We Know Endless Hell Doesn’t Really Make Sense
Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:
- “Hell is purgatorial. It is agonizing, humiliating, and may last a long time, but ultimately purges away sin and reconciles. Salvation from hell means salvation from the imminent, terrifying outpouring of the wrath of remedial justice due our sins.”
- “Hell is endless. It is an interminable torment due those who did not accept salvation in life. Beyond death’s threshold, hope is gone. Salvation from hell means salvation from this endless horror.”
The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).
(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)
Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”
But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Scriptural Issues
We’ve already covered many of the Scriptural issues at play here and elsewhere.
- Infographic of the Scriptural case for endless hell versus the Scriptural case for purgatorial hell.
- Reddit’s Theology AMA on purgatorialism.
- On this blog: St. Gregory of Nyssa vs. St. Augustine, and how St. Augustine’s Matt. 25:46 “parallelism” argument is unsound.
- On this blog: A hermeneutics exercise that further demonstrates the unsoundness of the “parallelism” argument.
But there are simple “sniff test” problems with endless hell as well.
In other words, even though the case for purgatorialism is stronger than that of endless hell using Scripture alone, we can also apply a reasoned moral sense against the idea of a just, benevolent God prescribing an endless hell.
And I think all of us Christians have done this, at one time or another. You’ve done it, I’m sure!
I’ll bet that, like me, you’ve asked a minister about one of these problems. And, if you’re like me, you got an unsatisfying response in return, perhaps something like, “I know it doesn’t make much sense, but the Bible says it, so we believe it.” Or, perhaps, you were given something more creative and elaborate.
The Odd Smell
At the end of the day, even if someone is convinced that “the Bible says it” or has bought in to some elaborate system, we can all agree in our heart of hearts that endless hell just doesn’t make much sense for many reasons:
- It is an interminable punishment for a finite infraction. How could that be considered just?
- Humans aren’t that complicated. An omniscient God could figure anyone out and fix them somehow, correct?
- Even with libertarian freedom, God is ultimately responsible for a person’s constraints. Our steps are not exclusively our own. Isn’t it cruel to ordain to a hopeless destiny?
- Surely infants and toddlers wouldn’t be thrown into endless torment, right?
- And if they’re not thrown into torment, wouldn’t right decisionmaking dictate euthanasia (!?) to hedge bets against an infinite agony? God forbid! (But is “God forbid!” the only reason?)
- Surely a person never given the opportunity to hear the Gospel wouldn’t be guaranteed endless torment, right?
- And if that’s the case, aren’t we doing such folks a disservice through missions? Wouldn’t we rather they remain invincibly ignorant?
- Doesn’t the Bible say that God would rather redeem someone if it’s an option?
- What about the threshold of death “ties God’s hands”? What mechanism or tether would make this the case?
- Won’t the saved agonize over their loved ones in torment?
I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking these questions. If you’ve asked or pondered these questions, it means that you have:
- An understanding of how goal-oriented decisionmaking works.
- An understanding of what satisfies justice vs. what makes a mockery thereof.
- A visceral, intuitive, and reliable sense of what a truly benevolent God would and wouldn’t do, even while being wholly just.
I’m not trying to tickle your ears or make you feel validated or something. Those questions are simply the products of having some measure of those properties — however obviously imperfect they are — before being twisted by elaborately systemized doctrinal error.
Now, questions and uncertainties should never trump prudent Scripturally-acquired revelation. After all, it’s called revelation, which means we couldn’t access it ourselves without being handed it.
Furthermore, human understanding is notoriously limited: We’re bad at perception, recognition, foresight, higher-order interest-seeking, and all manner of other things.
But if a Scriptural interpretation smells like garbage, our first inclination shouldn’t be to doubt our noses. Our first inclination should be to investigate what Scripture really says and doesn’t say.
A Dilemma-Free Eschatology
Aside from the intimidating Scriptural case for purgatorialism, there’s also the fact that purgatorialism yields none of the dilemmas and questions listed above, all without sacrificing any justice.
- Those dilemmas simply evaporate, cleanly and elegantly.
- God’s justice suddenly makes sense.
- We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about how and why God punishes.
- We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about his ultimate, lofty, final goals.
- When an infant dies, we don’t have to invent Limbos or special baby exceptions, but instead answer confidently, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire…? But I do not see how we can imagine that, in the case of such a soul. The word ‘retribution’ implies that something must have been previously given…” (On Infants’ Early Deaths)
Decades before St. Augustine’s campaign, that same St. Gregory, who was our most eloquent early purgatorialist, wrote the following beautiful exposition of purgatorialism:
“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.
His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.’
… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”
Purgatorialism is not “no-punishment universalism.” There is punishment. There is wrath. There is agony.
There is also mercy and salvation from that due punishment. We can avoid this hellish purgation! We can be forgiven! Our sins will be remembered no more! What Good News!
Let us chase after and cling to the view of punishment that has the best Scriptural case. And if it also “smells nice,” let us smile all the wider, and rejoice all the louder, for having a God even more completely benevolent than we thought before.
Nine months after this was posted, the Purgatorial Hell FAQ was finally finished. Go there to explore the issues and questions involved in a rediscovery of purgatorialism.