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A Survey of My Non-Western View of Hell (Miniblog #136)

by Carson T. Clark on October 18, 2012

Preface1

Western Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, aren’t unified as to their exact conception of hell. Their are perspectives aplenty.1.The number of topics and sub-topics related to the doctrine of hell seem nearly infinite. This makes writing a miniblog about it a daunting task indeed. That’s why I’m intentionally keeping the focus narrow. I’m not going to address my understanding of salvation and judgment, heaven and hell, humanity’s culpability and God’s intentions, exegetical interpretations of Scripture and historical/systematic theology, etc. I am distinguishing what I do not mean and surveying my non-Western view of hell in terms of the nature of the state/place. Please don’t expect this post to address that which it’s not intended to address. Some believe hell to be an inferno, perhaps even in the center of the earth, i.e. literal fiery torment. Others affirm it’s an unknown physical place of profound pain and agony, but assert ignorance as to the exact nature of how eternal punishment is administered, i.e. unspecified yet severe torment. Still others see the nature of hell’s judgment as far more a state than a place, psychological than physical–utter separation and isolation from God and others, i.e. eternal, darken loneliness. One relatively little-known position is that hell is a state of eternal unconsciousness, i.e. unending sleep. Yet another group actively redefines hell as sheer annihilation, i.e. wholly ceasing to exist. And, of course, there are various positions that meld two or more of these common views.22.There might be others out there, but these are the basic conceptions as I’ve encountered and studied. That having been said, I disagree with all of them. My view, which just so happens to comport with Eastern Orthodoxy, is largely reflective of the conception C.S. Lewis fictionally laid out in The Great Divorce. Since I can survey this outlook no better than Wikipedia, I see no need to reinvent the wheel:33.Source: Basic Orthodox teachings on hell

The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that Heaven and Hell are being in God’s presence which is being with God and seeing God, and that there no such place as where God is not, nor is Hell taught… as separation from God. [H]ell and heaven are being in God’s presence, as this presence is punishment and paradise depending on the person’s spiritual state in that presence. For one who hates God, to be in the presence of God eternally would be the gravest suffering. Aristotle Papanikolaou and Elizabeth H. Prodromou wrote[,] “Those theological symbols, heaven and hell, are not crudely understood as spatial destinations but rather refer to the experience of God’s presence according to two different modes.”44.Source: Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars

  • http://twitter.com/MAGuyton Morgan Guyton

    Yup. That’s exactly as I see it! My Wesleyan heritage took me to the East. Have you read much of their stuff? Check out Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of This World. Amazing! Also Zizoulias’ Being and Communion and Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Those are the three I’ve hit so far.

    Hey I would love it if you would take a look at this piece I wrote on trying to develop a different explanation of divine wrath that similarly takes its cue from the Eastern conception of divine energies: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/gods-wrath-as-a-cosmic-spiritual-immune-system/

  • Sam Adam

    So is this view similar to the comparison of heaven and hell to concepts of light and dark, warmth and coldness, where the further we are from God the lonelier we are, the colder we are, and that is where hell truly lies? Were the Medieval and prior teachings of hell being fire and brimstone false and simply scare tactics–and if so, how do we explain the words in Revelation about a “lake of fire”?

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’m going to ask an Orthodox priest I know (and fellow TFC grad) to address this. I’ve a feeling he won’t mind :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Bozeman/1143676742 James Bozeman

      As an Orthodox priest, I think that Carson’s quote above is spot on. There is no where that we can go that God is not already there. Hell will be that eternal effort to resist the loving fire of God that is all-consuming, which is a blessing to those that love Him and a curse to those who desire nothing less than to run away from a God who is everywhere, filling everything with His presence.

      I don’t think that the images of hell as a lake of fire or brimstone are merely Medieval scare tactics, because we do find them in the scriptures. Therefore I don’t think that we can ignore them. Instead we see them as the metaphors that they are: images designed to warn us of the danger of rejecting Life itself in favor of an eternal death. How does one describe the worst pain (mental, physical, spiritual) that one can experience, namely the pain of fire of God’s love? You call it a lake of fire, and allow that image to inform the reality that to reject God’s love is to inflict the greatest form of torture on one’s self possible.

      A pretty good link concerned with this topic:
      http://orthocath.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/hell-and-gods-love-an-orthodox-view/

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      The “outer darkness” would be the lack of communion with God.

      The “lake of fire” would be the destruction from the Divine Fire of the active Presence of God himself. (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9).

