Hell is a vexing topic whenever it is mentioned, assuming it is ever mentioned at all. In my experience I have noticed a markedly decreased frequency in its usage, at least in any serious sense, for most of the references I currently hear are more in jest, either the concept itself or towards those for whom it still has meaning. It is rare to come across a serious discussion, when most descend into contempt or caricature.
The modern world’s critique of hell is probably best encapsulated in a single question: how could a loving God send anyone to hell? Or, if God simply allows one to go to hell rather than actively sending one there, how is the monstrosity lessened? We tend to do the moral calculus and find an eternity of suffering overkill for a finite lifetime of sins, assuming we even acknowledge anything to be sin at all.
Given that hell as defined (rather than caricatured) within traditional, orthodox Christian theology is something dogmatic, defending the reality of such an understanding has become increasingly difficult in the modern world, especially when relatively few have any inclination to accept such a premise.
The difficulty is furthered in that most attempts to mount a defense of hell within Christian teaching end up admitting the premises of the critique and thus end up giving the game away before it has started. The resulting argument is thus left hollow and bereft of power, which is what makes such a simplistic critique to be often so effective. The unwitting apologist is often left flat-footed, usually trying to pit God’s justice against God’s love as if God is somehow torn between himself in his very being.
But most critiques of hell, and thus most defenses of hell, ultimately proceed from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of sin. And if the argument is flawed from the beginning, it can’t help but end in disaster.
So perhaps a better argument is needed from the start.
St. Athanasius is famous for his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, in which he attempts to expound on the reason for God’s taking on of human nature in Jesus Christ. This work has been transformative in my own theological development, and from time to time I come back to refresh myself from such a deep well.
During my last excursion into his thought I was struck by the reasoning he employs viz-a-viz humankind’s descent into non-being as a result of their sin. Our existence comes into being from nothingness by the power and will and love of God, who wills for things to exist because his goodness does not begrudge existence to others:
For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, III, 3)
Furthermore, since all things are made by God, they in and of themselves do not have the ability to generate their own existence; in other words, their natural state is to be brought forth from non-existence into existence and to then pass again into non-existence; unless, of course, God wills them to exist. Humans have the special prerogative of being endowed with reason, which Athanasius amusingly states renders them more than ‘barely created’ like everything else:
And among these, having taken special pity, above all things on earth, upon the race of men, and having perceived its inability, by virtue of the condition of its origin, to continue in one stay, He gave them a further gift, and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise. (ibid.)
As lowly as we creatures are, we have an intimate connection with God since it is our very rational nature to reflect the one who created all things. Since the one who made us is the Word, our ability (by means of reason) to understand and partake of some measure of knowledge of the source of our existence means that we participate in some measure in the Word himself. There is thus a Trinitarian fitting-ness woven into our very constitution, wherein our teleology is to know God who is the source of our being. Ultimately, God himself is the object of of our existence.
This point will become absolutely crucial going forward.
St. Athanasius continues on to the sad fall of our race, in which the grace that had been given to us to secure us in existence and in our friendship with God (ultimately the same thing) was traded for dissolution in sin. Whereas humanity enjoyed a supernatural state of being in relation to God, sin is settling for the dregs, plunging oneself back into the natural state:
For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. 5. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. 6. For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt; as Wisdom Wisdom 6:18 says: “The taking heed to His laws is the assurance of immortality;” but being incorrupt, he would live henceforth as God, to which I suppose the divine Scripture refers, when it says: “I have said you are gods, and you are all sons of the most Highest; but you die like men, and fall as one of the princes.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, IV, 4b-6)
There is some remarkably deep theology here, but St. Athanasius’ point here is that the transgression that brought about our death is not due to the violation of some arbitrary command but is rather an ontological deprivation from humankind’s communion with God. Our natural state, being contingent beings, is to not have the power of our own existence or to be the source thereof. Our plunging into sin and death is not God’s vindictive wrath but is rather the natural state of deliberately severing our communion with God. If God is the source of our existence and thus the one who sustains contingent beings in their existence, then to cut oneself off from that source could have no other result than sliding into dissolution.
Jesus, for example, uses the metaphor of the vine and the branches; those who do God’s will remain joined to the vine, but those who do not are cut off. A branch cut off from the vine will eventually wither and die. St. Athanasius understands a similar dynamic occurring here. To turn back to what was not (sin, after all, is a privation of being and of good) means that one is deprived of that which IS.
