Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stump the Priest: Is an Eternal Hell Fair?

Question: I have heard from both atheists and inquirers this question: how can we reconcile the idea of a loving God with the idea of an eternal hell? Wouldn't a loving God give those in hell another chance to accept Him, and escape hell, once they have experienced it? Or, it does not seem fair that God would send people to suffer for all eternity for the finite sins they commit in this life. I have heard an Orthodox priest suggest that everyone will be given an opportunity to accept or reject Christ at the Parousia.

Let me address this question in three parts:

1. Does the Church teach that hell is eternal? 

I have previously mentioned the problems with the English word "hell", but if by "hell" you mean Gehenna,  then the answer is unequivocally "yes." In the early Church, Origen speculated that perhaps God might eventually save everyone, and so suggested the possibility that no one, not even the Devil himself, would be eternally damned. This teaching was specifically anathematized at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

St. Paul wrote: "since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Commenting on these verses, St. John Chrysostom wrote:

"There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal; and about this they philosophize much. But I could show from many reasons, and conclude from the very expressions concerning hell, that it is not only not milder, but much more terrible than is threatened. But I do not now intend to discourse concerning these things. For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that “they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction.” How then is that temporary which is everlasting? “From the face of the Lord,” he says. What is this? He here wishes to say how easily it might be. For since they were then much puffed up, there is no need, he says, of much trouble; it is enough that God comes and is seen, and all are involved in punishment and vengeance. His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance" (Homily 3, 2nd Thessalonians).

2. Are we going to be given a second chance to repent after death?

I have no idea on what the priest you heard may be basing his claim that everyone will be given one more chance to repent after death. In the parable of the Rich Fool, one does not get the impression that he had another chance coming.

The Prophet Isaiah wrote: "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near" (Isaiah 55:6).

St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians: "We then, as workers together with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For He saith, “I have heard thee at an accepted time, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee.” Behold, now is the accepted time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!) (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).

St. Basil the Great, commented on this verse in his longer Rule:

"Now is the acceptable time," says the apostle, "now is the day of salvation." This is the time for repentance; the next life for reward. Now is the time to endure; then will be the day of consolation.: Now God is the helper of such as turn aside from the evil way; then He will be the dread and unerring inquisitor of the thoughts and words and deeds of mankind. Now we enjoy His longanimity; then we shall know his just judgment, when we have risen, some to never ending punishment, others to life everlasting, and everyone shall receiving according to his works." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol. VII, 1-2 Corinthians, p. 255).

I have never seen anything in the Scriptures, or in the writings of the Fathers and Saints of the Church that would substantiate such an idea.

3. How can a good God send anyone to hell?

On one level, we can say that God does not send anyone to hell... at least not against their will. People make choices, and many choose to reject God, and by doing so, send themselves to hell. 

The Scriptures make it clear that just as the rewards in heaven will not be the same, but will be according to our works; so too will the punishments in hell be in accordance with the works of the individual. Christ said: "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47-48).

God desires that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but he allows his creatures to choose for themselves whether they will choose life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19).

The Prophet Ezekiel wrote: "Say unto them: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?’  Therefore, thou son of man, say unto the children of thy people: ‘The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression. As for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turneth from his wickedness, neither shall the righteous be able to live for his righteousness in the day that he sinneth.’  When I shall say to the righteous that he shall surely live, if he trust to his own righteousness and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it.  Again, when I say unto the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die,’ if he turn from his sin and do that which is lawful and right, if the wicked restore the pledge, give back that which he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him. He hath done that which is lawful and right: he shall surely live.  “Yet the children of thy people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.But as for them, their way is not fair. When the righteous turneth from his righteousness and committeth iniquity, he shall even die thereby.  But if the wicked turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby. Yet ye say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O ye house of Israel, I will judge you every one according to his ways” (Ezekiel 33:11-20).

When we question God's justice, we are like a toddler who does not understand his parents' discipline, and thinks that they are being unfair... only the difference between us and God is infinitely greater.

As God said through the Prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” saith the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:7-9).

On the day of judgment, no one will be able to say that anyone received an unjust punishment, but will rather say "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalms 18[19]:9).