Holding on to Hell is Hard

"It is impossible that any one, with a human heart in him, can fully believe this doctrine [of hell and eternal punishment], with all the horrors it involves, with all the accusations it brings against the divine wisdom and goodness, and not feel that it is a terrible weight on his soul, and one from which he would gladly be relieved. There are many shallow minds, many flippant talkers, who find no difficulty whatever in believing, who are prompt to denounce the slightest doubt on the subject as impiety or infidelity. There are many small ministers, who are ready at a moment's notice to clear up all the difficulties of the moral and scriptural arguments; who are never embarrassed, never troubled at all in regard to the matter. But I know that the best and strongest among its believers never treat the subject in this way. Those who have looked into it most deeply and patiently, who are distinguished equally for their learning and piety, confess that, seen from any side you will, it is a fearful thing, and leads to anguish of mind, and distress of heart, and to painful questionings which cannot be answered. Can any one suppose for a moment that a doctrine, producing such mental terror and distress as this, can come from Him who said, so kindly and compassionately, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."? ...Besides, He expressly says that He was sent "to preach good tidings, to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
Thomas B. Thayer, The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1855)

Thanks to Caleb Miller for sending me this quotation. 


Steve Walton said…
Indeed. John Stott wisely observed in a sermon on hell at All Souls, Langham Place, that our first response to hell must be tears. It's well worth listening to.
Robin Parry said…

Indeed. And some folk with very trad views on eternal conscious torment (not annihilationists like Stott) have said the same to me. I rather liked Francis Chan's openness about the existential difficulty with the doctrine in his little book defending it. The people I have a problem with are those who have no struggle with it—nay, who appear to be pleased by it. To me that feels like some kind of psychopathic response.

Is "Origen" a fantastic pun or merely a typo?
Robin Parry said…

Doh! What a dork! Thanks—my brain went into blurry-mode.
John Thomas said…
I just found from Randal Rauser's blog that a new book on Christian Universalism (titled 'Heaven's Doors: Wider Than You Ever Believed!')from an Evangelical Christian theologian George W Sarris has hit the bookstores last month. Just wanted to inform you as I am not sure whether you are aware of that.

Link for the book: www.amazon.com/Heavens-Doors-Wider-Than-Believed/dp/0980085322/

Link for Randal Rauser's review of the book from his blog: randalrauser.com/2017/04/universalism-evangelicals-review-heavens-doors/
Robin Parry said…
Thanks John,

That is helpful. George is a good bloke and well worth reading.

Kind regards

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Anonymous said…
Robin. I wanted to reach out to you and share something. I am often so terribly troubled by the idea of hell. Lately I have been having bouts where I imagine my dearest loved ones there, either screaming in agony or being overwhelmingly sad and wishing they could cease to exist with every fiber of their being but being unable to. And from reading Aquinas and Edwards I have, even more horribly, found myself picturing that God has somehow made me such that I could delight in or accept such things as they happen to my loved ones.

I sometimes wake up and the first thing that comes into my mind is that my wife could be damned forever and that I could become a person who is ok with that. Or sometimes I imagine myself in hell, consciously aware that I will never go out of existence and continue to suffer for all eternity. This can be overwhelmingly depressing and horrifying and nauseating. I am a healthcare professional who sometimes works 12 hours a day, without breaks, and there are times I need to focus for several hours in a row. But the other day I had such a mood come over me and it was nearly all I could do not to burst out in tears at my job. I am very shaken at times, nearly to the point of paralysis, by the idea of hell and what kind of God it implies. If such a being does rule the universe, there is no hope, for he is so different from what my heart yearns for that he may, for all I know, delight in torturing those who try their best to love their neighbors.

I am not necessarily asking for answers. I just wanted to share and was wondering if you had ever had such thoughts. The solidarity may be more comforting than anything.

Also please pray for me - as I will for you.
Robin Parry said…
Dear anonymous,

Thanks you for sharing. I think that your revulsion at the thought of a deity who would do such things to people is absolutely right. My heart goes out to you.

Perhaps I can offer some help. The God that you fear is not the God of Scripture, but a warped misunderstanding of him. The doctrine of never-ending torment is also in error. My view is that in the end God will redeem all people. This is an ancient Christian view and one that I believe is well founded on the Bible. When we appreciate that God is love we start to see that everything God does must be an expression of love. Everlasting hell is not an act of love.

If you wish to see my arguments for God's all-saving love then there are several sources.

1. My book, written under a false name.
Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade Books)

2. My chapter in Four Views on Hell, edited by Preston Sprinkle (Zondervan)

3. Or the following videos:
a) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnuLnBakS6w
b) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6CpN4oAu9M
c) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sooAFh_b_Ac&t=1014s

I hope that you can find great comfort in the knowledge that God will not allow death and hell to win the day—that his love will triumph. God is not who you fear he is.
Malcolm said…
Robin. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this issue.

Do you have any thoughts on the impassibility of God? Or kenotic models of the Incarnation?

