The Hermeneutics of Perdition: When Hell Trumps Gospel

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. Fr Lawrence begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ purported 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 as comprehended within the entirety of Christ’s saving work, as elaborated in the apostolic testimony. The Paschal Christ is the hermeneutical norm of all eschatological and theological assertions. We begin with the final future, and work backwards. Historical scholarship appropriately seeks to interpret the words of Jesus within their historical and cultural context, just as one would interpret the words of any other person of the past. The Christian theologian gratefully receives the scholarly work of the historian but refuses to be constrained by it. Jesus is more than memory. He is risen into the coming Kingdom, from which he rules Church and cosmos. Thomas F. Torrance provocatively makes the point:

It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 13, n. 18)

In a very real sense, the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples and the crowds of Galilee could not be properly understood until he had finished his atoning work on the cross and been raised from the dead by his heavenly Father. We must apprehend by the Spirit the logos of the living Christ if we are to understand his lalia—such is the interrelationship between Word and biblical words.

Perhaps a New Testament scholar, bound to the criteria of historical scholarship, might conclude that Jesus probably taught some form of everlasting damnation or annihilationism; but this conclusion need not be determinative, for the Church knows the living Christ in his paschal glory. The Lord intends us to interpret his words recorded in the gospels in the eschatological fullness of his self-revelation. This is what I mean when I speak of a hermeneutic of Pascha. Pascha is new life and new creation, the triumph of the Kingdom over Satan and death, revelation of the absolute love, mercy, and forgiveness of the Creator. Pascha is promise of the consummation of the cosmos in the eternal life of the Trinity. God will be all in all, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen. (Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom)

The threat of damnation does not belong to the proclamation of the gospel. If hell is a possibility, it is an impossible possibility that should and cannot be. We do not believe in hell; we believe in Jesus Christ. Heaven and hell do not stand on equal footing. Whatever place warnings of reprobation might have in Christian preaching, they do not qualify or mitigate the work of redemption accomplished in the incarnate Son. The gospel is not carrot and stick; it is not mere offer that may be subsequently withdrawn. We do not preach perdition. The gospel is unconditional promise and eschatological gift, sealed in the sacrifice of the risen Lord.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Hence if we could, for example, reasonably 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 greater hope. I am not arguing that historical exegesis alone can demonstrate universal restoration, but I am suggesting that historical exegesis alone cannot foreclose its possibility. Pascha overturns our religious and philosophical expectations and compels us to reenvision our understanding of the divine Creator and the telos of human existence. In Jesus Christ we now know God as not even ancient Israel could know him. 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. 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 “God-damnation or Self-damnation?”)

[This is a revised and expanded version of an article that was published earlier in the week. I was not satisfied with it when I initially published it, and my dissatisfaction continued to grow afterwards.  I hope that this version clarifies my understanding of the hermeneutics of Pascha.]

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

  1. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    Father,

    Would you be so kind to bracket (or otherwise mark) and comment on the reasons for the changes and additions?

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  2. brian says:

    Apophaticallyspeaking,

    I think these are the two key assertions:

    “The Paschal Christ is the hermeneutical norm of all eschatological and theological assertions. . We begin with the final future, and work backwards.”

    “Perhaps a New Testament scholar, bound to the criteria of historical scholarship, might conclude that Jesus probably taught some form of everlasting damnation or annihilationism; but this conclusion need not be determinative, for the Church knows the living Christ in his paschal glory. The Lord intends us to interpret his words recorded in the gospels in the eschatological fullness of his self-revelation.”

    This clarifies how one is not simply bound to either the limits of historico-critical method or to a kind of literalist scriptural understanding that cannot imagine the event of Pascha as transforming and opening up the potencies of the historical moment. I am impressed with this line of thought.

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  3. Tom says:

    “The dominical teaching on Gehenna and final judgment can only be properly interpreted as comprehended within the entirety of Christ’s saving work, as elaborated in the apostolic testimony. The Paschal Christ is the hermeneutical norm of all eschatological and theological assertions. We begin with the final future, and work backwards.”

