St Isaac the Syrian and the Punitive God of the Scriptures


“Do not call God just,” St Isaac the Syrian scandalously declares, “for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.”

But surely God punishes the wicked, we quickly retort. Surely there is divine reprisal, an infliction of deserved deprivation and suffering—“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:23-25). Retribution springs from the heart of the Creator and is necessary for the rectification of the moral order. The scales must be balanced; sinners requited; the wicked given their just deserts—if not in this life at least in hell! So it is throughout the Holy Scriptures.

As the three angels informed Abraham regarding the fate of Sodom:

For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it. (Gen 19:13)

The prophet Isaiah declared:

And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity. (Is 13:11)

And the prophet Jeremiah:

But I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the LORD: and I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof, and it shall devour all things round about it. (Jer 21:44)

Moving into the New Testament, the Apostle Paul:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Rom 2:9)

. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thess 1:7-8)

The Apocalypse of John:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Rev 14:9-11)

And perhaps most terrifyingly, Christ himself:

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt 25:41)

The theme of punishment as a primary expression of the divine righteousness runs throughout the Bible, typically with retributive intent. Not always, of course. Jews and Christians will point out that the chastisement of God may also intend discipline and reformation. Celebrating the LORD‘s covenant with David, the psalmist sings:

If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness. (Ps 89:30-33)

Yet it is hard to deny that in the Old Testament God’s punishment of Israel is principally characterized as retributive (just ask the peoples of Sodom and the Northern Kingdom), coupled with the hope that she will learn the harsh lesson and return to obedience to Torah:

As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)

Most importantly, Jews and Christians will insist that in the Bible the punitive dimension of God’s life with his people is outweighed by his loving kindness and eagerness to forgive. As the LORD declared in the presence of Moses:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex 34:6-7)

I very much wanted to omit the two concluding clauses, but that would have been dishonest. Mercy and retribution are intertwined in the biblical witness.

Even so . . .

St Isaac the Syrian categorically rejects all notions of requital as unworthy of the living God:

A sign of compassion is forgiveness of every debt; a sign of an evil mind is offensive speech to one who has fallen. The man who administers chas­tise­ment with a view to healing, chastises with love; but he who seeks ven­geance is devoid of love. God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but seeking to make whole His image. And he does not harbor wrath until a time when correction is no longer possible, for He does not seek vengeance for Himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, and it does not aim at retribution. A righteous man that is wise is like unto God, for he never chastises a man to requite and avenge his wickedness, but to correct him, or so that others might fear. That, however, which does not resemble this is not chastisement. Now hereby the Spirit depicts, as in an image, the mind that God has had everlastingly. But the man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being devoid of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The purpose of His mind is the correction of men; and if it were not that we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. (Ascetical Homilies I.48, p. 364)

The punishment of evil does not belong to the divine nature. Whether we call it retribu­tion, requital, vengeance, or justice does not matter. The God revealed in Jesus Chris does not punish for the sake of punishment.1 Retribution may have a place in our judicial and penal systems (I do not know what Isaac would say about that), but it certainly does not have a place in the Christian life or in the Christian understanding of divinity. God is love—absolute, infinite, bounteous, scaturient love. Isaac is so horrified by the notion of the divine infliction of pain and suffering that he even momentarily entertains the suggestion that God might forcibly heal us, if only it were possible to do so without violating human freedom.

St Isaac has, of course, read his Bible. He is well acquainted with the stories, prophesies, parables, and sayings that speak of God’s wrath and anger. These texts must not be read literally, he teaches. The crucified and risen Christ is our hermeneutic. By the Spirit we must burrow through the literal meaning of Scripture and penetrate to its evangelical truth:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding at all can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort against God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scrip­tures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will—let alone believe it of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment. . . . For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. (Second Part II.39.2-3)

God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never exacts vengeance; he never inflicts harm or damage in the name of justice. In all matters he seeks only the good of his creatures. Isaac’s sentiments echo the words long attributed to St Antony the Great:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. (Texts on Saintly Life 150, in the Philokalia)

