The topic of hell, of eternal damnation, and, as a response to it – of universal salvation -returns constantly in religious reflections, multiplying difficulties and tormenting the conscience of people influenced by Christian eschatology. There arises a tension between principles difficult to reconcile and solve logically – God’s justice and love, human freedom, and theodicy. The questions we ask while reflecting on this matter cannot lead to the creation of a system, a complete theory, for it always turns out to be evil, unjust, turns out not to live up to the Mystery it attempts to explain. The Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), brilliantly discusses these doubts and problems in his reflection on hell, and finally proposes not a ready-made rational theory, but an ethical call. It is the best, the most profound attempt to face this issue I have ever encountered. The text comes from the book The Destiny of Man, which, like other writings of his, of which many are available in English, I sincerely recommend.
Philosophical ethics has left untouched the problem of hell, which existed for religious ethics only. And yet hell is not only the final but the fundamental problem of ethics and no thoroughgoing system of ethics can dispense with it. It is remarkable how little people think about hell or trouble about it. This is the most striking evidence of human frivolity. Man is capable of living entirely on the surface, and then the image of hell does not haunt him. Having lost the sense of immortal and eternal life man has freed himself from the painful problem of hell and thrown off the burden of responsibility. We come here upon a moral antinomy which, apparently, cannot be solved rationally. The soul conducts an inner dialogue with itself about hell, and neither side has the final say. This is what makes the problem so painful. Modern rejection of hell makes life too easy, superficial and irresponsible. But a belief in hell makes moral and spiritual life meaningless, for then the whole of it is lived under torture. The idea of hell is torture, and torture may force man to do anything. But things done under torture have no value or significance and are not a moral and spiritual achievement. Sufficient attention has not been paid to this aspect of the belief in hell. All that a man does out of fear of hell and not out of love of God and of perfect life has no religious significance whatever, although in the past the motive of fear was utilized to the utmost for religious purposes. If hell exists and is a menace to me, disinterested love of God is for me impossible, and my actions are inspired not by striving for perfection but by the desire to avoid eternal torments. Belief in hell turns men into hedonists and utilitarians and destroys disinterested love of truth. The mystics who expressed consent to suffer the torments of hell out of love for God were actuated by a deeply moral feeling. St. Paul consented to be parted from Christ out of love for his brethren. We find the same motive in the mysticism of the
Quietists and of Fenelon, condemned by the Roman Catholic hedonism and utilitarianism. Particularly striking was the case of Marie des Vallees, who consented to suffer in hell for the sake of saving those possessed by Satan and doomed to perdition. Mystics always rose above utilitarian and hedonistic considerations connected with thr vulgarized idn ol hell Fear of perdition and a longing for salvation and eternal bliss are by no means mystical motives. The ideas of everlasting bliss and everlasting torments, salvation and perdition are exoteric ideas, a revelation of the divine life refracted in the herd-mind. A religion adapted to the lierd- mind always contains a utilitarian element. Only mysticism which rises to the heights of disinterestedness is free from it. Salvation from eternal perdition is not the last word of truth, it is merely a utilitarian and vulgarized version of the truth about seeking the Kingdom of God, the love of God, perfect life and deification. It does not in any way solve the problem of hell or blunt its poignancy.
Thus speaks one of the voices in the soul’s dialogue with itself. But the other voice begins to speak, making our attitude to hell hopelessly contradictory. We cannot admit the reality of hell, our moral consciousness rebels against it, and we cannot simply deny it, for that would mean sacrificing unquestionable values. It is easy enough to deny hell if one denies freedom and personality. There is no hell if personality is not eternal and if man is not free, but can be forced to be good and to enter paradise. The idea of hell is ontologically connected with freedom and personality, and not with justice and retribution. Paradoxical as it sounds, hell is the moral postulate of mans spiritual freedom. Hell is necessary not to ensure the triumph of justice and retribution to the wicked, but to save man from being forced to be good and compulsorily installed in heaven. In a certain sense man has a moral right to hell—the right freely to prefer hell to heaven. This sums up the moral dialectic of hell.
The justification of hell on the grounds of justice, such as we find in St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, is particularly revolting and lacking in spiritual depth. It is the idea of freedom and not of justice that dialectically presupposes hell. Hell is admissible in the sense that a man may want it and prefer it to paradise ; he may feel better there than in heaven. The idea of hell is the expression of an acute and intense experience of the indestructible nature of personality. Eternal perdition means that personality remains self-contained, indissoluble and absolutely isolated. Hell consists precisely in the fact that the self does not want to give it up. The pantheistic mergence of personality in God cancels, of course, the idea of hell, but it also cancels the idea of personality. Such is the ontological basis of the idea of hell. Every moral valuation is the beginning of it, for it is the starting point of the division into two realms, one of which is that of hell. The problem is how to avoid hell without giving up valuation and distinction. Men like St. Augustine and Dante are inspired by the idea of the division which prepares hell. But to struggle against hell dors not mean to abandon the struggle against evil: on the contrary, it means pursuing it to the end. The question is whether hell is a good thing, as its “ good ” champions believe.