    I agree this is really the heart of the matter—Christ’s passion & resurrection and love’s unitive intentions which motivate creation and incarnation to begin with. Hart noted Gregory of Nyssa’s overarching insight that ‘protology’ and ‘eschatology’ are a single science, a single truth revealed in the Godman, that only from the perspective of the ‘end’ does one finally know what things are and why they’ve been created.

    Tom

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  4. brian says:

    I’d like to add that this is a very Johannine Christology. One sees the historical action through a prism of paschal glory.

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  5. “Fr Lawrence begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ purported 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,”
    More sounds to me he reads the pascha from his perceived understanding of judgment. The pascha though must be how we understand the judgment. There can be no doubt Jesus preached Hell but in the sermon on the mount, we see a radical separation from what causes us to sin. Indeed, John baptizes with water, but the Agnus Dei baptizes with fire and Spirit. The fire, therefore, must be seen as a fire that destroys and annihilates our sins.

    There seems to be little room for the sacraments and their purpose in the reading of Fr Lawrence for what is their meaning in the life of the Church is they are just means of voiding one’s own damnation? It seems he agrees with Fr Jonathan Mittichan from TheConciliarAnglican who relegates the sacraments to just such.

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  6. Tom says:

    I’d be very interested in hearing Fr Farley (or any Orthodox proponent of the traditional view) expound a theology of eternal-irrevocable torment, i.e., integrate such a view within the larger theological values and vision of Orthodoxy. How’s it make sense to you? How’s it integrate with other theological values at the heart of Orthodoxy’s vision of God and the world in God? It’s one thing for a sola scriptura evangelical to say, “I submit to the Bible as my final authority, and the Bible teaches irrevocable torment for the damned, so that’s that.” But the Orthodox (correct me if I’m wrong) don’t relate to or read the Bible that way. I thought dogmatic readings of Scripture were, for the Orthodox, a sensus communis finally established through conciliar judgments. What conciliar judgments establish such a communal reading of Scripture on this subject? The 15 Anathemas? Is that it? Anything else?

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  7. The way the argument is framed here sounds very similar to the old separation between the ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of Faith’. It’s one thing, and a very true thing, to argue that we should interpret all in Scripture in light of Christ; but this is not the argument here, since Fr. Farley is being criticized for doing this for the wrong Christ — i.e., he should not be trying to take Jesus at His word as written down in Scripture but instead should be interpreting everything in light of an eschatological ‘Paschal Christ’ known only spiritually. But the problem with framing it this way is that Christ is not just the one who rose; He was the one who taught in earthly, historical ministry and whose teachings we learn about through Scripture and the proclamation of the Church. That was not a different Christ, or a lesser Christ — the Transfiguration shows that it was the very same Christ as the ‘Paschal Christ’, as the eschatologically revealed Christ, all along.

    (This worry wouldn’t affect at all your very good point about the dangers of splitting the parables from their moral and evangelical points, or some of your other interpretive points about the texts themselves. That is, the criticism, “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,” is completely unaffected by this worry. But the other part, “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,” is a massively stronger kind of claim, and seems to put us dangerously close to hyperspiritualizing or gnosticizing Christ. At least, I don’t see how you are guarding against this in using ‘hermeneutic of Pascha’ the way you are using it here.)

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Brandon,

      The charge is not that a “wrong Christ” is used by Fr Farley, but rather that the Paschal hermeneutic is not consistently used to interpret Scripture.

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      • And ‘the Paschal hermeneutic’ is explicitly: “The Paschal Christ is the hermeneutical norm of all eschatological and theological assertions.” And it is contrasted explicitly with: “Fr Lawrence begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ purported beliefs”.

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        • brian says:

          Saying an argument sounds like something — in this case, that old chestnut, a separation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith — does not establish an identity. I find it an interesting charge, nonetheless. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergius Bulgakov are among the ablest and most interesting theologians of the twentieth century — and both were calumniated with the “gnostic” aspersion. It seems whenever one goes beyond a particular rhetoric and hermeneutic practice, one is apt to find such suspicions. I cannot fully speak for Father Kimel here, but as his sensibility and mine are generally congenial, I’ll venture the following. The “historical” letter itself originates from, is preserved and transmitted within, a “spiritual” kerygma. To posit a separation is “always already” to misunderstand the conditions of possibility for revelation itself. One is not rejecting in the least existential, historical “data” when one discovers an eschatological “frame” that illuminates the infinite depths that are contained therein (John 21:25). In any event, the entire praxis of patristic exegesis, first initiated with genius by Origen, relies upon such an understanding of how one should read scripture.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Yes, what he said. 🙂

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          • Then it would in fact be problematic, as I suggested, to frame the difference, as the post does at one point, in terms of starting with the Paschal Christ vs. starting with Jesus’ purported beliefs; the latter is not and cannot be beginning in the wrong place. The problem is with the details of the approach.

