A while ago, I wrote a post on hell and universalism. While I have not spent much time dwelling on the topic in the year and a half that has passed since then, I did revise the conclusions I made on the idea of hell as privative. By way of reminder, my definition of the nature of hell can be summarized in this paragraph:
…we can say hell is the complete absence of good. In the total absence of God who is the absolute source of good (however that is possible), you are left with nothing, with not-good, irrationality: “torment” in a sense.… In this sense, God is not actively tormenting evildoers. He is simply totally absent from them and all they are left with is what we experience every day in the small missing pieces of goodness in a fallen world…in short, all that sin brought on the world with none of the good still present from God’s good creation.
Such a definition can lead us to the conclusion I provided in the same post:
Therefore, I think we can reasonably say that we need not say God is somehow actively torturing or tormenting people in order to give them justice. He doesn’t even need to be said to effectively “create” hell or actively send people to it. He simply needs to cease being present with them, thus giving them what they were trying to have all along: a world without him who is the supreme good of the universe.
There may yet be merit to such an understanding of evil and hell’s role in resolving its enduring presence in our world. However, in writing my final paper for the class which pushed me to ponder hell and universalism in the first place, I was challenged to rethink the nature of God’s role in relation to those living in eternal torment.
I actually ended up writing three different drafts for this class, the first essentially a polished version of my first blog post. The second was based on Blocher’s comments cited in the previous post regarding how punishment is in the interest of the punished, placing the evildoer in proper relationship or harmony with his Creator. The final paper returned to follow the arguments of the original blog post but modified the final conclusion. Because several people interacted with that post, I thought it fitting to follow up on how my thinking has changed.
Universalism as Solution
As I noted from Michael McClymond (in his historical review of universalism), universalism is “the opiate of the theologians.” Universalism eases the pain of the thought of eternal human suffering and the angst in this life over our own eternal destiny. Augustine tells us this desire is nothing new, for “some people, or rather most people, feel human sympathy concerning the eternal punishment and the unending, unremitting suffering of the damned, and so do not believe that it will happen.…”
Our conflict with this sympathetic reflex comes when we consider the worst of the worst. Even universalism occasionally stumbles at this point, often moving one towards some hell, but not its permanence.
But in the end, Universalism offers little comfort in the way of justice. It cannot address evil as privation because it never repairs the “holes” in the fabric of God’s good world. This, at least for me, makes universalism untenable. Miroslav Volf says, “…The only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.” Those who dismiss evil only through forgiveness do not actually address the problem of evil, they merely dismiss it.
If this is the case, how does hell serve to repair these holes?
Hell’s Resolving Power
True justice (Augustine’s phrase) “is found where the one supreme God rules an obedient city,… where, in consequence, the soul rules the body in all who belong to that city and obey God. …” Love for God, as John reminds us, is to obey him. Ultimately, this is summed up in the way Jesus himself encapsulates the Law and Prophets: love God supremely and one’s neighbor as one’s self.
We must also recognize, as Augustine does, that true justice must be viewed in relationship to one’s distance from the eschaton—one’s covenantal context if you will. True justice now looks like the forgiveness of our sins for those who receive the sacrifice of God’s Son as the satisfaction of the law.
Here, universalism is right to note love is a critical component when thinking of hell. And we often assume hell is _un_loving. But, as Blocher and Bawulski will argue (the latter of which I am thankful to Daniel Kleven for pointing me towards), hell is the “reconciliation” of fallen humans whereby their blindness to their sin is stripped away and they recognize the evil of their ways, agreeing with God that sin is truly evil and that their condemnation is justly deserved. Then, truly and earnestly, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is the rightful Lord.
In the end, a privative view of hell no longer suffices to this end in my view. It leaves sinners unbowed, simply punished. It does not repair the holes made by sin and subsequent evil. It simply displaces it. And so, one must wrestle with how God actively engages with sinners in the “torment” of hell.
Privation vs. Active “Torment”
As I noted in my second post on hell, I did not provide extensive biblical support for a privative view of hell. The seemingly easy prooftext—not just for privative view of hell but for the existence of hell itself—would be 2 Thes 1:5-9:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…”
Initially, the last verse, translated here by the ESV (and similarly by the NET, NIV, NASB, NLT) as “away from the presence of the Lord” would seem to say that God’s vengeance afflicted and the punishment suffered occurs in the absence of God, i.e., the privative view.
