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.
Guilty as charged! 🙂
I have received some very interesting comments on my article on Facebook from Fr Gregory Wassen and Archbishop Jerome Lloyd. Do please read them, Father, and let us know your further thoughts.
I reproduce the said comments here, because things can be difficult to find on Facebook, especially when you are not “friends” with the right people.
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Jerome Lloyd: I’m rather of the opinion that it is we who condemn ourselves to an eternity without realizing the love of God by rejecting His love in our lifetimes (ignoring Him, His Gospel, His law etc)? God loves us all – but love (charity) by its very nature (i.e. self-sacrificial) must be shared – those who refuse to share in His love now reciprocally, condemn themselves to be tortured by His love for eternity… If anyone is hurt by this it is God who must love even those who reject His love; that is the sacrifice of His gift of freewill to us, He must suffer our rejection of Him. Those who reject Him must bear the consequence of the exercise of their freewill, for by virtue of the Incarnation (unlike before ref the law and the prophets, the knowledge of which was essentially confined to Israel) every person has the opportunity to know God enough to make an informed choice, who has heard the Gospel and His call in their heart. This is why it’s so important for every Christian to engage in the Great Commission and share the Gospel – even if only by the witness of their lives – that God’s will may be done i.e. the Salvation of every soul. For what is lost by sacrificing one’s will to His? For what benefit is gained by not loving Him nor neighbour? Only the perpetuation of sin and death by selfish passions and fleeting self-gratification that “benefits” or satisfies only a short while yet threatens eternal life.
Gregory Wassen: Personally … I side with Origen & St. Isaac the Syrian (and others) on this one! 🙂 Fr. Aidan Kimel regularly posts about this topic and with respect to the adjective “aionios” a very enlightening post and discussion can be found at his blog here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/…/from-here-to-eternity…/ To sum it up: neither aionios (which by itself is more akin to a period of limited duration) nor kolasin (pruning is also an activity of limited duration and not necessarily “punishment”). The passage from the Gospel does not present much trouble for “universalists” to continue to hope for, believe in, and pray for the salvation of absolutely everyone. 🙂 Thanks for an interesting read Fr. Jonathan!
Gregory Wassen: I suppose what strikes me as particularly interesting is Ramelli & Konstans’s observation that “aionion” when it qualifies “life” it more likely intends to emphasize the “newness” of the life in Christ rather than its duration. One could see that “aionios” qualifying “kolasin” speaks more to the “kind” or “quality” of the pruning rather than it duration. This would elegantly solve the issue of “duration” in that it was never about duration in time anyway!
Gregory Wassen: Btw – I am reading Ramelli’s massive work on “Apokatastasis” in a pdf version. I could not afford to purhcase a hard copy from Brill (it is prohibitively expensive even for a 900, or so, page book).
Jonathan Munn Wow! I daresay, Fr Chadwick would also be interested in this too. The whole concept of timeless duration is indeed complex and I should be glad to read Ramelli if I had the time. I have yet another theory cooking in my head which I need to let simmer. I don’t think I’ve finished with this subject yet.
Jerome Lloyd: “Aionion” may indeed refer to “an age” suggesting something finite and yet in nearly all Scriptural references – particularly those pertaining to eternal life (or damnation) – the meaning in context is clearly “limitless” i.e. infinite rather than of a “limited” finite duration…(?)
Jonathan Munn: From what I am presently reading, that would seem to be the case. Watch this space!
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I have a soft spot for what I would call the “orthodox” version of Gnosticism through the Alexandrian school. It is certainly on account of my “Romantic” temperament rather than the theological synthesis revolving around St Augustine, scholasticism and the extremes of that kind of polemical theology expressed by Luther, Calvin, Jansen and others. Universalism? I have expressed sympathies, with the idea that sin is finite and the punishment is finite. You might get two years in prison for theft without violence or a drug offence. You will get thirty years for killing someone, life without parole or death in countries that still execute people for murder with aggravating circumstances. Perhaps some souls are damned without the least hope of change. Others will have an unhappy time after death until they are ready to be brought into God’s Kingdom. We all thirst for justice in regard to those who do us wrong, not out of vengeance but to see the matter resolved. There has to be justice, but there is also the notion of forgiveness and pardon – which is unique to Christianity. For the Jews and Muslims, you sin and you suffer all that you deserve. For Christians, truly sincere repentance changes everything. Why can this not happen also after bodily death? I am not convinced that repentance for pure motives is impossible after death.