We then come to the dilemma which forms the crux of On the Incarnation of the Word. For in this plunge back into sin, God’s image in man, the very reflection of the Word, was proceeding into dissolution. This leaves us with two problems, one monstrous, and one unseemly:
For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false— that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken. For God would not be true, if, when He had said we should die, man died not. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, VI, 3)
While he couches his language here in legal terms, one must not forget the ontological thread running through all that has come before. To have union with God and to participate in the divine nature is the source of existence, but to sever oneself from that participation is to fall into death. God cannot simply proclaim by fiat that that which is dead is alive without it actually being alive. After all, when God first called forth being from non-being he called forth that which is from that which is not. But now that which is is becoming that which is not, and is doing so by its own will, turning again towards its own nature. This death cannot simply be called life unless it is brought back into life, anymore than sin could be called goodness unless it were to become good.
Again, it were unseemly that creatures once made rational, and having partaken of the Word, should go to ruin, and turn again toward non-existence by the way of corruption. 5. For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil. 6. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God’s handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, VI, 4-6)
God is good, or, rather, is the source of all goodness as well as the source of all existence, It was his own power and being which brought forth everything that is into existence, and his will and love and goodness which sustains it in existence. God thus demonstrates that he is absolutely Being itself, and that nothing stands outside of his being since it derives its existence from him. For something to pass away which God called into and sustains in existence would thus, as St. Athanasius says, be unseemly, for one might think that God really is not powerful enough to create since his creation can be ruined so easily. The goodness of all that he has made is about to fall back into the nothingness from which it was called.
This two-fold dilemma means that God must do something:
So, as the rational creatures were wasting and such works in course of ruin, what was God in His goodness to do? Suffer corruption to prevail against them and death to hold them fast? And where were the profit of their having been made, to begin with? For better were they not made, than once made, left to neglect and ruin. For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part— if, that is, He allows His own work to be ruined when once He had made it— more so than if He had never made man at all. For if He had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the Maker. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, VI, 7-10)
There is much that could unpacked here, but one thing that stands out is that the dilemma (so to speak) is not really in regards to us but is rather in regards to God. Now, St. Athanasius is speaking this way not insinuate that God had some sort of existential dilemma whereas he might somehow be affected by creation in his transcendent being, but rather to demonstrate the sheer depth of the mystery that God would actually become man, would actually take upon himself our corruptible nature and bring it again into incorruption.
The Incarnation, even though it is for our sake, is ultimately about God. Indeed, our creation and very being is finally about God; the Scriptures, after all, tell us that “from him and through him and for him are all things.” (Romans 11:36 NIV) As seen earlier, our reflection of the Word means that our participation in God’s being and life is not only woven into the very constitution of our nature but even- because of our rationality- is something into which we can more deeply delve. We are not ‘barely created’ like the non-rational universe but are meant to come deeper into the knowledge of our Creator. It is to recreate this creation, to call back nothingness into being that God became man:
Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. 2. For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection. For the actual corruption in death has no longer holding-ground against men, by reason of the Word, which by His one body has come to dwell among them. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, IX, 1b-2)
All About God
At this point one might reasonably ask what any of this has to do with Hell. That originally crucial point about everything being about God finally is brought to bear, for it is this directedness towards God that forms one of the more reasonable apologies for hell.
In his work Against the Heathen St. Athanasius looks at the origination of sin in humanity and all that it entails. In the final analysis it is turning one’s contemplation from God and onto something else:
But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves. 2. But nearer to themselves were the body and its senses; so that while removing their mind from the things perceived by thought, they began to regard themselves; and so doing, and holding to the body and the other things of sense, and deceived as it were in their own surroundings, they fell into lust of themselves, preferring what was their own to the contemplation of what belonged to God. Having then made themselves at home in these things, and not being willing to leave what was so near to them, they entangled their soul with bodily pleasures, vexed and turbid with all kind of lusts, while they wholly forgot the power they originally had from God. 3. But the truth of this one may see from the man who was first made, according to what the holy Scriptures tell us of him. For he also, as long as he kept his mind to God, and the contemplation of God, turned away from the contemplation of the body. (St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, III, 1-3)
In other words, all sin is finally the result of a bad preference; preferring that which is lower to that which is higher:
All of which things are a vice and sin of the soul: neither is there any cause of them at all, but only the rejection of better things. (St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, IV, 2)
And since God is the best thing, the origin of sin is thus seen to be preferring anything else to God, since he is the source of all being and goodness. While every choice we make is aimed at some good, the very finitude of our nature as created beings ensures that we simply do not have capacity to know by our own lights what that good is. It is telling that in the garden narrative Adam and Eve face their temptation along this very point- to eat of the tree of life as commanded to by God, or to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and thus become like God in their knowledge of the good.