      One can be in the presence of another and suffer broken communion with them at the same time.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Except that Biblically I’m not sure those who reject God are going to live eternally at all, in hell or otherwise. The immortality of the soul is a Greek concept, not a Biblical one; the Biblical narrative says more about a life/death dichotomy. Eternal life is a gift given and sustained by God, not a natural state of the soul. Hence, I still question the notion that hell is an ongoing concept for which a definition is even germane.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Preliminary question: When you talk about the eternality (or non-eternality) of the soul, is your usage meant to encompass the totality of the human person–heart, body, mind, soul? Or are you distinguishing the spirit as distinct? Not trying to put words in your mouth. Wanting to make sure we’re on the same page before moving forward.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      The totality of the person..although I would submit the body-soul duality or body-soul-spirit “triality” (?) are themselves issues of which too many are too certain despite a necessary ignorance we all have but rarely confess. In other words, I’m talking about the whole human irrespective of existential or ontological structure. My point is that no human is immortal unless sustained by God. Consequentially, death is the default end unless we are granted eternal life…which means that the “second death” is not annihilation, but merely the withdrawal of that sustenance without which nothing–and no one–can exist.

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      We must remember, however, that the Jews of the 1st century were Hellenized, as are all Jews today.

      And those of the 1st BCE.

      and 2nd.

      and 3rd.

      And even when we examine the state of absolute death in ancient Semitic and other near-eastern thought, you do not have “non-existence”. You have this sort of shady existence of rot and gloominess and being a “meat hanging on a hook” to quote one Sumerian text I like.

      So even when the animative faculty/constitution/nephesh/whatever is no longer present, there is this sort of continuation. And it is a continuation of the dead. The ancients never defined immortality as ‘not ceasing to exist'; I think the Greeks may have come up with that one.

      Perhaps this is because without the Divine, there is no existence, and no non-existence, either, but only an oblivion beyond the two. That is just conjecture, but how disturbing!

      So for Christianity, which emerged out of the Jewish milieu of the 1st Century, “eternal life” would not have been considered synonymous with mere “perpetuated existence”. I think St. Paul draws a nice distinction between the lingering nephesh existence of the dead and corruptible, vs the Holy Spirit existence, in 1 Corinthians 15.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      All I’m saying, and all I believe, is that you can’t make the case for this from Biblical evidence. The continuance of a soul beyond death–absent the sustaining power of God which we believe is all that gives *any* of us life–is not a Biblical concept. All such beliefs come from other sources…

      So despite the wonderful “Princess Bride” distinction between “mostly dead” and “all dead,” I think Biblically when we die we’re “all dead.” Resurrection is not a re-unification of a never-dead spirit/soul/whatever with new matter. It’s a genuine new life to something/someone who was “all dead.”

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      I don’t think there is a distinction between mostly dead and all dead.

      I think that if you are dead, you are dead, and if you are alive, you are alive. We differ in that you believe “completely dead” means “annihilated”, whereas I don’t see any evidence of such a belief among the Hellenistic Jews of Christ’s time or among the ancient Semitic peoples, the Hebrews included. Now, certainly they did not believe that a “mind/soul” was somehow “surviving” in the afterlife, of course, but rather that there was this gloomy, rotting state in which the dead were dead, being dead. Being meat on a hook. They were there, but they were dead.

      It’s a bit difficult to convey.

      Satan lingers, but is in no wise immortal.

      Now, back to today. I do not believe that those who have died in Christ are disembodied souls, or that they are “unconscious”. Instead, I believe they are fully alive and already mystically entering into the Age to Come, which is why we proclaim:

      “Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb.”

      That means the state of being dead which functioned before Christ no longer functions.

      You refer to “biblical evidence”, but the fact is, where we differ is in how the passages relating to pre-Christ death are to be interpreted, rather than whether or not we accept the “plain reading” of the “biblical evidence”.

      I think it most sensible that, as the Hebrew cosmology had many similarities with the “standard” Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, descriptions about the Pit of Sheol, the state of a giddim/shade, etc. most likely fit into a similar understanding. I see no reason to come up with some sort of alternate interpretation when examining OT passages about death.

      Just as we must resist the temptation to read Neoplatonism back into ANE thought, we must also avoid reading reactions to Neoplatonism back into ANE thought. ANE thought can stand on its own.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      I think you misunderstood my objection, @Nicholas. I do not presume, as you seem to, that because the Hellenistic or Hebraic pre-Christian Jews may (or may not) have believed in some for of after-existence or afterlife, that they were correct. I rather suspect there has been superstition as long as there has been human culture. My point was that there is no biblical evidence to that effect…certainly none to support your “meat on a hook” analogy.

