by Tom Belt
To repeat David Hart: I never get my own title. I was going to go with something a bit lighter (‘Come Hell or High Water’, ‘A Bat Out of Hell’, ‘To Hell and Back’), but in the end there was no escaping Sartre’s Huis Clos (the French title of his play, variously translated No Exit, Dead End, or No Way Out). The phrase (without meaning everything Sartre meant by it) encapsulates Fr John Manoussakis’s account of hell in Ch. 9 of his The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change. I was hoping the essential points of Fr John’s account would find their way into his own review here of Hart’s recent reflections on universalism, but that review, it turns out, is to be published elsewhere, and Hart has already responded to it here last week. So what I’d like to do here then is simply summarize Manoussakis’s account of hell as he describes it in Ch. 9 in the hope of widening the discussion at bit.
In The Ethics of Time, Manoussakis takes up the challenge of recovering the goodness and beauty of temporal becoming (kinesis or movement) from “the negative Platonic and Neoplatonic views, according to which time and history are seen as the byproducts of being’s fall into materiality.” (xiii) For Manoussakis, there is no way creation can begin at the end. There can only be a beginning fitted to become, through an embodied history of change and transformation, what God intends. “Time,” Manoussakis writes, “is made possible by the givens of a consciousness that is eschatologically oriented” (xiii) and which is “the means to participate in a process of perfection.” (25) But “no beginning qua beginning can be perfect.” (32) Manoussakis concludes we best understand evil as “a moment in the temporal unfolding of the good,” what he labels the “scandal of the good.” Defending the goodness of such an unfolding, with the contingent suffering it entails (yes, entails), without collapsing into Manichaeism, is the larger aim of the book.
Such an account obviously has to fit hell into its vision of things, which brings us to his Ch. 9. I found this account of hell particularly interesting in a couple of ways. First, Manoussakis seeks to offer a phenomenology of hell, traditionally understood, as both punitive and eternal torment. The phenomenological approach alone placed him closer to Hart than others who have thus far responded to Hart. Secondly, Manoussakis does not attempt to ignore the transcendental givens of consciousness, the sense in which the good, the true, and the beautiful ground, shape and inform conscious experience and which play a key role in Hart’s account. Surprisingly, for Manoussakis this orientation grounds and sustains the punitive and unending torment of final judgment. Indeed, “the beginning reverberates through any act of consciousness.” (133)
Hell manifests the Self’s eschatological orientation.
In spite of creation’s precarious beginning, Manoussakis insists upon the “eschatological constitution of consciousness” (24), our “capacity to perceive beauty, pleasure, and perfection,” (26) a capacity that is our “orientation toward the ‘not-yet’,” an “opening to the eschatological.” (26) Indeed, this capacity for beauty and perfection “presupposes an unconditional passivity” (28), an original receptivity to what is given. Not only is beauty perceived in what is “pleasing or interesting,” but it is manifest also “in what one finds unpleasant or boring,” not that everything that appears within consciousness is itself beautiful, but that all that appears addresses us as a call to beauty and perfection (28). Beauty renders everything visible, and indeed “is the condition of visibility” as such. (30) In addition, this orientation is a longing “which cannot be understood except in terms of direction, movement, and desire that stretches out to its ultimate good.” (33) If I may quote from another chapter of his, Manoussakis sees both ‘intentionality’ and ‘imagination’ as defining consciousness’s eschatological orientation:
Imagination foresees the future and affords us a view that no here and now could furnish, not even at the final state of things. It is not, therefore, that through the dioptra of imagination we can get a glimpse of what lies ahead but rather that teleological imagination “opens” the present by adding along with the incomplete state of the present thing the image of its completion, that is, of its perfection. If, indeed, only the end (in the double sense of telos as finality and purposiveness) makes things perfect (teleia), then imagination keeps reminding us of such perfection amidst incompletion and imperfection It is as if the human mind were indeed made in such a way as to understand only the perfect and the complete. For even if this is lacking in the present state of things (and it can only be lacking) it feels compelled to supply it by itself.