We need to be prepared, in other words, to interpret the Scriptures metaphorically and spiritually, especially when the plain sense violates God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. The LORD is not the wrathful, punitive deity that we frequently see depicted in the Bible. These images must be corrected by the New Testament revelation of his boundless mercy. If we do not engage in this correction—or perhaps even better, transcendence—of the literal meaning, not only will we be guilty of an “infantile way of thinking,” but we will find ourselves imagining God in “unspeakably blasphemous” ways (II.39.1). Isaac invokes the historically progressive character of divine revelation, our comprehension of which will only be fulfilled at the Eschaton:

Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His true nature. And just as our rational nature has already become gradually more illumined and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in Scripture’s discourse about God—that we should not understand everything literally as it is written, but rather that we should see, concealed inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all—so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in our supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind. (II.39.19)

Yet even after having purified his theological re­flec­tion of inappropriate anthropomorphic imagery, Isaac does speak of God directly punishing humanity for its sin and disobedience. He knows both the Scriptures and the human condition too well not to do so. Met Hilarion Alfeyev notes that it is rare for Isaac to speak of the wrath of God, but he does do so on occasion. In one of his homilies, for example, the saint speaks to monks who approach God with laxity and contempt: “You have not yet experienced the sternness of the Lord, when he changes from his right hand, full of kindness, to his left hand, exacting his due to those who abuse him—how angry he burns, and how filled He is with zeal at the time when this has been aroused! . . . He burns like a furnace in his anger” (II.31.10). But this language of wrath expres­ses not retributive requital but the intensity of God’s love and desire to save. God punishes in order to heal and purify.  The Father inflicts suffering and trials to liberate us away from our sinful attachments and draw us to himself.

Isaac stands in a long tradition of theologians and spiritual teachers who assert that divine punishment for sin is always pedagogical, medicinal, therapeutic, reparative, remedial, purgative, restorative. Distinguishing between punishment as retributive (timoria) and punishment as disciplinary (kolasis), Clement of Alexandria writes: “But God does not punish, for punishment is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised, collectively and individually” (Strom VII.16). Our heavenly Father chastises for our good; otherwise he would not be a true Father. But he does not punish to exact vengeance. He does not injure his creatures for the sake of balancing the scales of justice. He does not practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He does not give us the evil we deserve. “God is not one who requites evil,” the holy monk exclaims, “but He sets evil aright” (II.39.15).

In modern times one theologian stands out as speaking in the spirit of the Syrian saint, even though he probably had never heard of him—the great 19th century Scottish preacher and storyteller, George MacDonald.  On first glance the two figures appear to disagree with each other on divine justice. Whereas Isaac revels in the opposition between justice and mercy, MacDonald denies the antinomy, reinterpreting the former in light of the latter:

‘Mercy may be against justice.’ Never–if you mean by justice what I mean by justice. If anything be against justice, it cannot be called mercy, for it is cruelty. ‘To thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy, for thou renderest to every man according to his work.’ There is no opposition, no strife whatever, between mercy and justice. Those who say justice means the punishing of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God. (“Justice,” Unspoken Sermons)

MacDonald rejects the retributive element of God’s justice. “Punishment, deserved suffering,” he declares, “is no equipoise to sin. It is no use laying it in the other scale. It will not move it a hair’s breadth.” True justice is achieved not by punishing sinners but by delivering them from the power of sin:

Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin—I do not know; but seeing he has created creatures who have sinned, and therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God is, in his own righ­teous­ness, bound to destroy sin. . . . But vengeance on the sinner, the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God, neither in his hand. . . .

Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? Would it show God justified in doing what he knew would bring sin into the world, justified in making creatures who he knew would sin? What setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? If justice demand it, if suffering be the equivalent for sin, then the sinner must suffer, then God is bound to exact his suffering, and not pardon; and so the making of man was a tyrannical deed, a creative cruelty. But grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word.

So much more needs to be said about the Scottish preacher’s presentation of divine justice, which undoubtedly scandalized his Calvinist countrymen. Please do read his sermon on justice and reflect upon the similarities and differences between “St George the Divine,” as his son Greville affectionately named him, and St Isaac of Nineveh.2  I suspect that the differences between the two are more apparent than substantive.

If God is the punitive, retributive Deity our imaginations have created, how can we love him, how can we worship and adore him, how can we gladly surrender our lives to him? Such a God can only be feared and loathed; but this is not the Father of Jesus Christ! St Isaac exhorts: “Fear God because of His love and not because of the reputation of austerity that has been attributed to Him” (I.51, p. 388).

(18 March 2013; rev.)