            It is, of course, blatantly obvious that there’s no identity; for one thing, Fr. Kimel is obviously not a German Protestant of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is not the point. What is the point still hasn’t been addressed, however; increasing one’s use of Greek-based vocabulary is not a magical charm against going wrong. The point I raised was: how does one actually guard against hyperspiritualizing Christ in the use of ‘the hermeneutic of Pascha’ as found in the post, as it is applied against this particular argument, which is attempting to start with the words of Christ as preserved by apostolic witness?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Brandon, I don’t think there is any special mechanism that might prevent one from going wrong in the interpretation of Scripture. All one can do is to present one’s interpretations to the Church and hope that the Spirit will eventually sort things out. Of course, if one is Roman Catholic, then there is always the Papal Magisterium.

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        • apophaticallyspeaking says:

          Brandon,

          Your concern about guarding against “hyper spiritualizing Christ” tells me that on a very fundamental level you are not familiar with, or else misunderstand the Eastern Orthodox Paschal hermeneutic. It is does not raise meaning at the cost of marginalizing history. You will have to demonstrate how such a juxtaposition occurs, I see no evidence of this in Fr Aidan post.

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          • The question is not “the Eastern Orthodox Paschal hermeneutic”, but specifically and explicitly about the formulation of it as applied in this particular case against this particular kind of argument. Nor does talking in vague, handwaving generalities address the issue at hand at all, which is, again: how, in this particular case when objecting to this particular kind of argument, does one actually (i.e., without merely asserting vaguely that it can’t possibly be a worry because you’re Eastern Orthodox, which is literally all that anyone has given me so far), guard against the danger of hyperspiritualizing Christ?

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    • There is a false dichotomy you created between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. As apophaticallyspeaking has already pointed this out, I need not say more. However, I must ask how the Paschal Christ differs from his pre-resurrection. Are you certain you are not the one making this dichotomy? All that is being said and trying to be said is that Jesus’s statements on judgment and the Hell-fire need to be interpreted in light of the Paschal mystery. Which Fr Lawrence is not doing.

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      • I don’t think you read my comment very carefully. (1) I didn’t create the false dichotomy; (2) I explicitly said that the Paschal Christ doesn’t differ from Christ before resurrection.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I appear to have misread your comment, too. Sorry.

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        • Correct–that is what is being said in this article as well. What is being questioned and wrestled with is how then to interpret the doctrine of Hell in light of this Paschal mystery?

          You do concur that the earthly ministry of Christ led to the Paschal mystery, right? Which means his mission and teachings are concerning the Paschal mystery and should be interpreted in this light.

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          • apophaticallyspeaking says:

            newenglandsun

            I could be mistaken, but if I understand Brandon correctly he is supposing the words of Christ do not require interpretation, thus a Paschal hermeneutic is a step removed and poses (or possesses the danger that it will pose) a dichotomy between Christ and any hermeneutic.

            A direct, unmediated access to Christ’s words not requiring interpretation is most definitely not in accord with an Eastern Orthodox understanding of the nature of scripture and tradition.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Brandon. As you might expect, I do not accept the criticism that I have posited a disjunction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I would argue, rather, that the teachings of Jesus cannot be genuinely understood apart (a) from the apostolic testimony to his atoning death and resurrection and (b) from the liturgical life of the Church. Historical critics understandably resist these hermeneutical moves, but I think this is what needs to happen if the Church is to interpret the Bible as Scripture and not just as historical text.

      I recognize the problem and do not pretend to have all the answers or provided a bullet-proof formulation of a hermeneutic of Pascha. Two years ago I published a blog series on some of these questions which may be germane to this discussion. Here’s the first article in the series: “So what if Jesus didn’t claim to be God.” As I reread these articles (much of which I cannibalized from articles on my old blog written a decade ago), I note that I stress today much more strongly the eschatological element. I suspect that is because of my move into Orthodoxy.