However, two things prevent such a reading. The first is that the local context uses active verbs: “to repay with affliction,” “inflicting vengeance.” In both cases, the subject is the deity: “God considers it just to repay,” “the Lord Jesus is revealed … inflicting vengeance.” A privative view would rather remove God from the act, not see him as the prime actor in the scene.
Far more convincing than this minor observation is the work done by Charles L. Quarles in his paper titled “The Άπο of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and the Nature of Eternal Punishment.” For those not familiar with Greek, “The Άπο” of which he speaks is the word which gets translated “from” in 2 Thes 1:9, as in “from the presence of the Lord.” The ESV’s addition of away is an interpretive move, one not followed by the likes of the NKJV or CSB, the latter of which renders this verse, “They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence…,” as in the source of the promised destruction is the Lord’s presence. (To be fair to the ESV, the translators include a footnote with the alternative translation, “destruction that comes from.”)
Quarles paper sets out to overturn the use of this verse to argue for annihilationism. His arguments are equally convincing against a reading which might see eternal separation from God in a privative sense as I previously argued. He argues the following points:
- Άπο can be used to indicate either source or separation.
- There exist many OT references to destruction caused by an encounter with the presence of God (Isa 2:10; Exod 33:20; 40:35; 2 Sam 6:7; Psa 68:2; Jer 4:26; etc.), often utilizing the preposition απο to indicate the source is God’s presence.
- In particular, Isa 2 speaks of people’s attempt to hide from the face of God which brought their destruction. “The reason that Isaiah exhorts the sinner to hide in the rocks ‘away from the presence of the terror of the LORD and the glory of his majesty’ is that the presence and glory bring destruction. Destruction did not come by separation from God's presence and glory. Separation was a relief and escape which the sinners sought.”
- Appeals to God’s presence as being life-giving to some (for example, 1 Thes 4:17-18) does not negate the argument for the destructive power of God’s presence. Rather it demonstrates that it is the posture (or position) of the one encountering God that makes the difference.
2. He notes one can find additional support from the same letter (v. 2:8) where “the man of lawlessness” meets his end in an encounter with God.
Quarles’ conclusion is that “[Paul’s] view of divine wrath is active rather than passive. Eternal destruction does not consist of the Lord's evacuation but of his confrontation with the unrepentant sinner.”
Given this corrective, I would suggest the following modifications to my previously stated views. First, God is present in the punishment of sinners. This is for two primary reasons, both of which are necessary due to the nature of God:
- God is omnipresent: he exists and is present everywhere at all times (Psa 139:7-12)
- God’s presence is life for the forgiven and torment for the unrepentant. His glory delights those who love God and “melts like wax” (Psa 68:2) those who persist in rebellion.
Second, making this claim does not necessarily require that we say God is actively engaged in tormenting unbelievers in hell like some medieval dungeon master. God’s existence is one of radiating glory like the familiar Edwardsian metaphor of the sun radiating heat and light. God’s glory continually radiates and those who come in direct contact with him are either consumed or find it a delight.
To utilize the metaphor further, the sun burns people not because it is in the sky willfully inflicting radiation on the earth but because part of its "is-ness" is to radiate. Anyone not protected from the radiation by shade or appropriate strength sunscreen will experience harm. Those who are protected, on the other hand, find the sun to give warmth, comfort, and enjoyment.
Therefore, I would say that God does not torture people, he simply is and his “is-ness” either destroys or delights. The difference is the acceptance of Christ's blood as the protection from the otherwise dangerous encounter with God's glory.
How, if this is true and if God is omnipresent, how are we not all consumed at this moment? For now, God continues to be veiled in some sense, revealed only through the person of Jesus. Yet, at the end of this age, that protective veil is removed completely, and only those who trust in the protection afforded by the sacrifice of Christ and have been healed of the impurity of sin will not be consumed by the experience of that unshielded glory.
Another objection returns to one addressed earlier: ”eternal hell is an unjust payment for human evil, because finite humans cannot possibly commit sin worthy of infinite punishment.” Again, people like Piper take on this argument by pointing to the infinite goodness of God, the rejection of which merits an infinite punishment.