[1] Does this make Isaac a Marcionite? Only if we believe that the inspired meaning of a biblical text is limited to its literal or critical meaning. Yet if this were the case, the Apostles and Church Fathers would never have discovered Christ in the Scriptures. See Brad Jersak, A More Christlike Word (2021).

[2] Readers may also find helpful “The Father, Justice, and the Hermeneutic of Love” and “The True Grit of God’s Justice.”

(Go to “The Scourging of the Scourge of Love”)

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29 Responses to St Isaac the Syrian and the Punitive God of the Scriptures

  1. Tom says:

    “Isaac is so horrified by the notion of the divine infliction of pain and suffering that he even momentarily entertains the suggestion that God might forcibly heal us, if only it were possible to do so without violating human freedom.”

    That voluntarist! Sheesh. And we can’t blame it on the Enlightenment either. ;o)

    “We need to be prepared…to interpret the Scriptures metaphorically and spiritually, especially when the plain sense violates God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. The LORD is not the wrathful, punitive deity that we frequently see depicted in the Bible. These images must be corrected by the New Testament revelation of his boundless mercy. If we do not engage in this correction—or perhaps even better, transcendence—of….”

    Agreed. But may I suggest that we are simply employing our view of God derived from Christ to expose what are in fact false claims which some texts make about God. To me this does not entail moving on to give some non-violent metaphorical meaning to the text to construe its claims as something else, something palatable, perhaps in an attempt to rescue its inspiration (because we’ve reduced biblical inspiration to the truth of every particular text’s claim). It is just to see, in Christ, how Israel on this or that occasion got God wrong, period.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t know if Isaac is accurately described as a voluntarist. It’s just that at this time in history, the Church’s struggle with fatalism required a decisive rejection of determinism and an empahtic affirmation of free will. Christians in the East just couldn’t see a way to reconcile both. Perhaps they could have if they had read St Augustine on the irresistibility of grace and were able to bracket his hard predestinarianism, but that did not happen. The remarkable thing is that Origen, Gregory Nyssen, and Isaac were still willing to assert the universalist hope, even though they had not read David Hart. 😎

      Liked by 1 person

      • Owen-Maximus says:

        Hmmm. “The irresistibility of grace.” I am drawn to the universalist vision(s) of Origen, Gregory, and Isaac. But the claim of a ravishing God who forces himself upon his creatures—even as transcendentally determined, as part of the ontological warp and woof of creational/eschatological destiny—seems incongruous with a Christian anthropology. I think this is why many Orthodox recoiled from DBH’s model.

        Is there really any way to accept the irresistibility of grace but bracket a hard predestinarianism? To me, it sucks out the mystery. I prefer the abiding tension between Love’s infinite resourcefulness and man’s capacity of self-determination, the latter always tinted both by his transcendental tendencies and his fleshly habituations. “…that God might forcibly heal us, *if only it were possible* to do so without violating human freedom.” In other words, it’s not possible, right?


        • Grant says:

          It not being possible only really makes sense if God isn’t God but only a god, a being competing with us, but then exactly that isn’t god, merely a very being, and ultimate Reality (and therefore God) is something this other thing is subject to.

          God doesn’t compete with us at all, His freedom operates on whole different level, and we are transcendentally determined by the very nature of being beings created and sustained by God. Otherwise we are brought into being by something beyond that god, even if that god fashions us and are transcendentally ordered towards that.

          Because God is God, and operates as God, that is not competing with us at all in our secondary created freedom, he can indeed make sure we are all healed without violating our freedom whatsover, and it won’t be forcible either. That our redemption takes the way it does, that creation will come via this route, via the Cross, is proof that God doesn’t override our freedom in leading us to our destination. But neither does that mean God won’t be all in all, and get where He wishes, He is God, and in Christ He has done it, all will be saved, all will declare freely Christ is Lord, God will be all in all, death in all it’s manifestations will pass away. These two things aren’t in conflict, because God is God.

          And because God is God, is someone isn’t saved, that is because God intends it, and therefore has made sure that they are orientated to fall and stay fallen and lost, and has removed from them the abilities and opportunties to reach salvation, and has created them to be a sacrifice for His ulitmate purposes. But then, God isn’t who Christ reveals Him as, and is something quite oppossite and ultimate Reality is something what we and Christianity would proclaim evil.

          So yes, it’s both possible and necessary if Christianity isn’t false.


