternity, it remains an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise.

Also important to the discussion is the fact that Christ describes the two fates awaiting men after the final judgment either as “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and “eternal punishment”, or as “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46). Note that the same word “eternal” (Greek aionion) is used in v. 46 to describe both the eternal life of the saved and the eternal punishment of the condemned. One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46. It cannot mean, for example, “the unrighteous will go away into age-long punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. If the life of the righteous is eternal, then so must be the punishment of the unrighteous. One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did. All of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of universalism. One cannot bypass this fact when promoting universalism, as many seem to do, but must rather explain why it is that Christ is so uncompromising in His words about hell.

It all sounds quite black and white. No other exegetical possibilities are deemed plausible. All one needs to do is to pick up one’s Bible, take a look at the relevant perditionist passages, and interpret the symbolic imagery as nonsymbolically as possible. One doesn’t, apparently, even have to ask how Jesus’ fellow Jews might have understood the “eternal” punishments of Gehenna. Did a uniform understanding of the Last Things exist in first century Palestinian Judaism? (The answer is no. Brad Jersak presents some of the historical data in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.) Nor does Fr Lawrence attempt to interpret the Gehenna texts in light of the fullness of our Lord’s revelation of the character of God (what about the parable of the shepherd who leaves his flock to search for one lost sheep or the woman who cleans her house looking for a lost coin? what about Jesus’ table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners or his disclosure of God as his Abba?), yet such interpretive work is essential if one is going to make historical claims about what Jesus did and did not teach about the final judgment. Did our Lord, for example, even intend to teach anything definite about Gehenna in his parables, or was he simply presupposing the popular understanding for purposes of his story-telling? The truth value of a parable does not lie in the details but in its evangelical and moral point. The author fails to acknowledge the exegetical and theological complexities of his position.

I will explore the possible meanings of aionios in a future article, but I do want to briefly comment on one specific assertion in the above passage. Referring to our Lord’s famous parable on the Last Judgment, Fr Lawrence argues: “One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46,” the logical implication being that if eschatological life is everlasting, as we all agree that it is, then eschatological punishment must also endure everlastingly. Yet the argument is faulty. Aionion is an adjective, and the meaning of an adjective changes according to the noun it modifies. Thus New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall:

The word “eternal” is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But “eternal” in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, “eternal life” includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when “eternal” describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration. (Beyond Retribution, p. 186, n. 123; also see David Konstan & Ilaria Ramelli, Terms for Eternity, pp. 57-70)

The translation of aionion as “eternal” prejudges the question before us. As I suggested in my article “From Here to Eternity,” it’s probably best to simply transliterate the term and leave the interpretation to informed readers. Matt 25:56 thus becomes: “Then they will go away to eonion chastisement, but the righteous to eonion life.” Sounds different from the English translations you have read, doesn’t it?

To repeat: the critical flaw of Fr Lawrence Farley’s reading of the New Testament is hermeneutical. He seeks to determine the meaning of the dominical sayings about Gehenna through grammatical exegesis, without reference to the totality of the teachings of Jesus about God and the Kingdom or his saving work  in death and resurrection. But more importantly, by failing to read the dominical words through a hermeneutic of Pascha, he has abstracted these sayings from the only context in which they can be gospel for the world.

“For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

(Go to revised version)

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24 Responses to The Hermeneutics of Perdition: When Hell Trumps Gospel

  1. This is spot on. Regardless of one’s position on the Apokatastasis, it is a fundamental error to privilege anything over the central governing theme of Pascha itself. Nothing, regardless of how “unambiguous” it may seem, should be used to trump Pascha. Everything must be read through Pascha.

    You say: “Is there a conflict between divine love and eternal punishment? No problem. Hell wins: “A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us.”

    In this, Fr. Farley has made a crucial error. The argument is not with you or DBH, etc. The argument for all of us has to be with Pascha. If someone holds that the punishments of hell are never-ending and not remedial, then they must somehow reconcile that with Pascha. Fr. Lawrence has, I think, made something of a Protestant error in his reasoning. He has posited a particular reading of the text and made it the controlling point in his hermeneutic. Orthodox reading of Scripture does not work like this. If it did, almost none of the Old Testament passages cited in the NT would make sense. Everything, everything, everything, is interpreted by Christ’s Pascha.