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    • Tom says:

      Brandon, looking at your original note above, I can appreciate how one would draw a comparison between the ‘Christ of faith’ and ‘Christ of history’ in gospel studies and the emphasis upon the Paschal mystery as the interpretive center that Fr Aidan is suggesting. But I really think there’s no genuine parallel here. It’s one thing to make the Paschal mystery the interpretive center and work out from there (think of concentric circles with God’s intentions for the scope of humanity’s possibilities revealed in the Passion at the center, and then meeting other circles of interpretive concern as you move out). It’s an entirely different thing to ask people to choose between the Christ of faith (because that’s the only real Christ offered us in the gospel stories anyhow, an already fully formed cosmic Christ created by the Church) and the historical Jesus (who is essentially inaccessible to us and about whom we can say practically nothing). With the latter you’re choosing between two different circles (or at the very most the ‘historical’ Jesus is an infinitely small point in the center of the ‘Christ of faith’ because Jesus did in fact exist, but that’s pretty much all we can say ‘historically’. The rest is ‘theology’ and the two are not congenial sciences at all).

      The latter sort of work isn’t what Fr Aidan (as I read him) is getting at. As I understand the Paschal hermeneutic , what’s being said is that the Passion as it reveals God is always at the center of any biblical text or saying of Christ. For the Church, the idea that the gospels (rememeber, the gospels already ARE the product of the tradition, i.e., the experience and worship of early believers) could in part be interpreted outside of the finality of what’s said in the Passion is impossible. Now, that might not be a legit way to read the NT. That’s a separate debate. Fr Aidan’s point is that it is the way Fr Farley as an Orthodox priest ought to be reading Jesus and it seems (to Fr Aidan) that Fr Farley isn’t doing that.

      My own feeling is that Fr Aidan’s criticism includes all Orthodox who are infernalists, since infernalism can only be concluded (if I’m reading Fr Aidan rightly) if one fails to maintain a Paschal hermeneutic properly. And that’s a big criticism to make. I agree the Passion, properly seen and at the center of one’s theology, precludes the possibility of irrevocable foreclosure upon those for whom Jesus died (which is the entire cosmos). It’s just a big claim to make that the majority of all Orthodox who promote a Paschal hermeneutic in fact violate it by being infernalists.

      Tom

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  8. I enjoyed the revised and expanded version here, especially that you defined the meaning of “Pascha”. Sorry, but I am not a scholar or theologian, and the term somehow did not connect with paschal in my mind. Thank you.

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  9. brian says:

    Brandon,

    As with your discussion related to the language regarding infernalism, you adopt a condescending tone in which you assume you are lucid and rational and everyone else has the burden of satisfying your unstated criteria. And yet others have the misguided notion that they are using language in an appropriate manner and they somehow think they are communicating real ideas, not vague “handwavey” obfuscation. I suggested before and I still think it is apt, that you have within your unstated, but implicit criteria some norms for language that appear to align with those of analytical philosophers. You found that suggestion baffling and seemed offended, as if some ridiculous aspersion had been cast against you. However, the difficulty is that you continue to set yourself up as a judge of what is and is not lucid discourse without actually clarifying the true ground of your objections. It is not really up to your interlocuters to guess your meaning, though you seem to think you are absolutely clear and everyone else is vague.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Spot on.

      I would add there’s no antagonism (implied or otherwise). But Brandon will have to expound as to what he means by “hyperspiritualizing Christ” and how this then applies to the Paschal Hermeneutic – it is not at all self-evident the latter involves the former.

      There’s a host of unspoken assumptions – if I were given to the reading of tea leaves I would venture to say the central one is the supposition that the words of Christ are exempt from any sort of hermeneutic – an interpretation amounts to a superimposition and thus a spiritualization (i.e. something less than literal) eisegesis.

      But why venture to tilt at windmills?