          • Owen-Maximus says:

            Or…maybe God plans save all people in a way that doesn’t violate their freedom—the kind of freedom St. Isaac believed in. Hey, it’s possible, right?


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Maximus, have you ever seen “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive February 2nd over and over and over again until he gets his life right. That appears to have been close to what Origen believed with his hypothesis of serial reincarnations into different worlds. Eventually, we will get things right and turn our lives over to Christ.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Grant says:

            Owen that’s exactly what I’m saying. God will save everyone without needing to violate anyone’s freedom, which is what DBH is saying as well.

            As I said, God is God, not a being like us. So on that we have no disagreement, as I said it is indeed possible and will be infact be what is to come. Christ really does save everyone, that’s the Good News.

            Liked by 2 people

        • Counter-Rebel says:

          I don’t think it’s that complicated. It’s only difficult if one presupposes a narrow libertarian view of free will. On a broad view, a free act can be determined if the determinans (determining factor) came about through a prior free act that wasn’t determined. One is free to immediately accept God, or one can reject God thereby acquiring a memory or memories of the pain of rebellion, and such memory will serve as the *freely acquired* determinans for an inevitable yet free repentance.

          “Great is the power of memory.” -Blessed Augustine


  2. Tom says:

    Dr. Kimel’s in the house, rhymin’ on toppa Classical,
    Ain’t no fugitive runnin’ scared, but he ain’t too elastical,
    But at’s OK cause his heart is seekin’ the right place to go,
    Passionate bout the glory of the Master’s face. You know,
    Al is all about Dionysius and his apophatic trill,
    Ain’t got no analytic use, but it’s existential skill,
    Transcendence all up in yo face, got no place to hide,
    Can’t reduce it to a syllogism, but we gonna let that slide
    Cause the heart is made for more than logical notation,
    Desire’s final end? The divine location.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. dianelos says:

    What Isaac the Syrian is saying seems quite obvious. After all we are made for God and thus with the cognitive capacity to know him. And to to understand that he is no less than the greatest being we can conceive. We can directly see that what God does is for love and only for love.

    Yet 13 centuries after St. Isaac’s writings most Christians are taught that God punishes some of his creatures with retributive intent, and that this is about divine justice. Thus people are called to love with all their heart what is not worthy of such love, and are thereby condemned to a spiritual life which lacks coherence and is therefore irrational. It is sobering to consider how the official churches were deceived so deeply and for so long. And how difficult it is for them to repent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • JBG says:

      Dianelos: “It is sobering to consider how the official churches were deceived so deeply and for so long. And how difficult it is for them to repent.”

      It’s curious that the particular religious tradition with an exclusive claim to the truth (for those that believe this) also happens to be the tradition that birthed, fostered, and propagated the most perverse, diabolical idea ever conjured up by any mind.

      Sobering, indeed.


      • Rob says:

        The idea of an eternal hell was floating around for centuries before Christianity came onto the scene.

        Liked by 1 person

        • JBG says:

          There were certainly various concepts of nondescript “underworlds” (that were later, and inappropriately labeled “hell”) but nothing like explicit eternal torture. It is not found among Semitic peoples, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece. the Far East. Zoroastrianism may be the best candidate for being the progenitor of “eternal hell” but this is controversial. It is still nothing like what one finds in a Christianity.


          • arthurjaco says:

            @ JBG,

            You seem to be a lot more familiar with the concept’s history than I am and you explicitly said that eternal torture was not present in Ancient Greek religion / Ancient Greece so I’m going to assume that there’s something that I did not understand about Tartarus, but could you explain why Tartarus does not actually correspond to the concept of eternal torture?
            I’m asking this because I read about it just one or two months ago and back then, Tartarus did appear to me to be just that, eternal torture (though again, I’m no expert and I might be wrong).
            I also thought that the idea of an eternal River of Fire melting agonising souls appeared in Zoroastrianism before the idea of an eventual universal salvation from said River was developed within the very same religion.
            Am I missing something essential about Tartarus and the Zoroastrian “River of Fire” (or something)?
            I know I’d certainly like it if I did.


          • arthurjaco says:

            I know I’d certainly like it if I *were*.
            My bad.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Makes sense really. Exclusivity is more than likely the driver behind it, i.e. infernalism is the consequence of adherence to a strict exclusivity. Seems to go hand in hand. Restriction of the locus of revelation and the infinite expansion of the consequences of missing such are perfect companions.