    What would a Paschal hermeneutic of hell look like? That is the question at hand for everyone.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for your comment, Fr Stephen. I particularly appreciate the challenge of your concluding question: “What would a Paschal hermeneutic of hell look like?” Hmm.

      Liked by 1 person

    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      I saw some icons once on the Paschal hermeneutic of hell.

      Like

    • Actually, a Byzantine Catholic friend of mine just sent me this wonderful ikon called “The Harrowing of Hell” which shows the Satan locked in spiritual darkness under the cross. It is Christ “trampling death by death”. This, I think is the perfect paschal hermeneutic of Hell. Death being completely trampled on along with the Satan.

      So what does a paschal hermeneutic of Hell look like? Seems to be a hostile over-throwing of the Satanic earthly kingdom and a release of all of the Satan’s prisoners as the Satan is left behind and trampled on.

      Ironically, only the Satan is enslaved in the spiritual darkness. Scripture only ever explicitly mentions the Satan in Hell. No others.

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      • 407kwac says:

        Every Orthodox Temple has that Icon, Newenglandsun. It is our Paschal Icon, and as Fr. Stephen points out, this is the genuine Orthodox hermeneutic of the Scriptures. This is the window through which we must view all its narratives.

        Karen

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        newenglandsun

        Karen is right, I was merely speaking apophatically. 🙂
        It is of interest to note that many renditions (perhaps earlier?? I do not know) of this Paschal icon do not have the Satan figure in the abyss, Hades is completely empty, save the broken locks and shackles.
        Another interesting note is that the harrowing of Hades is by far the more popular of the two Paschal icons (the other being the Spice Bearing Women at the Sepulchre).

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  2. brian says:

    Very strong, Father. One would have to be careful with how one interprets the following, but I suggest that not only should one always begin with a “hermeneutics of Pascha,” but also that the gospel radiates an “aesthetics of Pascha” that is the unique “glory of the Lord” (this is the central meditation of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics.) Critical discernment does not yield to a kind of stolid, univocal literalism that is immune to complexity and the need for interpretive dexterity and finesse.

    Still, it does come down to what “image” of God fundamentally determines one’s orientation. Leaving room for apophatic reserves, as Hart notes, the Good must be analogically available to our thought or one is left with theological nihilism. In my view, Christ’s last word on judgment is the word from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

    And all this leaves aside the important metaphysical considerations regarding the constitutive role of relation in personhood, the TriUne God as archetype of personal being, the implications of divine freedom and creatio ex nihilo — all serious, sustained thinking that is NOT purely philosophical; on the contrary, the arguments unpack the meaning of the gospel! Yet all these are ignored, unthought, refused by those who embrace a simplistic, perhaps untenable scriptural hermeneutic because they have convinced themselves that such is identical with an infallible tradition.

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  3. christianhollums says:

    Fr. Stephen, Fr. Aidan, and Brian,

    Thanks for all of your comments and Fr. Aidan thanks for your continuing thoughts and engagement with Fr. Lawrence Farley’s recent blog. I think all 4 of us have had the privilege of commenting and engaging with Fr. Farley in his article. One thing I would like to bring to attention that I don’t think you addressed in your blog (perhaps a future blog) is Fr. Farley’s aversion to Philosophical Absolutes. When I exchanged comments with him he said that everyone who has disagreed with him has done so Philosophically but not biblically.

    He states.. ” My lament about those who philosophize to the detriment of Scriptural interaction was not aimed specifically at Dr. Hart (though I did find little exegesis in what I have read from him and his handling of Paul in Romans had more rhetoric than substance). I meant that most of the universalist arguments I have read (including in the comments to my four blog articles on the subject) involve long philosophical arguments, and little sustained argument about what the text of Scripture actually says. It is perhaps significant in this regard that the one blog article of mine which strictly pertains to exegetical matters (“What Does Aionion Mean?”) has received 4 comments, while the one investigating the matter philosophically/ non-exegetically has received 72 comments. Such a focus lends colour to the view that universalists do not take the text with sufficient seriousness. For me (and for the Fathers) the question is primarily exegetical.”
    *https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/the-morality-of-gehenna/ (comments section)

    What is most frustrating is that Fr. Farley fails to recognize that he also has a Philosophical Hermeneutic when approaching the Scriptures. Clement of Alexandria states “Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology” but it seems for Fr. Farley it is off the table when discussing the Apokatastasis. You must play by his rules while he breaks them in front of you.

