I have greatly appreciated the new posting of my brother in the priesthood Fr Jonathan Munn who has written The Eternity of the Other Place. I had a short discussion with him on Facebook, which inspired his article. We seemed to agree that the future of evil people after their death, or those who consciously rejected God, would be grim – to understate their predicament. Why should someone like Hitler or Ted Bundy be able to enjoy the same Presence of God as the saints and those who sought truth, beauty and goodness? I did express my doubts about the eternity of hell or whether it would be a transitory state where a soul might find salvation after some form of purification or purgation – as in the traditional notion of Purgatory
We are discussing concepts that lie beyond man’s experience in his “normal” state of consciousness, and all theological speculation is possible only by means of analogy and mythology. I am quite fascinated by the comparison of the foundational mythologies of Judaism, Christianity by extension of Judaism, Gnosticism and the ancient mystery religions insofar as we still know something about them. This would be the subject of a book of hundreds of pages and years of research. This is merely a quick article with the pressure of two translation orders to be delivered this afternoon.
Who is right? I can’t possibly know. Fr Jonathan has never hidden his affinity with scholastic theology, Thomism in particular on the basis of Greek realist metaphysics. He discusses the notion of eternity against time, time being the illusion in which we live in this present life, which seems real enough to us but is likely to be a kind of ‘hologram”. I know little about some of the mind-bending science offered for our consideration, but I am more or less sure that reality as portrayed by scholastic theology and Platonic / Aristotelian metaphysics is partial and a narrow view. His fundamental argument is that hell is as unending / eternal / everlasting / you name it as the happiness of the blessed in heaven.
On the assumption that our souls are not merely products of chemical reactions in the brain to be annihilated at the time of bodily death, these conventional notions are based on biblical and traditional analogies and images. The caricature of hell is the medieval torture chamber and the inside of active volcanoes, and that of heaven is a load of angels with wings sitting on clouds and strumming harps. That is the way the human mind works. Profound truths are not for the vulgar, and there has always been a distinction between religion for the masses and that of contemplatives.
Hell has been a great way to control the masses and keep them in line with the Church, paying their tithes and doing the right thing. It is the ultimate Thought Police. Orwell invented nothing – he just modernised it. Fiery pulpit-bashing preachers found it very effective at one time, and I have a wonderful Marcel Pagnol film of Alphonse Daudet’s Curé de Cugugnan. I hope your French is good enough to appreciate this amazing piece of writing. It will have to be, since this is not Parisian French, but the accent of Provence and Marseilles.
This way of communicating the disadvantages of refusing to be a Christian and take sin seriously has definitely lost its clout. The terrifying mystery of death and our existential questions remains.
I have myself written on various views of the afterlife on offer. Many mediums and seers are charlatans, and we can be seriously misled. Caveat emptor – buyer beware. Possibilities range from reincarnation to annihilation. There are too many stories of ghosts and stranded souls for them all to be illusions or fables. We now have theories of a multiverse and different possibilities of existence all at the same “time” but at different “frequencies”. Where I am conscious of myself, I am living in one world. In another I might be hanging on the gallows for my crimes, or an aristocrat or a priest or an explorer. Who knows?
Most traditions know of the notion of karma – justice for goodness and for sin as effect follows cause. Prayer and asceticism are means whereby the soul seeks to work his way out of the determinism of karma to a higher reality. In the distinction between Purgatory and Hell, two related analogies, where is the dividing line?
The prospect of death is the great leveller. We all face it sooner or later. However, we are also concerned for the present life and our existential questions. Bernard Moitessier spoke of continuing his voyage rather than completing the race, to “save his soul”. Salvation is something that begins in this life, as does damnation in the case of those “psychopath” people without conscience or empathy, those without remorse. In some ways, the world in which we live now is a place of purgation and separation from God, even though great beauty and life is also found. Origen is said to have suggested (I don’t have the exact quote to hand) that our world was the highest plane of hell, and that even Satan would find redemption were he to repent of his sins.
Was Origen right? I don’t know. Certainly his analogies were as imperfect as anyone else’s.
What is time and what is eternity. Is the hell of the damned totally without hope, or is it a state where justice will be served, but hope (however remote) is still possible. The laws of some countries impose life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to capital punishment, which is the ultimate vindictive punishment, assuming the absolute irreformability of the convict. In such wise, the damned soul already enters his own hell on this earth. Is it right for man to impose such a sentence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
I tend towards an notion of reality being created by the idea. Our own mind can make a heaven (a great work of art or a piece of music for example) or a hell (the regime of Hitler, Stalin and the others in history). John Milton said in Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Whilst remaining an orthodox Christian, I am aware of the limits of our imperfect analogies and appreciate the comparative approach, including the insights of modern science and other religions and philosophies. This side of the Veil, we will understand but precious little. St Paul used the expression “Though a glass darkly but then face to face”. The best we can do is to live by love, by prayer, by knowledge and devotion to God as a Trinity of Persons but also the All, to continue our perilous voyage like the ship at sea with faith, hope and love.