16 February 2014

Reprises, Posts on Hell: Preparation for a New Post

As  a result of the piece I put up on God as Master Story teller weaving together all the disparate threads of the story of the Kingdom out of the myriad threads of our own individual stories, and indeed, the story of the entire cosmos, I received a question about how hell fits into this schema. I said I would write something about that in a few days and I want to try to do that. This post reprises what else I have written on the topic, especially on the descent of Jesus into hell and should serve as preparation for what else needs to be said in light of a Master storyteller that leaves no threads unimportant, forgotten or dropped. My next post on this will try to answer the question a lay hermit in Seattle asked.

Post #1 The Nature of Hell

The post I put up on whether religious vows are binding beyond death spoke of purgation as a way of bringing in the harvest of a life, and as a cleansing, or claiming --- where God's love summons all that is true and real and good in us and says "no" to or strips away whatever is distorted, unreal (merely potential), untrue or false. I also referred to a final or definitive choice we make at the moment of death when we says yes or no to God's own Self/Love. Ordinarily we have prepared for this final moment by every choice in our lives and so we affirm ourselves, our relationship with God and with the whole of creation, or we deny and reject these things --- this time finally and irrevocably. During our lives we have a chance to become truly human. To whatever extent we achieve this through the grace of God, that Self is welcomed into eternity. Purgation is a combination of the final choice we make for this, and the love of God which welcomes all that is real and true into his own heart while letting go of all that is unreal or merely potential, etc.

Because of this post I wanted to say something about hell. It is not a topic I usually write about or that fits in well here (I find the appearance of the article on this page absolutely jarring!) but a reader asked me to say something about it a while back and this is really the first sense I have had that it would link with other posts. So, what is hell in this whole understanding? First, many people consider that souls are immortal and that hell is simply the separation of the soul from God for all of eternity. This would make sense except that souls are only immortal insofar as God continues to breathe them forth. Souls (and of course we ourselves) are immortal because God's love for us is immortal and he will not forget us or leave us to decay! Because of this whether we are speaking about heaven or hell, so long as we are speaking of a form of existence, we must be speaking of the active and effective presence of God because God is the ground and source of all that is to whatever extent it is.

My own sense of hell then (and this is absolutely my own provisional sense, nothing more) is that it is a form of radically alienated existence where one is faced with a love one was but no longer is meant for and can never be human without, but which one has also rejected definitively. What is hellish then is the presence of God, the presence of love in conjunction with a fundamental untruth, emptiness, and even radical inhumanity of one's existence. Untruth and emptiness call for truth (or verification and making true) and fullness. Hell, I think is the state of existence of eternal and unfulfillable yearning (which now assumes the form of nagging regret and disappointment) coupled with the inchoate knowledge (guilt) that one has irrevocably rejected these things and the God who, even now loves and sustains one --- though wholly from without and in a way which says "No" to all the nothing one has chosen. The fire of God's love can be many things to us: consoling, awesome and even terrifying, empowering, painful, purifying, illuminating, blinding, warming, creative, destructive, and so on. We are made for this love and we experience it in all these ways as part of its power to unlock the potential of our lives, a bit like a forest fire unlocks the seed cones of a redwood and enables new life to spring forth. But what kind of experience is this fire when we have been emptied of true (realizable) potential and the fire cannot inspire awe, or console, or illuminate, or purify, or create??? This I think is the experience of hell.

Post #2 Jesus' Descent into Hell

The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell.

During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us!

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.