I confess that as I read through such statements I saw an irresistible (i.e., transcendental) openness to Godward becoming which to my mind logically contradicts the notion of an irrevocable foreclosure of intentionality and imagination. All the features one finds in Hart’s account – the teleological structure of consciousness, its capacity to perceive beauty and perfection, its essential openness to the future, the ecstatic orientation of desire and intentionality, all of which constitute, shape and inform experience as such – are present in Manoussakis. But for Manoussakis these features end up in a phenomenology of hell as irrevocable self-alienation, desire severed from all ecstatic attraction, and being’s foreclosure upon every possibility of Godward becoming. And yet this phenomenology of hell, it is argued, manifests rather than denies being’s transcendental structure.
… in approaching the idea of judgment and condemnation, the idea of hell, we are immediately presented with a wealth of vivid images that the poetic imagination, from Homer to Plato to Dante and beyond, has bequeathed to us through the literary canon of our tradition…. These images can be summarized under two broad ideas common to them all: that of a hopeless existence of pain and suffering which is to last forever. In this chapter, we would like to discuss how these two ideas (hell’s punitive character and hell’s eternity) could be presented in a manner that is both philosophically acceptable and consistent with the phenomenological tenets of our foregoing analysis. (132)
Hell as self-deception.
The first move is to secure the self-imposed nature of hell’s suffering. Hell is self-deception, “not a condition imposed on [the wicked] externally.” It is found in and comes from each one, in “the compulsion of repeating [one’s] desire.” Sin is relentless and “repeats itself almost compulsorily—although its compulsion is but an illusion facilitated precisely by its lack of continuity.” (134) This involves a (kind of) foreclosure of temporal becoming, for “in Hades time does not move forward, in fact it does not move at all; it falls back upon itself in a semblance of movement that is nothing else than an everlasting present.” (134)
… as a series of spasms do not make up a gesture, let alone a movement, so the repetition of sin over a given amount of time fails to make up the content it lacks.” Removed from time, sin’s static repetition emulates a bad eternity, such that we find underlining the punishments in Hades. Is it possible, then, to understand hell as a self-inflicted punishment? Kierkegaard thinks so, and he goes on to add more: not only hell is self-inflicted, hell is nothing more and nothing less than the self itself—a self that has infected itself with the sickness unto death. (134)
There follows a careful appropriation of Kierkegaard’s phenomenology of the Self and his notion of despair which provide the terms in which this final foreclosure is achieved and maintained. I shan’t attempt here to lay out Kierkegaard’s account of the Self’s transcendental structure. Zachary Manis also appropriates Kierkegaard in a defense of hell as eternal conscious torment, and his summary is a bit easier to follow than Manoussakis. In the end:
Despairing over oneself is, for Kierkegaard, a sin: the denial of oneself is ultimately the denial my self ’s creator. Sin as the denial of God is always a refusal, that is, as much reaction as resistance over against the self ’s return to itself. Yet, since no matter how desperately one might try, one cannot cease from being oneself, damnation, that is, the experience of hell, amounts to the perpetual reminder that you are who you are: you are yourself. The self ’s very identity becomes its hell or, seen from a different perspective, its paradise. (138)
… Yet, in the illusion of his autonomy, he cannot abdicate his self-mastery to anyone else other than himself. By himself, however, he cannot re-create himself (since he did not create himself in the first place). Thus, he decides to remain an error, going even further than that: loving himself as an error, “enjoying his symptom,” becoming one with his sickness. What, after all, could stop a sickness that survives even death? (139)
Nothing, above all not God, could save such a self from itself, for if hell were only a place, we would be sure that God would have descended there in order to save the self from its torments. But when the self itself has become for itself its own hell, God is powerless for he cannot destroy what he has created and it is only such destruction, an absolute annihilation, that could save the despairing self from its despair. It is through this perspective that we come to grasp the reality of hell. (139)
There is little that’s controversial about Kierkegaard’s basic psychology of what makes the Self the kind of thing that can self-alienate in its refusal to acknowledge its origin and ground in God. Of course, whether the Self’s ability to misrelate (itself to itself, and to God) logically implies a capacity to absolutely foreclose upon itself is the crucial question. That it does imply such a thing is central to Manoussakis’s account. That it is Kierkegaard’s obvious meaning is debatable. That it is a logically coherent account of the transcendental nature of intentionality seems impossible.
