"Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?" 'How should I not?' said the Lady, 'I am in love...in Love Himself.'
~C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce

Friday, March 23, 2012

Could Hell Be Temporary?

I tend to agree with traditional assessments of Hell as being a state of eternal deprivation of God's presence and love. Whether this manifests itself as utter darkness, gnashing of teeth, or fire is actually quite beside the point. There is no greater suffering than to be cut off from the Life himself.

But recently I have pondered a question, dear readers, which I don't believe contradicts what has just been said, but does cast it in a new light.

All but perhaps some Extremist Calvinists would agree that God does not (and cannot) by his nature cast a soul into Hell. God is Love, according to St. John, and is constantly drawing and alluring humanity back to the source of Life, Love Himself. His will is that all would be saved and share the life of the Blessed Trinity. Such a God can't be the cause of a soul's destruction in any way but at the last day, tearfully, consigning to Hell those who rejected his overtures to the last. Even then, the goats will depart into everlasting punishment knowing it was their wickedness and hardness of heart that caused it, not the Righteous Judge.

This brings up the question at the heart of this post: if God doesn't send anyone to Hell, would God actively work to keep someone there? Are all the passages of Scripture which point to Hell being eternal referring only to the place itself? Or to the last state of all who die outside of Christ?

If a man dies in his trespasses, outside of the grace of Christ, Christianity teaches that he will go to hell. But what if was not necessary to abandon all hope upon entrance through the dark gates? What if true contrition could take place? Would God, seeing the sorrow and penitence of a soul he created for communion with himself, turn it away?

It is at this point that one might call to remembrance our Lord's words from Luke's Gospel 16:19-31. There we see the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. As best we can tell, Hell and Abraham's Bosom (a place of rest and peace) were within seeing distance of each other. The Rich Man cried to have Lazarus bring water to cool his burning tongue. But Abraham informs the Rich man that no one can cross the gulf that has been fixed...in either direction. This would seem to nullify any argument on whether Hell might be temporary. But I would postulate that the Rich man was in no way contrite. He desired only relief of pain and not to truly see and serve God.

The evidence is limited but this passage, while it does not rule out that there could be a contrite person in Hell, does lend itself to the understanding of Hell put forth by C.S. Lewis. Dr. Lewis pointed out that Hell is a door locked from the inside. Those who are there all share what Milton observed as a stronger desire to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Since that is the case, it appears that the heart in Hell is hardened to an irreversible degree. Thus, the answer to the question of whether or not Hell is temporary has very little to do with whether God would keep someone there, but whether or not any person in such a state could ever want any more than the relief of pain sought by the Rich Man.

The evidence that God would be lenient to the soul in Hell is paltry...only that we know God's essence is Love and that his desire is for all to be saved. But if Hell were to be temporary, I don't believe it would be solely, or even primarily, an act of God which ended it. For if it was the sinful actions of a human which placed him in Hell, it would have to be that soul responding to God's overtures which caused the deliverance of said soul. It is this which seems highly unlikely and why I hold to a more traditional view of Hell.

Any thoughts?