Hell is Absurd Because We are Who We’ve Loved

Jason Micheli —  August 9, 2016 — 16 Comments

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”









Jason Micheli


16 responses to Hell is Absurd Because We are Who We’ve Loved

  1. There is certainly some power in this argument, but it proves too much. Consider a parent of a child who has launched a violent crime spree. The child is captured and imprisoned. Is the parent thereby also in prison? No, the parent remains free. Of course, most parents in this situation will experience sadness and probably guilt and other negative emotions because of what their child has done. But at the same time most parents in this situation will be glad that the child is locked away and unable to commit further violence on innocent people. The situation of the child and parent is not precisely the same — they aren’t both in prison — and moreover the parent has at least some degree of solace in the fact that justice has been restored in the broader community of which the parent is a part.

    I would imagine something similar in the pristine clarity of the eschatological judgment. The loss and sadness of a loved one who is finally lost must be caught up into the knowledge that this exclusion is necessary for the peace of the whole community. Here also, much of what makes up a parent’s pain on earth — guilt, “what if’s” and the like — can be healed by the eschatological moment in which the choice of judgment is irrevocably the child’s own. I think “Heaven” allows for the complexity of that kind of emotion, even with “no more mourning, or crying or pain,” as we see, for example, in the many levels of Dante’s Paradisio.

    • Your argument presumes that evil has an everlasting existence and substance and thus has a permanent place in the eschaton, and so the best that God can do is to sort of let evil exist (in “freedom”) but to set aside a “place” as quarantine to protect everyone else from it’s power?

      • Above comment addressed to D Becke.

        • My analogy does assume a person can forever remain free to reject God. I think if God creates us as genuinely free creatures, it is indeed the “best He can do” to leave that possibility open.

          Assume instead that God overrides the freedom of even the most recalcitrant person, including someone with whom you have had a relationship in life. Would that person be “returned” to you after having his or her will wiped forcibly by God? Or would you be welcoming a brainwashed simulacrum of your former friend?

          • I asked about the eternal existence of evil itself, not about your definition of “free will”.

            Where is the suggestion that “brainwashing” is an option?

          • Mike, the point is that someone can be free to resist God forever. If that is the case, then yes, it’s possible for “evil” to exist forever (although “evil” is a depravation and not something with affirmative “existence'” so it’s more accurate to say that some persons could deprive themselves of the absolute good forever). And if it is not possible to be free to resist God forever, that would mean God erases freedom, hence the reference to “brainwashing.”

          • D.

            What do you think might make such resistance “irrevocable”? Wouldn’t making it irrevocable violate the principal of free will being espoused here?

          • I think there’s a point at which a pattern of choice becomes so much a part of your soul that it defines you. Think Voldemort’s soul in that “heaven” scene the last Harry Potter movie. In the Tradition there is something about the moment of death that seals the trajectory of a person’s life.

            But let’s say in the eschatology over many ages even the most resistant person could change. That still doesn’t eliminate “Hell” or resolve the problem of missing loved ones in heaven. Hell would have a potentially remedial purpose, but it would still be Hell,mane some people would still be there, potentially forever.

          • D.

            I suppose that’s the big question – does our “pattern of choice” ultimately define us more than being made in the image of God? Can we, through our poor choices, permanently snuff out the image and salvific will of God.

            If “irrevocable” were just a metonym for “the power of habit” or something like that, that would be one thing. But the term “irrevocable” is being used in reference to God’s salvific disposition in these sorts of conversations.

            You said: ”In the Tradition there is something about the moment of death that seals the trajectory of a person’s life.” Supposing that I grant this for a moment, would this apply to, say, a 3 month old baby? A 3 year old?

            Yes, I do agree that the “problem” of loved ones in “hell” remains. It’s difficult to talk about one particular facet of this question without bringing in others and without clarifying what one takes to be axiomatic.

            I do appreciate the clarity with which you assert the necessary consequence that the “blessed” won’t be bothered for one moment by the fates of their loved ones (quite the opposite since I see no space for a neutral “tolerance”). Not everyone is so transparent in that assertion. To me, the prospect of becoming that sort of person when in a state of blessed perfection and theosis has staggering implications for the Gospel and the character of God, has no earthly parallel that we can point to as rationalization, and doesn’t accurately reflect what a “person” is.

          • Mike, I appreciate the response, but I think you’re misunderstanding me a bit.

            First, I never said “the blessed won’t be bothered for one one moment by the fate of their loved ones.” In my analogy of the child who commits crimes and is imprisoned, I specifically said the parent would experience grief and guilt. I think the same would be true of seeing a loved one ultimately refuse God’s love and thereby choose Hell.

            It is evocative to me that the classical Biblical text for the joy of the blessed, Rev. 21:4, assumes that there are tears that need to be wiped away by Jesus. With respect to a lost loved one, I would imagine this comes from a true understanding that love is why that person must be lost, because love refuses to override freedom.

