Ten Propositions on Hell

by Kim on January 31, 2006

1. What is hell? Hell cannot be known in and of itself. As a negative to a positive, hell can only be known as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven is life with God, hell is existence without God.

2. Or, again - because God is love - hell is lovelessness. At its centre, hell is not hot, hell (as Dante saw) is cold - ice-cold. Or if, with most of Christian tradition, hell be aflame, “Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” (Milton, Paradise Lost, I/62-63).

3. The opposite of love is not so much hatred as fear. The wilted tree of hatred has terror for its roots. Hell is is the war of terror.

4. And hell is despair, utter despair. Dante again: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

5. And hell is power, absolute power - potestas absoluta. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you . . .’” (Matthew 4:8f.).

6. Heaven is communion, hell is isolation. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I. Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (IV/75).

7. But more: “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Of one thing we can be sure about anyone who knows the population of hell: he himself will be in the census.

8. Hell is not about what God does, hell is about what we do, about the horrendous evils that humans commit. We trivialise these evils and betray the world’s victims if we deny the reality of hell.

9. Yet hell is not a datum of faith in the creeds. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (The Apostles’ Creed). “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (The Nicene Creed). We do not believe in hell.

10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty. “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” - who experienced hell, and harrowed hell. Thus the church will not preach hell - “the gospel at gunpoint” - “it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in the face of it” (Karl Barth). “For the Lord will not reject for ever” (Lamentations 3:31).

Kim Fabricius

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Mark Byron 01.31.06 at 4:10 am

“hell is power, absolute power.” Not quite; absolute power would equate to omnipotence. Satan’s powerful, but only God gets the omnipotent tag.

“Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty.” Here’s to it being a one-horse town, as Alan of the Thinklings put it. However, that does lean one well into the universalist camp if taken to its logical extreme.

2

Richard 01.31.06 at 7:20 am

Good stuff, Kim. But #2 reads strangely to me. Either I’m seriously misunderstanding you, or there’s been a misprunt.

3

Eugene McKinnon 01.31.06 at 7:39 am

Reminds me of an old African story of a man who visited Heaven and Hell. Both places had a table set with fine food and the people who sat at it were disabled in their arms. In Hell they fought with each other or tried to get as much for themselves only to continue starving. In Heaven the same table, same food, and the same people disabled. Instead they shared with each other and they all were fed.

Eugene

4

Beth 01.31.06 at 8:26 am

This really woke me up this a.m. - thanks Kim! I share Mark’s query about absolute power. What exactly do you mean?

5

Richard 01.31.06 at 9:09 am

>> What exactly do you mean?

O-oh.

This could take a while! ;)

6

Kim 01.31.06 at 10:16 am

First, the “misprunt” - thanks, Richard, for pointing it out - and for just teaching me how to correct it!

And Mark and Beth, yes, I tought 5. might raise a query or two - or three anticipating dh! I’ll try try explain. Put on your thinking-caps - and, yes, Richard, “This could take a while”! - but it’s a while worth taking, for I would suggest that understanding this point is a hinge on which the gospel turns.

The concept of potentia absoluta goes back to late medieval nominalism where God is the great hidden independent absolute, subject to no law, able to do anything he wants to do however arbitrary. And this, of course, is the classic philosophical understanding of “omnipotence”, bare, brute, limitless force.

But the God of Jesus Christ - if we actually look at the nature of his power rather than come armed with an idea of power which we make him fit - God’s power is actually a quite specific, definite, determined power, the power, in fact, to refuse absolute power; the kenotic power we see revealed in the Crucified; the very particular and peculiar power of self-chosen self-giving love which is the very opposite of the nominalists’ undetermined raw omnipotence

One way of putting this is to say that it is God’s nature that determines God’s will, not the other way round. Or as D. Z. Phillips phrases it: “God’s nature is the grammar of God’s will. What ought to be said is not that God can do whatever is not logically contradictory for God to do, but that God can do whatever is not logically contradictory for God to do.” Miroslav Volf observes that God loves by nature as a duck quacks by nature - it is not an acquired characteristic!

Another way of looking at this is to say that to compare the power of God with any other kind of power - including, indeed especially the devil’s power - is to make what philosophers call a “category mistake”. What could conceivably be the basis of such a comparison? How do you compare the eternal with an existent (hence Kierkegaard’s mind-blowingly provocative statement that “God does not exist, he is eternal”). The comparison could only be made were God reduced to the status of a creature - and then, a priori, we are no longer talking about God at all! It is part and parcel of the tendency to think of God as an individual just like us - only bigger and stronger - which is not to think of God at all but of a human projection and there for of an idol - or a demon.

