Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the punishment or the life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

time-7[1].jpgIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the punishment of Hell is objectively everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel of universal salvation and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

is-hell-real[1].pngI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel of universalism: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel of universal salvation. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

mormon-spirit-prison[1].gifHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons, because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the LDS church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Aeviternal Apokatastasis

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

russian-orthodox-funeral[1]

The Catholic funeral is very sober and sombre. Much ritual is directed towards petitioning God to allow the departed soul a peaceful journey to heaven. The threat of temporal punishment for unrepented sin looms menacingly over the proceedings. Everyone follows the priest as he leads the gathered mourners in ever-hopeful, but never presumptuous prayer. The eulogy given will surely attempt to be optimistic, however it will be firmly grounded in the life of the deceased; the level of hope that is spoken of will be proportioned more or less to how loving, kind and gentle the deceased had been to God and neighbour during their time on earth. The unspoken assumption hovering at the back of everyone’s minds is that the dearly departed had not been perfected in love at the moment when they died, but neither were they totally depraved and in a state of stubborn rebellion against God’s grace, and therefore it’s a pretty safe bet that they are in neither Heaven nor Hell: They are in Purgatory. Their journey is not complete; it has only just begun. Their suffering did not end with their last breath; they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. They need all the help they can get, and so prayers and petitions for swift deliverance from their future fiery trials are offered up to God.

The Protestant funeral, at a superficial level, is also serious and subdued. However unlike the Catholic funeral, there is a distinct undercurrent of Christian Joy running beneath the sadness. There will be no struggle to stay optimistic in the eulogy this time; it is guaranteed to be a happy, victorious, comforting, evangelical, assuring proclamation of God’s abundant and overflowing mercy towards those who trust in him and his promise of salvation. The deceased was well known by friends and family to have had a strong faith in Christ, and this simple fact will overshadow any sins, character faults and spiritual imperfections that they may have carried with them to the grave. Everybody present knows that none of this believer’s sins could possibly thwart God’s relentless, irresistible Grace. This particular soul has certainly ascended straight into Heaven, where they are enjoying a full and wholesome relationship with each person of the Trinity. Mingled with the grief at the loss of this friend and family member will be prayers of praise and thanksgiving, as the gathered mourners reflect on the wonderful gift of salvation. Sentiments along the lines of “She’s gone to a better place” will be shared, and not at all superficially. If these protestants happen to believe in the communion of the saints, they may even find it appropriate to ask the recently deceased to make use of their newfound close proximity to God to pray and intercede for those left behind.

Notice the conflict: At the Catholic funeral, it is not certain at all where exactly the soul of the recently deceased has departed to. The presumption is that they have ended up in Purgatory, where they will undergo fiery torments and torturous purifications. As such, we should pray for them, and hope that God may have mercy on the poor soul on account of our prayers. Whereas at the Protestant funeral, everyone is extremely confident that the dearly departed is in blissful repose somewhere up in Heaven and is watching over the funeral proceedings with great interest at this very moment. In this case it is not appropriate that we should be praying for them: instead we should be asking them to pray for us!

Temporal and Eternal

clock[1].jpg

Our experience of life is a Temporal one: we experience time. We are able to point backwards to the past and look forwards to the future, but most importantly we experience single moments in sequence, and we can point to this constantly changing single moment as the present. The present moment is the only moment – or slice of time – that we have direct access to and in which we are able to affect reality.

Compare this to God’s Eternal experience: God is omniscient (that is, he possesses all possible and impossible knowledge), and so he experiences all moments in time – past, present, future – simultaneously. In fact for him, there is no such thing as past, present or future, there is simply an “eternal now” that encompasses all possible moments. All these moments are always immediately and directly present to him: he does not have to remember them, or imagine them, or retrieve them from storage and place them on the workbench. Incidentally, this also applies to all of God’s knowledge: God cannot learn or forget – he is immutable (that is, incapable of change) – and so all of God’s knowledge is ever present to him. This idea of a single moment which perfectly and simultaneously encompasses moments is called Eternity. There is no time – past, present or future – in Eternity, to be eternal is to be immutable.

