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

Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

ccc_book[1].jpgIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”.

Discerning the Light

St.Augustine[1].jpgThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: a journey which involves familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

The theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

The Deposit of Faith

hebrew-bible[1].jpgIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

2vsn_1271[1].jpgCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

A065_VaticanII[1].jpgThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.