In its inner dialogue about hell the soul takes up now the objective and now the subjective point of view, looking at the problem alternately from within and from without. It is this that leads to contradictions. One can look at hell from the human and from the divine point of view. And if one looks at it from the point of view of God and objectifies it, it is incomprehensible, inadmissible and revolting. It is impossible to be reconciled to the thought that God could have created the world and man if He foresaw hell, that He could have predetermined it for the sake of justice, or that He tolerates it as a special diabolical realm of being side by side with His Own Kingdom. From the divine point of view it means that creation is a failure. The idea of an objectified hell as a special sphere of eternal life is altogether intolerable, unthinkable and, indeed, incompatible with faith in God. A God who deliberately allows the existence of eternal torments is not God at all but is more like the devil. Hell as a place of retribution for the wicked, which is a comfort to the good, is a fairy tale ; there is not a shadow of reality about it; it is borrowed from our everyday existence with its rewards and punishments. The idea of an eternal hell as a rightful retribution for holding false and heretical beliefs is one of the most hideous and contemptible products of the triumphant herd- mind. From the objective point of view, from the point of view of God, there cannot be any hell. To admit hell would be to deny God.
But everything is changed the moment we take up the subjective point of view, the point of view of man. Another voice begins to speak then, and hell becomes comprehensible, for it is given in human experience. Man’s moral revolt begins only when hell is objectified and affirmed as having its source and, as it were, its being in God, instead of in man. Hell belongs entirely to the subjective and not to the objective sphere ; it exists in the subject and not in the object, in man and not in God. There is no hell as an objective realm of being ; such a conception is utterly godless and is Manichean rather than Christian. Metaphysical theories of hell are therefore absolutely impossible and inadmissible. All attempts to conceive of hell as objective justly rouse our indignation and opposition.
Unthinkable as a realm of objective being, hell exists in the subjective sphere and is a part of human experience. Hell, like heaven, is merely a symbol of man’s spiritual life. The experience of hell means complete self-centredness, inability to enter into objective being, self-absorption to which eternity is closed and nothing but bad infinity left. Hti rn.il lirll ii a vicious and self-contradictory combination of words. Hell is a denial of eternity, impossibility to have a part in it and to enter eternal life. There can be no diabolical eternity—the only eternity is that of the Kingdom of God and there is no other reality on a level with it.
But the bad infinity of torments may exist in the self-contained subjective realm. In his own inner life a man may feel that his pain is endless, and this experience gives rise to the idea of an everlasting hell. In our life on earth it is given us to experience torments that appear to us to go on for ever, that are not for a moment, for an hour or a day, but seem to last an infinity. It is only such torments that are really terrifying and suggestive of hell. But their infinity has nothing to do with eternity and has no objective reality. It is due to the subject shutting himself up in his self- centred suffering and being unable to escape from it into objective reality. Objectively this infinity may last a moment, an hour, or a day, but it receives the name of everlasting hell. The experience of unending torments is that of being unable to escape from one’s self-centred agony. There is no hell anywhere except in the illusory and utterly unreal sphere of egocentric subjectivity powerless to enter eternity.
Hell is not eternity at all but endless duration in time. The torments of hell are temporal, for they are in the “ bad infinity ” of time ; they do not mean abiding in an eternity different from the eternity of the Kingdom of God. In hell are those who remain in time and do not pass into eternity, those who remain in the subjective closed-in sphere and do not enter the objective realm of the Kingdom of God. In itself hell is illusory, phantasmagorical and unreal, but it may be the greatest psychological subjective reality for the individual. Hell is a phantasm, a nightmare which cannot be eternal but may be experienced by man as endless. Phantasms created by human passions plunge the self into hell. Passions weave the illusory web of dreams and nightmares from which man cannot wake in eternity, but which for that very reason cannot be eternal. There is nothing objectively real in those nightmares. It is not God’s objective justice that dooms man to the experience of them, but man’s irrational freedom which draws him to pre-existential non-being. After the experience of living in God’s world, that non-being proves to be of the nature of hell.
