In defending human freedom traditional theology assumes that we are able to reject God ultimately and irreversibly. This assumption is one of the foundations of the doctrine on the actual possibility of eternal damnation and the real existence of hell. But the question arises whether human freedom can indeed persist in an everlasting state of separation from God. Can a decision to reject Him be truly ultimate and irrevocable? It is God himself who knows and defines the mystery of created freedom. He is its ultimate horizon and goal. It is in Him that it can attain to the ultimate purpose for which it has been created. Creating humans and calling them to participation in his eternal life, God wanted to have free and creative beings rather than slaves. The human being able to shape his or her own fate and history is a person longed for and beloved, given the admirable ability to take free decisions. The gift of freedom is a gift for eternity in order to achieve the ultimate fulfillment of the whole of existence. One must not forget this positive and ultimate purpose of freedom, this dramatic but wonderful gift.
There is something astonishing in the mystery of freedom: the ability to reject God comes from His own gift! Many things seem to indicate that the Creator is not afraid of granting this dramatic and dangerous gift to His rational creatures. He behaves as if He were sure that He will be able to save this gift and rescue it from the most dangerous and harmful situation of being lost. Freedom may be ill and blind but it never ceases to be God’s gift. It carries in itself a promise and hope for achieving its ultimate goal because it does not cease to be, even in case of wrong and sinful decisions, an ability given by God himself. There is always hope that every freedom will finally prove to be what God wanted, namely, freedom to the right decision. He alone can save the created freedom in a truly divine manner without destroying His own gift.
A deeper understanding of the gift of freedom is able to open new perspectives of universalist eschatological thinking. One can then perceive that God is always present in the very depths of His creatures. A created being is unable to free itself entirely from this immanent presence of the Creator. It may ignore or reject it, but it cannot change the very fact of being created and its dependence in existence on the all-embracing reality of God. This fact already implies a mysterious promise stemming from the indestructible bond between God and each creature. No fault, nor the state of getting completely lost, can destroy this ontological bond. The human being is and will always remain an icon of God, a being who with the help of the Creator is able to overcome all resistance and make the ultimate and irreversible choice of the Infinite Goodness.
Another understanding of freedom makes God helpless, unable to overcome its resistance and denies Him any possibility of saving those who got lost. Is not the sovereign freedom of God limited in this way? Is not God’s gift of freedom turned then into a logical idol before which He himself has to capitulate? It seems that this logic does not allow us to perceive the truly divine manner of reaching the deepest secrets of freedom and transforming it from within without violence. Whoever denies the freedom of coming out from the existential state of Gehenna believes in fact in the ultimate victory of evil over at least a part of God’s creatures. Practically he consents to a failure of the divine plan of creation and salvation. This approach means to some extent the acceptance of a dark doom, more horrifying than the doom of Greek mythology. So far Christian awareness has failed to deal successfully with this problem. The obvious failure of the plan of salvation cannot be called the triumph of divine justice or just retribution for the sins of one’s life. An ordinary earthly feeling of justice shudders to think of everlasting punishment for faults of sinful creatures committed in time because of weakness, blindness, anger or simple stupidity….
Eternal hell and everlasting damnation mean in fact a terrifying lack of proportion between the endless punishment and the evil done during the quick passage of a short life. I dare to think that this would also be a sort of hell and eternal distress to God himself who is Love. What is terrifying is not what God wills to do to me; it is what I can do to myself. Hell does not mean that we get into the hands of a just, angry and punishing God. Hell is what I have done or what I may do with my own life and the lives of others.
The doctrine on eternal hell is a fruit of the moral awareness inspired by the idea of divine justice and shaped by the conviction that a decision of human freedom is irreversible. This awareness divides the ultimate destiny of creation in a dualistic manner into two opposing kingdoms: the kingdom of the good and bad, of the just and sinful, of the saved and damned. The advocates of the doctrine on eternal hell stress that only wrong decisions of human freedom and bad life lead to the everlasting perdition. They do not admit the freedom which would lead out of hell. According to them, entrance to hell is voluntary but there is no exit from there, because death, as they claim, decides about our eternal future.
Every human being faces the real possibility of getting existentially lost. Biblical texts include warnings against this terrible state. Christ used to speak about the “eternal” or aeonic character of human suffering in Gehenna. However, one should not rashly identify the adjective “eternal” (aiōnios) with the eternity of God himself. Hell is the negation of eternity. There exists no diabolic and evil eternity. The only true eternity belongs to the Kingdom of God. There is no negative eternity, parallel to the eternity of life with God. The notion of eternal hell is characterized by an inherent ontological contradiction. Gehenna or hell may exist in the form of a subjective existence. It is an inner existential state of infernal experience. Whoever finds himself or herself in intense torment has the impression that it lasts and will persist endlessly.
God himself is the greatest hope for all His creatures. He penetrates even the infernal depths of the human heart. He can lead out of the depths of Gehenna. He does not destroy the freedom of rational beings, but respects human choice. However, he has his truly divine way of persuading the freedom of the beings most in revolt. He attracts and transforms them from the inside through His goodness, beauty and boundless love manifested above all in the voluntary kenosis of Christ. The existential inner state of being lost is constantly visited by Christ. He does not leave anyone on his or her own. To persist in sinful resistance to God is the worst illness of freedom. I believe that Christ is forever the Good Shepherd of all those who got lost. Not to leave, to return again and again, to persuade and attract—this is the most divine feature of God.