Hell (Theology of)

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This article (1) outlines the theological concept of hell and then traces its development in the fields (2) of dogma and (3) of theology.

Theological Concept. To construct an adequate theological concept of hell is not easy. Christ did not speak of hell to convey information about an object beyond present experience but in the context of the decision to which the human person is called by the proclamation of the gospel. A theological idea of hell is derived from and controlled by other concepts. The ideas of hell that have appeared in the course of Christian theology have varied according to the different concepts from which they have been derived. To elaborate a theological idea of hell that will interpret all the elements, with their priorities, of Christian belief in hell, the concept of the kingdom of god is now being used.

The kingdom of God was the dominating concept Jesus used in the proclamation of His gospel (Schnackenburg, 94). This was not a concept created by Jesus but one current, in the form of the kingdom of heaven, in the thought-world of His Jewish contemporaries. But the content Jesus gave to this concept was original (H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 1:17284). He used the concept of the kingdom of God as an eschatological metaphor which expressed God's merciful love for the human race and the divine saving will for creation. For Jesus the metaphor of the kingdom of God gathered the whole of the history of salvation into a unity, as it was the focal point of the self-manifestation of God. When the theological idea of hell is derived from and controlled by the concept of the kingdom of God, its eschatological character and relation to the mercy and saving will of God receive due priority.

The advantage of deriving the theological idea of hell from the kingdom concept is that its nature as an objective reality is respected. For Christian theology, the kingdom metaphor expresses the conviction that God's saving will is realized in the exalted Jesus and the humiliated Satan. The theological idea of hell is designed to express the second part of this statement, and the construction of the idea should reflect this.

The reality that the theological idea of hell expresses has another form. It expresses a present reality as well as something that is still to come. This too is reflected in the way Jesus used the kingdom metaphor. There is the Lord-ship of Jesus that will continue until all things are subject to Him (1 Cor 15.27); there is what that Lordship prepares for: that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15.28). To be adequate the theological idea of hell needs to be elaborated in terms of the Lord Jesus (Jn 17.2) and of God all in all.

Given the fact of Christian belief in hell, one of the functions of the theological reflection is to make intelligible the possibility of hell in as far as that is possible. Here too the advantage of deriving the idea of hell from the kingdom metaphor is apparent. Intimately associated with the kingdom is the issue of belief (Mk 1.15). The possibility of hell is made intelligible by the concept of unbelief. The theological idea of hell does not purport to explain unbelief, a problem that involves human freedom and God's will [E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, ed. F. N. Davey (London 1947) 295], but it should clearly indicate the eschatological character of the object, the Lord Jesus, and of the testimony, that of the Spirit, involved in unbelief. The theological idea of hell supposes the mystery of the Father sending the Son and the Holy Spirit, with the reality of the saving work within the human race (Eph 2.14) and on the cosmic level (Col 1.20)

that this implies. In this way it puts the question of the understanding of the possibility of hell in its true perspective. Hell is not justified in terms of sin alone; behind sin is unbelief (Jn 16.9). And yet the concept of sin has its proper function within the theological idea of hell. It is one pole of God's recognition of human historicity, as repentance is the other. This is the meaning the theological idea of hell is designed to convey.

A technical concept is produced by relating certain ideas according to some model. In this way the theological idea of hell uses satan, who "sins from the beginning. To this end the Son of God appeared that he might destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn 3.8). Constructed on this model, the idea of hell indicates what can issue from unbelief: persons like Satan (1 Jn 3.10), since their personal attitude to the God who is disclosed in the Lord Jesus and in the testimony of the Holy Spirit is similar to that of Satan. And by using this model the ultimate meaning of the idea of hell is indicated, the meaning that is metaphorically expressed in the words: "And the light shines in the darkness" (Jn 1.5).

The classical theology of the West approached the problem of hell mainly from the angle of retribution for sin. The idea of hell is built up from the analysis of the concept of sin and developed by using analogously the concepts of sanction, perfection, and retribution drawn from morals, metaphysics, and religion. Theology today approaches the problem of hell from the angle of separation from God.

