February 02, 2007

Some reflections on hell

Hell is one of those things that most evangelicals hold to be a non-negotiable. God will some day, at the close of history, come again and judge the living and the dead, some to everlasting life, and some to everlasting death and punishment. Another non-negotiable is Jesus' death on the cross and his bearing of sin. Now, depending on who you talk to, this atoning death may be of limited extent, or it may be for all people. I've been doing some reading, recently. First, I've just finished Miroslav Volf's stunning reflection on grace, The End of Memory. And second, I've been reading Dante's Inferno. It is an odd coupling of books, to be sure. Dante envisons hell in a very traditional (and clearly iconic) way, as a place of everlasting torture and punishment, with fates to everlastingly fit the crimes, so to speak. Volf's reflections on grace drive one in a different direction, though. Volf asserts that in the end, beyond the final judgment, all wrongs will be forgotten, for if they aren't (and his argument goes further than this), evil has won a perverse victory, by permanently leaving its mark on God and the world to come. He also emphasizes God's grace as the death of Christ for all people, while we were yet sinners. This drives me in quite a different direction than the Inferno. What if all sins are someday forgiven. There is no one for whom God's love and Christ's death is not full and complete grace. But, for many, this will be a gift not received. Reconciliation is too much contemplate—maybe they can't forgive themselves or others, maybe they can't acknowledge God. Volf points toward talk of all people dying in the end. Some die and rise again in Christ, a dying to the old self to a new life in a new self. For others, this dying is more of a containment and discipline, an incarceration. Instead of a hell of retributive justice, an eternal revenge-taking or punishing, maybe we can reimagine hell as a place of eternal want, a void, an eternal separation from God, an eternal turning away from. I'm reminded at this point of C. S. Lewis's portrait of hell in The Great Divorce, a hell that was far more lonely than fiery. I'm not ready to claim this view of hell completely yet, and certainy not ready to begin advocating it as the right view, but I certainly look forward to reflecting on it further.

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