    In regards to Pashca I wold like to share how he interprets Pascha when I have suggested that he consider the Pashal Homiliy. Fr. Farley states “The harrowing of hell in which the righteous of former days in Hades were liberated, refers only to the righteous. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria, commenting on the relevant passage in 1 Peter 3:18f: ““He preached to those who were in Hades also, so that He might save all those who would believe in Him…However the souls of those who practised idolatry and outrageous ungodliness, as well as those who were blinded by fleshly lusts, did not have the power to see Him and they were not delivered.””
    *https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/the-morality-of-gehenna/ (comments section)

    He goes on to say that St. John Chrysostom was not a universalist so the idea that hades was emptied entirely is an illogical interpretation of the paschal homily. I think you are right in stating that for Fr. Farley his eschatology is the hermeneutical driver and lens in which he filters scripture, the fathers, the councils and even Pashca. Even more perplexing is why Fr. Farley even prays for those who are outside of the faith post-mortem. According to him to deny Christ in this age is to deny Christ in the age to come. Referring to Matthew 10:33 he states “Christ’s words about denying the one who denies Him refer to a continual and final denial of Him throughout one’s life. If one dies denying Him, He will indeed deny that person on the Last Day.”
    *https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/the-morality-of-gehenna/ (comments section)

    This is a very confusing and troubling statement since I pray often for my deceased Father who in fact denied Christ in this age and I have been encouraged to do so by Orthodox Clergy. What about the story of the Saint in Met. Hilarion’s work “The Mystery of Faith” who prayed for an evil emperor in Hades post-mortem and was told by Christ that his tears baptized him in hades and he was saved? Is that a feel good myth? Why even pray for those have passed? Should we only pray for the Orthodox faithful because the fate of all Christ deniers of this age is sealed? It seems for Fr. Farley there is no mystery. For him this Eschatological topic is closed and the scene is set.

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  4. Mike H says:

    Theology is so frustratingly circular. Hermeneutics are so frustratingly complex. Starting points become so deeply embedded and assumed as to be nearly invisible.

    While this post may charitably represent Fr Lawrence’s view of those 3 OT themes as not “presenting a full portrait of God as revealed in the OT”, I do think it represents the dominant operating paradigm (even if a person elects to look at it allegorically). It attempts to establish retribution as a divine “default mode” so to speak, the deepest truth. As this story goes, God “loves” people (whatever that means in the end), but people sin. God then clobbers these people (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes quite zealously), often using a nearby group people to do it, and then usually clobbers those people for killing His people in the first place. Whatever comes next, those people’s fates are sealed. The End. That backdrop being established, there is nothing left to do but try to squeeze the Gospel into it.

    An aside, I’m reading Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak right now. It’s apparent to me that the OT “biblical” narrative is FAR more ambiguous and genuinely multi-vocal than this. And yet I’m uncertain of the degree to which this historical evidence, “modern scholarship”, and “original intent” is admissible evidence in Orthodox circles.

    The difficulty, of course, is that the Paschal Mystery is not hermeneutically self-evident. There is no way to circumvent the hermeneutical process entirely. In this case, I think it’s a matter of how the “Paschal Mystery” is defined, not so much whether it’s being ignored. No, the cross and resurrection isn’t one religious proposition that’s stirred into a giant pot of doctrine with all the rest. It IS the pot. It’s not one paint color that’s stirred up all with the rest of the colors to make a rather disgusting brown color. It’s the paint brush. But that said, Pascha is inevitably understood in light of the various ways that particular scriptures and/or pieces of liturgy are understood, right?

    This circularity is why I think that what a person is, Eschatology, the Gospel, the nature of the biblical texts, the nature and moral character of God, etc. are so intricately connected as to be inseparable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      Mike H,

      It seems to me that modernity privileges univocal, determinate knowledge. It always recesses its metaphysical and epistemological biases so that they are usually absorbed as “common sense” and never put in question. The tendency by fundamentalist Protestants to think in terms of propositional truth and proof texts and to frequently think of faith as something opposed to reason are modern proclivities. And many conservative Catholics and traditionalist Orthodox treat authority the way fundamentalists treat Scripture. In general, these tendencies are oblivious to the way hermeneutics is deeply enmeshed with a way of being. God calls us from the cosmos without and at the intimate root of our unique being within. William Desmond talks about the “hyperboles of being.” There is a saturated, overdetermined quality to things because everything is more than itself. Everything bears a “too muchness” because in its existential depths it witnesses to the song of God’s love for creation. This intimacy is both loving, strange, wondrous, and beyond capture in ideas or rote paradigms that close off the infinite depths of revelation. Those who are sleepy to this quality of being will necessarily hold inadequate modes of interpretation. An appreciation for the multivocity of scripture and the plurivocity of traditions is lacking — which is not to deny unity, but it is a living unity that is open to the eternal richness of God. The path of following Christ requires that one sometimes be daring and imaginative. The desire, understandable enough, to pin God down and fix reality conceptually is often laziness or a culpable need for safety when one ought to trust the agapeic God. Then mystery is treated as an excuse not to ponder or struggle with complexities and ambiguities. Then religious certitudes become a resistance to live with discomforts that can only be eschatologically resolved.