A person can experience one of two broad states: Life and Afterlife. Life is a temporal existence. But what about Afterlife? It is commonly accepted that time pertains to life, and that there is no time after death. However the existence of Purgatory indicates that despite a lack of time change is still possible in the afterlife. This “not quite temporal, not quite eternal” existence is called Aeviternity. To get a grasp on the idea, it is helpful to examine the tradition of the church with regards to indulgences.

Indulgences and Aeviternity

Johann-Tetzel-Selling-Indulgences[1]

Historically indulgences would be quantified by some amount of time. For example saying a certain pious prayer might reduce your time in Purgatory by “40 days”, or completing a certain pilgrimage might reduce your time in Purgatory by “10 years”.  Some of the indulgences became quite extravagant, with time reductions stretching up into the hundreds and thousands of years. Since Vatican II, the church has refrained from putting hard numbers on indulgences and instead offer Plenary and Partial indulgences. A Partial indulgence reduces the time a soul must spend in Purgatory, while a Plenary indulgence completely removes the need for a soul to experience Purgatory at all.

It is interesting to compare the pre and post Vatican II practices. Both of them are valid approaches to indulgences: despite how ridiculous it might seem to some, an indulgence which reduces your time in Purgatory by “5000 years” is entirely valid and in an important sense does exactly what it says. Subjectively Aeviternity is experienced as something analogous to time but which seems to be everlasting, which is to say it is experienced as an “infinite” stretch of time. Considering this, an indulgence which takes fifty thousand years off an infinite stretch of time isn’t even a drop in the ocean, nevertheless it is still worth fighting for because escaping Purgatory involves engaging your will by actively repenting until you are perfectly clean of sin; it is always better to strive towards this goal than not, as it is in no way an unachievable goal. The gift of a Plenary indulgence suddenly becomes clear too: you aren’t reducing your time in purgatory by a set number of days, months or years; you are wiping away the entire punishment!

So there is something akin to time and temporality in Purgatory: This is what happens when we try to map our temporal existence onto an experience of Aeviternity. There is something analogous to time in Purgatory, because there is change and progress. However the important thing to note is that whatever this time analog may be, it is not actually time. Aeviternity is just as timeless as is Eternity proper. So just as it is possible to experience Eternity as an “Eternal now”, with all moments directly and simultaneously accessible, so it is also possible with Aeviternity.

So how are we – as temporal creatures – supposed to approach those in the afterlife, who are experiencing an Aeviternal existence? How are we supposed to map our temporal experience to the Aeviternal reality of the beyond?

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

The fact that we are temporal creatures during life in no way changes the fact that the afterlife is always and everywhere Aeviternal. In other words, the afterlife is always spiritually accessible as an “Eternal now” to us who still walk the earth: in our prayers we have access to every single moment in that one Aeviternal moment simultaneously. One second we can pray as if someone was halfway through their purgatorial journey, asking God to give them strength and resilience and help them to repent of whatever sins are still clinging to their soul; The next second we can pray and praise God as if that same person had just completed their purification and been admitted into heaven; And the second right after that we can pray as if that very same person had only just died and arrived on the doorstep of Purgatory, with a long and arduous mission of repentance ahead of them, involving much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

All of these moments are directly accessible to us temporal creatures: all of them are always and everywhere simultaneously connected to the present moment in which we live. In this way, it is paradoxically appropriate to praise God that someone is in Heaven while simultaneously petitioning him to help them on their way while they are in Purgatory. To us here on earth the fact that someone is in Heaven and that same someone is in Purgatory are simultaneous realities, because they are both Aeviternal moments

Understanding this, suddenly both the Protestant and the Catholic funerals make perfect sense: The Protestants are focusing on the “final” moment in the Aeviternity in which the soul has completed it’s purification in Purgatory and is being admitted into Heaven and immutable eternity proper, which is a wonderful, glorious, joyful event. On the other hand the Catholics are focusing on the “first” moment in the Aeviternity, which is very solemn and serious as the soul has just entered Purgatory and will have to undergo severe, painful, and what may even be experienced as everlasting purifications. Both these first and final moments in the “eternal now” of Aeviternity are completely valid moments to focus on at a funeral. Even more interestingly, this means that it is both appropriate to pray for a soul in purgatory, but also to simultaneously ask that soul to pray for you on the assumption that they are a Saint in Heaven.

