Hell with an Exit? Theological Reflections on the book of Lamentations and Hell

The world-shaking nature of the fall of Jerusalem is clear in the application of the “Day of the LORD” motif in the book of Lamentations. The coming Day of Yhwh was quite likely originally understood as doom for the nations and blessing for Israel but the prophet Amos reversed that perception:

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness and not light (Amos 5:18)
Amos, and later prophets, saw it as a ‘day’ for the destruction of evil not only amongst the nations but also in Israel. Lamentations too sees it as a ‘day’ of fierce judgment (1:12; 2:1; 2:21-22). The battle motif is prominent in “Day of Yhwh” texts as Lamentations 2 illustrates. The invincible Yhwh fights against his people and none can stop him.

Unusual in Lamentations is the designation of the Day of Yhwh as past (cf., Isa 22:1-4; Jer 46:3-12). Clearly then it was not seen as the end of history but as a time when God acts openly to bring judgment in history. Thus it can recur in different periods of time. Indeed, Lamentations contains prayer for, and an expectation that, the nations who oppress Israel shall taste that ‘Day’ for themselves in the near future (1:21-22; 4:21-22). So the Day of Yhwh is not, in Old Testament theology, a single one-off judgment at the end of the world.
  • Lamentations looking back to Day of LORD for Judah
  • Lamentations looking forward to Day of LORD for Enemies

The New Testament takes up the motif of “the Day of the Lord” and applies it to the parousia of Christ. This is the ultimate Day of the LORD that all the previous Days of the LORD had pointed towards. Whilst Lamentations is emphatically not about the end of the present evil age it can be re-approapriated as a type of the final Day of the Lord. God’s judgment on Jerusalem is a picture of God’s final judgment on a fallen world. Here it has to be emphasized that the New Testament and the Christian tradition have been just as insistent as the Old Testament that God will act in space-time history to punish sin whether it be that of Israel and Rome at, from the perspective of New Testament authors, some point in the not too distant future, or the world more generally on the final Day of Judgment.

The message of Jeremiah in the first part of his ministry was equivalent to the Christian call, “Be reconciled to God … Behold, now is the favorable time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:20b; 6:2b). But the “day of salvation” was not held open forever and Jeremiah records how Judah passed beyond the point of no return making the day of wrath inevitable. Lamentations provides a portrait of the aftermath of the Day of the LORD for those subject to punishment. As such it serves as a type of what Christians call ‘Hell’. The actual ‘second death’ will be the eschatological climax of divine judgments in history and hence not identical with them. Nevertheless, Hell is not utterly discontinuous with historical divine judgments. Judah suffers ‘Hell’ in exile and Jesus suffers Hell on the cross.

Calvin (and the subsequent Reformed tradition), instead of interpreting the descent of Christ into Hell as an event that occurs after the crucifixion, sees it as a theological comment on the nature of the crucifixion. On the cross Jesus suffers the second death. So the creed states that Christ was “crucified” indicating his outward suffering in the sight of men. It also says that he “descended into hell” which describes “that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God.” The theology of descent into hell is, for Calvin, grounded in the cry of dereliction. Christ’s dreadful feeling of being God-forsaken and God’s silence in the face of Jesus’ cries is nothing less than the experience of Hell. The doctrine of the descensus ad inferna is a powerful interpretative tool for understanding the wrath of God experienced by Jesus on the cross and its biblical foundation is found in the Passion narratives as much as in the ‘standard’ texts (Acts 2:27; Rom 10:6-7; Eph 4:8-9; 1 Pet 3:18-20; 4:6).

In the tradition of Calvin, Barth writes that Christ

“must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon him …, in order that he may bear it away … out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came and to which it alone belongs … For this, in our flesh, according to his human nature, as the Son of David, He must be the Rejected. He must be delivered up by His people to the heathen, descending into hell, where He can only cry: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”

Christ’s experience of Hell, however, whilst incorporating Jesus’ experiences on Calvary, also includes the apparent triumph of death itself and consequently takes in Easter Saturday. Here Balthasar is more helpful than Calvin and Barth. For Balthasar Easter Saturday is about Jesus’ solidarity with the dead: his passive “being with the dead”. If Christ’s actually being dead is not included in his ‘descent into hell’ then he has not experienced the full reaches of God-forsakenness.

“If Jesus has suffered on the cross the sin of the world to the very last truth of this sin – godforsakenness – then he must also experience, in solidarity with sinners who have gone into the underworld, their – ultimately hopeless – separation from God, otherwise he would not have known all the phases and conditions of what it means for man to be unredeemed yet awaiting redemption.”

