Reinventing Hell for the 21st Century

Reinventing Hell for the 21st Century August 27, 2015

From MS 2017: illustrations from Dante’s Inferno with commentary. Italian text reads “Mettetel sotto chio torno p[er] anche” (from Canto 21): “Put him under/into the [boiling] bitumen while I go back for more.”

Almost every time that I see the topic of hell come up among Christians who are even marginally progressive, one sentiment far overshadows all others: “hell” is not so much an actual place of physical torment, and instead the objective reality, and accompanying subjective experience, of separation from God’s presence.

Of course, even among progressive Christians, this position isn’t universal. Opinions vary widely as to the precise nature of this, with disagreement over who all will ultimately experience the reality of hell and whether this condition is permanent; yet its popularity is undeniable. And far from being a clever (and possibly heretical) invention of maverick laity, this sort of reimagining of hell has some significant support in the upper echelons of certain major Christian denominations. For example, in 1995, the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England issued a report that, among other things, outlined the growing dissatisfaction with traditional concepts of hell and punishment:

Over the last two centuries the decline in the churches of the western world of a belief in everlasting punishment has been one of the most notable transformations of Christian belief. There are many reasons for this change, but amongst them has been the moral protest from both within and without the Christian faith against a religion of fear, and a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigned millions to eternal torment was far removed from the revelation of God’s love in Christ.¹

Following this, the commission stated its objection in unequivocal terms, that “Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being” More on the “choosing” bit later; but, to be sure, this statement is not a full step toward the idea of hell as mere separation, but rather as annihilation. In any case, however, this judgment stood in sharp contrast to some of the fundamental doctrines of the Church. In the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647—which outlined central doctrinal teachings of the Church of England (and was also adopted by other Reformed churches), structured as a series of questions and answers on key doctrinal points—we read the following for Question 29:

Q. What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?

A. The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever.

[Edit: several have pointed out that the Westminster Larger Catechism did not represent the Anglican Church’s view, per se, but rather those of Scottish Presbyterianism. That being said, there’s a 1960 dissertation by a certain M. W. Dewar entitled “How Far is the Westminster Assembly of Divines an Expression of 17th Century Anglican Theology?” that would surely elucidate this. Casey, After Lives, devotes space to the English situation leading up to and through the 17th century: cf. “The great majority of English preachers and writers, empirical in their instincts, think of the torments of hell in overwhelmingly literal terms.”]

Here we find the motif of separation; but then this goes much further, into the traditional portrait of everlasting torment.

The intra-traditional tension here is palpable, though similar dissonance is not exactly uncommon. In a mid-level commentary on the New Testament book of Revelation, Brian Blount comments on some of the more violent imagery of the apocalypse—the familiar fire and brimstone, etc.—that “The elements of fire and sulfur and the lake of fire are meant to be provocative symbols of the dis-ease that comes from eschatological separation from God”; and

What John is describing is not real, physical torture but the kind of continuous, perpetual spiritual torment that he imagines must occur when a being is separated forever from the presence of God. . . . John can think of no other way to express the force and reality of that spiritual agony than the physical one of torture. (Revelation: A Commentary, 276)

Although cast as a vision of things to come, Revelation is certainly full of imagery and events that were not actually expected to take place in reality. That being said, however, if we read the full context of one of the verses that Blount is commenting on here, we find that the “torture” with fire and sulfur that awaits the unrighteous is to take place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb [=Jesus].” Here, far from being separated from God or his agents, this punishment takes place in their presence: the exact opposite of what Blount claims the text means!

Finally, we found a heavy focus on separation in the Catholic Catechism, as well (though standing alongside more “literal” traditions). After reiterating humans’ own culpability for afterlife punishment—”for ever by our own free choice”—§ 1033 goes on to state that “This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’.” In § 1035, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God…”

It’s interesting, however, that another increasingly popular narrative takes things in a quite different direction. Associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, in this view, in the afterlife everyone will be in the presence of God, yet this presence will be experienced differently. The imagery most commonly associated with this is God’s love burning like fire: radiant and blissful to the righteous, and yet tormenting for the unrighteous. (In a nice off-hand summarizing statement by patristics scholar Matthew Craig Steenberg, here hell is “heaven experienced differently.”)

Naturally, this is thought to go some way toward dealing with an objection to hell wherein, among other things, there’s tension between the loving nature (traditionally “omnibenevolence”) of God and his allowance of—or agency in—suffering. (Of course, this doesn’t really go as far as some people have taken it, as there’s an obvious counter-objection to be made about how even if, technically speaking, this punishment proceeds from a God who is “love” itself, it still remains the case that the effect here differs little from the sort of punishment dispensed by a God who might not be all-loving, and in fact unjust.)

Beyond some of the abstract philosophical speculations about the justice of hell and afterlife punishment, however, perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is what sort of Christian texts and traditions are these various modern notions about hell, separation, and punishment coming from?

In a recent survey of New Testament texts relating to afterlife punishment, John Wenham (“The Case for Conditional Immortality”) suggests that 20 of these “speak of separation from God”; but upon examining his list of texts, few of these speak of separation in itself. Other than 2 Thessalonians 1:9—which I’ll discuss further in a second—perhaps the best case to be made among these is the idea that Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross is representative of the future psychological torment of the unsaved; but even this is very tenuous.

In trying to locate the origin of some of these Christian views on hell, it actually may be helpful to go beyond Christian and even Jewish traditions. One interesting point of departure, for example, comes from the writings of the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher Empedocles. In this unusual text, he writes of the punishment of certain daimons (gods?), that they are to “wander for 30,000 seasons, (away) from the Blessed Ones.”