As St. Athanasius has helpfully pointed out already, humankind’s endowment of reason already makes them like God. But to know the good is something that must ultimately be received from the Good Himself, for only He from whom all goodness flows can lead contingent beings into that goodness. Else, our quest for the good will ultimately lead into that which is not good, for instead of orienting the universe around God as its Creator our self-sufficiency tends to orient it around ourselves. And if the Good itself is displaced from this position, we cannot help but reject better things.
All of this finally brings us back to hell and the critique of hell which often seems so powerful to moderns. Seen in light of the previous considerations, hell is the dregs of the universe, the refuse of beings who will not submit their wills to God, who would rather enter into self-annihilation than acknowledge the author of Goodness. In this sense, God does not send anyone to hell, and the standard response seems to fall in line.
But what of the deeper critique? How could a God who is so loving even allow such suffering, such endless torment? Those who wish to bring the critique to a point will often even ask how God could allow finite beings guilty of finite sins to undergo an endless amount of torture for what they have done. Is this not the height of monstrosity? Why might not God just let them fall back completely into the nothingness from whence they came? Wouldn’t that be the more loving thing to do, rather than sustain them in a tortuous existence?
St. Athanasius has already answered one of the questions. Any being which exists is good, and for God to allow that which he has made and sustained in existence to fall back into non-existence by its own ‘power’ would nullify God’s creative act. In the final analysis God would not truly be the source of all being, for if nothingness is more powerful than being then even God’s own existence would be called into question, for the nothingness can draw back its own, so to speak, just as much as God can call forth being from nothingness. We are ultimately left with a vicious duality which infects the divine being itself, rendering incoherent God’s goodness.
And with that we come to the rebuttal of the critique, which, although it can be parsed in many different ways, must finally be found in a return to the garden and the original temptation. It is less about commandments and transgressions and more about who is going to be God- the Creator or the creation?
The critique of hell is finally shown to be the protest of hell itself, a question which arises not out of a sense of justice or search for love but rather that of a petulant child who would rather have his own way and be miserable than obey his parents and ultimately be happy. If we take St. Athanasius’ words seriously, while certainly the Incarnation is for humanity, its ultimate object is God himself, as anything in all of creation and existence is. After all, from him, through him and for him are all things.
In the end, the best thing is God, and the greatest goodness is the Good himself. The suffering of those who reject goodness is no more a critique of God’s love than the whining of a stubborn child is of his parents’ wisdom in making him learn to potty train. It may seem harsh to couch such a weighty thing in these terms, but if God really is God and thus the object of all being and existence, then even an existence of perpetual suffering is preferable to none at all, even if for no other reason than that is what the goodness of God entails in the act of creation. To be sure, we may balk at such a conclusion, but if it is preferable as far as God is concerned than it must be admitted that it is preferable and thus a better good, period.
In light of this sort of talk we can feel the bristling of our spines, for every ounce of the modern mentality wishes to protest against this. But is this not itself the response of hell, which would rather paint God as a monster than submit to his will? Still, the question must be asked- who is the monster? Should God be blamed for creating, when he is the only one capable of creation? Must the whole universe- even God himself- be held hostage to the ego-enslaved will of hell, which would rather dissolve the universe than allow any goodness or happiness but on its own terms? Hell is ultimately full of little gods, powerless tyrants who would rather have their own pain than infinite pleasure from God’s hand.
And it is their own pain, for as we have seen, diminution of being is simply not something that God can do.
The Incarnation thus becomes a sort of apology for hell, for in the former the Word who created all things condescends to enter it and by doing so raise it to union with God. This union is both terrible and wonderful, for all of creation is saved from the nothingness which sin would lead to. And just like the sun can illumine the eyes or blind them with its brilliance, so union with God will be infinite delight or infinite pain:
For just as for them who walk after His example, the prize is life everlasting, so for those who walk the opposite way, and not that of virtue, there is great shame, and peril without pardon in the day of judgment, because although they knew the way of truth their acts were contrary to their knowledge. (St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, XLVII, 4)