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

2 Peter 3:8

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

Protestants often refer to the 1 Corinthians passage to justify their disbelief in purgatory. They make a big fuss of the phrase “we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye“. They will say that this passage proves that afterlife sanctification is instantaneous and does not require the purgatorial process that Catholics insist upon. If we must take this passage as a reference to post-death sanctification rather than the parousia and resurrection, it in no way conflicts with the idea of Purgatory. It is simply honing in on the “eternal now” aspect of Aeviternity. It is true that Aeviternity is a process of change, however this process of change occurs “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” from our perspective here on earth. From our temporal perspective, the process of Purgatory is only just starting, but it is simultaneously already complete. It is the “eternal now”: everything present “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”

The 2 Peter passage is also good for illustrating what an “eternal now” is like. Time expands and contracts in the strangest ways: a day lasts for eternity but at the same time a thousand years can be over faster than you have time to blink. This helps to shed some light on what it’s like to experience “time” in Purgatory: Aeviternity is simultaneously “everlasting” and “instantaneous”. It is correct to think that our purification will be complete in the twinkling of an eye, but it is also simultaneously correct to think that it will involve a long long process of afterlife repentance and suffering

Funerals Revisited

christ-victorious[1].jpg

Consider again the Catholic funeral. This time the poor soul in question was a suicide. Moreover he had a terrible record of sinful indulgence. He was a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist. He died with blasphemies on his lips. It’s a great wonder that he has even been granted a Catholic funeral at all. The people gathered at this funeral – if there are any – would be fighting hard to muster dredges of hope for this dead maniac. They hope for purgatory at best, but really; all signs point to Hell. There is a mood of doom and gloom left behind in the wake of the deceased. People hesitate to pray for him, because it is almost a foregone conclusion that he has descended to Hell – from which there is no escape – and so prayers would be pointless. There is minimal hope that he has made it to the Aevum, most are resigned to the idea that he is suffering unspeakable, everlasting, eternal tortures in Hell. Some of his victims may even take some comfort in believing that this is the case.

Consider again the Protestant funeral. This time it is the apostate son of the local Pastor. Died during a drug overdose. He grew up knowing the truth, and then rejected it. Read this crushing word from Hebrews 6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

“It is impossible” for him, haven fallen away “to be brought back to repentance”. Everyone at the funeral knows full well that this boy has abandoned the faith, to the perpetual disappointment and shame of his faithful and ministering mother and father. This is a prodigal son who never returned home; one who died in his sins, in a state of rebellion and spiritual poverty. The people gathered to mourn his passing may grasp at straws for some sort of hope. Some of them might be of the “Once saved always saved” persuasion. But undoubtedly everyone will be disheartened and discouraged by his being completely devoid of any evidence of saving faith, implicit or explicit at the point of his death. Deep down, everyone knows that he’s in Hell. Sure, during the eulogy his father may throw out some platitudes about God’s will being mysterious and how we can only trust in his mercy, but he’s had too good of a Calvinist theological training to honestly believe what he’s saying.

In both the funerals, despair is sovereign. There is no confident, hopeful assurance of salvation in either case. But why should this be so? Doesn’t it seem that the people are focusing on the sinners individual actions and life far more than on God’s Grace and mercy? They are making salvation depend on the response of the sinner. But the scriptures are emphatic that salvation is by Grace: God saves us, we don’t save ourselves. Surely these despairing responses reflect a failure to trust in God’s promise to save us? We forget that where sin abounds, Grace abounds all the more. These people’s sins should not cause us to consider them “eternally lost” and consign them to Hell. We should be ever rejoicing in the unconditional gift of salvation. God will leave the 99 sheep to find the 1 who is lost and bring it back to the flock. We should be able to stand at anyone’s funeral and confidently proclaim their entrance into Heaven, regardless of how they lived or died. We should also be able to attend anyone’s funeral and offer up prayers of petition that they be helped on their journey through the tortures of Purgatory towards Heaven. We should be able to go to any funeral and pray as if they have entered into Aeviternity. Never be distracted by the life and works of the sinner who stands under judgement. Heaven should always be assumed, never Hell. Strong hope and abundant Joy should always be experienced at every funeral, not despair and crippling depression. Always focus on the victory of Christ, the promise of the Spirit, and the Grace, Mercy and Love of the Father.