There are several aspects of this text relevant here.² Similar to the Christian traditions about the ultimate separation of God and unrighteous humans, here these daimons are denied blissful communion with the (other) gods. (An overview of this motif in Greek literature would be useful; but this isn’t the place for that. That being said, it’s worth noting that the passage of Empedocles could have also been made known to the Christian world through its quotation in Origen, Contra Celsum 8.53.)

Further, if we look at the original Greek of Empedocles’ text, we find that the notion of “separation” from the gods is expressed solely by the Greek preposition apo—which, in the absence of any accompanying verb, typically only means “from,” though the context here makes it clear that this means “separated from.” This is a strikingly similar to what we find in the New Testament verse 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which is perhaps the most common Biblical text offered as proof of this ultimate separation.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 elaborates on the ultimate fate of the unrighteous; and here, too, we find the Greek word apo with no accompanying verb. Yet since—similar to the passage in Empedocles—this word can signify separation even when not accompanied by an explicit verb, it’s indeed frequently been understood this way; and thus, according to translations like NRSV, here the unrighteous “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

In the interest of space, I’m having to leave out arguments about this; but in a forthcoming article I’ve demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the word apo in 2 Thess 1:9 does not suggest separation, but is instead causal: this “eternal destruction” is to be understood as “coming from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

Yet the Greek word translated as “presence” here literally suggests face or likeness, and it’s precisely here where we can see a connection with Eastern Orthodox traditions mentioned earlier: for example, the 7th century theologian Maximus the Confessor writes that the

fire ‘which proceeds before the face of the Lord’ burning ‘his enemies’ is the energies of God. For [the energies] characterize the face of God, that is, his goodness, love of humankind, meekness, and things similar to these. These energies enlighten those who are like them and burn up those who oppose and have been alienated from the likeness.

(Cf. similarly Isaac of Nineveh;  the πῦρ φιλανθρωπότερον, Gregory of Nazianzus, and others.)

The idea of a fire that the righteous are immune to, but that the unrighteous are vulnerable to, almost certainly has its ultimate origins in Indo-European “fire ordeals,” originally designed to determine innocence or guilt. To be sure, there may be a somewhat similar tradition already found in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; but its transference to the afterlife itself—where, for example, everyone passes through a river of fire or molten metal—may be specifically Zoroastrian in origin.³

Yet following this “burning” mentioned in the quote by Maximus the Confessor above, he writes that

the passage did not say these these, the forms of fire, are eternal, since according to Gregory of Nyssa nature must recover its own powers and be restored by full knowledge to what was from the beginning, so that the Creator may be proven not to be the cause of sin.

Here (and elsewhere) Maximus tends toward a complete universalism where, following these eschatological trials, all will eventually be reconciled.⁴ This is the apokatastasis, the universal restoration that several church fathers hoped for. I don’t have space to elaborate on this much, but the end goal of Maximus’ caveat “…so that the Creator may be proven not to be the cause of sin” has some important connections here. Ilaria Ramelli, commenting on Origen, the famous 3rd century Christian theologian—and the father of Christian universalism—goes as far as to suggest that it is “precisely for the sake of theodicy, in order to defend Dei iustitiam [=the justice of God] . . . that Origen built his whole philosophy of history and theory of apokatastasis.”⁵ (See also Scott, Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil.)

Dare we hope “that all men be saved”? This is the question famously asked by Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his short (1988) book of the same title. In answering this, Balthasar treads a cautious line, careful to demarcate the limitations of hope and the possibility of an inclusive salvation in light of what is doctrinally permissible in Catholic tradition.

At the beginning of this post, I quoted the 1995 report of the Anglican Doctrine Commission, which takes a non-traditional understanding of hell seriously. But it also takes the reality, and gravity, of this new “hell” seriously. It does this for more than one reason; and in the same section, we read that the “reality of hell . . . is the ultimate affirmation of the reality of human freedom,” and that “[i]f God has created us with the freedom to choose, then those who make such a final choice choose against the only source of life, and they have their reward.”

To us atheists, the idea that there’s any sense in which the experience and reality of hell could be construed as willfully “chosen” is one of the hardest Christian theological pills to swallow. Yet the final line of the Anglican report here is “Whether there be any who do so choose, only God knows.” The importance of this line should not be understated—this does no less than consign the certain knowledge that any human at all is damned to an ultimate mysterium fidei.

Interestingly, in an address to a general audience in 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed a similar sentiment to that of the Anglican report: “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility; but—absent special divine revelation—we are not granted the knowledge of whether human beings are effectively involved in it, or which [humans are involved in it].”⁶ The original statement, phrased in this way so as to suggest that it’s unclear whether any humans will be damned at all, survives on the internet. In the official publication of these remarks, however, John Paul II’s statement was in fact edited, removing the “whether (or)…” so that it instead simply reads “we are not granted the knowledge of which human beings are effectively involved in it”—thus removing the possibility of a universalism.

Of course, I don’t think we’re to understand John Paul II’s original phrasing as a mere slip of the tongue. The syntax of the sentence seems carefully crafted enough for us to presume that he said what he meant to say, at least in the moment. It’s unclear whether the Pope had a hand in amending the statement to its current truncated form; but I think the unamended statement reveals something important: perhaps a more pervasive universalist impulse present as an undercurrent in the Church—and one that even the highest ecclesiastical authority on the planet can occasionally find themselves caught up in, in the right moment.

