By Hannah Bowman
The traditional “four last things” of Advent — death, judgment, heaven, and hell — are not always popular ones. Often our churches would prefer not to explore such questions, especially those of judgment and hell, lest we run the risk of reverting to fundamentalist eschatology or maligning the character of God by attributing eternal suffering to God’s will.
But Advent is a time for the church to renew our commitment to engaging the difficult doctrines of our faith, not out of a determination to reach pre-ordained conclusions, but out of a deep desire to explore God’s truth. In a world of suffering and injustice, straining to see the coming kingdom of God, hell is not a concept the church dare ignore.
Engagement with the concept of hell need not lead us inevitably to affirmation of punitive condemnation. I am a universalist. But even universalists have to grapple with the reality of hell. Hell may be empty, but we cannot deny its existence. By considering the nature and purpose of hell in our theology — especially in its relation to Christ — we can imagine a universalism that still makes space for real divine judgment.
The first step in responsible Christian universalism is to affirm the reality of God’s judgment upon all of us for our acts. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s great insight, in his book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, is that our relation to hell is always existential: we can only discuss, conceive of, theologize and speculate about hell (and hope for its emptying) when we understand ourselves to be people standing “under judgment.” Whatever our hope for the emptying of hell by God’s mercy for others, we must always assume it to be a “real possibility” for ourselves (164). Hell makes concrete the divine judgment that we face.
A simplistic universalism — a universalism that simply denies hell’s existence as incompatible with divine love — abrogates the very idea of divine judgment. And judgment is essential in our broken world of injustice and oppression. The healing of the nations requires not only greater love and inclusion, but that the mighty be cast down and the rich be sent away empty (Luke 1:52–53). God’s judgment of the world is the vindication of the righteous and the oppressed: vindication which demands the judgment of the oppressor. Jürgen Moltmann’s commentary on Daniel 12 in The Crucified God reminds us that the purpose of the resurrection of the dead is for judgment, “so that they can identify themselves with the deeds and omissions of their earthly life at his judgment” (174).
The existential necessity of the vindication of the righteous requires that we maintain the dialectic of judgment and mercy in God’s relation to the world — neither proclaiming hell to be only an invention of human cruelty and vitiating divine judgment, nor insisting upon ultimate punishment and condemnation and neutering God’s mercy.
The problem of universalism — the question raised by Balthasar, “Dare we hope that all be saved?” which has been raised again recently by David Bentley Hart — is the problem of an everlasting hell. One solution proposed is to suggest that the punishment in hell is not everlasting — that hell exists, but is eventually emptied as everyone in it chooses God. Or that hell is in fact not everlasting but functions as a form of purgatory, a term or experience of punishment or purgation after which we, transformed, enter into heaven.
One problem with such a conception of a term-limited hell is its cosmology. Eternity is not “a very long time,” but something orthogonal, at right angles, to the concept of time. “Eternal punishment” is not a place or a period of time. The problem with hell is not that it lasts forever!
But the temptation to reduce hell to purgatory — even as an experience of purgation rather than a temporal period of punishment — still fails to meet the complexity of the tension between judgment and mercy that we face when we face God. Such solutions flatten the tension into a simple order: First God punishes or purges us as an act of judgment, then we receive mercy. This does not do justice to the always-merciful nature of God’s judgment.
The challenge posed by hell is also not solved, as Justin Shaun Coyle has recently suggested in a response to Hart by proposing that we leave only our “shadow” or “false selves” — the parts of us corrupted by sin — in hell. Our personalities and our sins are not so easily separated, and we are all, as Scripture promises, subject to judgment for our acts.
We are subject to God’s judgment and mercy simultaneously. God’s judgment is not ultimately about our punishment or purification, but about vindicating those who have been harmed, righting wrong power relations, and revealing to us and the world the truth of our actions. Each of these acts of judgment is also an act of mercy and truth-making aimed at love and good, not our suffering.
Whatever hell is, it must be consistent with such a unified picture of this judgment-mercy.
Instead of denying the existence of hell, or flattening its dialectical reality, we can look to Jesus’ statements about hell and his descent into it.