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        “religious certitudes become a resistance to live with discomforts that can only be eschatologically resolved.”

        The charge is often however that UR is an attempt to resolve the eschatological unknown status of eternal punishment. Leave things be – we can’t be certain, why speculate, and why all this philosophy?

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        • brian says:

          Those who want to be done with philosophy can only do so from ignorance or naivete. Theology implicitly relies upon some metaphysical understanding. Scriptural exegesis is not separate from philosophy, the way faith and reason properly understood are not antinomies. Revelation also illuminates reality, so philosophy is itself deepened by “religious” experience. But to your question, there are all kinds of discomforts. One of them in terms of the prior discussion might involve the need for a discernment that is not open to easy, egalitarian agreement. Reality itself throws one into confusions and brings out equivocities and chiaroscuro that must be lived, whether one wants to or not. The proper response to wonder and anguish might be something like philosophy, even if one understands revelation as “grace” that exceeds what “nature” could accomplish or even imagine otherwise. And the usual charge that UR is a sappy optimism can only be made by those who have not existentially lived it. Traditional infernalist views often make it easy to hold compassion for the repentant sinner whilst self-righteously engaging in censure for “the world” that resists God. One can produce ecclesial enclaves or a “bastion mentality” that tends towards binary judgments that frequently approach a metaphysical dualism in which what happens to the “saved” is antiseptically separate from what happens to the “reprobate.” All this can engender simple judgments that forestall empathy and also the requirement to live with complicated communities that must continue to love the loveless because even the loathsome and vicious are loved by God.

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  5. Andrew says:

    I have struggled with the essential argument in Fr Lawrence’s essay-that the joy and optimism in St Paul’s writing which seem to flow out of his hope, conviction even, that God will truly have mercy on all it at odds with the clear teachings in the Synoptics regarding Gehenna. He is perhaps striking at a weakness in many contemporary presentations of the universal hope which do seen to rely heavily on St Paul and on a handful of Gospel parables which present God a forgiving an loving. But what do we do with all the other parables an teachings regarding the judgement which are more numerous than the comforting ones?

    I think Fr Lawrence and also many advocates of the universal hope overlook a couple of Gospel teachings which I believe are incredibly significant- the teaching regarding “paying the last penny” found in Luke and Matthew and the teaching about the “few and the many stripes” found in Luke.

    In my cursory study of how “the last penny” teachings has been historically understood I was delighted to find that no less than three separate “schools” if you will of interpretation (the earliest Latins, Tertullian and Cyprian, Origin and the Alexandrians and Diodore and a Theodore among the Antiochians) interpreted the “last penny” teaching to mean that there would be dreadfully exacting but finite punishment ones sins upon death. The Latins applied this to believers only (and Tertullian and Cyprian are often quoted as early witnesses to the teaching of purgatory by Catholic apologists). Origin on the one hand and Diodore and Theodore on the other understood “the last penny” to be finite punishment for all depending on ones sins (but again exacting, dreadful). My point is the widespread, straightforward , obvious you might say interpretation here is that the Lord is promising finite chastisements to those neglect their conscience throughout their lives. The same could be said about the “few and the many stripes” from Gospel of Luke. Numerous early fathers from the third and fourth century could be quoted to demonstrate that the most widespread, plain, straightforward interpretation of this passage was that punishments would be severe for those who were negligent but that these punishments would be finite and correspond to ones faithfulness or lack thereof.

    So if it is the case that most in the third and fourth century understood The Lord to teach limited punishment (though the main thrust of these parables was about not seriousness of neglecting faithfulness) how does that hermeneutics influence we read the res of the New Testament. In that case the universalist hope in St Paul’s teachings becomes even more obvious, more bright.