The impulse to reinterpret, to reinvent hell, is one that has been underway for centuries. However well-intentioned, at heart it is an apologetic or rationalizing maneuver: an attempt to sanitize traditions which seem arcane (or vulgar). It is this same sort of critique that Origen finds himself up against in debating his non-Christian rival Celsus, who ridiculed the idea of the eschatological conflagration—that this notion makes God into a “cook”—and who derided Christians for thinking that “all the rest of mankind will be thoroughly roasted and that they alone will survive.”

Whether or not this is a fair characterization of orthodox Christian beliefs, Origen nonetheless offers a rationale in response. He in fact appeals to a Greek interpretation here—though suggesting that this opinion was actually originally “borrowed” from ancient Jews (a common refrain in the early Church)—that “the fire that is brought on the world is purifying, and it is probable that it is applied to each individual who needs judgment by fire together with healing.” (This is much the same defense of afterlife punishment that Olympiodorus would offer some centuries later, yet in defense of Platonism against Christians.)

What is it about this particular moment—or about the last two centuries, according to the Anglican Doctrine Commission; or however long it may have been—that has led to an increased tendency to reinterpret hell?

If we’re to see reinterpretation as, above all, a sort of apologetics, then the increased prevalence of apologetics can only mean a more ubiquitous criticism of Christianity and its doctrines, too. Origen and similar early Christian theologians found themselves fighting a battle to prove, to a culture that was highly anti-Judaic in many ways, that this new breakaway Jewish sect could still be philosophically and intellectually robust. As mentioned above, he did this through various methods: interpreting Biblical texts figuratively, defending God and Christians against the charge of injustice, etc.

If Origen were brought to life for a moment today, he might think that Christianity had won—that its widespread social acceptance can only be indicative of its ultimate truth; that it is in fact self-justifying.

But this is only part of the picture. Beyond this, there’s a certain sense in which it’s only in the past couple of centuries that early Christianity is being truly (re)discovered for the first time, through the various academic disciples which study it. Ironically, we now seem to know much more about the actual world behind the Biblical texts than even those in the early Church ever did—through our ability to history, and the texts, speak for themselves, and not merely how we wish they’d speak. We realize the dangers of over-interpretation (among whom Origen was the prime culprit); we can no longer say that it was the Greeks (or anyone else) who “stole” from the Jews, but rather that the Biblical world and the theology it produced was always shaped by surrounding cultures—sometimes disturbingly so, like when we find remnants of a positive attitude toward child sacrifice in the Old Testament.

Following Origen’s lead, St. Augustine once suggested that, in Scripture, “[any m]atters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether just spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative.”⁷ Despite that Augustine was one of the most influential figures in promulgating the traditional hell, and had all sorts of notions that, today, are usually found to be disturbing (and were even in his own time, too!), he still simply could not conceive of a God and Bible that was not just, or that seemed to promote injustice. Consequently, when he came up against something that appeared unjust, it was simply the interpretation that was wrong.

We recognize today that Augustine had a sort of proto-fundamentalist commitment to Biblical infallibility. As theologian and Biblical scholar James Barr points out, the “basic affirmation” of fundamentalism is not that the Bible is to be understood literally, but rather that it “is always true and in that sense infallible”; and fundamentalist interpretation in fact “shifts back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretations” as is convenient.⁸

But I wonder if some part of the spirit of this can’t be detected in the attempts to reinvent hell.

The road toward a new understanding of hell may indeed be paved with good intentions; but if we want to resist this fundamentalist impulse—the one where, even though we know that we only see “through a glass, darkly,” we still refuse to accept the possibility of our ultimately being wrong—then perhaps it’s time to start considering that if the Biblical portrait of afterlife punishment appears to be arcane (and unjust), maybe it’s just Christianity that’s arcane. The only alternative is to spiral toward an increasing inspiration-in-the-gaps and special pleading, wherein the Biblical authors only caught glimpses of a Truth that transcended vulgar notions of retribution, or where the texts and traditions must always mean something other than what they really do appear to mean.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

[Edit: I’m in the process of rewriting some of this, and I’m just using this section for notes right now.]

Separation from the Gods, and Responsibility for One’s Own (Eternal) Destiny

Cicero, summarizing Plato:

The tenor of [Socrates’] thought and the arguments he used were that there are two paths, a twofold course for souls on departure from the body: for those, he said, who had polluted themselves with the sins that men commit, and delivered themselves over wholly to their lusts, and under their blinding influence had either defiled themselves by private sins and iniquities or had by public outrages been guilty of offences that could not be atoned, had before them a road apart [devium . . . iter], remote from the company of the gods [seclusum a concilio deorum]; they, on the other hand, who had kept themselves pure and chaste, who had suffered least contact with the body and always separated themselves from it and in the bodies of men had followed the life of the gods, had an easy way of return before them to those from whom they had set out.

(Cf. Phaedo 82b, “And no one who has not been a philosopher and who is not wholly pure when he departs, is allowed to enter into the communion of the gods.”)