Dogmatic Development. Belief in the possibility of hell has always been present in the Church. For the form in which the primitive Church stated its belief in hell, [see hell (in the bible)]. Since New Testament times the doctrinal statement of belief in the mystery of hell is found in the professions of faith. The early Fides Damasi states this belief in the context of the retribution that will take place when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead: "aut poenam pro peccatis aeterni supplicii" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 72); so too the Quicumque: "qui vero mala [egerunt] in ignem aeternum" (ibid. 76). The important profession of faith used in the dialogue between East and West, at the Second Council of Lyons, 1274, and again in 1385, states belief in the mystery of hell in the context of the retribution that takes place immediately after death: "Illorum autem animas, qui in mortali peccato vel cum solo originali decedunt, mox in infernum descendere, poenis tamen disparibus puniendas" (ibid. 856). Although there is no creedal statement of belief in hell, the creedal statement that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead entails the doctrinal statement of belief in the possibility of hell.

Two points of this statement of belief in hell have been formally defined. In 543, in a definition reflecting the faith of the Church of the East and West, the punishment of the demons and the damned was declared unending. The ninth of the so-called canons against Origen reads: "Si quis dicit aut sentit, ad tempus esse daemonum et impiorum hominum supplicium, ejusque finem aliquando futurum an. s." (ibid. 411). And in 1336, the constitution benedictus deus, by defining the doctrine that retribution takes place immediately after death, defined that the punishment of the damned begins immediately after death. "Diffinimus insuper, quod secundum Dei ordinationem communem animae decedentium in actuali peccato mortali mox post mortem suam ad inferna descendunt, ubi poenis infernalibus cruciantur" (ibid. 1002).

These two definitions emerged in the course of the long debate within the Church concerning the content of belief in the return of Christ, the parousia, for the content of this belief is complex; with the return of Christ are associated other events, such as the end of the world, the resurrection of the dead, and the divine judgment. Eschatology, the understanding of belief concerning the last things, is difficult (see eschatology, articles on).

To determine the nature of these events and the way they are related to one another and to the return of Christ is not easy. The interpretation of the eschatological statements found in the New Testament and the evaluation of the imagery they employ is beset with difficulties. In the second century Justin held that the punishment of the demons and the damned is delayed until after the final judgment (1 Apol. 28; Dial. 5.3). The great apologist (Dial. 80) deduced this opinion from his interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, an interpretation influenced by Jewish eschatology in the form of chiliasm. Known as the dilatio inferni theory, Justin's opinion was widespread in the West until the sixth century, when the teaching of Gregory the Great (Dial. 4.27) cause it to be discarded.

Those who understood the return of Christ according to the theory of chiliasm read the eschatological statements of the Scriptures in a purely literal sense. Against these literalist believers Origen reacted strongly (De prin. 2.11.2). And in doing this he translates the sufferings of the damned into spiritualized terms (De prin. 2.10.4). The real punishment of the damned consists in their sense of separation from God. According to his theory of apocatastasis, Origen (De prin. 1.6.2) understands these punishments as remedial and as ending when the final restoration is reached (In Ezech. hom. 1.2).

The influence of Origen's opinions on the understanding of belief in hell was considerable. He was largely responsible for the disappearance of chiliasm and so restored the problem of the return of Christ to its eschatological setting. By raising the question of the purpose of the punishment of the damned, he opened the way for the interpretation of scriptural statements about remedial punishment, the fire of judgment, and purgatory. In this way the question of retribution at death appears in connection with the individual, and so belief in hell was stated in this context.

Origen attempted to provide an intelligent understanding of traditional belief in hell. The result at which he arrived was eventually declared by the Church incompatible with that belief. What he attempted remains a problem. His positive contribution to the solution of that problem was, besides showing the folly of relying on the purely literalist reading of scriptural statements about the sufferings of the damned, to place the understanding of belief in hell within Christian belief in the saving work of Christ and in God's merciful love for humankind.

After Origen some attempted to mitigate the unending punishment of the damned by maintaining that these punishments would end for Christians (Jerome, Ep. 119.7; Ambrose, In Ps. 36.26), or for certain categories of Christians, such as those who always retained belief in Christ, or those who had received the Eucharist. These views, under the influence of the teaching of Augustine (Enchir. 11213), eventually gave way before the traditional belief in the unending punishment of the damned. Others, for whom this belief was incompatible with their belief in the mercy of god, resolved the problem of the punishment of the demons and the damned by means of the theory of conditionalism, according to which the demons and the damned will be annihilated; or by the theory of universalissm, which postulates the fina restoration of all things, including the demons and the damned. These views are excluded by the dogmatic statement that the punishment of the demons and the damned is unending. But the fact that such views continue to be held by some Christians is a reminder of the problem involved in the understanding of traditional belief in the mystery of hell. The Church has stated that belief in the form of the unending punishment of the demons and the damned, but this form is not to be equated with the total expression of the Church's belief in the mystery of hell; nor can belief in hell in that form alone provide an adequate basis for the elaboration of the theological idea of hell.