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  10. Edward De Vita says:

    The idea that the letters of St. Paul should be read in the light of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels rather than vice-versa seems to me to be quite evidently false. After all, if we look only to the gospels, we would have to believe that the mission of Jesus was limited to the Jews. We would be left with little or no understanding of the meaning of the cross or even of the resurrection, for that matter. It is only in the more (for lack of a better term) “explanatory” writings that we come to understand these things.

    This is also true in the case of the “judgment” passages found in the gospels. They must be understood in the light of what the post-resurrection Church, and especially St. Paul have to say about the victory of Christ on the cross. Certainly, our Lord’s warnings about judgment are to be taken very seriously. At the same time, He himself states that He did not come to judge. God had only one purpose in sending His beloved Son, and that was to save sinners. It seems to me then, that even judgment must be understood in the light of Christ’s saving mission.

    In the gospels, our Lord often uses vivid imagery to speak about judgment. Such poetic imagery should not be understood in a crassly literal fashion. So, when Jesus says that the “sun will be darkened” and the “moon will turn to blood”, he uses the same imagery found in the prophetic writings to refer to the end of an age. These phrases were never understood, either by the prophets who spoke them or the people who heard them, to mean that the sun would actually turn dark or that the moon would actually turn to blood. Likewise, when Jesus speaks of an “unquenchable fire” and of “the worm that does not die”, we must understand these terms in the sense in which they were used within the prophetic tradition; and, in that tradition, they were used in reference to very temporal judgments.

    As for the parable of the sheep and the goats, while I think it true that “aionios” can have the meaning of “eternal”, still this is not its primary meaning. It is simply a reference to the age to come. Clearly, there are punishments in the age to come which are not eternal. We learn this from St. Paul when he speaks of those who will suffer loss but are, nevertheless, saved “so as by fire.”

    I do not say any of the above in an attempt to deny the possibility of eternal punishment for some sinners. What I do say is that we often simply quote the words of Jesus as if their meaning is very plain and clear and then go on to relativize the statements of scripture which hold out hope for the salvation of all.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Be it as it may, Fr Aidan critique calls into question those who claim that certain passages support infernalism as a matter of fact, or those who claim no interpretation is required.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Ed, especially for your opening paragraph. I agree with you that the gospels must be read in light of the epistles of Paul and the rest of the New Testament if they are to read through the prism of the resurrection.

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  11. Jonathan says:

    Things are getting fractious and anfractuous. To resume a bit, as they say in France. . .

    The stuff about Gehenna and hellfire and all that — words written down in a text called the Bible.

    The stuff about Jesus dying and rising again and all that — words written down in a text called the Bible.

    Thing about a text: got to be interpreted. All of it. As a whole.

    Lit Crit FTW.

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  12. Tom says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Couldn’t an Orthodox (Fr Farley or any other Orthodox infernalist) reply by arguing he is interpreting the NT’s sayings on hell within the Paschal hermeneutic since the Paschal mystery both unites the willing to God and also defines the consequences of disbelief? You might disagree that that’s what the Paschal mystery does or means, but an infernalist would at least be able to say his position is reached within the embrace of a Paschal hermeneutic. He would just understand the Paschal mystery differently than you, and that would give him interpretive options you don’t face (relative to the possibilities and consequences of rejecting faith).

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, I agree. If I were Fr Lawrence, I would respond as you suggest. Fr Lawrence made a similar point in response to my unrevised post. Here is how I responded (http://tinyurl.com/z6bw837):

      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.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ll hope to read your new post soon, but I’ll just go ahead now and pick out your saying here “One finds little to no exegetical support for the later, and now standard, Orthodox interpretation that hell is heaven experienced differently” to comment that my strong impression is that George MacDonald would disagree with this phrasing – in a distinct sense. I think he would not find exegetical support lacking, would leave moot whether this was a “later […] interpretation”, but would understand it in terms of ‘hell is heaven experienced purgatorially differently until its purgatorial work is done in removing every last bit of the (clinging in any sense whatever to) sin that makes for the experiential difference.’

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  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not read all the comments (carefully), but this seems a very MacDonaldian post, in various ways, including in critiquing the (unconsciously?) making of a certain ‘hermeneutical choice’ and only thereafter addressing seeming difficulties.

    If Fr. Lawrence (ahem) literally means, “One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did”, he is grievously historically incorrect: MacDonald is much more than ‘suggesting’ hat, all the time!

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