In an important text that’s especially relevant to Christianity (in terms of humans bearing the consequences of their sins), Plutarch—building on the well-known aphorism in Hesiod that “A man contrives evil for himself when he contrives evil for someone else, and an evil plan is most evil for the planner” (Works and Days, 265-66)—suggests that punishment is “coeval with injustice, springing up with it from the selfsame soil and root” (ἐκ τῆς αὐτῆς ὁμόθεν χώρας καὶ ῥίζης συνυποφυομένην). He continues

For whereas the blister beetled is reported to contain, mixed within itself, its own remedy, which operates by a sort of counteraction, wickedness engenders with itself its pain and punishment, and thus pays the penalty of its wrongdoing not later, but at the very moment of commission; and whereas every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross on his back [καὶ τῷ μὲν σώματι τῶν κολαζομένων ἕκαστος κακούργων ἐκφέρει τὸν αὑτοῦ σταυρόν], vice frames out of itself each instrument of its own punishment, cunning artisan that it is of a life of wretchedness containing with infamy a host of terrors, regrets, cruel passions, and never-ending anxieties

(For parallels to the Hesiod aphorism, cf. the Story of Ahiqar; Ps 7:16; and a few different sayings in Biblical proverbs and wisdom literature—and Di Lella, “A Study of Tobit 14:10 and Its Intertextual Parallels.” For “carrying one’s own cross,” cf. Bøe, Cross-bearing in Luke. For a recent study of conscience in the Greco-Roman in general, cf. Atkins, “Euripides’s Orestes and the Concept of Conscience in Greek Philosophy,” and also Chadwick, “Conscience in Ancient Thought.”)



>In answer to Noah’s prayer, God promised not to destroy humanity again, and explained, I 99b that it was not He who had destroyed those who had perished but that they had suffered this punishment because of their own wickedness (xaxia).

Philo (Posterity 9) writes

εἰ τὸ ἐκ προσώπου μεταναστῆναι βασιλέως θνητοῦ χαλεπόν ἐστι…

If it is a difficult thing to remove out of sight of a mortal monarch, must it not be a thousandfold more difficult to quit the vision [φαντασίαν] of God and be gone, resolved henceforth to shun the sight of Him; in other words to become incapable of receiving a mental picture of Him through having lost the sight of the soul’s eye? Men who have suffered this loss under compulsion, overwhelmed by the force of an inexorable power, deserve pity rather than hatred. But those who have of their own free choice turned away and departed from the Existent Being, transcending the utmost limit of wickedness itself—for no evil could be found equivalent to it—these must pay no ordinary penalties, but such as are specially devised and far beyond the ordinary. Now no effort of thought could hit upon a penalty greater and more unheard of than to go forth into banishment from the Ruler of the Universe.

Adam, then, is driven out by God; Cain goes out voluntarily [ἐθελοντὴς]. Moses is showing us each form of moral failure, one of free choice, the other not so. The involuntary act, not owing its existence to our deliberate judgement, is to obtain later on such healing as the case admits of, “for God shall raise up another seed in place of Abel whom Cain slew” (Gen. iv. 25).
Cf. Gen 4:16: “Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Also, there might seem to be a suggestion here that involuntary sin leads to externally-imposed punishment, while voluntary sin leads to self-imposed punishment.Yet there are other confusing details. How exactly could we say that Adam’s sin or exile—presumably the “involuntary act”—was in any way rectified by a replacement for Abel? (At least how is it so, assuming that Philo isn’t working with a notion that Adam’s sin had some direct effect on descendants, a la Augustinian original sin?) Abel’s death owed to a voluntary act—so it’d seem like only the consequences of the voluntary act could be rectified. Otherwise it’d be like saying “<mentally handicapped person> is not culpable for murder; but everything was made right because the family of <serial killer’s> victim received a settlement.”For more, see Mendelson, “Philo’s Dialectic of Reward and Punishment”: speaking of the Allegorical Commentary, “Throughout this trilogy Philo takes care to disassociate God from the direct exercise of punishment.” More specifically, Mendelson quotes Post. 12 that “Cain, then, has left the face of God to fall into the hands of Justice [Dike] who takes vengeance on the impious,” and in a footnote writes
For a full discussion of the role of dike in Philo. see E. R. Goodenough, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1935), 59-63. Philo is understandably reluctant to allow dike to stand outside of God. At the same time, Philo relies on dike to free God of responsibility for evil action. Goodenough admits that “the confusion is here quite deep” (62).[fn]
This seems to be nothing less than a sort of polytheism (perhaps at most we could speak of a “quasi-demythologized” polytheism). In this regard Mendelson also cites Runia’s Philo of Alexandria and The Timaeus of Plato (247)f., who notes that for Philo “God’s helpers do not assist in creating the whole of man, but only that part which is responsible for wrong-doing” (246) Runia notes that “[i]n one text, Fug. (cf. Leg. 1.41), Philo follows Plato’s account reasonably closely and affirms that their assistance is utilized for the creation of the irrational part of the soul.” (Philo’s reasoning here has been insightfully invoked recently, in attempting to explain some of Paul’s logic on the Law, especially in Galations: cf. Nordgaard’s “Paul and the Provenance of the Law: The Case of Galatians 3,19-20.”)Returning to Cain and Abel: interestingly, elsewhere Philo suggests that “so far as superficial appearance goes . . . Abel has been done away with; but when examined more carefully, that Cain has been done away with by himself. It must be read in this way: ‘Cain rose up and slew himself [ἑαυτόν],’ not someone else.” (Yet LXX reads ἀπέκτεινεν αὐτόν.)(Cf. also Cover, “The Sun and the Chariot: The Republic and the Phaedrus as Sources for Rival Platonic Paradigms of Psychic Vision in Philo’s Biblical Commentaries.”)

Conscience etc.?

Wisdom Sol 3

10 Οἱ δὲ ἀσεβεῖς καθὰ ἐλογίσαντο ἕξουσιν ἐπιτιμίαν, οἱ ἀμελήσαντες τοῦ δικαίου καὶ τοῦ Κυρίου ἀποστάντες.