Hell’s eternity implied in the nature of the claim laid upon the Self.
A further appropriation of Kierkegaard’s phenomenology explains the irrevocable nature of the Self’s foreclosure:
If Kierkegaard’s discussion of the despairing self reads like an existential horror story this is only on one condition that is central to the outline of despair provided so far: that eternity had laid a claim upon the self. “Eternity is obliged to do this, because to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession, an infinite concession given to man, but it is also eternity’s claim upon him.” This means that, for better or worse, one cannot escape oneself for all eternity. And indeed, we could add that in eternity such an escape would be impossible. For in this life, time and the body—that is, the body’s temporalization of the self—provided the anguished self with many a distraction from itself. The descent to the bodily offered the greatest of consolations to such a self that now, left to itself, abandoned to itself, has no place to go, no place to escape to, because it has no place at all. Kierkegaard’s sobering reading reveals a certain darkness in the light of the resurrection: in the end of all this, we come to realize that hell is a condemnation to life, a perpetual insomnia…. Humanity might have had condemned God to death, but God “retaliated” by condemning humanity to life. Humanity’s dream to be like a god is finally granted, but that dream is proven to be a nightmare, for it is perhaps unbearable for a finite being, as finite, to be infinitely. (139)
If I understand Manoussakis here, the claim that comes to us in the gift of being presents itself as an either/or choice which we must make. But given the infinite nature of the divine offer and its claim upon us, each possibility of choice is implicated in that infinity. Equally consequential futures lay on both sides of the process by which the Self determines itself relative to eternity. This just is the weight of so wonderful and awful a call. Final refusal is thus convertible in consequence with acceptance. I could be entirely misreading Manoussakis here, but I suspect he would say that all the transcendental features of consciousness he earlier describes are here found manifest, not denied. The infinite nature of God’s free concession of being, in all its possibilities, defines what is at stake in the choice, and to be at stake in a choice is to be contingent upon that choice. If not, choice is without any real integrity.
Hell is the coincidence of salvation and condemnation.
There is another movement Manoussakis makes which renders a punitive and eternal hell consistent with being’s transcendental structure. Appropriating Florensky, Manoussakis writes:
This existential vision of damnation should be supplemented with a theory already found in Origen and later developed and radicalized by Florensky. It is a theory that offers the hope of salvation at the very place where Anti-Climacus left us with the inescapable reality of self-condemnation. This unique theory resolves the much-debated dilemma between an all-forgiving God (universal salvation) and the self-condemnation of the self (universal damnation) by upholding both positions. (139)
Florensky (as quoted by Manoussakis):
Thus, if you ask me, “Will there in fact be eternal torments?” I would answer “Yes.” But if you were also to ask me, “Will there be universal restoration in bliss?” I would again say “Yes.” The two are thesis and antithesis…. It is neither a simple “yes” nor a simple “no.” It is both “yes” and “no.” It is an antinomy. (140)
This antinomic unity of heaven and hell is explored in a comparison of Origen and Florensky’s handling of 1Cor 3.10-15 and Heb. 4.12:
In the Exhortation to Martyrdom we meet the idea of the self ’s division (διαίρεσις) and separation (χωρισμός) from itself, or at least from a part of itself. Already at this nascent stage, this theory is invoking the scriptural passage of 1 Cor. 3:10–15 on which both Origen and Florensky will exercise their exegetical acumen. Later in the same work the idea of the coincidence of salvation and condemnation is articulated with the aid of a double metaphor: that of the word of God as a sword that cuts through the self’s interiority (based on Heb. 4:12), and that of God as a purifying fire (attested in a number of scriptural passages). These two metaphors are then combined in order to support the theory that, at the end of times, the self in its duplicity will be “cut asunder” (διχοτόμησις): all that is good in us will be preserved and thus saved; all that is evil will be consumed by fire. In this image, both heaven and hell, salvation and perdition, is [sic] a common destiny awaiting every human being—they are both universal. (140)