    So if the obvious interpretation of these Gospel teachings is limited but severe chastisement then what happened? I don’t know but it seems there was a backlash even before Justinian for who knows why. I think the pseudo Basil passage against “stripes” implying limited punishment must have been aimed at the common assumption for many that punishment was limited.

    This brings me to what I believe is one of the most significant passages from The second part of St Isaac. After quoting Diodore and Theodore regarding the stripes and the last penny, St Isaac goes on go that if we hold to these “insights” regarding the Lord’s teaching on limited chastisements “how He allows them to come in a fatherly way and not vengefully-which would be a sign of hatred-their purpose was that by thinking in this way we might come to know about God and wonder at Him would draw us on to love of Him and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here”.

    So there you have a hermeneutics not based on the parable of the prodigal son, or St Paul or Pascha, but on the limited and loving nature of the chastisements of the world to come as taught by the mouth of The Lord according the broad straightforward interpretation of most the early fathers.

    Not only does Isaac faithfully preserve the earliest interpretation regarding the nature of chastisements as taught by Christ when this interpretation had been obliterated in the Church inside the Roman Empire, he makes a powerful statement about the true nature of the Christian life, that we begin to love God only when we truly perceive that God loves us and will always love us whether there will be few or many stripes.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Andrew,

      I don’t think it a tenable position to hold that limited punishment was the majority view in the 3rd or 4th century. For one, the debate about who was saved during Christ’s Descensus ad Infernus was an active and prolonged one, especially during the 2nd-5th centuries. There was no agreement as to who was saved – some factions held it was merely the OT righteous among the Hebrews, others held it was the OT faithful (Jew and Gentile alike), according to others it was all the OT saint and sinner alike, and to others still it was not only confined to the past (OT) but also included those in the future (NT). It does appear that over time, for what it is worth, the Descensus group become more inclusive.

      This appears to me to underline the role of a “hermeneutic lens” by which the Scriptures and Tradition is understood.

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      • Andrew says:

        Thanks. I wasn’t trying to make an argument that limited punishment for all was necessarily the majority view. That’s another question, sorry for the confusion. I was pointing out that it appears that the dominant interpretation of the Lord’s saying about “paying the last penny” across the spectrum of different theological schools (the early Latins, the Alexandrians, the Antiochians) was of exacting but finite chastisements. The Latins limited these chastisements to believers (laying the groundwork for the Latin doctrine of purgatory). Origen (and those under his influence, Gregory of Nyssa for instance) and Diodore and Theodore among the Antiochians interpreted these chastisements to be for all. After the fifth century it seems there wasn’t much discussion about “the last penny” and “the few stripes and the many” at least in the east, perhaps because the retributive view of gehenna was establishing itself more firmly there especially with after Justianian. However, in the West the “the last penny” teaching continued to be discussed and in used in support of the doctrine of purgatory for centuries and even to the present day.

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  6. Tom says:

    I’ve always thought Revelation 5.13 was a strong passage (within its context):

    “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’”

    The scope of its embrace is explicitly universal (in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea and all that is in them”) and without exception (“every creature”). And they’re all worshiping God. What else is this (at the front end of Revelation) but a vision of the final end, a vision of all things restored?

    Tom

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  7. frlawrence says:

    [Fr Lawrence Farley appears to be having difficulty logging into WordPress and has asked me to copy this comment to the thread–AK]

    Thank you, Father Aidan, for your thoughtful response to my blog. I have learned from sad experience that long replies in the ‘comments’ section rarely bear much fruit, and often simply illustrate the truth of Proverbs 18:2. I will therefore not reply point by point, but will only, if I may, make a few brief responses before permanently signing off.

    First, I deny that I use a “hermeneutic of perdition”. Rather I am interpreting passages of some ambiguity by the light of passages of less ambiguity. Talking about “a hermeneutic of Pascha” simply muddies the exegetical waters.

    Secondly, the possibility of a soul being lost does not mean that “hell wins”, as if hell were a team in a competition. One cannot even say concerning such a terrible possibility that “human choice wins”, since human choice remain determinative to our eternal destiny whether the person is saved or lost. It is unhelpful to portray the loss of a soul as “hell trumping the Gospel”, for the Good News is not “all men will be saved”, but rather that “all men may be saved if they so choose”. This does not make Gospel a “conditional promise”, but a free offer of grace. That the offered can be refused does not make it any less free, gracious, or glorious.