          • arthurjaco says:

            @ Robert Fortuin

            I am not sure that religious exclusivism (even a strict, uncompromising one) is the *only* driver of infernalism, though, nor even that it is *necessarily* a driver (that it *must* be a driver) of such a horrendous doctrine.
            After all, there’s no necessary / obvious connexion to be made between the proposition “I believe that anyone who does not agree with us is in error (partially or even completely)” and the proposition “I believe that anyone who dies in partial (or even complete) error regarding religious beliefs *must* pay eternally (or even just temporarily) for having been dead wrong until the end”.
            Obviously, there’s a missing “logical link” between the two propositions.
            The first one is “a”, the second one is “c”.
            What would be “b”?
            One can perfectly assume that the beliefs of everybody else are absolutely dead wrong without assuming that this will somehow have any deplorable (let alone eternal) consequence on those who hold them.
            Though exclusivism does indeed play a role (that’s just too painfully obvious to deny), at the end of the day, something else must also be at work here, and one suspects that that “something else” is even more fundamental to infernalism than exclusivism itself.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            oh man, you want to apply logic to this? 😉


          • Rob says:

            In Classical Greek poetry the shade of Achilles states that the underworld is so horrible the once great hero would prefer life as the lowest slave to the lowest farmer in the world to continuing to exist down there. Not explicit fire and brimstone, but hardly anything to recommend to anyone.


          • arthurjaco says:

            @ Robert Fortuin,

            I’ve always been such an idealist 😉

            @ Rob,

            Yeah, not very pretty either…


          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            I don’t know about the other mythologies, but Greek mythology quite definitely had Tartaros, with inventive eternal tortures for evildoers. Sysphus eternally pushing a rock up a hill and Tantalos perpetually hungry and thirsty and surrounded by water and food he cannot touch are both very widely known, and there’s a load of others, too. I don’t think you know as much about Greek culture as you think you do.

            Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            Ok, so the church might not have invented it. That’s a relief. They only developed and relentlessly propagated the most evil falsehood for thousands of years to billions of believers.

            But still, regarding the notion of “eternal torture” as an actual destination—I don’t know, is it right to assume that the ancients understood poetry and myths literally? As far as the notion of hell as an actual place/state, as opposed to being employed as a hyperbolic mytho-poetic device, well, obviously the church has been unrivaled.

            The Christian tradition, as a whole, got the question of hell (and therefore, the nature of God) wrong—spectacularly wrong, as wrong as one can possibly be. And the notion of “eternal conscious torment” is no minor, inconsequential error. It is therefore only natural to wonder about what else it has gotten so spectacularly wrong.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            JBG – not all that glitters is gold, wheat and the tares, etc. There’s an abiding danger in reifying ecclesiastical structures into “can’t fail” sources of authority. I surmise that in reality revelation and authority, and the dogma that results, is much more fluid and less fecund then our sensibility of comfort can accept with satisfaction. But that is nothing new, as old as the dawn of human history.


          • Grant says:

            The dread of Hades for most was very real, certainly not just poetic, as was their dread of the gods particularly amongst the ‘common’ people. But even the ‘educated’ often thought the stories revealed more elevated truths. It’s hard for Western people to grasp how real the gods were, you don’t really understand Athens, the democracy or other practices if you don’t realise how real their sense of themselves as the people of Athena, who’s duties and rights came from that soil and to her, it divided the duties of men to govern and women into the temple. The same for the Spartans, these realms were very real to them indeed, including terror of a dismal or ever terrible everlasting afterlife.

            In terms of Christianity taking up the idea of infenalism it was and a great tragedy, though you’ve been here long enough to know it wasn’t they only view, nor the dominant one for centuries. So while you are perfectly free to think that Christianity might have got more essential things wrong I don’t see how that follows from some embracing infenalism. All of movements have disagreements and disputes, all ideas, movements and systems of thought have. I don’t see how the presence of some embracing this position within the broader tradition brings the tradition into question itself. While I agree the idea is incompatible with Christian claims I don’t see the fact that many Christians accepting it for historical and political reasons invalidates the core claims of Christianity (particularly when not Christians have ever accepted it).