… the whole scope of human endeavors is compared to the material we have chosen to construct our lives. Their value and truth will be tested only at the end, on the last day—if they shall endure the coming of the eschaton then they will abide, otherwise, when he appears “like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2), they will be lost, but the human person in itself “will be saved” (1 Cor. 3:15). (140)
Manoussakis notes Origen’s universalist reading of 1 Cor 3 (adopted by Gregory of Nyssa, St. Theodore the Studite, and others), but questions its logic:
At first sight, Origen’s and Theodore’s readings seems to lead to the well-known position of apokatastasis, that is, of the eschatological restoration of all, for which Origen was later condemned. However, this is not necessarily so. For one could raise two questions: firstly, “how much” of the self is lost as a result of this purification, provided that one’s life may be entirely or mostly built by the material of wickedness? And secondly, how long does this trial by fire last—or rather for how long may the self that undergoes such a burning purification perceive this process as lasting? Florensky’s treatment of eschatology offers a more detailed, though more gruesome as well, answer to these questions. (141)
Regarding the double-edged sword of Heb. 4.12, Manoussakis “agrees with Origen’s basic idea of an eschatological catharsis” but notes that “for [Florensky] condemnation takes the form of a separation that cuts the self asunder.” (142)
Every impure thought, every idle word, every evil deed, everything whose source is not God, everything whose roots are not fed by the water of eternal life and is inwardly condemned because it does not conform with the Ideal which is in Christ and because it is incapable of receiving the Spirit—all this will be torn out of the formed empirical person, out of human selfhood. (142)
What is separated is one’s ‘person’ (for Florensky, the “in itself”) from one’s ‘character’ (one’s “for itself”), and thus the self that has been cut away from itself does not perish but it endures in the pain of separation that persists forever. Manoussakis leads us to the next logical step:
The question, however, that immediately arises is: which part of the self in this list of distinctions is saved and which is condemned?… [I]t would seem that for Florensky what is condemned is precisely that aspect of the self which distinguishes ourselves from others and which individuates our selfhood. “The entire content of consciousness will perish to the extent that it is not from faith, hope, and love,” he writes in one instance, and he continues later in the text, “for the entire self-consciousness of wicked will is cast out, into the fiery darkness of the black and nonluminous fire of Gehenna.” What is, then, saved? The “person,” as Florensky calls it, is the “image of God”—that which, in principle, cannot be destroyed, but also that undifferentiated characteristic which we all hold in common. Therefore, it would seem that for Florensky it is only the human nature that God saves, a faceless abstraction, but not particular individuals. Since we began this chapter with a discussion of Kierkegaard, it may be fitting to invoke at this point his warning that Christ did not come to save the human race, but rather to save us “out of the race.” (143)
In the end, then, the defining features of consciousness (its eschatological orientation, its teleology, the ecstatic movement of its desire, its intentionality and imagination) define either choice we make with respect to the eternity’s claim upon us but also dictate that what God creates, the nature which bears his image, cannot be lost or destroyed. It is saved, albeit only — and the dash should run on infinitely to introduce so vacuous a rescue of God’s image — “as a faceless abstraction.”
Heaven undiminished by the suffering of the damned.
A final movement of closure in Manoussakis phenomenology of hell is made as he inquires into whether the final bliss of the glorified will be diminished or undermined by their knowledge of the suffering of the condemned. Florensky answers:
Do we feel any sorrow about cut fingernails or even about amputated limbs? So, the righteous feel no sorrow about eternally burning selfhoods, which exist just as little for them as the unknown thoughts of other people exist for us. (142)
Manoussakis appears to embrace Florensky’s answer but finds in it an occasion to clarify an unaddressed question about the nature of the resurrected body which he takes up in an extended critique of Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection as well as in the following chapter. But it is not clear to me how this critique of Gregory, even if valid, has anything to do with the question of how it is the saved are rendered ignorant or appreciative of, or indifferent to, the torments of the eternally damned.