I find Augustine’s discussion of this insightful. Rather than point to God’s infinite worth, he rather points at man’s eternal purpose and potential to fulfill that purpose. He says that, in turning away from God, Adam, “destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal [and so] made himself worthy of an eternal evil.” This potential eternal good which Augustine refers to is man’s capacity to enjoy God; it is the purpose man created for. By destroying this capacity through the rejection of God’s rule, Adam ripped a gaping hole in the human race: the destruction (or privation) of an eternal capacity. By centering on man’s telos or purpose for being, the punishment can be made to match the crime: Infinitude is not pitted against eternality (or perhaps more properly, ontology against temporal duration), but the destruction of eternal potential and purpose is met by an eternal experience of that self-inflicted wound.
In thinking about how the presence and “face of God” effect sinners, one must answer the question What about Jesus’s earthly ministry? If in the face of Jesus we receive “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God,” how were people not destroyed to look on his physical face and form? I have two ideas here which are very surface level.
- Christ, in taking on flesh (John 1:14), in effect veiled his (God’s) glory so that some, to whom God revealed it, would see past “the veil” to the face of God, while for others it would remain veiled (Mark 4:10-13). In the case of the disciples, this was a long, drawn out process wherein God had granted it to them to understand, yet they took what often feels like an eternity to “get it.” This has strong parallels (and probably lessons for us) with our own discipleship and sanctification. We are not often made to see immediately but require a slow unveiling of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
- After his death and resurrection, Christ revealed what I assume was in some sense his unveiled glory. As far as I am aware, the Gospels and Acts record his appearing only to his own followers (even if some are noted as doubtful) or to those who were appointed to follow him (i.e., Saul). The symbolism of the veil of the temple being torn is, I think, representative of the removal of the veil protecting people from the glory of God in Christ. Now, people either encounter him as savior or as judge. One notes that the “battles” of Revelation are really just the appearing of the Messiah and all opposition simply ceasing to exist (Rev 19:17–21; 20:7–10).
It is therefore not contradictory for John to write in the same sentence “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” because he writes post-resurrection. He and others have seen both the veiled Man and the glory of the Son (and therefore the Father) in the resurrected and ascended Christ.
This is maybe further evidenced in the Transfiguration wherein Christ’s full glory is revealed momentarily. Those present were (a) some of those who had seen and greeted this glory from afar (Moses and Elijah, cf. Heb 11:13) or (b) were specially chosen to recognize (albeit slowly) and proclaim Christ’s true nature during his time on earth (Peter, James, and John). No unbelievers were present to view this unveiling.
One of the evidences I see of this at work is the difference between the OT people of God and Jesus. When people in the OT came into contact with uncleanness, they were made unclean and required cleansing by processes external to themselves (or simply time). Jesus, however, comes into contact with uncleanliness and undoes it. Yet often this only happens in the presence of faith. For those who believe, sick are made well, sinners are forgiven. The holes in the fabric of God’s world are undone. Yet, those who condemn and reject Christ, they are condemned.
All of these thoughts are simply observations which have moved my belief from a privative view of hell to one of God’s active presence where his radiating glory is the source of torment for those in hell. Once judgement is meted out, there is no longer a protective barrier, a veil if you will, between God and the unrepentant in the same way that there is no longer a barrier between God and his people:
Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.… The one who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be my son. But the cowards, faithless, detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rev 21:3, 7–8).
Augustine, “The Enchiridion,” in On Christian Belief, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. Bruce Harbert, vol. I/8 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2005), 112. ↩︎
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019), 298. ↩︎
Augustine, The City of God, trans. William Babcock, vol. I/7 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2013) XIX.23 ↩︎
Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004). ↩︎
Shawn Bawulski, “Reconciliationism, a Better View of Hell: Reconciliationism and Eternal Punishment,” JETS 56.1 (2013): 123–38. ↩︎
WTJ 59 (1997): 201–11. ↩︎
Ibid., 204. ↩︎
Ibid., 211. ↩︎
While this metaphor may not be original to Edwards, I believe I encountered it first through him. ↩︎
This illustration was added as an update to the original Feb. 22 post at the suggestion of my wife who found it helpful. ↩︎
Augustine, The City of God, vol. I/7, XXI.12 ↩︎