The creature can feel the torments of hell only in so far as the image of God has not been completely dimmed in it, in so far as the divine light still shines in the darkness of evil phantasms. If the image and likeness of God become completely dimmed and the divine light ceases to shine, the torments of hell will ccase and there will be a final return to non-being. Final perdition can only be thought of as non-being which no longer knows any suffering. The torments of hell are not inflicted on man by God but by man himself, by means of the idea of God. The divine light is the source of torments as a reminder of man’s true calling. The struggle against the powers of hell is the struggle to make man’s consciousness so clear, strong and complete that he can wake up in eternity from the nightmare which seems to last an infinite time. The phantasms of hell mean the loss of the wholeness of personality and of the synthesizing power of consciousness, but the disintegrated shreds of personality go on existing and dreaming, and the broken up personal consciousness goes on functioning. These dissevered fragments of personality experience absolute loneliness.
Liberation from the nightmare of hell and the painful dreams which are a state between being and non-being consists either in the victory of the complete consciousness (or one might say of super consciousness), the return to true being and transition to eternity, or the final annihilation of die disintegrated consciousness and transition to utter non-being. Man passes from the subconscious through consciousness to the superconscious. Wholeness and fullness are attained only in superconscious life. Our “ conscious ” life from birth to death contains menacing dreamlike states which anticipate the nightmare of hell. Those states are created by sinful passions, and in them consciousness is broken up and distorted by the unenlightened and unregenerated subconscious. But human life contains other dreams and visions which are an anticipation of paradise. They gave us glimpses of superconscious life in which the subconscious is transfigured and sublimated.
The existence of hell as a subjective realm depends upon the correlation between subconsciousness, consciousness and superconsciousness. Struggle against hell consists in awakening superconsciousness, i.e. the spiritual life. If there is no spiritual life, the relation between consciousness and die subconscious gives rise to evil dreams and nightmares. Consciousness as such does not imply that the wholeness of personality has been attained, but it is only by attaining such wholeness that we can combat the disintegrated fragments of consciousness which drag us down to hell. Wholeness of personality disappears in hell in consequence of self-absorption, self-centredness and evil isolation, i.e. of the impotence to love and to attain superconscious wholeness. We know all this and can study it in the experience of our own life which passes in the intermediate stratum of consciousness. In the disintegration of personality we slide downwards to dreams and nightmares. Final awakening is attained through spiritual sobriety which leads to the light of superconsi iousncss. Spiritual sobriety and ecstatic illumination equally testify to the attainment of wholeness which makes a return to the illusory semi-existence of hell impossble. The primary, unconscious, elementary wholeness disappears once consciousness has dawned. After passing through consciousness with its inner dividedness the self can move either upwards, to the heaven of superconsciousness, or downwards into hell in which fragments of consciousness are still preserved. Pain and suffering are connected with consciousness, and consciousness cannot be completely destroyed. The very origin of consciousness involves disruption, and consciousness suffers because it cannot be whole. But the dividedness of consciousness may become complete disintegration, and then the pain and suffering will increase. Pain ceases when either superconscious wholeness or utter non- being is attained.
The daylight, waking consciousness is not so sharply divided from the dreaming, dark unconscious as is commonly supposed. In the ancient world, at the dawn of history, the division between them was still less marked, and man mistook “ dreams ” for “ realities It was under those conditions that the myth-making process took place. The idea of hell became distinct only in the Christian era, but it originated in profound antiquity. At first it was not definitely associated with the idea of punitive justice. Hades, the subterranean realm of shadows and semi-existence, was the sad destiny of all mortals. Ancient Greeks knew no salvation from that fate. The existence after death was connected with the chtho- nic, subterranean gods. This was the beginning of the nightmares of hell, woven out of the images of the dark underworld and the painful dreams of semi-existence. The Greeks, whose conception of life was essentially tragic, were resigned to the melancholy fate of mortals. The terrible thing was that men did not die completely but were doomed to a semiexistence and semi-consciousness, similar to a painful dream from which one cannot awake. The Greek aristocracy built up an Olympus above the twilight realm of the underworld. It was in the Mysteries that the ancicnt Greeks sought victory over death and the attainment of true immortality. But the Greek mind had not elaborated die conception of the two camps—of the “ good ” and the “ wicked ”—of the struggle between two world-principles and of the final defeat of Satan, pushed back into hell.
Religiously moral dualism is characteristic of Persian diought and is particularly marked in Manicheism. It cannot be denied that the Hebrew eschatological theories were framed under Persian influences and that the Christian conception of the devil and his kingdom has a Persian source. Strictly speaking, Christian thought has never completely freed itself from Manichean elements. When the conception of hell became crystallized, it gave expression to the ancient instinct of vengeance, transferring it from time into eternity. The element of vengeance enters into Dante’s conception of hell, and we can well understand Feodorov’s antipathy to Dante, whom he regarded as a genius of vengeance.