Origen, De Princ. 2.10.4:

…now let us see what is the meaning of the threatened ‘eternal fire’. Now we find in the prophet Isaiah that the fire by which each man is punished is described as belonging to himself. For it says, ‘Walk in the light of your fire and in the flame which you have kindled for yourselves’ (Isaiah 30.11). These words seem to indicate that every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire and is not plunged into a fire which has been previously kindled by some one else or which existed before him [Per quos sermones hoc videtur indicari quod unusquisque peccatorum flammam sibi ipse proprii ignis accendat, et, non in aliquem ignem qui antea iam fuerit accensus ab alio, vel ante ipsum substiterit, demergatur]. Of this fire the food and material are our sins, which are called by the apostle Paul wood, hay and stubble . . . so even the soul has gathered within itself a multitude of evil deeds and an abundance of sins, at the requisite time the whole mass of evil boils up into punishment and is kindled into penalties; at which time also the mind or conscience; bringing to memory through divine power all things the signs and forms of which it impressed upon itself at the moment of sinning, will see exposed before its eyes a kind of history of its evil deeds, of every foul and disgraceful act and all unholy conduct. Then the conscience is harassed and pricked by its own stings, and becomes an accuser and witness against itself. 

Also cf.

[σκότος δὲ ἐξώτερόν φησιν, ἔνθα οὐδεὶς φωτισμός ἐστιν, τάχα μὲν οὐδὲ σωματικός, πάντως δὲ οὐδεμία ἐπισκοπὴ θείου φωτός] [in tenebras exteriores, ubi nulla inluminatio est forsitan, nec corporalis, nec est respectio dei illic,]

…He says ‘outer darkness’, where there is no illumination, perhaps not even of a bodily kind, but certainly no visitation of divine light

sed quasi indigni speculatione dei qui talia peccaverunt condemnantur in his quae exteriores tenebrae appellantur

forsitan donec intellexerint, ut convertantur et digni efficiantur exire ab eis; forsitan et propter aliam causam (quam nos ignoramus), quoniam legimus fuit ante nos exponentem de tenebris abyssi et dicentem quoniam abyssus est extra mundum foris et tenebrae

…perhaps [forsitan] until they understand so as to be converted and made worthy to come forth from it; perhaps also for some other reason which we know not of, since we read of one before us expounding the darkness of the abyss, and saying that the abyss and darkness is without beyond the world.

[consideremus ergo si…]

Let us consider then whether his exposition can be true, that some, as being unworthy, are cast from the whole world into that abyss, which he expounded, in which is darkness unillumined by any one, since they are beyond the whole world (CommSer 68; Source)

Referring to Origen (thinking that “Biblical language about the fires of Hell must be demythologised to mean the nightmares of the troubled conscience”), Chadwick comments, with important references,

Later theologians sometimes objected vehemently to this psychological interpretation of Hell (e.g. John Chrysostom, De sacerdotio VI,1,13; Jerome, Ep. ad Avitum 124,7; Orosius, Commonitorium CSEL 18, 156,11-12). But Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. 5,36, PG 35,712B) and Ambrose (De off. 1,45f.; 111,24) were able to make positive use of it. The orthodox view became the doctrine that among the sharp pains of Hell the remorse of a guilty conscience will be the most painful (e.g. Jerome, In Esaiam XVIII p. 829 Vallarsi; Maximus Confessor, Ep. 1 ad Georgium praef. Africae, PG 91,380-89; especially 381D; Ep. 4, PG 91,416AB; Ep. 43, PG 91,640D; Antiochus Pandectes, Hom. 95, PG 89,1724A). 

(Cf. also Ambrose, Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam VII, 205 (PL 15, 1754B-C): “the ‘worm which does not die’ and the ‘fire which is not quenched’ is understood, by the majority of interpreters (a plerisque), as referring to the conscience of sinners tormenting them.”)

Casey quotes Jerome here (Ep. Ad Avitum 7), that

As for the fire of Gehenna and the torments, with which holy scripture threatens sinners, Origen does not make them to consist in punishments but in the conscience of sinners, when by the goodness and power of God the whole memory of our offences is placed before our eyes. The entire crop of our sins springs up as it were from seeds which have remained hidden in the soul, and every shameful and impious act that we have done is represented in an image before our eyes, so that the mind, beholding its former acts of self-indulgence is punished by a burning conscience and stung by the pricks of remorse

(However, he does say this in a context highly critical of Origen. He continues “And again: but perhaps this coarse and earthly body ought to be described as mist and darkness; for at the end of this world and when it becomes necessary to pass into another, the like darkness will lead to the like physical birth. In speaking thus he clearly pleads for the transmigration of souls as taught by Pythagoras and Plato.”)

Elsewhere Jerome comments that “Darkness is always inner, not outer. But because the one who is cast out by the Lord has abandoned the light, it is named outer darkness.”

In the Catena Aurea we find, further,

GREG. By inward darkness we express blindness, of heart; outer darkness signifies the everlasting night of damnation. 

PSEUDO-CHRYS. Or, it points to the difference of punishment inflicted on sinners. Outer darkness being the deepest, inward darkness the lesser, as it were the outskirts of the place.

An important study on early patristic views on salvation and volition can be found in Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.”

