The Prodigal Son and Hell’s Location

The Prodigal Son and Hell’s Location November 8, 2019

Periodically I plan to post reflections from my Patreon blog here at Patheos.  These are more contemplative, reflective, and meditative in orientation.  If these are helpful or interesting to you, please see my other Patreon posts.  Here is a revised post:

If we were to put aside the idea that hell is a geographical/physical or even metaphysical/spiritual realm, but rather a state of relative being, something we carry around in our hearts, the story of the Prodigal Son (St. Luke 15: 11-32) may help us see its location in how we respond to, or understand, our place in the Trinitarian economy, both temporally and eternally.

This is a meditation and reflection.  I’m not positing something doctrinal or systematic.  This is more a poetics, or more likely something aporetic.  This is a speculative and alternative reading of the Prodigal Son for sure.  Still, I’m satisfied in my own mind and heart as to any conclusions.

The story of the Prodigal Son is deeply subversive in many ways, but especially of all narratives that posit a certainty of salvation or lostness based upon temporal locations, of who is “in” and who is “out” of the father’s, the god’s, or the spirit’s good graces and favor—at any given moment in time.  The story problematizes location (in various aspects) as being a certain or secure temporal foundation indicative of one’s “salvation” or relation to the Father.

The narrative also seems to suggest that while both sons represent two opposing relationships with the father, neither’s actions, nor locations, overcomes the father’s love for either son.  Both are welcome to remain in the father’s house; both sons are told they are loved.  Therefore, the heaven or hell each experiences is within them—it is not exterior to their actual circumstances of being loved and welcomed in the father’s house.  They are actualized only by their response to the father’s love, but the father makes no other pronouncements or judgments upon his sons, other than those evidenced in his actions.

First, the son who leaves.  Yes, physically he leaves, but does the father’s actions allow room for a deeper understanding of “leaving?”  Since the father sees his son from far off, was he always looking for his return?  Was he always scanning the horizon?  His broken heart is now large enough to hold his son there.  If love never fails, if love is the most important thing to remain (1 Cor: 13), then his son has not left, really.  His son resides there, in the father’s heart.  Even though the son eventually feels he is in hell, he is not.  He may be in the temporary purifying fires, but his true self is in heaven, his father’s heart and home.

Second, the son who remains.  Yes, physically he remains at home.  But notice he is not looking for his brother, like the father does.  It would have been very upsetting to witness what his brother did and to live in the aftermath.  We can almost feel his resentment and anger at his brother (We know this from his eventual response to his brother’s returning).  It is this anger and resentment that indicates he has left his father’s home as well, if not his father’s heart.  He too wanders, even if at home physically.

The son who leaves is many things.  At the least, ignorant, impertinent, and immature.  However, he doesn’t seem to hold any anger or malice toward his father or brother.  We aren’t told why he leaves, but it doesn’t seem to be for reasons of anger or hate.  Thus, he too carries his father and brother in his heart–even in the far country.

It is difficult to say the same of the brother who remains.  I wonder if in his anger and resentment, he had let his brother go (thus his true surprise at the return).  If so, then it is he who has left and not his brother.  To hold onto anger and resentment is to live in hell (which is to be in a far country and not home), regardless of one’s physical surroundings—even in the paradise of the father’s home.  To live in ignorance, but still hold onto one’s love for father and brother, is to carry heaven around, regardless of one’s physical surroundings and even in spite of one’s short-sighted choices.

We have two sons leaving and remaining in this story.  We also have the circumstances of their leaving and remaining.  However, we cannot locate (truthfully, ontologically, spiritually) either, based simply upon their physical location or temporal, finite circumstances or choices.  We can only locate them in their response to each other (which holds the possibility of transcending the temporal and finite—because love remains; or conversely, in resentment, the creation of a finite space for further purification).  In that sense, we find the son who remains, had actually left and the son who left, had actually remained.

Who then, is the prodigal?  Who is “in” and who is “out?”  We read:

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him…”

Notice the “in” and “out.”  The son who remained, now refuses to go “in.”  He is outside now.  However, the father comes “out.”  This love that refuses to let either son go, goes to each, wherever they are—and “entreats” them to come back “in” where they belong.  Only we can stay outside—the father doesn’t put us there.  Only we can go to a far country, the father doesn’t send us there.

Thus, the father’s house is always open, and we are always welcome—only we ourselves can prevent (and only to a point) our ingress to the place, if we ever come to ourselves, we know is home.  Our ability to do so, is entirely bound up in relation and our response to relation and not in our temporal, finite, location or circumstances (whether physical of spiritual).  Hell is about relation and response, not our temporal location or the circumstances of our finite choices.  In this sense, the consequences of our failures in the areas of relation and response, are the finite fires (hell) of purification burning off that which prevents us from being in right relation, from seeing and seeking the Good.

Thus, heaven and hell reside within and we carry each with us wherever we go, and they are activated or actualized by our response to the Father’s love, but never the Father’s judgment or command whether eternal predestination or pure absolute will in temporal time.  If hell is an abode or structure of evil, then it is finite, as evil is not an ontological reality, but a privation, a shadow.  Thus, it can never be determinative, into perpetuity, given our temporal, finite locations within the redemptive drama of creation and eschaton.  And this would be true, regardless our temporal choices, because of the eternal love of the Father, which is the only ontological reality—that which truly exists.

However, in the summing up of all things, then we will find ourselves finally in the Father’s house, where we were all along, in his heart.  Now location, desire, the temporal, and the finite, will rest and join eternally in the peace, love, and infinite joy of the Father’s presence—which becomes our final and only “location” or home.  Where are hearts were always held, our glorified bodies will now join.  Then, as St. Paul puts it:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell

And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things

Whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of the cross (Col 1:19)

Without this reconciliation, we would have the possibility the father remains forever looking for the lost son, which would mean love fails and would posit something existing more powerful than love—something as mundane as an immature, stubborn, and finite ignorance and will.  It would also mean “all” things doesn’t really mean “all.”

Regardless hell and any purifying fires and judgment, which are no doubt part of our salvation, I believe Sergius Bulgakov was right: “It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see him without loving him.”

If a world existed, where the Father remains, eternally, looking for a son who never returns, then such a world would be a hell.  It is our eternal praise that such a world was never created or, for that matter, even possible.

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  • Marshall Pease

    the father makes no other pronouncements or judgments upon his sons

    The parable’s father says “… all that is mine, is yours.” The Prodigal gets a feast, but the son who was always faithful and did the work gets the farm. Naturally enough; the Prodigal is in no way equipped. Also I would suppose the Faithful son could have a feast for himself and his friends any time he asked for one, but that isn’t the life he chose to pursue.