Hell appeared to the human mind in two forms: either as the final doom of mankind in general, for there is no salvation and no one can enter the Divine Kingdom which is for the gods alone, or as the triumph of retributive justice reserved for the wicked after the salvation of the good has been made manifest. The original image of hell is the sad dream of sinful humanity which does not know salvation and can neither live in eternity nor completely die. The second image is created by those who having learned about salvation and regard themselves as “ good ”, relegating the “ wicked ” to hell. It is impossible to suppose that hell is created by God ; it is created by the devil, it is created by human sin. But the dreadful thing is that hell is created not only by the “ wicked ” and by evil but to a far greater extent by the “ virtuous ” and by “ good ” itself for the “ wicked ” and for evil. The “ wicked ” create hell for themselves, but the “ good ” create hell for others. For centuries the “ good ” who found salvation affirmed and strengthened the idea of hell. It was a powerful influence in Christian thought, inspired not by a Christian, not by a Gospel idea of justice. The first Greek teachers of the Church were the least guilty of building up and perpetuating the idea of hell. That evil work of the “ good ” was done chiefly in Western Christian thought, beginning with St. Augustine and culminating in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante.1 The conception of hell created by the good for the “ wicked ” is triumphant in all catechisms and in all official courses of theology. It is based upon Gospel texts which are taken literally, without any consideration for the metaphorical language of the Gospel or any understanding of its symbolism. It is only the new Christian consciousness that is worried by the Gospel words about hell; the old rejoiced in them.
All the antinomies connected with the problem of freedom and necessity arise with reference to hell and indeed become more irreconcilable and give rise to fresh difficulties. If out of pity and humanity wc admit the necessity, i.e. the inevitability of universal salvation, we must de ny the freedom of the creature. Origen’s doctrine of apocatastasis contradicts his own doctrine of freedom. The salvation of the whole world, understood as the reinstatement of all in the condition prior to the Fall, is conceived as the result of an externally determined process independent of human liberty. All creatures will be compelled in the end to enter the Kingdom of God. Hell exists, but it is only temporal, i.e. stricdy speaking it is a purgatory. A temporal hell is always merely a purgatory and has an educative significance.
In the inner dialogue of the soul about hell the voice of Origen always represents one of the disputants.1 When Origen said that Christ will remain on the cross so long as a single creature remains in hell, he expressed an eternal truth. And yet we must admit that to regard salvation as predetermined is to rationalize the eschatological mystery. But is it possible to maintain the opposite and say that hell and perdition are predetermined in God’s creation? That certainly is still less admissible. Origen is better than Calvin, there is more moral truth in Origen than in St. Augustine. The fundamental antinomy which confronts the mind perplexed by the problem of hell is this : human freedom is irreconcilable with a compulsory, predetermined salvation, but that same freedom rebels against the idea of hell as a predetermined doom. We cannot deny hell because this would be contrary to freedom, and we cannot admit it because freedom rises against it. Hell is the dark, irrational, meonic freedom which has crystallized into fate. Christian consciousness denies the existence of fate in the ancient Greek sense, for that is incompatible with God and human freedom. But the idea of hell is equivalent to that of fate. True, it will be said that hell is the fate of the “ wicked ” and that the “ good ” arc free from it. Such an argument, however, is superficial. The freedom of the “ wicked ” is a fatal freedom and leads to their doom. Freedom which is usually contrasted with fate may degenerate into fate. The dark, evil freedom devoid of grace is the “ fate ” recognized by Christianity. The dark freedom which rejects grace may not want heaven ; it may prefer hell. This is frequently done by those who rebel against the idea of it. Thus free preference of hell to paradise proves to be the fate that hangs over creation.
The antinomy of freedom and necessity exists not only for man and tlic created world but for God also. The impossibility of solving it has given rise to the doctrine of predestination. If God foresees, or rather, if He knows from all eternity whither the freedom with which He endowed the creature will lead it, He thereby predetermines some to salvation and others to perdition. This terrible doctrine ascribes the character of fate not to freedom but to God Himself. God is the fate of the creature, predetermining their salvation or perdition. The doctrine of predestination is, of course, a form of rationalizing the mystery of the last things, and the most revolting form of it. But in any case hell proves to be fated— whether it is preordained by God or is an inevitable consequence of human freedom. The antinomy remains insoluble and the inner dialogue of the soul, divided against itself by the painful efforts to solve the problem, continues. It may even be said that the effort to solve it is itself an experience of hell-fire.
The argument may be carried so far that God Himself will be found to deserve everlasting torments. This is precisely what is done by the most remarkable and profound writer of modem France, Marcel Jouhandcau. These are his striking words : “ La mélancolie que je peux Lui donncr est terrible : tous les Anges ne le consolent pas de moi. Et qui sait que Lui si ce n’est pas ‘ le péché de Dieu,’ Son unique faiblesse, que de n’aimer, si, m’aimant, Dieu ne mérite pas de partager l’Enfer qu’Il me promet? L’Enfer n’est pas ailleurs qu’l la place la plus brulante du Coeur de Dieu,”1 He raises here the inevitable question of God Himself suffering in hell if the creatures whom He loves will bum in its flames.