    Finally, though I am quite aware of the option of the annihilationist/ conditional immortality view, (and have Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes on my bookshelf), I did not deal with it because it seemed to lack proper historical credentials. Even Metropolitan Kallistos, in his essay Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All? acknowledged that though it was held by fourth century Arnobius of Sicca, it has otherwise little support in earlier tradition. And if the impenitent are to be annihilated, what then of the universalist insistence that “love wins”? If the impenitent are burned up by God and so cease to exist, what is to stop one from protesting that then “non-existence trumps the Gospel”? I conclude therefore that the main contenders in the field are the traditionalists (or “infernalists” as some would prefer) and the universalists.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful blog post.

    Fr Lawrence Farley

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr Lawrence, thank you for your comment. Three quick comments:

      1) Your resistance to being saddled with a “hermeneutic of perdition” is quite understandable, but I believe that the way you have framed your critique of the universalist hope in fact demonstrates its validity. In your article you begin with a retributive portrayal of God, and then you immediately jump to the judgment/Gehenna passages in the gospels, which you see as confirming–with certainty–the retributive portrayal. At no point do you consider the possibility that the retributive portrayal of God has been corrected and reinterpreted by Christ–both by his teaching on the character of the loving Father and by his atoning sacrifice on Calvary in which sin is judged and forgiven. At no point do you consider the possibility that these Gehenna texts are to be interpreted in a fresh light, given Christ’s destruction of death through resurrection and ascension.

      You state that you are “interpreting passages of some ambiguity by the light of passages of less ambiguity.” This sounds reasonable at first glance, but only as long one remains at the grammatical level of the text. Everything changes, however, when one pushes through the surface level to the depths of the Paschal Mystery–that is to say, when one begins to engage in theological and spiritual exegesis.

      Like you, I am a preacher and pastor (albeit retired). My consuming interest is the preaching of the good news of Christ. Do you not see how this good news is grievously wounded and undermined by the threat that God will judge and condemn sinners to eternal perdition? And let’s be clear. In the Scriptures, God is the active agent. God is the one who condemns. God is the one who casts out. One finds little to no exegetical support for the later, and now standard, Orthodox interpretation that hell is heaven experienced differently, that damnation is self-chosen and all that God does is ratify our decision, as it were. In Matt 25 the reprobate are condemned because of the good works they have not done; the saved by the good works they have done, even though they were unaware that their good works were being done for Christ (cf. Rom 2:5-11). If we remain at the surface level of the text, we will all have to be good Augustinians, at least in our understanding of hell and retributive punishment.

      In other words, we are talking about two different interpretive paradigms. I respectfully suggest that the Gehenna passages look so eternally damning to you because you inhabit one specific paradigm, whereas I inhabit a very different one: a hermeneutic of perdition versus a hermeneutic of Pascha.

      2) You write: “It is unhelpful to portray the loss of a soul as ‘hell trumping the Gospel’, for the Good News is not ‘all men will be saved’, but rather that ‘all men may be saved if they so choose’. This does not make Gospel a ‘conditional promise’, but a free offer of grace. That the offered can be refused does not make it any less free, gracious, or glorious.”

      Actually, the overwhelming number of Christian universalists, including Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa, would agree with you here. They do not deny free will–quite the contrary. But they do insist upon two things: (1) the damned do not lose their ability to repent. If that were to happen, they would in fact have ceased to be human and therefore ceased to be Imago Dei; and (2) God never ceases to work for their ultimate salvation, even if that means casting them into the outer darkness where they will suffer the unbearable consequences of their sin and disbelief. And when they cry for help, God will be there to save.

      But as you have gathered, I am not content with a construal of the gospel as “all men may be saved if they so choose”—or, to phrase it as second-person discourse, “you may be saved, if you so choose.” This is precisely a conditional promise, as indicated by the conditional clause–and it is this conditional clause that destroys gospel preaching and throws sinners back upon themselves to save themselves. But mine is a minority opinion even within Christian universalism (and even a smaller minority within Orthodoxy [perhaps a minority of one]) so I won’t push it here.That’s a conversation for another day. 🙂

      3) I’m glad you mentioned free will or free choice. That immediately takes us beyond Scripture brings us into philosophy. What is free will within a fallen world? How do we understand human freedom in relationship to Creator who makes the world from out of nothing? I know that you dislike philosophical-theological speculation, but as soon as one begins talking about free will, we are doing philosophy! And then the question becomes, are we doing good philosophy or bad philosophy.

