Hell with an Exit? Theological Reflections on the book of Lamentations and Hell
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!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.
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness and not light (Amos 5:18)
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.