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Fortinbras Armstrong

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Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 2,368

About Me

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).

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It's an old question

This is taken from an essay I wrote in graduate school.

The classic New Testament account of judgment is Matthew 25:31-46. This is full of apocalyptic imagery, with Jesus as judge. He is arbiter of the fate of those who appear before him; and their attitude towards him determines their fate. Elsewhere, peopleís destiny hinges on their faith in Jesus, on their witness to him, and on their fraternal love. Here, however, charity towards the needy is love for Jesus himself. While the wording suggests that the text originally referred to members of the Christian community, the context extends it to the whole world. Matthew 25 is central to the notion of "anonymous Christians," those who, never having heard the Gospel, nevertheless struggle to live its ideals.

The earlier Jewish writings have nothing similar to the punishments associated with hell. In the Old Testament, the spirits of both good and bad people inhabit a nether world, Sheol, in a pallid, shadowy existence. Punishment for Israel's enemies was an old idea, but this was a direct, immediate, and earthly punishment. The idea that there would be retribution for all the wicked came later, during the Hellenistic period, when personal immortality was accepted.

Then, the image of everlasting fire came to describe the punishment of the wicked. The apochryphal book of Judith has "Woe to the nations that rise against my people! The Lord Almighty will requite them; on the day of judgment he will punish them: He will send fire and worms into their flesh, and they shall burn and suffer forever." The New Testament picks up this imagery: "Anyone whose name was not found in the book of life was hurled into the pool of burning fire." (Revelation 20:15) In the second century, Justin Martyr argued that hell fire is eternal, otherwise there would be no sanctions regulating one's life.

In the third century, Origen maintained the opposite view. He denied hell, feeling that it frustrates God's plan of universal salvation, and thus is repugnant to a God of love. Origen's central idea is the restoration of all things in Christ. At death, the souls of sinners enter a purifying fire where they are cleansed and restored. Although Origen taught that when this restoration occurred, it would be the result of the sinnerís conversion; his ideas were repeatedly condemned.

Origenís "universalism" -- all people are saved -- is at best a minority opinion, at worst considered heresy. Many Church fathers in the East and West, medieval theologians, and Catholics and Protestants from the Reformation to the present held that most are damned. Augustine in particular championed this view, maintaining that original sin condemns us all. He cited texts such as "Many are called, few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14) and "Many Ö will try to enter and will be unable." (Luke 13:24) See Augustine's The City of God, book 11.

Modern theologians are less eager to condemn everyone. Some present a version of universalism; while others, who accept an eternal hell, question if anyone is actually there. The late Anglican Bishop John A T Robinson acknowledges that judgment is necessary, but argues that its only function is to show God's mercy, which thus renders judgment superfluous. That a human could resist divine love and frustrate Godís will is unthinkable. To admit the possibility that some persons may be lost is for Robinson an impossible concession to a power outside God.

It is hard to reconcile this with human freedom. Free will implies the choice of eternal separation from God. If God overrides our free decisions, then freedom is a sham. If there is a connection between our acts in this world and our fate in the next, we must be allowed to make even a wrong choice in something so definitive as our final destiny. The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner gives the common position when he says that a time comes when each person either ratifies or reverses the fundamental choice lived throughout life, and accepts the consequences. C S Lewis agrees: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,í and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it." (The Great Divorce, p 69)

Whatever the torments of hell may be (fire is obviously a metaphor), they are not tortures imposed by a vindictive judge. Modern psychology is more helpful than medieval penology in understanding the suffering of the damned. Hell is a projection of the person, not a punishment imposed for sins (perhaps) bitterly and belatedly regretted. Hell is an extreme narcissism turning the sinner in on self and causing unending turmoil and frustration. Hell is estrangement from God and alienation from the created universe -- a renunciation of love. The suffering of hell is compounded, according to Augustine, because God continues to love the sinner, who is not able to return this love.

Although modern theologians differ on the possibility of an eternal hell, they generally agree that God wills to save all humanity. This is a departure from the Augustinian tradition of salvation only for the few. Jesus said at the Last Supper: "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28) The reference to the "many" must be interpreted in the broader context of Paulís classic witness to Godís will: "I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be offered for all men Ö Prayer of this kind is good, and God our savior is pleased with it, for he wants all men to be saved and to come and know the truth. And the truth is this: God is one, one also is the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." (1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6)

Would the coming of the Son of Man represent a triumph over sin and hell in any significant way if most of the human race is lost?
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Mar 25, 2013, 11:53 AM (0 replies)
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