We have trouble in defining that notion of existence outside time, an infinite period of time? That brings us back to time, because time is all we know. An example given by one of my philosophy professors in Rome was ten minutes – spend those ten minutes waiting for something or having a deadly rattlesnake slowly crawl over you as you keep perfectly still – or the last ten minutes having breakfast before dashing off to work. Those two examples are not the same ten minutes to our perception, even if they are measured with a clock. That is perhaps one tiny experience of eternity in our ordinary life.
I ought to study Origen’s Apokatastasis and overcome any bad reasoning on my part due to ignorance. We can’t very well talk of eternal damnation if we don’t have a clear idea of eternity – and we don’t. We can’t. It is outside our experience in our ordinary state of consciousness.
Whether someone like Hitler will be damned limitlessly or almost limitlessly but with a remote limit somewhere out there, we can’t possibly know. Sayings of Christ seem to suggest the “without limit”, but we are dealing with Aramaic and Greek words that express philosophical concepts that are sensitive to ambiguity. So really, we are no nearer.
In the end where does the idea of endless hell get us, a club to beat people with? I find the idea monstrous. Christianity should be intrinsically beautiful, loving and able to convince by attracting those who are ready to receive the light of truth in the place of their former dark ignorance. If someone comes to me threatening me with hell because I’m not quite in agreement with his religious ideology, then he’ll get my finger stuck up at him. Give me a profound and contemplative view – which demands greater effort and more suffering from us – and I would indeed save my soul in this life and the next.
Unlike Chaucer’s Prioress, I don’t know any variant of French well enough to get along in it by ear! But, I find that the original Daudet story is available in English translation in the volume, Letters from my Mill, included a multi-volume set of The Novels, Romances, and Memoirs, here:
and probably elsewhere in the Internet Archive as well. I think I only know one or two of his stories, so far, but certainly enjoyed it or them – and so look forward to trying this one!
Gregory Wassen mentions in one comment you quote Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy: it is certainly a good place to go for discussions of such matters (in my experience)!
Intriguing to (re)read is C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
I wonder if hell falls into the category of the prophetic, i.e. the warning or judgment of God to show our real state to ourselves & our very real danger of ruin without repentance and a return to our divine source. There are plenty of examples in prophetic Scripture of warnings of apparently certain and irreversible prophecies of destruction for Israel which are then annulled by God.
I think that the earthly system of evil, the city of Babylon inhabited by spirits of evil, is destined for eternal desolation: the warnings are very real. But then Christ is said by St Paul (the most universalist of the NT writers) to be able to reconcile all things in heaven and earth to God through himself. I choose (incoherently?) to believe that the warnings of eternal hell must be maintained as part of the church’s prophetic witness, because hell is the inevitable outcome of unrepented evil, but that we can be agnostic about whether any individual will ultimately be outside Christ’s redemption.
C.S. Lewis has been mentioned – “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” is an essay worth reading in this context, as is the chapter on the Wrath of God in Edwyn Bevan’s “Symbolism and Belief”, a book that deserves to much more widely read than it is. Both show pretty convincingly the ultimate failure of the liberal philosophy of punishment… and the importance of the “vindictive” principle in the real meaning of the word, viz. to reveal the evil of our actions to ourselves – to give us the possibility of being sorry & having a change of heart.