      I acknowledge that the New Testament evidence is inconclusive as to whether we have a conscious afterlife between death and the final resurrection. We can find proof texts leaning each way. But I do not see conclusive biblical evidence for a conscious afterlife for the unredeemed. Do you?

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      So you choose not to interpret Sheol/the Pit, and the descriptions of the dead in the Bible, within the greater context of Near Eastern cosmology. Rather, you choose to understand “Sheol/The Pit” to mean “unconcious/ceased to exist” based on the “plain reading of Scripture” which just happens to line up with the late stoic understanding of immortality and mortality.

      Well, I’d say that’s a rather biblicist way of looking at things, but this is a free country.

      Also, your low view of “superstition” is quite depressing. The meat on a hook is not an analogy, it is a reality. It is how they encountered death.

      “I acknowledge that the New Testament evidence is inconclusive as to
      whether we have a conscious afterlife between death and the final
      resurrection.”

      Oh, I am not talking about an intermediate state. I’m talking about being in the Coming Age.

      “I do not see conclusive biblical evidence for a conscious afterlife for the unredeemed. Do you?”

      Well, unless one believes that the Greek Christians didn’t know their own language and thus didn’t understand what The New Testament means by “destruction unto the ages”, I would say that mentioning the eternality of the state of gehenna would be sufficient. Of course, fussing over “concious torment” is really a fuss only important to American Evos and their opponent of the day.

      We don’t have a clear picture of “the damned” in the Coming Age. It is a Holy age, which means that it is constituted in a distinct Otherness. Who can say what that mystery will hold, and what mercies are already at work?

      It is the ancient Christian conviction that Christ raised all the dead. It is not to be quickly dismissed.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      So you choose not to interpret Sheol/the Pit, and the descriptions of
      the dead in the Bible, within the greater context of Near Eastern
      cosmology. Rather, you choose to understand “Sheol/The Pit” to mean
      “unconcious/ceased to exist”

      No, not the point at all. I choose, rather, to accept that the Biblical writers used images and language familiar to the ANE folks, but in lacking (possibly pointless) detail, they clearly didn’t put much stock in the minutiae. The fact that they didn’t go into detail is my evidence for it’s *being* minutiae.

      a rather biblicist way of looking at things

      I assume you mean this as an insult. I accept the label willingly.

      Oh, I am not talking about an intermediate state. I’m talking about being in the Coming Age.

      A topic about which many have an opinion, few if any are likely correct.

      Well, unless one believes that the Greek Christians didn’t know their
      own language and thus didn’t understand what The New Testament means by
      “destruction unto the ages”,

      Do *you* know “their language?” Reasonable scholars dispute, and Greek usage is ambivalent, as to whether “aionion” refers to something “eternal” as in “final, irreversible” or “continuous, eternal.” Could be either. But “destruction” almost always means “destruction,” not “miserable existence that makes you wish you could be destroyed.”

      It is the ancient Christian conviction that Christ raised all the dead. It is not to be quickly dismissed.

      Yup. That’s what the Scripture says. But it says the damned are destroyed. That’s why it’s called the “second death.”

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      ” Reasonable scholars dispute, and Greek usage is ambivalent, as to
      whether ‘aionion’ refers to something “eternal” as in “final,
      irreversible” or “continuous, eternal.”

      I don’t know any historians who believe that early Greek Christians understood things this way. And it’s rather silly to believe they all got it wrong straight off the bat.

      “No, not the point at all. I choose, rather, to accept that the Biblical
      writers used images and language familiar to the ANE folks, but in
      lacking (possibly pointless) detail, they clearly didn’t put much stock
      in the minutiae. The fact that they didn’t go into detail is my
      evidence for it’s *being* minutiae.”

      I find it childish that you relegate those things you disagree with to the realm of “minutiae”. The fact is, you take on faith that the Scriptures do not operate within the Near Eastern understanding of death, and your only evidence for this is a supposed lack of detail, from which one could draw several disparate conclusions.

      “I assume you mean this as an insult. I accept the label willingly.”

      Enjoy your inerrant, self-interpreting text.

      “But ‘destruction’ almost always means ‘destruction,’ not ‘miserable existence that makes you wish you could be destroyed.”

      Once again, you are applying Hellenistic terminology to an ancient near eastern culture.

      For them, destruction did not mean “cease to exist” in the stoic sense of immortality/mortality. This is well documented. Read an account of Kigal/the realm of the dead. The Scriptures certainly do not take the time to explicitly define what “destroyed” means, so you have to apply what’s called a hermeneutic. We disagree on the hermeneutic. So we have to work on the level of hermeneutics.

      “But it says the damned are destroyed [meaning cease to exist]. That’s why it’s called the ‘second death.”