The idea of hell is that of an eternal doom, for in hell there is neither freedom nor grace which might lead out of it. It is absolutely fatal and irremediable. Freedom which leads to hell is recognized, but freedom which leads out of it is denied; there is
a free entrance but no free exit. Thus God’s conception of the world involves an element of dark fate, far more terrible than the fate of Greek mythology. This fatal clement overshadows the Christian mind and conscience. Hell as a special ontological realm indicates either the failure of the divine plan or an element of fate deliberately included in it by God. It would be profoundly wrong to call that fate a triumph of divine justice, for there is no justice in punishing by eternal torments sins committed in time. Time and eternity are incommensurable. There is more justice in the doctrine of Karma and reincar-nation, according to which deeds done in time arc expiated in time and not in eternity, and man has other and wider experience than that between birth and death in this one life. Theosophical theory of reincarnation cannot be accepted by the Christian mind. But it is essential to recognize that man’s final fate can only be settled after an infinitely greater experience in spiritual worlds than is possible in our short earthly life.
Hell is the final result of a certain tendency of the moral will and the moral consciousness of mankind. It may be willed and affirmed by those who never trouble about theological problems. Hell as an objective realm is the creation of moral will which sharply divides the world into two camps—of the “ good ” and die “ wicked ”—into two spheres which culminate in heaven and hell. The “wicked” are thrust into hell, and it is done in this life and in this time. I mean “ morally thrust ”, for physically they may be the masters. Hell is the result of the complete separation of the fate of the good who inherit bliss from the fate of the wicked who inherit eternal torments. Hell as an objective realm is pre-eminently the work of the good. It appears to them as the final expression of justice, a just retribution. I am speaking here of hell in the objective sense, for as subjective it is to be found within the life of the “ good ” themselves and is an experience known to them also. Human will which sharply divides the world into two parts imagines hell as an eternal prison house in which the “ wicked ” are isolated, so that they can do no more harm to the good. Such a conception is, of course, not divine but human through and through. It is the culmination of the life of our sinful world on this side of good and evil. The possibility of real victory over evil, i.e. of the regeneration of the wicked, is not even thought of, and, what is worse, the will is not directed towards that end but rather to its opposite. Evil must be isolated, punished and thrust into hell. The good comfort themselves with that idea. No one wants to think of saving the “ wicked ” and the devil. People do think of course, of saving sinners, because everyone is a sinner. But there comes a moment when sinners are numbered with the “ wicked ” in the camp of the devil, and then they are forsaken and relegated to hell.
This separation of the fate of the “ good ” from the fate of the “ wicked ” and the final judgment passed by the good over the wicked is the greatest perversion of a morality generally acknowledged to be very lofty. It is a mistake to imagine that hell as punishment and retribution endured for ever in some objective realm of being is the result of Divine judgment. This is an invention of those who consider themselves “ good The human, all too human, idea of hell objectifies wretched human judgment which has nothing in common with God’s judgment. “ True believers ” send “ heretics ” to hell in accordance with human and not with Divine justice. God’s judgment, for which every human soul and die whole creation is waiting, will probably have very little resemblance to the judgment of men. The last will be first, and the first last— which is beyond our comprehension. It is utterly inadmissible that men should usurp God’s right to judge. God will judge the world, but He will judge the idea of hell too. His judgment lies beyond our distinctions between good and evil. This idea may perhaps have found a reflection in the doctrine of predestination.