      Thank you again for revisiting my blog.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Fr Lawrence,

      You do not demonstrate how a “hermeneutic of Pascha” muddies the exegetical waters. Certainly you don’t mean to say the Christian understanding of the OT is muddied by a “hermeneutic of Pascha”?

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    • Mike H says:

      Father Lawrence,

      Rather I am interpreting passages of some ambiguity by the light of passages of less ambiguity.

      Since degree of ambiguityis the foundation of your argument, I’ll try to engage on those grounds. I have 4 quick points in reply, each of which could be expanded significantly of course (and I agree that it’s difficult to effectively converse in blog comments).

      1: Not everyone will agree with your hermeneutic, not least because what is deemed to be “ambiguous” varies. Because a person doesn’t play by those rules doesn’t invalidate an argument.

      2: In the scope of this particular topic, we aren’t just dealing with specific terms like Gehenna, eternal, etc. We’re also dealing with the principles that they’re purported to represent: justice, retribution, providence, whether God’s disposition changes, the nature of free will, divine love, etc. Any conversation must allow for an interaction that goes beyond a “lexicon approach” type focus on a small number of biblical key words to the exclusion of all else. It necessarily involves theology and philosophy as opposed to doing exegesis in a vacuum.

      3: #2 aside, there IS ambiguity about the “last things” within the context of Jesus’ audience – it’s evident within 2nd Temple Judaism. That, to me, is beyond dispute. There is plenty of scholarship about this. Additionally, whichever of these various contexts might be established in the mind of the hearer (which we can’t know), that hardly means that Jesus is obliged to meticulously deconstruct whatever beliefs He runs into (at the risk of giving tacit approval) prior to making His (sometimes tangential) point.

      4: There is ambiguous usage of the terms themselves within the pages of the NT. Just one example. Of the 12 instances of “Gehenna” in the NT, 2 of them (Matt 23:15 & James 3:6) are markedly different and cannot possibly be read as a warning against a future post-mortem place or state of punishment. They’re more of a reality which God opposes than a future punishment to which He consents and administers. That is not to say that the other 10 can’t work within your framework. It’s only to say that the word itself isn’t unambiguous. There is more going on.

      Bottom line for me, I think your argument from the unambiguity of a “plain reading” is rather tenuous. The issue is broader than that.

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  8. Donald says:

    One interesting point ( to me at least) is that Fr. Farley’s position amounts to a type of annihilationism, even if he won’t use the term. He seems to agree with Lewis’s portrait of Hell in The Great Divorce. The idea as I understand it is that upon death, people get a clear understanding of the basic choice– you either love God or reject Him. Those who do the latter degenerate as a result of their choice into something less than human.

    To my way of thinking that is annihilation. Your beloved friend or relative who rejects God to the final moment isn’t cast into Hell — that person with his or her quirky sense of humor, compassion for others and love of flowers and cats and chocolate– that person is replaced by some demonic caricature. The analogy I used at his blog was to the vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Once bitten, they retain their memories and even bits of their personality, but they lose their conscience and become cruel immoral sociopaths. Actually the tv show wasn’t totally consistent on this, but the general idea was that a person who had become a vampire wasn’t a person anymore and you could kill them without any guilt– in fact, you should kill them because they were pure evil, the person they came from was gone, and all they would do from this point forward would be evil.

    In contrast, when you read Dante, whatever Dante’s intent you feel sorry for most of the denizens of Hell, because they all seem like the people they were in life.

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    • brian says:

      Effective pop culture reference. Christ surpasses the excellence of a heroic warrior ethos. For the traditional hero, the enemy must be vanquished. Steadfast opposition and malice is ended by subduing or killing hostile foes. The peace that results is always tenuous, for the differences between the hero and the other are always potentially violent. Indeed, all pagan metaphysics implicitly understand difference as agonic. (Cf. John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory.) But the TriUne God of Christianity reveals difference as not fundamentally driven by lack or fear. Rather, the perichoresis of Divine Life exhibits difference as a dynamic, dramatic plenitude of peace. Hence, those who embrace an eschatology in the mode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reveal a deep-seated pagan pessimism no matter what their surface theology affirms. Christ’s heroism achieves a healing victory in which nothing and no one is eternally lost from the passionate love of God.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have revised, expanded, and republished this post, which can be found here. I will close the comments and invite you to continue the conversation in the comments section of the revised article.

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