Edwyn Bevan’s “Symbolism and Belief” – a book which Lewis recommends more than once (e.g., letters of 26 March 1940 and 9 May 1961 – where he includes it under ‘good defence…against modern woffle’) – and which is also, I see, scanned in the Internet Archive: I’ve only ever enjoyably browsed it – maybe I should remedy that, soon!
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I certainly recommend reading this posting by Fr Gregory Wassen, my brother in the priesthood who lives in the Netherlands. I appreciate the input from his Orthodox insight and experience.
Le temps est une créature de Dieu, rien de plus. La plupart des chrétiens imaginent Dieu circonscrit dans le temps. Mais saint Augustin a trouvé la relativité du temps grâce à la théologie, et la science a approfondi cela. La Messe est une fenêtre par laquelle l’éternité de Dieu passe dans notre temps. Donc la béatitude et le malheur éternels sont ceux d’en-dehors de l’espace-temps.
De nos jours, dans l’Europe de l’Est le néo-pélagianisme fait ravage, alimenté par l’hérésie des péages aériens. Comme le curé fictif de Cucugnan, des prêtres non-fictifs menacent les gens avec les péages aériens.
Translation of the above comment into English:
Time is a creation of God, nothing more. Most Christians imagine God to be circumscribed in time. St. Augustine found the relativity of time through theology, and science deepened that. The Mass is a window through which the eternity of God passes into our time. Therefore, eternal beatitude and damnation are outside space-time.
Today, in Eastern Europe, neo-Pelagianism is ravaging, fuelled by the heresy of air tolls (?). Like the fictional parish priest of Cucugnan, non-fictitious priests threaten people with air tolls.
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The “air tolls” (literal from “péages aériens” puzzle me. It seems to be the analogical use of the road toll in supernatural terms. Odd…
“Air toll” = “Heaven entrance fee”?
That seems to have some finesse about it.
They probably mean the Ariel Toll houses which are part of the popular mythology of what happens after death in some Orthodox circles. They are fairly well attested, even being mentioned in some of the texts from the Divine Services.
On another note, any of you guys read that book on Time and Eternity by Josef Pipers? Anyone ever pondered Zen Master Dogen’s concept of time? Time is a very deep and difficult topic, and one that, despite my utter ineptitude in philosophy, fascinates me.
Yes, I mean the “aerial tolls”. Er… in fact, only paraliturgical Byzantine texts speak at all about that. Byzantine Orthodox theologians of the past just laughed at it, without even treating against this folk myth. Unfortunately, nowadays it has become like a dogma in most Byzantine Orthodox circles.
I don’t know enough about the details of aerial toll houses to care that much. All I know is I’ve read Father Seraphim Rose’s book “The Soul After Death” which speaks of them, and I have noticed in a few of my prayerbooks they are mentioned. I want to say that a handful of Troparia and/or Kontakia also mention them.
Recently Pravoslavie did a few articles on the theme which are interesting for those who really care enough to dig deeper.
Personally I’m agnostic about the idea. I pray for the dead without needing to know the details too much.
Is the Octoechos really a ” paraliturgical” text? Of course most laity in most Byzantine style parishes ( heck, even most clergy outside monasteries) don’t have the full Octoechos , but if this stuff is actually there than it’s not exactly paraliturgical. Also, there are many saints and church writers that explore the topic of the Tollhouses. The Orthodoxwiki, Wikipedia and Pravoslavie articles I mention explore it.
Of course I don’t think it ought to be a defined dogma, it’s certainly a theological opinion that has at least some precedent extending back in time in both East and West. It shouldn’t be just brushed aside as nothing more than folktales. If we start brushing aside everything that comes from folk piety we’d be left with nothing but academic Christianity, we’d have to do away with almost all the devotions, sacramentals,blessings and everything else that wasn’t strictly biblical and ” proven” by scholars.
I’m quite content to understand that time and eternity are matters I cannot understand. What does the whole concept of duration mean in the presence of a God who is outside time, which is after all only one of His creations? I grapple with many thoughts, but ultimately I come to the conclusion that by my own imaginings I am probably further from the truth than I was before I began thinking.