After his discussion of “eternal fire” in De Princ. 2.10.4, Origen continues with a figurative interpretation of the “outer darkness”:

The “outer darkness” is in my opinion not to be understood as a place with a murky atmosphere and no light at all, but rather as a description of those who through their immersion in the darkness of deep ignorance have become separated from every gleam of reason and intelligence (2.10.8)

In Plato, Republic 508d, we read

When [the soul] fixes itself on that which is illumined [φαίνεται] by truth and that which is, it intellects, knows, and appears to possess intelligence. But when it fixes itself on that which is mixed with darkness [ὅταν δὲ εἰς τὸ τῷ σκότῳ κεκραμένον], on coming into being and passing away, it opines and is dimmed, changing opinions up and down, and seems at such times not to possess intelligence.

For Origen, the impious “will after the resurrection be clothed with murky bodies, in order that this very gloom of ignorance, which in the present world had taken possession of the inner parts of their mind, may in the world to come be revealed through the garment of their outward body.” (For “murky,” could we maybe compare Borboros and ἠερόεις, etc.?)

As for the relationship between soul and body in Origen’s more straightforwardly discerned eschatology, however, “For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank”; but “[f]or all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank,” per Leontius of Byzantium.

White, Myth and Metaphysics in Plato’s Phaedo, 121f.—summarizing sections of the Phaedo (78b-84c)—is worth quoting at length here:

Only those who have philosophized and are in all respects “purified,” only those who “love learning” (φιλομαθε), while enter into the presence of the divine race. It is for this reason alone that those who have philosophized “rightly” (ὀρθῶς) refrain from boidly pleasures . . . The lovers of learning care for their souls by not following [intemperate] men as leaders but rather by following the “purified” ways of philosophy wherever these ways may lead (82d) . . . Cebes asks how one should follow right philosophizing and Socrates replies with a long uninterrupted speech that begins with the assertion that the “lovers of learning” recognize that when philosophy first possesses their soul, soul is so wedded to body that it views “the realities” (τὰ ὄντα) as if through a prison, sunk in every form of ignorance. This lover of learning was therefore not always a lover of learning, since he could recognize when soul was trapped in body and possessed by ignorance (ἀμαθία)

Compare especially De Princ. 2.10.8’s “immersion in the darkness of deep ignorance”; Phaedo‘s “wallowing in utter ignorance” (ἐν πάσῃ ἀμαθίᾳ κυλινδουμένην). And yet “philosophy sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment is the fact that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant [ξυλλήπτωρ] in his own imprisonment” (82e-83a).

In 2.10.8, Origen goes on to discuss something—the “prison”—that might also be connected with this; cf. the (Orphic) σῶμα/σῆμα interpretation that appears in Plato and elsewhere: cf. Gorgias, τὸ σῶμά ἐστιν ἡμῖν σῆμα.

Allison describes that

There are within us, says Origen, “two kinds of senses, the one being mortal, corruptible and human, and the other immortal and intellectual, which here he [=Solomon in Proverbs] calls ‘divine.’ By this divine sense, therefore, not of the eyes but of a pure heart, that is, the mind, God can be seen by those who are worthy.”

(Quoting Princ. 1.1.9.)

In De Princ. 2.11.2,

Now some men, who reject the labour of thinking and seek after the outward and literal meaning of the law, or rather give way to their own desires and lusts, disciples of the mere letter, consider that the promises of the future are to be looked for in the form of pleasure and bodily luxury. And chiefly on this account they desire after the resurrection to have flesh of such a sort that they will never lack the power to eat and drink and to do all things that pertain to flesh and blood, not following the teaching of the apostle Paul about the resurrection of a ‘spiritual body’. 

See here the chapter on Origen in the volume The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity. McInroy writes that passages like these “likely betray Origen’s debt to a Platonic model of ‘intellectual vision’ that is distinct from a metaphorical use of the language of sensation.” Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, “Our initial withdrawal from wrong and erroneous ideas of God is a transition from darkness to light” (cf. Rush’s thesis “From What is Seen to What is Beyond: The Role of Spiritual Vision in Nyssen Theology” and Kariatlis, “‘Dazzling Darkness’: The Mystical or Theophanic Theology of St Gregory of Nyssa”); and the discussion of Gregory below.

On Origen and Plato generally, cf. Edwards, Origen Against Plato.

In Peri Archon 4.2.2, Origen suggests

Now the reason why all those we have mentioned [Jews and Gnostics] hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this: that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter

Stroumsa writes “It may be worth noting that this bare letter (to psilon gramma) Origen often calls the corporeal (sōmatikon) sense of scripture—following in this a well-established tradition of Alexandrian exegesis” (“The Incorporeality of God,” 351).

(Esp. with the quotation of Peri Archon here, might we think of Plato’s distinction between knowledge and belief, Rep .475f.? Also, “For the incorporeality of the soul—as of all created rational natures—see PA 1.7.1.”

Stroumsa writes, of Augustine, that “Only after he had discovered, in [Latin translations of the Platonists’ writings], the possibility of a purely spiritual—i.e. totally immaterial invisible and incorporeal—being, only then could he recognize the Scriptures as true.”

Boyarin’s “By Way of Apology: Dawson, Edwards, Origen” has a large focus on Origen’s allegoresis vis-à-vis Platonism (esp. with the work of Dawson, too). (Interestingly, Boyarin suggests at one point, in a footnote, that at certain times it appears that Edwards and Dawson push things as far as to “the point of arguing that one can not get Origen without accepting the truth claims of his theology.”) Boyarin describes,

In Origen’s hermeneutical theory, Logos theology functions in two ways. In his First Principles, Book IV, we can find one version of his three-fold theory of interpretation. The ‘obvious interpretation’ is called the flesh of the Scripture, but there are two more levels, the ‘soul’ and the ‘spiritual law’: ‘For just as man consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does the Scripture.’ The existence of allegory as a hermeneutical theory is thus made dependent on a Platonic universe of correspondences (not antagonisms) between things seen and things unseen, copies and originals, just as it had been in Philo’s work, as well.