Man’s moral will ought never to aim at relegating any creature to hell or to demand this in the name of justice. It may be possible to admit hell for oneself, because it has a subjective and not an objective existence. I may experience the torments of hell and believe that I deserve them. But it is impossible to admit hell for others or to be reconciled to it, if only because hell cannot be objectified and conceived as a real order of being. It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbours, friends and relatives will perhaps be damned. I cannot resign myself to the fact that the man with whom I am drinking tea is doomed to eternal torments. If people were morally more sensitive they would direct the whole of their moral will and spirit towards delivering from the torments of hell every being they had ever met in life. It is a mistake to think that this is what people do when they help to develop other men’s moral virtues and to strengthen them in the true faith. The true moral change is a change of attitude towards the “ wicked ” and the doomed, a desire that they too should be saved, i.e. acceptance of their fate for oneself, and readiness to share it. This implies that I cannot seek salvation individually, by my solitary self, and make my way into the Kingdom of God relying on my own merits. Such an interpretation of salvation destroys the unity of the cosmos. Paradise is inpossible for me if the people I love, my friends or relatives or mere acquaintances, will be in hell—if Boehme is in hell as a “ heretic ”, Nietzsche as “ an antichrist ”, Goethe as a “ pagan ” and Pushkin as a sinner. Roman Catholics who cannot take a step in their theology without Aristode are ready to admit with perfect complacency that, not being a Christian, Aristotle is burning in hell. All this kind of thing has become impossible for us, and that is a tremendous moral progress. If I owe so much to Aristotle or Nietzsche I must share their fate, take dieir torments upon myself and free them from hell. Moral consciousness began with God’s question, “ Cain, where is thy brother Abel? ” It will end with another question on the part of God: “Abel, where is thy brother Cain? ”
Hell is the state of the soul powerless to come out of itself, absolute self-centredness, dark and evil isolation, i.e. final inability to love. It means being engulfed in an agonizing moment which opens upon a yawning abyss of infinity, so that the moment becomes endless time. Hell creates and organizes the separation of the soul from God, from God’s world and from other men. In hell the soul is separated from everyone and from everything, completely isolated and at the same time enslaved by everything and everyone. The distortion of the idea of hell in the human mind has led to its being identified with the fear of God’s judgment and retribution. But hell is not God’s action upon the soul, retributive and punitive as that action may be ; it is the absence of any action of God upon the soul, the soul’s incapacity to open itself to God’s influence and its complete severance from God. Hell is nothing other than complete separation from God. The horror of hell is not inspired by the thought that God’s judgment will be stem and implacable. God is love and mercy, and to give one’s fate to Him means to overcome the horror. The horror is to have my fate left in my own hands. It is not what God will do to me that is terrible, but what I will do to myself. What is terrible is the judgment passed by the soul upon itself, upon its own impotence to enter eternal life. Hell really means not that man falls into the hands of God but that he is finally abandoned to his own devices. Nothing is more terrible than one’s own dark meonic freedom which prepares life in hell. The fear of God’s judgment means that darkness cannot endure Divine light and love. God’s judgment is simply the terrible light thrown upon darkness, love directed upon malice and hatred.
Every human soul is sinful and subject to darkness and cannot by its own power come into the light. The soul becomes inclined to pass into the twilight dreamland of semi-existence. Its own free efforts cannot bring it to true and real being. The very essence of Christianity is bound up with this. “ The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” “ I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” The coming of Christ is salvation from the hell which man prepares for himself. The coming of Christ is the turning point for the soul of man which begins to build up the Kingdom of God instead of building up hell. Without Christ, the Redeemer and Saviour, the Kingdom of God is unattainable for man. Man’s moral efforts do not bring him to it. If there is no Christ and no change of heart connected with Christ, hell in one form or another is inevitable, for man cannot help creating it. The essence of salvation is liberation from hell, to which the creature naturally gravitates.
The idea of hell must be completely freed from all associations with criminal law transferred to the heavenly world. Hell as a subjective realm, as the absorption of the soul in its own darkness, is the immanent result of sinful existence and not a transcendental punishment for sin. Hell is absorption in the immanent and the impossibility of passing to the transcendental. The descent of the Son of God into hell can alone liberate man from it. Hell is the consequence of the natural world being closed to Divine intervention and to the descent of God into it. All Divine action in the world is directed towards freeing man from hell.
Hell will not come in eternity, it will remain in time. Hence it cannot be eternal. One of the voices that speaks in my soul tells me that all are doomed to hell, because all more or less doom themselves to it. But this is reckoning without Christ. And the other voice in me says that all must be saved, that man’s freedom must be enlightened from within, without any violence being done to it—and that comes through Christ and is salvation. In the spiritual world we cannot think of the devil as outside the human soul, he is immanent in it and means that it is abandoned to itself. Christ frees the soul from the devil. Unless one adopts the Manichean point of view, the devil must be regarded as a higher spirit, God’s creature, and his fall can only be explained by meonic freedom. The problem of satanism is at bottom the problem of that abysmal, irrational freedom.
The idea of hell has been turned into an instrument of
intimidation, of religious and moral terrorism. But there is no real horror of the anticipation of hell in these intimidations. The real horror is not in the threats of a transcendental Divine judgment and retribution, but in the immanent working out of human destiny from which all Divine action has been excluded. Paradoxically it might be said that the horror of hell possesses man when he submits his final destiny to his own judgment and not to that of God. The most pitiless tribunal is that of one’s own conscience ; it brings with it torments of hell, division, loss of wholeness, a fragmentary existence. God’s judgment is an outpouring of grace upon the creature. It establishes true realities and makes them all subordinate to the highest, not in a legal but in an ontological sense.