            Finally I would say, outside the revelation of Christ I would find eternal hell a much more likely possiblity. The only other revelation to God we have is the universe we live in, and there exists besides the beauty cruelty, suffering and death far beyond anything humanity has ever done (and all evil arises from it too). It on it’s own is a cold, harsh and often pitiless beauty, terrible in holocausts, genocides and most extremes of suffering. Without the revelation of Christ showing God opposed to all death and suffering, why assume God or ultimate reality is good or loving in any way that has relation to what we mean by that, or has care towards us at all?

            We to used to the view of God as unquestionably good as we mean it, but without Christ why should you think that. All evidence would mostly say otherwise, reality would be something to dread, just like the ancients we should fear Hades, and certainly hope there is no afterlife, that the suffering stops here. So that’s my view.

            Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            Grant: “All of movements have disagreements and disputes, all ideas, movements and systems of thought have.”

            Once again, this is not some minor error. This is not just your garden variety bad idea. It’s the very worst idea. All other bad ideas (of other religions) pale in comparison. Even atheism only dangles existential meaningless and eventual obliteration in front of someone—still nothing even remotely approaching the terror of “eternal torture.”

            Grant: “I don’t see the fact that many Christians accepting it for historical and political reasons invalidates the core claims of Christianity (particularly when not Christians have ever accepted it).”

            I didn’t say that. I said that it is apt to make one wonder. It’s only natural.

            Grant: “I would say, outside the revelation of Christ I would find eternal hell a much more likely possiblity.”

            Maybe for some ancients that believed that immortality was the natural state, but for modern humanity, I thoroughly disagree. Godlessness does not equate to the possibility of eternal torment.

            Grant: “The only other revelation to God we have is the universe we live in…”

            No. There is a phenomenon that has been termed “mystical experience” that has been recorded throughout history to peoples from diverse time periods, regions, cultures, religions (or no religion). The most powerful of these experiences (unitive) are remarkably similar, alluding to some kind of objective content. These experiences affirm the ultimate Goodness of existence and the undying, infinite love at the core of Being.


          • Grant says:

            Given Christianity far from the only ideology to proclaim some form of everlasting torment/misery nor is it the only one where that idea is prominent (I can think of nearly as large in which infernalism is even more definitive and hard for universalism to be proclaimed (though there are brave attempts). So I don’t concede the point I’m afraid.

            And you miss my point without the revelation of Christ’s resurrection showing death to be God’s enemy, and all evil against His purposes then our ideas of goodness are silly delusions of a small race of animals trying protect themselves from true reality of God/Reality itself written large throughout the very fabric of the universe. It shows terrible, pitiless cruelty, ruthlessness and no overriding imperative of love or goodness, and certainly not at our level, where joy, love and happiness would be feeting delusions before has ever the true nature takes over, bringing suffering, ruination, loss and destruction.

            Mystic experiences might touch something but would be badly misunderstanding it, be pure delusion, or touching something utterly unconcerned and having callous disgrade of lower life, and whatever they sense would only be for that, not us.

            As said I see no reason to believe God is good, that good or love are the ultimate truth of reality, nor that anything would seek to end the suffering it wove through the universe. If the universe is not fallen and death, then this all is intended and deemef right. On what basis do you trust if there were an afterlife, further existence suffering would end, if not even intensify because I don’t see it. Aside from Christ I would regard such expectations as foolish and denying what reality itself shows you to be true.

            And so again, the best to hope for is oblivion under those circumstances.


          • JBG says:

            Islam? How exactly does Islam’s embrace of eternal torment excuse Christianity’s embrace?

            Grant: “And you miss my point without the revelation of Christ’s resurrection showing death to be God’s enemy…”

            No I didn’t. But it would seem that you hold fast to the notion that God cannot disclose the true nature of Reality directly to individuals through unmediated (and doctrine-less) experiences.

            I recommend researching classic examples of these experiences and note how their descriptions accord, independent of time period and culture. If this wasn’t the case, they would be easier to dismiss.

            But sure, the church has long denied or disparaged the unmediated experience of God, for obvious reasons.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            As fascinating as this discussion of the evil of eternal damnation and fallibility of the Church is, I am going to exercise my blogmaster authority to bring it to a close. Thank you.


  4. TJF says:

    I might be doing eisegesis, but I could’ve sworn I saw eternal hell in Gorgias, Phaedo, and the Myth of Er in the Republic by Plato.


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