I should bring this to a close. These are what I understand to be the main features of Manoussakis’s phenomenology of hell. He did a vastly better job of presenting and arguing it than I have done in summarizing it, so I encourage those interested to read his book for themselves. There are insights in it which I was very happy to see proposed and defended, but I confess that his account of hell left me unconvinced.
One last parting thought, if I may. At the beginning of Ch. 9 Manoussakis says that in approaching the idea of hell we are presented with images which over time shaped in the Greek mind an understanding of judgment as unending punishment, and if we qualify away the unending nature of it, we also do away with any punishment. He mentions Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus, etc. But I thought of Orpheus, that famous poet and musician who was taught to sing and play the lyre by Apollo. The story goes that one day Orpheus’s wife Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and was fatally bitten. The grieving Orpheus mourned her through his music and song. His art was so beautiful the gods advised him to go to the Underworld and through his song beg Hades to release Eurydice. Orpheus did so. As he began to play and sing, all Hades was brought to a stand still. Sisyphus stopped rolling his boulder up the hill to listen to Orpheus. Tantalus stopped reaching for the water he was condemned to reach out for but never possess to give attention to Orpheus’s song. The Furies (demonic goddesses of vengeance) wept. Upon hearing Orpheus sing, Hades and his wife Persephone were so moved they released Eurydice.
There’s more to the story (Orpheus ends up not saving his wife due to his own fault), but my point is that within the images humanity has over time engaged to express our beliefs and intuitions about choice, consequence, and judgment, there are images of the power of love, beauty, mercy, tenderness, etc., to intrude upon suffering and rewrite our stories. Orpheus’s song interrupts tragic suffering. Love triumphs over judgment, not by making choice and its consequences false or irrelevant (which one can see clearly in his review of Hart is what Manoussakis is concerned about), but by circumscribing its terms within a larger horizon of possibilities. It’s simply false, as Manoussakis claims, that if we remove the unending nature of suffering from divine judgment “there is no punishment anymore.” (134)
 The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology of Hermeneutics and Change (Bloomsbury Academic: 2017). Fr John was born in Athens, received his PhD from Boston College (2005), and has been at The College of the Holy Cross for over a decade. He is the author of three books and many articles and is co-editor-in-chief of The Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion.
 “The Promise of the New and the Tyranny of the Same,” in Phenomenology and Eschatology (Ashgate, 2009), p. 87.
 I got the sense that teleology functions in Manoussakis’s account as it does for Feser. As I tried to show elsewhere, Feser understands the transcendental orientation of consciousness to abide in beings who enjoy no potentiality for Godward becoming. I suspect Manoussakis would agree. As long as the mind is choosing for ‘some reason or other’, teleology is operative. But this is hardly adequate.
 “‘Eternity will nail him to himself’: the logic of damnation in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death.” Religious Studies (2016) 52, 287–314. Manis deals with two choice models used to defend hell as eternal torment. The first model sees damnation as the explicit and direct object of choice. This faces the challenge of explaining why anyone would choose to suffering eternally. The second model sees damnation as the natural consequence of a history of choices. This faces the challenge of explaining why God wouldn’t simply annihilate the damned. Manis means to offer a Kierkegaardian response to both these challenges which demonstrates “the means by which one’s perspective could become twisted to the point that one is blind to the most fundamental truths about God and oneself” and which also “makes it clear that the process itself is something for which the individual is blameworthy.” (291)
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Tom is a happily married father of four and grandfather to four. He is a former missionary of more than 20 years to the Middle East and continues to serve the Arabic-speaking world from Sacramento where he manages a nonprof dedicated to the translation and publication of the Bible (and other discipleship material) in Arabic.