There was a time when the intimidating idea of hell retained the herd- man within the church ; but now this idea can only hinder people from entering the church. Human consciousness has changed. It is clear to us now that we cannot seek the Kingdom of God and the perfect life out of fear of hell ; that such fear is a morbid emotion robbing our life of moral significance and preventing us from reaching perfection or working for the Kingdom of God. The fear of hell used as a spur to the religious life is a partial experience of hell, entrance into the moment in which hell is revealed. Therefore those who make religious life dependent upon the fear of damnation actually thrust the soul into hell.
Hell is immanent and subjective through and through, there is nothing transcendental and ontologically real about it. It is the state of being utterly closed in, of having no hope of breaking through to anything transcendent and of escaping from oneself. Hell is the experience of hopelessness, and such an experience is entirely subjective. The rise of hope is a way out.
A higher and maturer consciousness cannot accept the old-fashioned idea of hell ; but a too light-hearted, sentimentally optimistic rejection of it is equally untenable. Hell unquestionably exists, it is revealed to us in experience, it may be our own lot. But it belongs to time and therefore is temporal. Everything that is in time is temporal. The victory of eternity over time, i.e. the bringing-in of the temporal into eternity, is victory over hell and its powers. Hell is an aeon or an aeon of aeons, as it says in the Gospel, but not eternity. Only those are in hell who have not entered eternity but have remained in time. It is impossible, however, to remain in time for ever : one can only remain in time for a time. The perspective of a bad infinity is not an ontological reality, but a phantasm and a subjective illusion. There is something hideous and morally revolting in the idea of eternal torments as a just retribution for the crimes and sins of a short moment of life. Eternal damnation as the result of things done in a short period of time is one of the most disgusting of human nightmares. The doctrine of reincarnation, which has obvious advantages, involves, however, another nightmare—the nightmare of endless incarnations, of infinite wanderings along dark passages; it finds the solution of man’s destiny in the cosmos and not in God. But one thing is unquestionably true : after death the soul goes on living on other planes of being, just as it had lived on other planes before birth. The life in our world between birth and death is merely a small fragment of the human destiny, incomprehensible when regarded by itself, apart from die eternal destiny of man.
The idea of hell is particularly revolting when it is interpreted in a legalistic sense. Such an interpretation is common and vulgar and must be completely banished from religious ethics, philosophy and theology. The idea of hell must be entirely freed from all utilitarian considerations,and only then can the light of knowledge be shed upon it. It will then be clear to us that there may be a psychology of hell, but there can be no ontology ofit. The problem of hell is completely irrational, and there is no way of rationalizing it. The doctrine of apocatastasis is also too rationalistic—quite as rationalistic as the doctrine of eternal damnation—and it does not interpret the cosmic process creatively. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is a reductio ad absurdum of die idea of eternal torments in hell, and this is its merit. It is a rationalistic doctrine, although it admits that God’s decisions and judgment are absolutely irrational. According to that doctrine God Himself creates hell, which must be the case if God has endowed the crcature with freedom and foresaw the results of it.
Man is haunted by the horror of death, but this is not the greatest horror. The greatest horror of all is the horror of hell. When it gains possession of the soul man is ready to seek salvation from hell in eternal death. But the horror of death is the horror of passing through pain, through the last agony, through dissolution ; it lies on this side of life. On the other side of life there is nothing of that. Death is terrible as the hardest and most painful fact of life. Passing through the experience of death appears to us like passing through the torments of hell. Hell is continual dying, the last agony which never ends. When the human mind is ready to seek escape from the horror of hell in death, it thinks of death which will be the end of everything, and not of an endless death. To seek deliverance from the horror of hell in death is a sign of decadence and an illusion. The struggle against the horror of hell is possible only in and through Christ. Faith in Christ and in Christ’s resurrection is faith in victory over hell. The belief in an eternal hell is in the last resort unbeliefin the power of Christ and faith in the power of the devil. Herein lies the fundamental contradiction of Christian theology. Manichcism was denounced as a wicked heresy, but Manichean elements penetrated into Christianity. Christians believed in the power of the devil as well as in the power of God and of Christ. Not infrequently they believed in die power of the devil more than in the power of Christ. The devil has taken the place of the evil god of die Manicheans, and it has not been settled whether God or the devil will have the last word. Manicheism is a metaphysical error but there is moral depth in it and an acute consciousness of the problem of evil which is too easily disposed of by rationalistic theo- logy.