So Rowan Williams: “If God is not an individual [like us], God does not compete with us for space; if God is not an individual, God’s will cannot be adequately understood in the terms of self-assertion or contest for control in which so much of our usual discourse of will is cast.” And, again: “The God of the Gospel is one who loves; so Christian theology must learn to speak in such a way as to show that love in God goes all the way down, and is not trumped by power.”

I hope this is helpful in discerning what Karl Barth meant when he said, point blank, that “Power in itself is evil” - and therefore why hell is absolute power.

7

Beth 01.31.06 at 11:47 am

The brain gym, again! Thans for the clarification, and for a new way of thinking.

N.B. is the Phillips quotation another misprunt? If not, explain please!

8

Kim 01.31.06 at 12:31 pm

Pooh - haste makes waste! Yes, of course the Phillips is a misprunt! It should read:

“God’s nature is the grammar of God’s will. What ought to be said is not that God can do whatever is not logically contradictory, but that God can do whatever is not logically contradictory for God to do.”

How good it is to have readers who pay such close attention to what you say - and then point out your errors!
Thanks, Beth.

9

blonde 01.31.06 at 1:06 pm

That’s an oft-misquoted line from Dante. The actual translation is “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” (rather than the more popular and scary “abandon hope, all you…”)

(Sorry to be such a pedant - I did Inferno for my final year literature, it’s the only module I had a first in that year!)

Aside - I used your earlier ten propositions (on prayer) in housegroup a couple of weeks ago; it was a lot more provocative than I’d expected, but very interesting . hope that was okay!

Thank you for (as usual) thought-provoking stuff.
alice x

10

Beth 01.31.06 at 2:02 pm

Blonde (or do you prefer Alice??) - isn’t the original “voi” specifically a plural “you”? If so, a translation as “all you” (cognate with American “y’all” :) ) perhaps gives more of the flavour of the original - although, of course, it entails leaving out the earlier “all” before “hope”.

11

Kim 01.31.06 at 4:10 pm

Grazie, bella blonde!
But I would have thought that your translation makes the entrance to the Inferno even scarier - “Abandon all hope! - and confirms my point about utter despair.

I’m glad you made use of my “payer propositions” - which were meant to be provocative!

12

dh 01.31.06 at 4:28 pm

Couldn’t hell be a place as well as the opposite of heaven where people send themselves by rejecting Christ? This isn’t Gospel at gunpoint but an understanding that without Christ we are nothing and when the Bible gives specific descriptions, I feel that that is part of the paradigm as well. So I agree Kim that hell is the opposite of heaven being without God. Hell is mentioned in the Bible as a place for Satan and his angels. Also, the Bible talks about how the rejection of Christ places one in there as well. Also, how can we pray that heaven will be empty when the Bible says “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.” or “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgement.” So I agree but only in part. I also don’t believe in Gospel at gunpoint but understand that without Christ we all deserve hell and it is by Grace of Christ’s death and resurrection that we are free from that place.

13

dh 01.31.06 at 4:29 pm

Kim, when God says He will do something He will do and He is consistent in that. God does not lie.

14

dh 01.31.06 at 4:31 pm

true omnipotence and omnisicence must include absolute Holiness without sin. So to say the devil has absolute power based on the previous sentence is inconsistent with God’s nature of Holiness and perfection.

15

Beth 01.31.06 at 4:38 pm

Payer propositions?” Is this some kinda brothel or what? There you go again with your haste!

“Omniscience” means to know everything - why must one be sinless to do so?

God may not lie, but sometimes he relents. And thank God for that.

16

dh 01.31.06 at 5:59 pm

Omniscience is perfect sin is imperfect so if you have sin you are not perfect and therefore have no omniscience. The Bible makes it clear that only god has ALL knowledge (all knowledge meaning perfect knowledge and ALL knowledge is the definition of omniscience). He doesn’t relent because when He says He will do something there is an understood unspoken thing that God will stop when people turn away from sin by having a repentent heart and have a relationship to Christ. (This is said in accordination with “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgement”).

17

dh 01.31.06 at 6:17 pm

Prov 9:10, Job 37:16, 1 Cor 1:30, Col 2:2-4 and more. I thought these were good Beth and I hope you enjoyed them. I sure was encouraged and it shows how God’s wisdom and understanding are perfect and in one of the passages how that Holiness has to be included in that.

18

Bene Diction 01.31.06 at 7:47 pm

Someone with a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek can help me out here.

