Many Christians presume that hell is a place where brutally painful punishments are inflicted on evildoers for an indefinite, and perhaps infinite, amount of time in the afterlife. Think of a medieval torture chamber with no exit — or fire extinguishers.
But this, as I argued in a recent column, makes no theological sense. If morality is good, then doing the right thing must be its own reward and doing the wrong thing must be its own punishment. To think that a sinner deserves extra, externally imposed suffering presumes that morality isn't good and that those who commit evil deeds benefit from their actions — which is another way of saying that those who do the right thing are fools.
The more theologically sound position is to hold that hell is a state of being, whether in this life or the next, in which we confront our own self-imposed alienation from what is truly good — from God, in other words. This educative punishment can be extremely painful, but the pain flows intrinsically from knowledge of our own immoral acts. It isn't inflicted on us by some external tormenter.
That, at any rate, was my argument.
Let's just say that my readers weren't universally appreciative of it. A fair number of them apparently want very much to believe that a fairly large number of people are going to be made to suffer egregiously in hell for their bad behavior in life.
I suspect that these same readers, and perhaps many more, will be equally adamant that I'm wrong to follow the implications of my argument a few steps further — to assert that Christians have reason to believe that the punishments of hell, whatever they may be, are temporary for all.
That's right: I think it's likely that if there is an afterlife, everyone — even Judas, even Hitler — eventually ends up in heaven.
Now, I'm perfectly willing to concede that several Gospel passages seem to describe an eternity of damnation for at least some people in the afterlife (Matthew 7:13-14, 25:31-46; Mark 9:45-48; Luke 16:23; John 3:36). Though I'd also like to point out that only in one verse (Matthew 25:46) does Jesus speak of something that could plausibly be translated as "eternal punishment," and in words (aeonios kolasis) that could perhaps more accurately be rendered as "eternal correction."
Then there are those contrary passages that seem to imply that God wants everyone — and perhaps even all of creation — to enjoy salvation (Romans 5:18, 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 28; Philippians 2:10-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 21:4).
This tension — not to say contradiction — has led some thinkers to dismiss or argue away the implications of the latter passages. Of all the church fathers, Tertullian may have gone furthest in this direction, writing at length and in gory detail about the endless sufferings inflicted on sinners in hell, and even suggesting that observing these torments is an important source of the bliss that accompanies salvation in heaven.
The problem with this position is that it seems to be a form of what Friedrich Nietzsche called "Christian malice": A psychological malady in which the stringent self-denial that Christianity demands of its adherents leads them to feel intense resentment for those who are insufficiently ascetic. Nietzsche delighted in showing how this dynamic can turn Christians from preachers of love into hateful fanatics out to inflict suffering on anyone who dares to enjoy life.
Not all Christians have confirmed Nietzsche's critique as perfectly as Tertullian. Others have been driven by theological reflection to move in the opposite direction — to speculate that all people might eventually enjoy salvation in heaven, no matter how awful their worldly sins may have been.
Origen in the 3rd century and Hans Urs von Balthasar in the 20th both affirmed versions of universal salvation. Yet I find the most compelling variation in the writings of the 4th-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa — a major figure in the history of Christianity, though one more widely revered today by the Eastern Orthodox than by the Western churches.
Gregory maintained that hell resembles something like what Catholics have traditionally called purgatory: A place of sometimes excruciatingly painful purgation of sins in preparation for heaven. The pain is not externally inflicted as punishment, but follows directly from the process of purification as the soul progresses toward a perhaps never fully realized union with divine perfection. Gregory describes this process as a "constant progression" or "stretching forth" (epektasis) of oneself toward an ever greater embrace of and merger with God in the fullness of eternity — a transmutation of what is sinful, fallen, and finite into the transcendent beauty of the infinite.
Hell, in this view, would be the state of agonizing struggle to break free from sin, to renounce our moral mistakes, to habituate ourselves to the good, to become ever more like God. Eastern Orthodox theologians (and, interestingly, Mormons, who hold similar views) call it a process of divination or sanctification (theosis) that follows directly from the doctrine of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ. It is a formula found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, and other ancient theologians: God became a human being so that human beings might become like God.
All human beings.
One imagines that this would be a long, painful process — rendered longer and more painful for those who have fallen furthest from God during their lives. They are the ones for whom the afterlife is truly hellish — like a climb up a peak far, far higher than Mount Everest with little prior preparation or training, no expensive gear, and no Sherpas to help carry the load. But there would eventually be progress toward God, even for the climber who starts out in the worst possible shape, and from the lowest possible point in the valley below.
And at least there would be no dungeon pointlessly presided over by satanic, whip-wielding sadists.