One of the proposed solutions of the terrible difficulties involved in die problem of hell is to acknowledge it as the triumph of the Divine justice and therefore as good. But tliis is a revolting consolation. Victory over the dark forces of hell is not a question of God’s mercy and forgiveness, which is infinite, but of the way in which God can conquer the fathomless freedom of the creature that has turned away from Him and come to hate Him. The kingdom of the devil is not reality but non-being, the realm of dark meonic freedom, the illusory subjective realm. A man who withdraws into that realm no longer belongs to himself but to the dark powers of non-being. Victory over meonic freedom is impossible for God, since that freedom is not created by Him and is rooted in non-being ; it is equally impossible for man, since man has become the slave of that dark freedom and is not free in his freedom. It is possible only for the God- man Christ Who descends into the abysmal darkness of mconic freedom, and in Whom there is perfect union and interaction between the human and the Divine. Christ alone can conquer the horror of hell as a manifestation of the creature’s freedom. Apart from Christ the tragic antinomy of freedom and necessity is insoluble, and in virtue of freedom hell remains a necessity. The horror of it means that the soul withdraws from Christ, and His image in it grows dim. The salvation from hell is open to all in Christ the Saviour.
N. Feodorov expressed a bold and startling idea of raising all the dead. But his idea must be carried further, and deeper. Not only must all the dead be saved from death and raised to life again, but all must be saved and liberated from hell. This is the last and final demand of ethics. Direct all the power of your spirit to freeing everyone from hell. Do not build up hell by your will and actions, but do your utmost to destroy it. Do not create hell by thrusting the “ wicked ” into it. Do not imagine the Kingdom of God in too human a way as the victory of the “ good ” over the “ wickcd ”, and the isolation of the “ good ” in a place of light and of the “ wicked ” in a place of darkness. Not to do so presupposes a very radical change in moral actions and valuations. The moral will must be directed in the first place towards universal salvation. This is an absolute moral truth and it does not depend upon this or that metaphysical conception of salvation and perdition. Do not create hell for anyone either in this world or in the next, get rid of die instincts of vengeance which assume lofty and idealistic forms and are projected into eternity. As immanent in experience and as a consequence of the dark freedom that has to be lived through, hell exists, anyway, but we must not create it as a place of retribution in which the “ wicked ” are to be segregated from “ the good The Kingdom of God, in any case, lies beyond our “ good ” and “ evil ”, and we must not increase the nightmare of our sinful life on this side of the distinction. The “ good ” must take upon themselves the fate of the “ wicked ”, share their destiny and thus further their liberation. I may create hell for myself and, alas, I do too much to create it. But I must not create hell for others, not for a single living being. Let the “ good ” cease being lofty, idealistic avengers. The Emperor Justinian demanded once that the church should condemn Origen for his doctrine of universal salvation. Justinian was not content with there being temporal torments in this world, he wanted eternal torments in the next. It is time we stopped following the Emperor Justinian, but went against him. Let “ the good ” no longer interfere with saving the “ wicked ” from hell.
I have already quoted Gogol’s words, “ It is sad that one does not see any good in goodness ”. These words express the deepest problem of ethics. There is very little good in goodness, and this is why hell is being prepared on all sides. The responsibility of good for evil, of“ the good ” for “ the wicked ”, is a new problem for ethics. It is unjust to lay the whole responsibility upon “ evil ” and the “ wicked ”. They have come into being because “ the good ” were bad and had not enough good in them. Both the “ wicked ” and the “ good ” will have to give an answer to God, but His judgment will be different from the human. Our distinction between good and evil may prove to be a confusion. The “ good ” will have to answer for having created hell, for having been satisfied with their own righteousness, for having ascribed a lofty character to their vindictive instincts, for having prevented the “ wicked ” from rising up and for speeding them on the way to perdition by condemning them. Such must be the conclusion of the new religious psychology and ethics.
The problem of hell is an ultimate mystery that cannot be rationalized. But the conception of eternal torments as the triumph of divine justice, holding as it does a place of honour in dogmatic theology, is a denial of the mystery and an attempt to rationalize it. Eschatology must be free both from pessimism and from optimism born of rationalization. All rationalistic eschatologies are a horrible nightmare. The idea of everlasting torments in hell is a nightmare, and so is the idea of endless reincarnations, of the disappearance of personality in the divine being, and even the idea of inevitable universal salvation. This is because they all violate the mystery by rationalizing it. We cannot and must not construct any rationalistic doctrine of hell, whether optimistic and pessimistic. But we can and must believe that the power of hell has been vanquished by Christ, and that the final word belongs to God and to the Divine meaning. The conception of hell deals not with the ultimate but with the penultimate realities. Mystical and apophatic knowledge of God has nothing to say about hell. Hell disappears in the fathomless and inexpressible depth of the Godhead (Gottheit). It belongs to cataphatic and rationalistic theology. Even if the knowledge that there shall be no hell is withheld from me, I do know, at any rate, that there ought to be no hell and that I must do my utmost to save and free everyone from it. I must not isolate myself in the work of salvation and forget my neighbours doomed to perdition. We must not abandon to the devil greater and greater stretches of existence but must win them back for God. Hell is not a triumph for God—it is the triumph of the devil and of non-being.
Source: Berdyaev N., “The Destiny of Man”, trans. Duddington N., London 1948, p. 266-283