I have been following two interesting and informative sets of posts on two blogs on the subject of hell, The first come from an Orthodox priest, Fr Aidan Kimel, in which he sets out to describe the Orthodox doctrine of hell, where he offers some fascinating insights, but regrets the inability to offer an authoritative account because so much of the literature is not accessible to English-speakers (which was something which worried me when I was in the Orthodox Church, as if I did not know to what I was assenting, how could I actually assent?). He describes excellently how he wrestles with various Orthodox perspectives, only to be told by one priest the he needs to acquire an Orthodox ‘phronema before one can see the truth of the Orthodox position’. For me, that was on of the breaking points with Orthodoxy, as it seemed to posit one state of mind (which there cannot be) and something akin to brain-washing. Fr Aidan (whose whole blog is well worth following) rejects the idea that hell will be heavily populated: ‘We must never accept hell! We must never accept the eternal destruction and punishment of our fellow human beings. NO!’
That worries me, as it places what we want to believe before clear scriptural evidence. Fr Dwight Longenecker, offers a more traditional view here, where he offers reasons for supposing that hell is ‘highly populated’. Fr Longencker does not deny that there is ‘room for speculation’, but he deplores the fact that nowadays, that speculation stops at universalism, or the idea that everyone will be saved because God’s mercy is so much greater than we can understand. We do not know what hell is really like: is the fire and brimstone literal or a metaphor for the pain of eternal separation from God; are there hordes damned for ever; or is hell just about empty?
Nowhere in Scripture does Christ teach that all will be saved; indeed there are more mentions of hell in the NT than there are of Heaven, We are told that Christ is the only way, and in our haste to add caveats about those who do not encounter him, we have tended to forget, as Fr Longenecker reminds us, that there are very many who actively reject and despise Him; on what grounds in Scripture do we say those will be saved? Ralph Martin’s excellent new book Will many be saved? deals explicitly with the thoughts of Rhaner and Balthasar and:
shows how the thought of both theologians directly contradicts not just one verse of Sacred Scripture, but the entire witness of both the Old and New Testaments. Scripture after scripture is piled up showing that St Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ himself teach not only that hell is real, but that it is heavily populated. The Scriptures put before humanity a stark choice of life or death–heaven or hell, and speculative theologians like Rahner and Balthasar are shown not only to directly contradict Scripture, but also the unanimous and universal teaching of the Church down the ages. Martin shows how Balthasar also mis quotes, mis interprets and selectively chooses texts from the Fathers, the mystics and saints of the church to weight his argument for universalism.
If everyone is saved, why evangelise? Indeed I would go further and ask, why did Christ have to die for us? This new God who can save everyone, even those who deny Him, surely that one could have spared the Incarnate Word the horror of the Cross?
And yet, another learned and pious Christian, Fr Aidan, can write with equal passion:
But as an Orthodox Christian, I do not accept an eternal hell, will not accept an eternal hell. Every fibre in my being cries out against perdition. The God of Pascha will not allow hell to stand everlastingly. God will be all in all
In his most recent piece, Fr Aidan contrasts his own view, and the modern consensus, that if there is a hell, people condemn themselves to it by a rejection of God, with that (still, I would add) held by many orthodox Christians, who believe, as our forefathers did, that at the Judgement there will be some judging done (the clue would appear to be in the name). Fr Longenecker reflects that view, which has, I think, longer patristic evidence on its side, and stronger Scriptural support. We may dislike the idea, we may even reject, but then there are many ideas in Sacred Scripture we moderns dislike and retool to make them more palatable to a world which would rather be told pretty lies than the truth.
That, me judice, was not why Christ came into this fallen world of sinners.