Gregory of Nazianzus:

Τοῖς δὲ μετὰ τῶν ἄλλων βάσανος μᾶλλον δὲ πρὸ τῶν ἄλλων τὸ ἀπεῤῥφθαι θεοῦ, καὶ ἣ ἐν τῷ συνειδότι αἰσχύνη πἐρας οὐκ ἔχουσἀ

The others among other torments, but above and before them all must endure the being outcast from God, and the shame of conscience which has no limit.

(Poemata de seipso 1.546?)

(Pope) Gregory the Great:

External darkness comes as a punishment to one who has fallen voluntarily into internal darkness through his own sin. The one who freely enjoyed pleasurable darkness in this world will be constrained to suffer punishing darkness in the next.

Isaac of Nineveh:

[T]hose who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.

Thomas Aquinas: Summa, Supp. 97 a 5

There have been many opinions about the fire of hell. For some philosophers, as Avicenna, disbelieving in the resurrection, thought that the soul alone would be punished after death. And as they considered it impossible for the soul, being incorporeal, to be punished with a corporeal fire, they denied that the fire whereby the wicked are punished is corporeal, and pretended that all statements as to souls being punished in future after death by any corporeal means are to be taken metaphorically [metaphorice dicatur]. For just as the joy and happiness of good souls will not be about any corporeal object, but about something spiritual, namely the attainment of their end, so will the torment of the wicked be merely spiritual, in that they will be grieved at being separated from their end, the desire whereof is in them by nature [in hoc scilicet quod tristabuntur de hoc quod separabuntur a fine, cuius inest eis desiderium naturale].

In the Collationes (Catechetical Instructions/Sermons), we find Thomas write of how, in hell, pain “will be exaggerated” 1) “by separation from God and all good things,” 2) “from remorse of conscience,” 3) “from the immensity of pain that is of the senses,” and finally 4) “from despair” (that their condition will never end). Ayo’s translation begins “The wicked, however, who are in eternal death…” (Mali autem, qui sunt in morte eterna…)

On Aquinas and choice, damnation, and hell, cf. Wicksteed, Dante & Aquinas, 203f.

Trumbower notes

As Gregory [of Nyssa] reports learning from his sister Macrina, “Hades” was not so much a place as a condition of the soul after death (On the Soul and Resurrection, PGM 46.68, 83–84). (Rescue for the Dead, 101)

And Macrina ‘reads the chasm separating the rich man and Lazarus as “those decisions in this life which result in the separating of opposite characters”’ (121).

(The relevant section reads “He who has definitely pursued pleasure for this life and has not cured his misguided choice by repentance makes the land of the good inaccessible to him hereafter [ἄβατον ἑαυτῷ μετὰ ταῦτα τὴν τῶν ἀγαθῶν χώραν ἐργάζεται]. He digs for himself this impassable necessity, like an immense pit which cannot be crossed [τὴν ἀδιάβατον ταύτην ἀνάγκην, καθάπερ τι βάραθρον ἀχανές τε καὶ ἀπαρόδευτον καθ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ διορύξας].” Also, cf. Baghos, “Reconsidering Apokatastasis in St Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection and Catechetical Oration,” which focuses on how Gregory “emphasised the free cultivation of virtue in the here and now as having an impact on our experience of the afterlife.”)


So it is that, when the change is made into the impalpable Unseen, not even then will it be possible for the lovers of the flesh to avoid dragging away with them under any circumstances some fleshly foulness; and thereby their torment will be intensified, their soul having been materialized by such surroundings.


So if each item leads the mind away from a corporeal understanding of the narrative, surely it is likely that this Hades also which has just been mentioned is not intended to signify a place with that name. The Scripture must be teaching us that it is some invisible and incorporeal condition of life, in which the soul lives.

(Cf. earlier, “For it seems to me that when both the unbelievers and the holy Scripture use this name and say that the souls are ‘in’ it, they mean simply the transition to the invisible and unseen.”)

Further, “it is not punishment chiefly and principally that the Deity, as Judge, afflicts sinners with; but He operates . . . only to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness,” and “If then, whether by forethought here, or by purgation hereafter, our soul becomes free from any emotional connection with the brute creation, there will be nothing to impede its contemplation of the Beautiful.”

(Note: before the last line here, “think our Lord teaches us this; that those still living in the flesh must as much as ever they can separate and free themselves in a way from its attachments by virtuous conduct, in order that after death they may not need a second death to cleanse them from the remnants that are owing to this cement [κόλλης, cf. Plato, Phaedo 82E] of the flesh…” Trumbower writes “Harold Cherniss discusses the passages from Plato that underlie the dialogue between Gregory and Macrina here; particularly important are those that posit a second death in the afterlife as a punishment for sins (Phaedo 114B; Laws 870E, 872E).”)

This understanding and language of the Beatific Vision clearly has Platonic precursors—most famously the Allegory of the Cave. (And see the discussion of Origen and Plato from earlier.)

See the volume The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity. (Chapters on Origen, Gregory, Augustine, etc.)