            I don’t know if you’ve ever had to come to terms with a loved one who has made deeply hurtful choices. I have. As with all grieving, there is a point of “acceptance.” It doesn’t mean there was never any pain, and it doesn’t mean there is no memory of pain, but it does mean there is healing. I think of that process as an analogy for what this might be like eschatologically.

            Second, on irrevocability: I never said God makes a choice irrevocably against any person. Indeed, with Barth, I think God’s choice is irrevocably for humanity in Christ. Even if a person is in Hell, God is for that person. But that doesn’t mean that person is forced to choose God. In fact, it’s exactly because God is for that person that He doesn’t override his or her freedom.

            Finally, on the population of Hell: this didn’t really surface in the discussion, but I think it’s possible Hell will be empty, and I hope that will be so. But I’m not convinced by any of the arguments for dogmatic universalism, including this one about separation from loved ones, which is all I was addressing.

          • Thanks D.

            I enjoy the dialogue & being challenged by your thinking. Thanks for engaging.

          • Ditto, cheers

  2. Not being a theologian, I would never have dared think this, which is why I am so grateful that you do. The best I ever dared hope was that everyone would have a second chance. That was not based on anything I read in the Bible, but on hope and a belief that God is good. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. @ D. Becke,

    grace and peace to you in Christ Jesus.
    I may not be tracking…but…looking at your last reply to Mike H. I have 2 questions:
    1) Does your understanding of the eschaton include “making all things new”? You refer to Rev 21 that asserts there will no more death, mourning, crying or pain AS WELL AS God wiping away our tears. So it describes not just a nurturing presence “there, there, everything will be ok” from Jesus, but also claims these activities will actually cease. That’s how I understand this evocative image.
    2) If you accept that, then how would God making that irrevocable choice (to make all things new/and override our grief for things/persons lost) be any different from your contention with Mike that God wouldn’t override our freedom. Essentially, what i’m alluding to…is this text implies God saying “if you were grieving someone being lost, you can no longer, because I will remove that from you either wiping your memory of it or so filling you with joy that you can no longer bring it to mind. cessation. Has God made an irrevocable choice for us in that case. Are there still people in eternal conscious torment after that…we just no longer live with the grief of that knowledge? Is God capable of performing such an action and then still calling it personal freedom/choice on our part?
    hope that’s not too abstract…but reflective of the conversation that was already going on.

    • Josh, there’s a lot here.

      1. I think when we look into Jesus’ eyes, the wiping away of our tears involves at least in part really understanding things as they are, and I think it also involves some measure of “acceptance,” as we can find at the end of a long grief. But also, I don’t think we should overly-literalize or make overly temporal these images. How will this be? How long will it take? What will it involve? I don’t know.

      2. I don’t think God “overrides” anyone’s grief, or wipes anyone’s memory. The image to me is one of real understanding, and an acceptance and resolution that is transformative without being overpowering in the sense that you’re thinking.

      The premise of the OP is that such a deep understanding, which really brings peace, could never be possible if someone you know and love is lost. I think that premise lacks a sense of the real gravity of sin, the real beauty of freedom, and the real consolation of seeing things more as God sees them than as we think we see them.

      I also think there are a couple of assumptions about what beatitude and “Hell” both might mean that are more mythic than real. Revelation 21 doesn’t say nothing at all of worth will be lost. And it doesn’t say that a loved one who has known something of grace will be arbitrarily tossed into “eternal conscious torment.” Remember that in emphasizing freedom and a final “no” to God’s “yes” this is not a case of someone you love who is trying to hold on to love being torn from your hands. Really, it’s a case of someone you love finally rejecting love, including your love, and including what is really worth loving and what is the source of love, which is God.

      Well, I don’t know if all or any of this is right, but it seems to me a better way of trying to think through a really difficult set of problems without taking an overly dogmatic approach that finally disallows human freedom.

  4. Profound. Thank you. I have listened to David Bentley Hart on ‘the salvation of all’ and Apocatastasis; your essay adds to my understanding of this.

    In my teens and twenties I was a self-confident evangelical, de facto fundamentalist and inerrantist. I was of the ‘in-crowd’ who knew the truth; what else could I do but preen my fundamentalist feathers? I was one of the elect. My discovery that this clique – myself included – was just as (if not more so) characterized by hubris and hypocrisy, bigotry and cruelty, hidden vice and open viciousness toward fellow believers and everyone else catapulted me into a blessed, but less arrogant, space where I could no longer claim to know the mind of God. What I thought was faith turned out to be a dead husk. The Russian writer Nicholas Berdyaev provided my first encounter with the Eastern Orthodox concept of Apocatastasis, even though I had sensed it’s reality for many long years and it remains my fervent hope for the world. I believe that we are saved together. All things will become new. I realized – as a sinful man – I could no more sit gorging myself at the marriage supper of The Lamb while billions burned in ‘hell’ than Jesus could turn with indifference from the sick and fallen during the Incarnation.

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