Proverbs 9:10 - translation; insight and understanding
Job 37:16 translation; complete in knowledge
I Cor. 1:30 translation; revealed to us a knowledge of the divine plan…manifesting as
Col 2: 2-4 translation: divine wisdom of comprehensive insight into the ways and pusposes of God and all the riches of spiritual knowledge and enlightenment.

perfect is used in greek present imperative - being made complete

19

dh 01.31.06 at 8:29 pm

For me those Scriptures confirm what I’m saying. For me Scripture confirms His perfection and completeness. dh

20

Beth 01.31.06 at 8:33 pm

Exodus 32:14 - a pretty famous bit of relenting, if memory serves, rbought on not by a change of heart but by Moses’ argument that the Eyptians will mock his people if God punishes them.

Thanks for the references. I see your point, but your argument is based on the idea that the only omniscience is God’s omniscience, whereas I was talking about omniscience as a general concept. God’s omniscience is, of course, perfect. But it is not his omniscience which makes him sinless. His sinlessness and his omniscience are undeniable, but neither is a function of the other. So, one could technically be omniscient without being sinless.

As for omnipotence, I’m sure what I’m about to say is a bit of an old chestnut (the thing which brought about the Fall, according to Mark Twain), but surely if God is omnipotent he must be capable of sin, and just refraining from it? Kim, I’m sure you’ll have a thing or two to say about that one - please feel free to dispel the clouds of ignorance!

21

dh 01.31.06 at 8:49 pm

“So, one could technically be omniscient without being sinless.” I don’t agree nowhere in Scripture does it say that others are omniscience. I don’t believe that omnipotence requires the capablility to sin for me true omnipotence includes the inability to not sin.

I also, believe that omnipotence and omniscience only go hand in hand with perfection and that can only happen within Holiness.

“But it is not his omniscience which makes him sinless.”
Neither one makes the other but both have to be there for both to be there at the same time.

Also, since God knew before hand with regard to Moses it wasn’t relenting but the original statement is what He would do with no heart change. Moses showed his heart and God did what He knew beforehand He actually did. Jonah is a perfect example of this in that the statement I will destroy Ninevah had an understood thing not said (if Ninevah doesn’t repent and turn from evil). Jonah didn’t understand this and hense the problems he had later that God dealt with him regarding the shade from the tree. Does this make sense?

I base it not on an idea that God omniscience is the only omniscience but that it is a fact for no where in scripture does it say anyone other than God has omniscience or omnipotence. It does say that satan i the prince and power of the air but that is not in relation to omnipotence or omniscience.

22

blonde 01.31.06 at 8:55 pm

Beth

(either is fine, but there are multiple alices here so it’s for differentiation rather than preference!!)

Yes, Voi is 2nd person plural, hence “voi che entrate” rendered all you who enter, but in Italian the pronouns are assumed - the verb form implies the person so they’re frequently unnecessary grammatically. When they are included it is often for emphasis or effect, so you’re absolutely right. Having said that, though, the whole line is:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate

where the ogni (all) is (grammatically) unambiguously in agreement with the speranza (hope), rather than the voi (you) which is implied by the -ate ending. (Also ogni is singular, there are other words for plural all eg tutti.)

(Sorry, the pedant in me going off on one really missing the point and hijacking the comments, and the linguist in me enjoying being able to join in (the theologian is neonate, and not up to joining in with you two usually!))

blonde alice (!)

23

blonde 01.31.06 at 8:57 pm

Sorry, me again. I meant to say, for reference, and so you don’t have to take my word for it(!): La Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto III, 1-3

24

Kim 01.31.06 at 9:19 pm

Beth,

You are still using the word “omnipotent” in its conventional sense - the wrong sense - a sense which still assumes that God is like us only infinitely stronger, that (as Rowan Williams puts it) “God has a psychology like ours, only bigger.” To wit, God, like us, can choose to sin or not to sin. But God is the Wholly Other One, the Altogether Different One. To crudely translate an old Latin pharse about God, he “is in a class of his own” - his own!

So, no, God cannot sin, cannot, for example, hate, murder or destroy. To put it as strongly as possible, God cannot create an Auschwitz. Not because God is not all-powerful, but precisely because he is all-powerful - but in his own unique way, the way of unconditional love.

Again - the key - God’s nature determines (is the grammar of) God’s will, not the reverse, and God’s nature is love all the way down. Or, if you like, God is not a prisoner of his power and he is free with respect to his freedom - free to define his power and determine his freedom in his own way, which, in fact turns out to be the way of the crucified and risen Christ, God’s unconditional Yes to humanity.

Any help?

William Sloane Coffin said: “Think thoughts that are as clear as possible, but no clearer; say things as simply as possible, but no simpler.”

25

dh 01.31.06 at 9:26 pm

Kim, everything you said here was right on.However, while Christ is all powerful and all loving, His power is beyond His all loving nature. Also, God does judge and in many cases in the Bible that judging includes destruction (I’m reminded of Sodom and Gommorah, etc.).