It seems one of the cards in the Classical Theologian's deck is this claim that God cannot suffer. God in himself is triune love, and since there is no "friction" amongst the three divine persons there is no metaphysical "space" as it were for suffering (where would it come from?) To suppose God suffers would be to suppose that somehow evil and privation has reverberated back into his being. But to be God just is to be the highest good, in fact pure Good without any admixture of evil. Therefore, necessarily, God cannot contain or participate in evil and so cannot suffer. (This is an argument from Thomas Weinandy.)

But if God cannot suffer, then the cross doesn't really tell us anything about the self-sacrificial nature of God: for the divine nature cannot sacrifice itself. Or, even if it could, it could not experience pain or suffering when it did, because God just is Triune and and cannot cease to be and this guarantees the fact that nothing bad can impact him.

I have not seen this idea linked up specifically with the doctrine of Hell, but it does seem to potentially encourage it, insofar as God could be the type of being who is indifferent to the world or unable to be negatively affected by it. You get into this question a little at the end of that last video, but was wondering if you have any more thoughts on the topic.

The problem seems to center around the idea of God's being necessary and also the fact that he creates contingently. God must necessarily be whatever he is necessarily. Say for instance a perfect instance of love among the Trinity. But God does not it seems have to create or be related to the world. Thus if he does, he must somehow still be all that he was (ontologically) before: he cannot "gain" some goodness or perfection in virtue of his creative act. His freedom then is more akin or a kind of specification that need not be what it is but that still retains the fullness of itself even if it could be something different. (There is a deep puzzle here that Classical theology has often overlooked: God's single act of being as being both necessary and contingent, which seem to be contradictory predicates.)

But there also seems to be a problem if we say God cannot suffer, since many modalities of goodness in our lives seem inextricably linked to some form of pain or suffering or metaphysical "privation". Things like self-sacrifice, courage, patience, vulnerability, spontaneity, surprise. But if these are truly good things and emotions, how could a God who is All Good - indeed the very source of good itself - lack them? How could he create them?

I am drawn to Balthasar's idea of Essential Kenosis (an idea which MacDonald explores a bit by the way) but wonder if it has problems for traditional Chalcedonian Two-Natures Christology.
Robin Parry said…

Blooming heck! That is a big question. Well, I am strongly inclined towards what some people call classical theism. So I love folk like Weinandy. (I also love Balthasar.) I do not have a fixed view on impassibility other than that if it is affirmed it must be done VERY carefully. I rather enjoyed Paul Gavrilyuk's attempt to do this in The Suffering of the Impassible God. I am well aware of all the problems of impassibility and my only published statements on the issue (in my Lamentations book) seem to go in the opposite direction, affirming passibility (in a qualified way). But I want to find a way of holding the insights of both together. Have not devoted time to doing so yet, so I cannot comment.

Personally, I think classical theism is incompatible with everlasting hell, in spite of the fact that folk like Thomas Aquinas tried to hold both together. (He felt bound to do so because the church required it.) It seems to me that classical theism leads to universalism.

The problem for me at this moment is that your reflections are excellent and very thought provoking and helpful but would require a lot of time to ponder and respond to adequately and I currently do not have such time. I can only waffle. E.g., I have a tendency to consider kenotic Christologies as problematic, but as a whole bunch of different Christologies fit under that category, some more problematic than others, I am reluctant to dismiss them. I have always been a Chalcedonian guy. I guess I tend to have a default high regard for church tradition. (Strange as that may sound.)
Malcolm said…
Robin. I too think Classical Theism is the most coherent (only?) theism. I also think it logically implies - or at least points to very strongly - Universalism. However, you don't see many taking up such a philosophical or metaphysical argument for it.

I have written an argument proper on this topic. It is called "Apokatastasis: The Only Eschatology Compatible with Classical Theism." I would be honored if you took a look at it when you had the chance. And I would like it to get out in the open for people to discuss. (Also, you may just actually *like* it if you're a Classical Theist!)

Malcolm said…
Robin. I know you're a busy man. But, I'll donate $100 to a charity of your choice if you read that post of mine in its entirety. Should take around half an hour. No time table or rush on your part. You've got my word. Just let me know.
Robin Parry said…

I have it on my "to do" list already. You do not need to donate money to a charity (though I will not stop you if you wish to).

Malcolm said…
Robin. What kind of credibility does John W. Hanson's work "Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine...etc" have in your opinion? How should one approach this text?
Robin Parry said…
Patristic scholars do not ever reference it, to the best of my knowledge. So it is not considered a scholarly book. This is not to say that it does not make valuable points and draw attention to real evidence, but that it needs to be handled with a little caution.
Malcolm said…
Is there a better place to find a collection of quotes from the fathers (with citations) that quotes them positively teaching UR? seems like Hanson at least offers a place to start and some quotes. didn't know if there was currently anything better (a go-to father's work pro UR)
Robin Parry said…
Now somewhat out of date, but Thomas Allin's "Christ Triumphant" gives a lot of space to the fathers. (The annotated edition I edited is the best version of Allin's book.)