Theological Development. The various ideas of hell that have been elaborated in the course of theology have been influenced by the different categories used to integrate the theology of hell within a systematic theology. In terms of his category of apocatastasis, Origen's theological speculations produced the idea of hell as the ultimate stage in the process by which all things return to their primeval order. When Origen's speculations had been hardened by his followers into a doctrine of universalism, this idea of hell was excluded by the Church: "Si quis dicit restitutionem et redintegrationem fore daemonum aut impiorum hominum, an. s." (Enchiridion symbolorum 411). The clearer identification of the different eschatological events and states, both at the collective and at the individual level, that resulted from the Church's long reflection on belief in the return of Christ meant that scientific theology, when it emerged in the West during the 12th century, was better placed to work out a theological idea of hell. Peter Lombard integrates the theology of hell into his systematic theology, Libri 4 sententiarum, by means of the category of resurrection (3 Sent. prol.). This category he linked, by way of the category of Sacrament, to the category of Christ the Samaritan restoring man from the effects of sin: infirmity and death. The theological speculation of Peter Lombard about hell is mainly confined to discussing questions arising from scriptural statements and patristic opinions, especially those of Augustine, about hell (4 Sent. 4350).

The categories used by Peter Lombard were more fully exploited by Thomas Aquinas (In 2 sent. prol; Summa theologiae 3a, prol.). But he died before completing his own systematic theology (Summa theologiae ); what is included under the rubric Resurrection (Summa theologiae 3a, suppl., 6999) is taken from his earlier work (In 4 sent. 4350). In his theology of hell, Aquinas traces the horizons within which an intelligent understanding of belief in hell is possible: the place of the will in fault and punishment (In 4 sent. prol.), the mutability and fixity of the created will (angels': Summa theologiae 1a, 6364; men's: Comp. theol. 174). By working out these horizons in reference to the concrete situation, revealed in faith, of the creature's freedom and of God's grace, he indicates the mystery of hell. He was aware, too, of the relation of the theology of hell to pneumatology (Comp. theol. 147). These possibilities for the development of the theology of hell were little exploited by later theologians. During the 14th and 15th centuries theological interest was chiefly confined to Books 1 and 2 of Peter Lombard's Libri sententiarum. And when in the following century the Summa theologiae of Aquinas became the text used in the theological faculties, the incomplete state of that work caused eschatology and the theology of hell to be isolated from their traditional place within theology. L. Lessius, De perfectionibus moribusque divinis 13.24, inserts the theology of hell under the rubric Judgment and Wrath of God. C. Mazzella, De Deo creante (Disp. 6) places it with the theology of man. Until recent times, a similar treatment of the theology of hell was common in the manuals of theology (e.g., A. Tanquerey's). Retribution for sin is the dominant feature of the idea of hell developed by these theologies.

The category of revelation is increasingly used to integrate the theology of hell, and eschatology, within systematic theology (e.g., in Schmaus's work). This category of revelation introduces into the theology of hell the concepts of the kingdom of God and of unbelief. Both concepts express personal realities and entail a concept of freedom: the freedom in which a person rejects the self-giving that another freely makes. In this context separation from God is the theological idea of hell. And by reference to the divine self-giving manifested now in the Lord Jesus and to be manifested when God is all in all, this idea of hell as separation from God is worked out. The consequence of this separation from God is expressed in the idea of hell as retribution for sin; the theological concepts of damnation and hellfire are used to interpret this consequence. While respecting the mystery of God's dealings with the fact of unbelief, this theology of hell endeavors to make a statement of belief in the mystery of hell that is wider in form than the present doctrinal statement of that belief. But it is aware that the truths its idea of hell interpret cannot be held together in logical equilibrium (Jn 17.12).

See Also: eschatology (in the bible); eschatology (theological treatment); gehenna; judgment, divine (in the bible); judgment, divine (in theology); sanction, divine.

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[e. g. hardwick]