In the spirit of “providing christological answers to eschatological questions” (Moltmann) one has to ask how a theology of ‘Hell’ can be developed that is consistent with these insights. Whilst much contemporary theology has little interest in the theology of Hell it seems to me that it is a fundamental strand within New Testament and historic Christian theology and simply cannot be jettisoned. Can Lamentations, read through the cross, contribute to our contemporary Christian reflections on the ‘Hell’ that many people suffer around us and the final reality of Hell that we believe is still future? Perhaps the following thoughts inspired by Lamentations might have the potential for development.

1. The fact that Lamentations focuses on the suffering of those in ‘Hell’ rather than their sin (though the sin is certainly clearly asserted) and seeks to elicit compassion for them suggests an appropriate Christian attitude towards those who suffer ‘Hell’ both now and in the eschaton. The classical Christian theology according to which the redeemed saints in heaven look on the torments of the damned and joyfully worship God for his perfect justice is simply inappropriate. God himself does not delight in afflicting people even if he is acting justly (Lam 3:33). Lamentations calls not for gloating or celebration but compassion for the ‘damned’.

2. It is not inappropriate to voice our honest feelings to God about the torments of ‘Hell’ and to ask God to deliver people from their ‘Hells’.

3. Does the nature of God, as revealed in Lamentations 3, hold out hope for all who experience the Day of Yhwh?

“For the LORD will not cast off forever, but, though he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lam 3:31-32).

Does the message of comfort and restoration given in Isaiah 40–55 in reply to Lamentations’ cry of pain, have hopeful implications for those who taste ‘Hell’ both now and perhaps even in the ‘Lake of Fire’? Might Hell have an exit? Does the resurrection of Christ from death indicate that the human predicament cannot ever pass to a point beyond the redemptive reach of God? Where sin abounds might grace abound all the more?

These reflections are offered tentatively in hope and humility.


Anonymous said…
Great stuff Robin.
The Pook said…
I don't think it's legitimate to take Lamentations out of its covenantal context with the people of God in Judah and apply it as a type eschatalogically to unbelievers in the Lake of Fire.

If you did that you would then have to conclude that the parallel type of 'heaven' in the subsequent history of Judah, namely the return to the Promised Land after the Exile, was also not permanent or lasting. You can't draw the possibility of a finite hell from Lamentations on the grounds that the Jews returned to the 'heaven' of Israel, without drawing the possibility of a finite heaven from the later revelation of their subsequent apostasy.
Anonymous said…
A careful study of the "Hell" words in the Bible reveals the many layers of "the traditions of men which make the word of God of no effect" that theologians have added to the simplicity found in the Bible. Hell is a pagan superstitution that does NOT belong on the pages of our Bible translations. It's not in the Hebrew, it's not in the Greek, so why should it be in our English translations?
Robin Parry said…
Jason - thanks

anonymous - that the word 'Hell' does not appear in the OT or NT is hardly surprising as it is not a Hebrew or a Greek word. The word 'Church' does not appear either nor the word 'Spirit'. The question is whether the concept designated by the word 'Hell' is biblical.

Does the Bible teach the notion of divine judgement? Yes. Does the Bible teach the concept of eschatological judgement? Yes. Does the Bible use images of eschatological punishment that are fearsome? Yes. That is what I mean by 'Hell'.

I guess that if one sees Hell as the HQ of the Devil and his demonic hoards then one has gone against the Bible. And, of course, Medieval imagination embellished biblical notions considerably. But to suggest that the concept of Hell is fundamentally pagan is to make a highly implausible proposal. There is plenty of Second Temple Jewish literature that speaks in very terrifying ways of eschatological punishment. Was this Jewish theology actually really pagan? You are going to have to offer some arguments to support your assertion if you wish to be taken as making a serious point.

What do you think that the biblical texts about eschatological wrath are about if they are not about eschatological wrath? (Is that a loaded question?)
Robin Parry said…

I am so grateful for your thoughtful contributions. Let me see if I can reply in a helpful way.

The way I see OT hopes for the restoration of Israel are as follows:

The prophets promised
1. temporary exile followed by
2. everlasting new creation/new age/kingdom of God/new covenant

Temporal limitation was essential to the exile and temporarl non-limitation was essential to the restoration.

The return of the Jews under Cyrus very clearly fell short of the glory of the promises made. So it was that many Jews came to look to the FUTURE for the fulness of the promise of Israel's restoration. The final and ultimate fulfilment of the promise of a new age/new creation would be everlasting.

The fact that the return of the Jews under Cyrus was temporary simply shows that the reality of the promises was still future, NOT that they were a type of a temporary future.

So it seems to me that the temporary exile really can serve as a type of a temporary Hell because the temporal limitation of the punishment was integral to God's word about it.

And the fact that the historical return from Babylon was also temporary does not undermine my use of exile as a type of Hell because the disappointments of the return were the very thing that proved that the kingdom of God/restoration of Israel was still future.