Ilaria Ramelli's "Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis" is the definitive book, but it is 900 pages long and super-expensive.

Good news is that she has written a short, pop-level book on universalism in the fathers. It should be out in 2018 some time.
Malcolm said…
Do you hold a particular view on whether God is timeless (nontenporal) or everlasting (temporal)?
Robin Parry said…

I think that time is an aspect of creation and as such God is the creator of time. Following the tradition I would say that God is not temporal, although in the incarnation God inhabits time in the human life of Jesus—the divine Logos is the subject of the human life of Jesus.

That is simply a statement of my view, not a defence of it.


Malcolm said…
Gotcha. Have you studied much the "relation" problem - that is, whether or how God is "really related" to the world?
Robin Parry said…
I see no problem.
Malcolm said…
I see a puzzle, but not a problem! (Some Thomists hold that God, since he is necessary, is not related to the contingent world. I think this is absurd.) But do you conceive of the relations God has to the world - knowing it, willing it, loving it, being man in it, etc - these relations which are contingent and God need not have, do you think of these relations as somehow all existing freely and timelessly in God? They couldn't be grounded in Gods necessary nature (for they are contingent), yet couldn't they be grounded in his free/volitional will?
Robin Parry said…

Ha! I have not thought about this stuff for years! I need to get back into it. My inclination is to agree with you—though I am always a tad tentative when speaking of God! Assuming that God could have chosen to create or not to create (which is always my tentative default assumption, though with some puzzled hesitation) then this is the grounding of God's relation to creation. And I see no significant problem with God timelessly relating to a temporal creation.

I guess the puzzle concerns the freedom of creation—how God engages the free choices of creatures (assuming that compatibilism is false). I do not think this is a problem for divine atemporality as such, but it poses a problem for impassibility and aseity. Thinking about God gets so complicated. It would be much easier if God was just an inflated version of us. ;-)

(NOTE to self: even if God always does what is best, that creating the world is best, and so God will create the world, that world is still contingent, even though it will certainly be created, because it is utterly dependent on God. In this scenario a contingent world necessarily exists.)
Malcolm said…
awesome stuff here. that's what i'm talking about! you say more in 3 paragraphs than many do in three pages.

the issue with god freely creating is indeed puzzling. but it does seem to me the medievals were right to suppose that god is not somehow more fulfilled with creation than without one. that would seem to imply that god is perfected through something outside himself and that he isn't himself the fullness of being and goodness (the aseity issue.)

the question seems to be does a "difference" in gods "conscious" experience (willing, loving, relating to creation) necessarily entail a diminishment of his necessarily fulfilled existence (which he has with or without creation.) it may be that these are value neutral differences: i.e. whether or not god creates or is made man ,he will be just as maximally fulfilled.*

now if this is right, and if god cannot be enriched by his creative act - though he can be different because of it - god cannot create for a need within himself or to do himself any good. *he can only create for the good of that which he makes.* given creation then god necessarily wills the good of each thing he makes as such, for itself.

this to me if a powerful (and classical!) argument for universalism based on gods aseity. the only reason god could have to create is to bestow (or "pour out" - love that image!) goodness on what he makes: i.e. to will the goodness of the other as an end in itself. eternal torment and annihilation are not instances of this. therefore, god cannot will these things. (the argument is, more specifically, although god need not create, if he does he must will universal reconciliation to all, for no other alternative is consistent with him willing goodness to creatures.)

dude, if you ever think of writing on aseity or impassibilty, i'd love to read your stuff. i find the way you think - your combination of carefulness, honesty, and theological/philosophical depth - extremely rewarding and enjoyable.

anyway, look at me muddying your wall with my tome! (and i'm adding an addendum in case anyone is interested in *my* scribbles.)

*this is closely connected, as you said, to impassibility. could god freely will in himself something analogous to grief, anger, or patience? in gods triune life these experiences seem to have no place or even meaning. given just the trinity, who would cause them? yet given the sheer fact of creation it can't be impossible for god to have experiences other than just his triune life. for he at least knows the world, that he creates it, that he became man to die because of sin it it, etc.

but god can't get these "extra trinitarian" experiences from the world absolutely speaking, for then he would be receiving being (and how could the source of all being receive being?) but how then can god have them? how can god know "loss" or other "negative" emotional experiences, since by nature his triune life is perfectly harmonious in will?

it seems to me a possible answer is to say that god just has these things freely, period, and that they don't need further justification beyond that free action. I.e. to try to say more than "god just freely does" is to really give a less ultimate explanation. Thats as far as we can go: ineed to go farther and look for some principle of necessity in gods inner life would be to deny gods freedom in the first place. god just has his "free" (ad extra) emotions freely. that's where the buck stops. they don't, like ours do, "come to him" from some source outside himself. nor do they even arise from his natural triune life. rather, he just freely and creatively wills them.
Anonymous said…
The Lord Jesus puts it this way:
There are sheep, and there are goats.
If you are my sheep,
you will hear my voice,
and follow me.

Follow Me.

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