See also Harold Cherniss’ The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa; Reydams-Schils, “Philo of Alexandria on Stoic and Platonist Psycho-Physiology” in the volume Philo of Alexandria and Post-Aristotelian Philosophy; Runia, Philo of Alexandria and The Timaeus of Plato (esp. the sections “Timaeus 42e-47e: man’s descent into the body” and “The negativity of matter”); Batchelder “Moral Corruption and Philosophic Education in Plato’s Phaedrus.”

Also see Armstrong, “After the Ascent: Plato on Becoming like God“; Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition and Litwa, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul’s Soteriology (esp. the section “Transcendence and Deification in Hellenistic Religion” and chapter “Survey of Deification: Assimilation to Specific Deities”).

Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist and Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul:

The separation between soul and Truth is not a separation in space. It is the same separation that Scripture calls sin. It is characteristic of Augustine, as of Platonism generally, that separation between the soul and unchanging Forms such as Truth is from the beginning a moral problem, not just a matter of ignorance and error but of perversity and wrong turns of the soul, which must be overcome not only by learning but by conversion of the will and purification of the heart. Thus as Augustine acquires a deeper understanding of the Platonist heritage, problems of love and will become increasingly central to his thought.

Especially similar to Gregory, see Calvin (1509 – 1564), Tracts and Treatises 3:

let us learn this much, that though by death the dissolution of the present life is repeatedly signified, and by the lower region, (infernus,) the grave, yet it is no uncommon thing for Scripture to employ these terms for the anger and withdrawal of the power of God; so that persons are said to die and descend into the lower region, or to dwell in the lower region, when they are alienated from God, or prostrated by the judgment of God, or crushed by his hand. The lower region itself (infernus ipse) may signify, not the grave, but abyss and confusion. . . . In the New Testament . . . in . . . places [ᾅδης/infernus] signifies not so much the locality, as the condition of those whom God has condemned and doomed to destruction. And this is the confession which we make in the Creed, viz., that Christ “descended into hell,” (in inferos;) in other words, that He was subjected by the Father, on our account, to all the pains of death; that he endured all its agonies and terrors, and was truly afflicted, it having been previously said that “he was buried.”

This line of argument is so clearly indebted to some of the previous people/ideas discussed. While there could have been any number of direct dependencies here, it could also look something like Origen → Gregory of Nyssa → other mediators? → Calvin.

17th century Jeremias Drexel: “Of the pains of Gehenna, by far the most unendurable is to be shut out from the glorious sight of Christ and God.”

Although this aspect shared in some senses, Casey otherwise contrasts Drexel with late 17th c. Louis Bourdaloue, “stressing the spiritual pains of hell much more strongly than the pains of sense.”

“one of the greatest penalties of hell will be to have sinned, and to be soiled by the crimes committed during one’s life”

God will rub the soul’s face (as it were) in all these: “‘Gaze,’ he will tell it, ‘for each moment of eternity, behold the fruits of your incontinence, behold what your heart brought forth!’ ” (ibid., 555).

End of 17th, William Dawes:

Dawes attempts to bring together the inner conviction of sin with the material reality of hellfire. The conscience of sinners makes them suffer, even in this world, some intimation of the torments of hell—although this is feeble in comparison with the terrible reality to come. The five greatest torments of hell are: (1) banishment from the enjoyment of God, (2) the lashes of our own guilty minds, (3) the “loathsomeness of the place of hell” and the “troublesome conversation of devils,” (4) the pain of the fire of hell, and (5) “eternal durance.”

(This mirrors Aquinas’ Collationes very closely.)


Into this finality (of death) the dead Son descends, no longer acting in any way, but stripped by the cross of every power and initiative of his own, as one purely to be used, debased to mere matter, with a fully indifferent (corpse) obedience, incapable of any active solidarity – only thus is he right for any ‘sermon’ to the dead. He Is out of an ultimate love however) dead together with them. And exactly in that way he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be ‘damned’ apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute weakness of love who unfathomably in the period of nontime enters into solidarity with those damning themselves.


One would still be able to say that God gives human beings the capacity to perform what seems for human beings to be a definitive (negative) choice against God. but that does not need to be judged/evaluated/assessed by God as definitive. And not in such a way that the human person’s choice is called into question from outside — which would amount to a disregard of the freedom bestowed on it — but rather in such a way that God with his own divine choice accompanies the human person into the most extreme situation of his (negative) choice. This is what happens in the passion of Jesus.

Hunt explains “The human person may reject God. The human person may choose hell. But divine love is not obstructed by human folly.”

(See also Juan M. Sara called “Descensus ad Inferos, Dawn of Hope: Aspects of the Theology of Holy Saturday in the Trilogy of Hans Urs von Balthasar.”)

Jonathan Edwards’ ~1755 “The Endless Punishment of Those Who Die Impenitent” (especially aimed at William Whiston’s Eternity of Hell Torments).

Trumbower: “At times Origen can use the concept of Hades in a symbolic way as a metaphor for death (Hom. Exod. 6.6), but usually he understands Christ’s descent to Hades quite literally (C. Cels. 2.43; Commentary on John 32.32.394–400).”



Also, what Philo says in Decal. 176-177 is relevant here, too: “[God] therefore thought right not to couple punishment with His utterances, though He did not thereby grant immunity to evil-doers, but knew that justice His assessor [τὴν πάρεδρον αὑτῷ δίκην], [and] the surveyor of human affairs, in virtue of her inborn hatred of evil, will not rest, but take upon herself as her congenital task the punishment of sinners.”

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