“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
What did church fathers like Origen, Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Anthony and Didymus hold in common that would see them snubbed by many modern Christian institutions?? The doctrine of apokatastasis … No, that’s not a cat with a serious disease … rather, it is a theory that holds the hope of complete restoration and reintegration of our world. This was a popular doctrine of the early church. Patristics scholar, Ilaria Ramelli, writes:
The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.
— Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11.
Historian J.W. Hanson reminds us why this specific doctrine of universalism held by someone like Origen cannot be easily dismissed:
The greatest of all Christian apologists and exegetes, and the first man in Christendom since Paul was a distinct Universalist. He [Origen] could not have misunderstood or misrepresented the teachings of his Master. The language of the New Testament was his mother tongue. He derived the teachings of Christ from Christ himself in a direct line through his teacher Clement, and he placed the defense of Christianity on Universalistic grounds.
— Hanson, Universalism, 133.
But hell is not that easily scorned. A furious Augustine wrote,
It is quite in vain, then, that some – indeed very many – yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. Not that they would go counter to divine Scripture — but, yielding to their own human feelings, they soften what seems harsh and give a milder emphasis to statements they believe are meant more to terrify than to express literal truth.
— Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.
Obviously, Augustine (and many that would follow) had taken a real issue with anyone rejecting the idea of an eternal hell. They built their arguments on theories of predestination or free will. Augustine’s disdain carries over to the modern world. Universalism, to some, is, and always will be, heretical. However, many others have taken another closer look and cannot disregard what they are finding: that the hope and belief in a fully reconciled world was part of the faith of many early Christians.
It was the gift of a conversation with my twelve-year-old years ago that made me step into finally admitting and embracing the fact that I no longer believed the hell ideology that had been sold to me as an adolescent and continues to be perpetuated in numerous faith traditions today. My son doubted very much that a God that identifies as love and recommends a path of peace and forgiveness would condemn humanity to eternal flames for not believing or behaving ‘right’. A God that would torture creatures for eternity and at the same time identify as Love was non-sensical to him. I agreed. Letting go of the idea of Dante’s hell did not stop hell from haunting me for a few more years. Embedded fear ideologies hold power and fury.
Nowadays, I seldom think of hell, except when I am walking alongside people who are actively deconstructing religious ideas that they feel have harmed them. In this process, I have observed the cruel terror inflicted upon innocent, vulnerable people who have clung to the idea that God may fling them into the flames if they do not measure up to certain standards set by their specific religious tribe. It has not promoted some sort of ‘righteous’ living or love of God, just fear, anguish, or comparison. Ultimately, I think Dante’s hell was a genius invention by the religious and politically powerful for effective social control. It is amazing what horrendous acts people will commit and callous things they will say in the name of God when eternal hellfire is set as punishment for ‘disobedience’.
For me, love is enough. Life is not about judgement or some giant cosmic test set by the Divine for unsuspecting humanity. Rather, it is learning to let go of fear and to embrace life to its full, and sometimes complex, potential. Life is following that narrow, difficult path of love amplified through the life and words of Christ. It is about loving my neighbour. I believe God is love and that Love Wins … every time!
Letting go of a hell of an idea has been a journey for me … one day I may write about it in greater detail. For now, for those interested, here is some further interesting reading:
The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald
Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield
Christian Universalism by Eric Stetson
Inventing Hell by Jon Sweeney
I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said, and never thought no more about reforming.
– Huckleberry Finn –