“…God’s unconditional Yes to humanity.” I would add and how humanity enters into the freedom is by Faith in His death and resurrection, repentence and confession as a sinner and believing that Jesus is God and asking for a relationship with Christ by giving our heart, soul and mind to Him. That is the only way for salvation “For there is no other way that one must be saved.”

26

dh 01.31.06 at 9:27 pm

Kim, like I said in a post awhile back, sometimes God’s love is tough love and soft love (Lion of Judah and Lamb of God). :)

27

Beth 01.31.06 at 11:18 pm

**OFF TOPIC!!**

Hey, blonde - my inner theologian is still in nappies (diapers, to our cousins), and needs the odd lecture for its own good, which Kim seems perfectly happy to dispense!

Yes, I supps ethe two of us are making the same point - when I said that the extra “all” would entail the removal of the one before “hope”, I should have added that that would go against the sense of the original. So maybe we should go with a nice American colloquialism after all - “Abandon all hope, y’all who enter here”? A:)

28

Beth 01.31.06 at 11:20 pm

Richard - the smiley went bad again!

Kim - Go, man! Now, do you know the meaning of life itself by any chance? (And don’t give me some claptrap about God and Jesus and all that…) ;)

29

Richard 01.31.06 at 11:22 pm

A theology lesson and a guide to the translation of Milton! Not something I’d usually say but, well… that’s cool!

30

Beth 01.31.06 at 11:25 pm

Erm… Dante, love, not Milton. Good try, though…

(N.B. today’s theme is “how patronising can I be before someone threatens some quite unpleasant form of torture?”)

31

Ben Myers 02.01.06 at 1:05 am

Yes, if it were Milton, it would have been:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and woe to y’all.

32

Richard 02.01.06 at 7:21 am

Doesn’t everyone know that it was Milton who really wrote Dante’s Inferno? ;)

33

Kim 02.01.06 at 8:47 am

11. Heaven is Wales thrashing England at Twickenham on Saturday - though they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of doing so! If, however, they were to beat the odds, I shall be forced to revise my understanding of the divine omnipotence.

34

blonde 02.01.06 at 10:02 am

Wales has confidence and optimism in spades, but not always matched with the necessary talent on the day… we can live in hope though. ‘Course, it’ll be hell round here if Wales are thrashed…

35

Rick O'Donnell 09.27.06 at 2:01 am

Quite an apt ‘description’ of hell, in part. A painful, loveless existence without God, one composed mainly of fear, despair, and isolation.

It sounds remarkably like clinical depression.

Anyone who has been depressed to this degree will I suspect agree.

36

Greg the explorer 10.03.06 at 3:42 am

Excellent propositions on hell Kim. I especially liked the reference to the preaching of hell as the gospel by shotgun.

37

Princess Lia 10.03.06 at 8:59 pm

Umm…not trying to jump in uninvited and all, and having only just read through this…but I have a question. Probably a stupid one but a question,
nonetheless. Jesus, being the Son of God, possessed the ability to sin
while he was in human form on earth, didn’t he? So God doesn’t have the ability to sin, but Jesus, his son does? Or am I reading this all wrong? Please explain, I’m slightly confused…

38

Greg the explorer 10.04.06 at 12:46 am

Princess Lia your question points to one of the really difficult concepts of Chrisitanity as well as pointing to the fact that most people actually view Jesus and God as two distinct individuals rahter than as part of a unified trinity.

You are correct I think..at least what I mean is that I believe that if Jesus had the potential to sin as a human being, then at the very same time God had the potential to sin and chose not to.

39

pugmill 12.12.06 at 12:57 am

Just what do you mean by “had the potential to sin?”

40

DH 12.12.06 at 6:10 pm

Jesus and God didn’t have the potential to sin in that God’s Holiness is part of His Omnipotence. I’m saying that for God to be Omnipotent (which He is)He must be Holy or He is not Omnipotent and thus not God which is truly false. Jesus was tempted to sin but didn’t have the potential to sin. Jesus being God on earth didn’t have the potential to sin because Jesus was God. However, one must understand that the concept of temptation between God and us. I think we as humans wrongly associate temptation as potential to sin. Temptation doesn’t imply potential but implies emotion behind a choice to make. There is a difference.

41

DH 12.12.06 at 6:12 pm

Also Jesus and God are not two disctinct individuals but God is one person with three natures. Natures is different than individuals. Look atthe three forms of water they are all water but three distinct forms ( not a perfect analogy but 95% close) so it is with God and the Trinity.

42

David Guretzki 01.04.07 at 2:49 pm

Kim, can you please provide a reference from where Barth calls the preaching of hell “the gospel at gunpoint” and that rather the church “will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in the face of it” (Karl Barth).
Thanks.
DG

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