Hell Isn’t for Real Because Creation Isn’t Past Tense

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2016 — 4 Comments

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

 

 

Jason Micheli

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4 responses to Hell Isn’t for Real Because Creation Isn’t Past Tense

  1. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
    Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

    • Not that Bible verse duels ever amount to much, or that this one even addresses the content of the post, or that it’s any sort of clobber text for an everlasting hell at all, but that word “destroyed” is an interesting one.

      It’s “apoleia” – the noun form of “appolymi”.

      Appolymi is all over the place. Same word is used throughout Luke 15 – in the parable of the prodigal son – the son was “lost” and has been found. The “appolymi” coin and sheep.

      Or Luke 19:10, the son of man came to seek and save the “appolymi”.

      Or Matthew 10 – Whoever “loses” his life…..

  2. This is a powerful argument, with some good Patristic warrants, following DBH’s paper in the RO journal. But, I think it’s overstated, for at least a few reasons. First, maybe most importantly, by dipping a bit too deeply in the neo-Platonic pool it gets close to collapsing the distinction between God and creation. To say that God is “bound to creation’s end” makes God part of creation — something I don’t think DBH intends in his essay and something that IMHO Christian theology can’t say. Second, if the notion of creation ex nihilo as entailing the ongoing “event” of God’s sustaining of creation in every moment — which I agree, it does — then the _present_ problem of evil is just as much a concern as the _future_ problem of evil. “Hell” is a problem for the doctrine of creation _now_, not just in “the future.” It must be possible, then, for God’s gift of the very good of creation to exist alongside the un-reality of evil, because that is our experience of creation as it is being sustained by God even in this very moment.

    This would bring me back again to a comment on an earlier post: the argument seems to assume that “Hell” is an ontological reality akin to or “part of” creation. But if we follow the classical logic of “evil” as negation, then “Hell” is not an ontological reality like creation. “Hell” is the negation of creation and apparently, mysteriously, the possibility of this kind of negation exists given the affirmative reality of creation. In fact, negation might _have_ to remain a possibility for “creation” to subsist as something ontologically separate from the utterly transcendent and self-subsistent Triune God. _Only_ God is entirely self-sufficient and therefore only for _God_ is negation impossible; creation is not God; therefore for creation negation is possible.

  3. Well said Jason.

    “God, Creation, and Evil” by DB Hart is probably the most profound thing I’ve read in the last few years.

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