If we are to ponder on God’s goodness, it strikes us as unloving that Hell would be allowed for all eternity with sinners within it. This is usually put forward as a well thought out argument against the goodness of God. My aim here will be to show you that it is in fact a shallow view which, when pushed will reveal God’s goodness.
If we are to take Hell and God’s goodness seriously, it strikes us as much more profound that the state of being inside of Hell for all eternity is self-imposed, thus Hell being locked from within for all eternity is God’s waiting on us to open the gates with our own choice and free-will, like waiting for a butterfly to push through its former self and grow strong, rather than help and weaken it in the future by damaging its process and refinement in the present. We as humans are always labouring and groaning for better, for the transformation which frees us from our weak self. In this Christian tradition, we shed our former selves by letting our weaknesses die for our new self, our new self can then transcend all of those weaknesses. For it is said: ‘For the creation was subjected to futility. Not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labo[u]rs with birth pangs together until now.’ (Romans 8:20-22). Creation itself is filled with a desire for greater things and works towards the transformation to come. Humans too feel and work in this way.
How often is it that we feel trapped in our own suffering or the suffering of those around us only to realise we are in fact the problem and cause, and not the world or God? How many prisoners have found the habits of their inmates annoying, to only realise that them finding those habits annoying is what is truly the problem; that you being unable to bear a certain habit is your weakness, not just their weakness to have that habit? We blame and push responsibility and ownership of our own suffering, for we are the ones who close the door on our own suffering. In this sense we are all Peter the denier of Christ, and our life is a struggle to stop pushing off responsibility while pretending when it comes to it we will make the right choice. We should look at Peter as both the Denier and the Confirmer, although he did deny Christ and not live up to his words: ‘Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times. Peter said to him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You! And so said all the disciples.’ (Matthew 26:34-35), he did also end his life by confirming Christ and becoming Peter the Believer, rather than dying Peter the Denier. In this sense man is its own enemy, or as Luke says: ‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.’ (Luke 6:45)
So, if we consider Hell a place of torment or dwelling of the tormented, and this Hell will be in place for all eternity, how does this mean that God’s goodness is in fact good, rather than corrupted by the reality of suffering and Hell itself? Or to say it another way: ‘How can a God of love accept that even a single one of the creatures whom he has made should remain for ever in hell?’ (1).
I shall address this in two ways; firstly, the idea that Hell is where God does not dwell, thus it is an evil place where God’s presence doesn’t bless the sinners’ suffering there is false. We are not separated from God in Death (Hell) because Christ descended to the grave, so the grave and Hell holds Christ’s omnipresent Grace and presence. Even in Hell, which is self-imposed, God is blessing us with his presence. All we need to do is unlock the gates of Hell from within.
The gates of Heaven are locked from without, and the gates of Hell are locked from within, we thus have the power to open each, but while we open the gate of Heaven, we hold shut the gate of Hell not letting ourselves out. Or as Bishop Ware expresses it: ‘Christ is the judge; and yet, from another point of view, it is we who pronounce judgement upon ourselves. If anyone is in hell, it is not because God has imprisoned him there, but because that is where he himself has chosen to be. The lost in hell are self-condemned, self-enslaved; it has been rightly said that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.’ (2).
It is often said that when Christ was crucified he descended to the grave in order to blow open the gates of Hell. If he did, he did only in the sense that by accepting Christ and affirming the reality of the universe that you gain the awareness to realise that you need only unlock the gate yourself. In this way Christ allows us to blow open the gates of Hell through him. For Christ is everywhere: ‘If I ascend into heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.’ (Psalm 139:8-9)
Secondly, none of what I have said so far address Hell’s eternity. I have only defended the idea of Hell as self-imposed, but why does it need to exist for sinners for all eternity? Surely that is a form of evil? No, if Hell is a place that sinners dwell in until they let themselves out, it must be in existence for all eternity in order to save everyone. If Hell was to cease to exist without being empty, then God would not be all loving. Only by allowing every single sinner the entirety of eternity to open the gates of Hell and realise themselves can we call God loving. We can only understand Hell as eternal, because it will eternally be needed by flawed humans to save themselves from and take themselves away from Hell out of their own free-will. Thus, the eternity of Hell is in fact how it saves God’s goodness from being flawed, being able to save yourself and open the gates of Hell for all eternity is a form of mercy and forgiveness. Bishop Ware expresses this through the great Father Saint Irenaeus: ‘God will always have something more to teach man and man will always have something more to learn from God.’ (3), thus we will always need eternity to exit Hell and enter Heaven.
Because of this we can only view Hell as not existing when the last Sinner opens the gates, which will be Satan himself, who is in himself Hell itself: thus Hell doesn’t cease to exist when Satan leaves, but Hell itself leaves Hell and enters Heaven, where Hell will eternally dwell as Heaven. Or as scripture says: ‘That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:10-11), note the use of the words ‘those under the earth’ – the grave. All Sinners in Hell shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus and be saved, including Satan himself, thus converting Hell to Heaven. We all remain in our own Hell until we confirm the truth of our own self-imposed Hell. When all Hell, and the entire universe proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ everything will be in communion with each other and in Peace, and who needs this communion of Christ and Peace more than those people so in a state of rapture of their own suffering and self-imposed grave that they cannot see they are not trapped, but self-trapped?
Thus, the eternity of Hell and God’s loving presence within it is essential for the Christian God to remain the God of love. Let us imagine the day that the last sinner leaves the gates of Hell, and Hell ceases to be within itself but within Heaven itself. A fitting end to suffering, for it is said: ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:4).
(1) Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Epilogue: God as Eternity. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Revised Edition, 1995.) Page 135.
(2) Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Epilogue: God as Eternity. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Revised Edition, 1995.) Page 135.
(3) Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Epilogue: God as Eternity. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Revised Edition, 1995.) Page 138.
The Orthodox Study Bible, New Testament and Psalms. (St. Athanasius Orthodoxy Academy, Conciliar Press, 1993.)
Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Epilogue: God as Eternity. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Revised Edition, 1995.)