The Hermeneutics of Perdition: When Hell Trumps Gospel

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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 Archpriest, 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, Fr Lawrence 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 and glorious resurrection on Easter morning—Farley does the opposite. His fundamental mistake, in other words, is hermeneutical. He 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 retrib­u­tive lens. Instead of interpreting the Bible through a hermeneutic of Pascha, Fr Lawrence 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 terror and dread; the good news is reduced to law.1 It’s but a short step to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the revivalist tent meeting. In his semi-autobiograph­ical novel Robert Falconer, George MacDonald captures this inevitable reduction of the gospel: “In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell.”

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.2

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 exegesis, might con­clude that Jesus probably taught some form of everlasting damnation; 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. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom powerfully states the gospel of the Resurrection:

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.

The threat of damnation does not belong to the proclamation of the gospel. If an everlast­ing 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!

Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.

If we could, therefore, plausibly 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.3 I am not arguing that historical exegesis alone can demon­strate universal restoration—the data is open to multiple interpretations—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 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.”4

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.5 The righteousness of YHWH manifests itself in holy wrath, judgment, and retribu­tion; and it is this retributive righteousness, now projected into eternity, that is ostensibly 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.6 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 and suffering.

Now on to Jesus. Farley continues:

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.7) 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. Fr Lawrence fails to acknowl­edge the exegetical and theological complexities of his position.

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, in fact enjoys a wide semantic range in ancient Greek and typically refers to a limited or indeterminate period of time. It need not be rendered as “eternal.” Moreover, it also possesses both a quantitive and qualitative sense. 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.8

The translation of aionion as “eternal,” therefore, prejudges the question. As an adjective its meaning changes according to the noun it modifies. The critical verse cited, Matt 25:46, might just as reasonably be translated “And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age” (as rendered by Hart in his translation of the New Testa­ment).9 It may be best, therefore, to simply transliterate the term and leave the interpreta­tion to informed readers: “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 (debatable) 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)

(15 February 2016; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] See my essay “Preaching Apokatastasis,” Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 58 (2017): 197–213.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 13, n. 18.

[3] See Thomas Talbott, “How to Read the Bible From a Universalist Perspective.” Also see “What the Bible Teaches . . . and Doesn’t.

[4] A. Michael Ramsey, God, Christ and the World, p. 41; also see Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God and A More Christlike Word.

[5] Cf. Taylor Ross, “The Severity of Universal Savation.”

[6] See David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, and Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes.

[7] Brad Jersak presents some of the historical data in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Also see Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna?” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249.

[8] Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution, p. 186, n. 123 (emphasis mine); also see David Konstan & Ilaria Ramelli, Terms for Eternity, pp. 57-70).

[9] See “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever.”

(Go to “God-damnation or Self-damnation?”)

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

  1. Tom says:

    There were a handful of comments on this post earlier today, a few from me, one from Brian, and a couple from mercifullayman. They’ve all disappeared. Computer mistake? Bad comments on our part? ;o)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      They were sinful comments and have been annihilated – looks like the universalists were wrong after all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • mercifullayman says:

      Who knows? I guess the we all just fell into the abyss of the Nihil. My name is Logan, btw. It’s nice to make your acquaintance, friend. Glad we’re getting to figure these things out along the way together.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom & Company, I have no idea what happened to those comments!!! I searched the Trash and they aren’t there. I cannot find them anywhere. (Sounds like the beginning of a Dr Suess book.)

      If I accidentally did something to delete them, I have no idea what or when I did it. But I do remember that on Monday afternoon, shortly after I posted this article, I saw a typo and I corrected it. When I hit the update button, it told me there was an error–the article was gone. I went into panic mode. Thinking that I had accidentally deleted, I searched for it in the Trash and Draft folders to recover it, but it wasn’t there or anywhere. And then suddenly, to my great relief, it reappeared in draft mode. So I hit the publish button and it was back! Curiously, the program did not send out the usual announcements to Twitter and FB. Perhaps that was when your comments disappeared.

      My apologies!!!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Out of curiosity, I checked on the revisions to my article. They should go back to Saturday morning, when I started revising this piece for republication. But in fact, the saved revisions all date after the mysterious death and resurrection of the article. I’m thinking divine miracle!

        Liked by 1 person

      • mercifullayman says:

        It’s all good, Father. Thank you for the continuous work you do to further discussion. I had a couple points to make in response to JBG but alas, it probably would have led to an Ouroboros. I’m sure it will work its way back around.

        Like

  2. brian says:

    Some comments on Charles Williams and time seem to have disappeared a few days ago as well. Of course, it’s possible all that has to do with an alternate reality, though I am skeptical regards the multiverse for both theological and metaphysical reasons.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yikes.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have to admit that with the disappearance of the time comments I can now honestly declare: “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” 🙂 Clearly the WP system had a hiccup. I wonder if it was restricted to my site or affected other blogs, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Okay, here’s the deal. WordPress emails me a copy of every comment. I have gone back into the trashbin and recovered those emails and have forwarded them to the authors. If you provided a real email address, your lost comments should now be sitting in your inbox. Have fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom says:

    “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.” (Thomas T. Torrance)

    This was part of my earlier posted struggles and complaint (which went missing and which I haven’t gone through the trouble to prep for reposting).

    I don’t imagine ‘every’ private religious belief of Jesus is consequential for his saving work. It’s safe to say he (and Paul) believed in a literal, historical Adam and Eve. We have reason to conclude no such ‘couple’ existed.

    But to suggest that ‘no’ personal religious belief Jesus held is relevant to his saving work seems to me obviously wrong. I can think of half a dozen such beliefs that are absolutely consequential to his accomplishment of salvation.

    Like

    • Tom says:

      I mean to couch my objection in precisely the terms Torrance intended his statement, that is, with respect to the concerns of theology as such.

      Like

  5. Thank you for this article.

    Like

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