Nicholas Ansell, in his book The Annihilation of Hell, writes that the word Jesus most often uses for hell, Gehenna, places him in the tradition of Israelite prophets, especially Jeremiah. Gehenna, he explains, is the “Valley of Hinnom” in Jeremiah 7:30–34: the place where the Israelites unforgivably “burned their sons and daughters in the fire,” and where, in judgment, destruction will befall Israel. Ansell suggests that Jesus’ Jeremiad statements about Gehenna are prophecies of historical judgment against Israel for its unfaithfulness and injustice (324). (Perhaps, Ansell suggests, this judgment Jesus was prophesying was in fact the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.)
What does this mean for us modern universalists? Jesus’ statements about Gehenna are not intended to be precise eschatological claims about some afterlife hell, but are instead statements about our liability to real and concrete divine judgment. Jesus’ use of Gehenna is not cosmological, but as an illustration of the reality of judgment.
Something similar can be said about our later conception of hell. The role of the concept of eternal condemnation is to make the judgment of God a tangible reality in the eternal life to come. The resurrection of the dead is to eternal life and to judgment (Daniel 12:2).
Jesus’ statements about hell, or Gehenna, present a picture, but not a full one. We must consider also the creedal claim that Jesus “descended into hell.”
In his study of the descent into hell in Mysterium Paschale, Balthasar writes that because Christ was truly dead on Holy Saturday, in solidarity with all the dead, Christ experienced not only physical death but in a real sense hell, the fullness of abandonment and spiritual death. He concludes, strikingly: “Hell in the New Testament sense is a function of the Christ event” (172).
Here is the idea that hell is created by Christ’s experience of it. The distinction between a generic land of the dead and hell as an image of judgment derives from Jesus’ experience of divine condemnation in his death. The fulness of hell is always borne by Christ. There is no hell outside of or apart from Christ.
The fact of Jesus’ solidarity with us under judgment provides the key to the mysterious dialectic of God’s merciful judgment:
Hell is the reality of standing always under unavoidable divine judgment, and the reality that Jesus mercifully stands alongside us, and that therefore God Himself is in the depths of hell. The concrete judgment which we face as a constant possibility, for this life and the next, is the judgment already experienced as a reality by Jesus.
The hope is not that God will relent, or that the torments of hell will prove only to be temporary purgation. Our hope is that the judgment of God will be righteous, and that we, seeing our own judgment and sinking into the depths of hell, will find Christ there. With Christ in hell, we know ourselves to be simultaneously judged and saved. In hell is also our ransom from it: he who is both judged and judge (to borrow from Karl Barth).
Jesus’ coming in Advent is not only his coming as an infant in Bethlehem, nor only his coming as our judge at the end of time. It is also his coming to the depths of death and judgment: his presence in hell which grants it its truest, realest existence while at the same time undoing its sting with infinite mercy. Jesus’ presence in hell is the paradoxical symbol of justice that promises us the fullness of mercy and the fullness of judgment of God.
Each individual’s experience of hell is in fact a participation in and reflection of Christ’s experience. We experience hell in Christ and so we also experience God’s mercy with Christ.
Concerns about universalism often center on the question of free will. What happens to those who choose to continue denying God?
My perspective here — writing as one under judgment — is, like Balthasar, to suggest that such questions are less important than to understand hell as a possibility for ourselves as we constantly seek the forgiveness and rely on the mercy of God.
But another answer to the question is provided by the fullness of the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. For those who experience the judgment of God and continue not to choose to turn to him and rest in his grace, Christ remains in hell with them. Again, following Balthasar, the hell in which we all find ourselves is a participation in the condemnation experienced by God Godself. Our condemnation is a participation in Christ’s condemnation. Separation from God — even by determined choice — is impossible because Christ’s death in hell precedes ours. What if you choose to reject God? Then God himself is rejected along with you.
Perhaps this makes hell a fitting topic for the season of Advent. The defining fact of hell is that God arrives in it as Emmanuel, God with Us. In Emmanuel, we can face the merciful judgment of God and see it as one unified act of love and solidarity. God’s mercy is not a way God saves us from judgment and hell. Instead, God’s mercy and judgment coincide. God’s setting the world right results in our condemnation as sinners — and in that condemnation, God’s mercy pursues us as Emmanuel. Hell cannot be dispensed with. But even hell is ultimately in Christ. Even in hell, judgment is completed and found to be mercy.
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).