My justification for moving from Israel's exile to Hell is not, I think, that I have taken the exile out of its covenantal context, but precisely the opposite.

It is by observing the biblical-theological connections between the story of Christ, the story of Israel and the story of humanity (connections explored at length by others) that I feel some justification in linking the cross to the exile to divine judgement on the world (both now and in the escahton). In light of those links why cannot we move from cross-resurrection to exile-return to Hell-salvation?

OK - I am being very bold and very provocative. There are many serious biblical issues that would have to be considered before such a move could be made. I have not done the hard work here. I am merely being very naughty and trying to kick off a discussion.

If anyone was persuaded of my position from reading this post I would be very worried. A lot more reflection is needed before one can do what I am suggesting not least because the traditional Christian view (with some biblical justification) is that once a person is in Hell then there is no exit.

What are your thoughts?
The Pook said…
But does the NT use the Return from Exile (or the Exodus from Egypt for that matter, which is similar) as a type for the eternal state of all humanity (ie the opposite of hell) or as a type for salvation in Christ of those who put their trust in him? I would argue the latter. Remember, not all the Jews returned. In fact most didn't.

And does the NT use the Lamentations/Exile experience as a type for Gehenna at all? Again I would say not. It uses Exile as a metaphor for our sojourn in this world, or for our state prior to salvation. When we are saved, we return to the Lord, just as the Jews returned to Judah. Whether it is the Exodus (the first entry) or the Exile (the second entry) that is in mind, the Promised Land is, in NT theology, our salvation, which starts now and continues into eternity. It does not represent just the eternal aspect of it that has not yet started.
Robin Parry said…

Yet again I must say how much I value your reflections.

Let me see if this helps.

I agree with you that the Exodus/New Exodus is a paradigm of salvation in Christ. My speculations are not intended to question that insight but to ask whether they could provide a model for some who are in Hell - that some of the damned too might find salvation in Christ. (A radical suggestion, I know!)

The theo-logic of the biblical-theological links that I make is fairly safe I think (though not uncontested). That Israel is a representative microcosm of humanity and Christ is a microcosm of Israel is not an uncommon observation though spelling out the case for the links would be inappropriate in a short blog comment. That the story of Christ parallels that of Israel which, in turn, parallels that of humanity is again, or so it seems to me, not an uncommon observation.

In my post my focus was on the "Day of the LORD" motif which applies to Israel's exile and, in its eschatological fullness, to the final judgement. The exile was the result of the Day of the LORD for Israel. Hell is the result of the final Day of the LORD. My link between the cross-tomb, the exile of Israel and divine judgement on the nations (culminating in final judgement - Hell) is not arbitrary but exploits what seem to me to be strong links. It also allows me to say, with Calvin et al, that Christ suffered Hell for us on the cross.

So the cross-resurrection = exile-return = expulsion-new creation provides a model of divine wrath followed by divine mercy.

I admit that I am exploiting those links in unconventional ways.

But the model also applies in a different but related way - and you draw attention this this.

Even though Christ suffers on the cross 'instead' of us ... we still suffer with Christ; the cross still marks our present existence; we are still crucified with him and identify with his eschatological tribulations.

So my links between the cross and the exile allow NT authors to say that we are still in exile = we suffer with Christ.

So the story of the believer is cross then resurrection; exile then return. This is your point, I think.

I have no objections to that - indeed I affirm it - but I am not clear that it rules out what I am doing. It may do so - I will need to think more carefully about how it is that when Christ suffers he experiences divine wrath at sin but when we suffer with Christ we do not suffer divine wrath at sin. Don;t worry - I am tired and my brain has just turned to mush :-)
Robin Parry said…

sorry - one final thing. I am not suggesting that anyone can be saved apart from Christ or even apart from explicit faith in Christ (I am open to inclusivism but incline to exclusivism). I am asking if some in Hell might find salvation in Christ? Why not, eh?

The Pook said…
Mushy Brain Syndrome. Know it well. It's caused by children, amongst other things...

Is 'a representative microcosm' the same thing as the Type/Antitype relationship? Or is it merely a subset?
Anonymous said…
Have you read The Evangelical Universalist? (and who is it?)
Robin Parry said…

I have read the book you mention and I can see why you would connect what I have said to the proposals in that volume. However, my proposal here is more modest that in "The Evangelical Universalist".

My argument, based on reflections on Lamentations, is not an argument found in MacDonald's book. Whilst my argument is compatible with universalism (so MacDonald would certainly like it) it is also compatible with non-universalism.

I am not arguing that everyone will be saved. I am merely arguing that Hell may have an exit that some will avail themselves of.

As to who Gregory MacDonald is I am afraid you will need to ask him. He does have a blog site you can visit and post the question.


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