      That would be one 19th Century interpretation. There are many other interpretations that take into account the interpretations of the earliest Christians, the surrounding near-eastern culture, etc. To dismiss these evidences is to disincarnate the Scriptures.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      We are clearly so far apart on what constitutes evidence or authority it’s pointless to continue…one cannot come to agreement without some commonality of foundation. I would only point out that if you think I’m “inerrantist” you have completely misunderstood me. I am far from it, and if you want to know more, follow the link to my blog and check out my writing on Biblical Inspiration.

      I do hold that no other authority is on a par with the Biblical texts, and nothing may be held as doctrine or dogma that is not explicitly in those texts and those alone. Hence my holding that your reference to ANE texts (though uncited and unnamed) cannot supersede biblical testimony.

      But it doesn’t really matter…I don’t see us resolving this. Peace & out.

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      Fair enough.

      But you cannot encounter the Scriptures except through hermeneutics. So it is not “ANE texts vs. the Scriptures”, it is “ANE hermeneutic vs. stoic hermeneutic”.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Evidence, @NicholasMyra:disqus, evidence. Your “ANE hermaneutic” depends on several things you have yet to introduce to the conversation:

      (1) To what sources are you referring to obtain your ANE perspective?

      (2) To what evidence do you point to determine whether those who followed YHWH accepted, or held in strong counterpoint to, the ANE beliefs in question?

      (3) Perhaps most importantly, what’s your basis for determining that the question we are debating as 21st-century Westerners even was part of the consciousness (or concern) of those ANE folks? That is, we’re talking about an immortal soul or some entity like that, in the context of eternal, conscious torment of the unbeliever. That is superimposing a lot of “stuff” on the purported ANE perspective that it may not legitimately support. We do this with a lot of scripture, by the way.

      I’ve explained my own hermaneutic fairly coherently (I think) on my blog. In short, I hold that scripture must be “rightly divided” to determine what within the text represents itself as the word of God (by no means all the texts), and then examine what those words said then and say today. In my hermaneutic, very few of the doctrinal/dogmatic hills many Christians choose to die on, are even relevant of further consideration, and if considered at all, merit no better designation than “theory,” certainly not dogma. I don’t think this qualifies as “Stoic hermaneutics.”

      If you actually would like to see my hermaneutic in action with regard to the question of eternal punishment, I did a complete survey of the New Testament looking for any reference to hell or condemnation I could find. You can find the articles here, and the actual passage-by-passage analysis here. You will find that while I lean toward annihilation (or, as I’ve suggested here, non-sustenance), my principal answers to the question are (a) to look at to whom biblical references to condemnation are directed, and (b) to suggest that we know, conclusively, far less than many of us think.

    • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

      ” To what sources are you referring to obtain your ANE perspective?”

      Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hebrew and Arab sources and commentaries and analyses on them, for one.

      “To what evidence do you point to determine whether those who followed
      YHWH accepted, or held in strong counterpoint to, the ANE beliefs in
      question?”

      Comparative mythology.

      ” Perhaps most importantly, what’s your basis for determining that the
      question we are debating as 21st-century Westerners even was part of the
      consciousness (or concern) of those ANE folks?”

      One of my points was that the immortality/mortality of the mind/hellenistic soul wasn’t even part of their consciousness or concern.

      ” In short, I hold that scripture must be “rightly divided” to determine
      what within the text represents itself as the word of God…”

      Well, that sounds rather un-poetic and dry.

      “we know, conclusively, far less than many of us think.”

      That’s a given regarding most history.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chad.simmons.161 Chad Simmons

    Carson, having just read (this year) C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, I appreciate your article here… Yesterday, as I was reading Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ with my daughter and the similarities and parallels to Lewis’ work were striking, specifically the scene in which Scrooge converses with his ghostly business partner, Jacob Marley. I wonder if The Great Divorce was influenced at all by the scrooge/marley relationship.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Intriguing insight. I haven’t the foggiest clue.

  • Elizabeth

    Carson and James: what are the implications of this view for those who
    believe and search for a God, but don’t know Jesus (i.e. Muslims)?

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’ll defer to Fr. Bozeman on that one.

    • Elizabeth

      *bump* still interested…

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  • April Yamasaki

    Your post makes me wonder if you’ve seen the recently released documentary Hellbound? You might be interested in my review at http://aprilyamasaki.com/2012/10/18/hellbound/

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I have not.

  • Peter Bylen

    Hell is the loving presence of God for one that does not have the capacity to love Him.

  • Peter Bylen

    Have you read the following essay?

    http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm

  • Peter Bylen
  • Peter Bylen
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