Hell is often depicted in Christian art as a place of unspeakable physical torments where the unrepentant sinner receives his or her just punishments for various moral perfidies and offenses against the law of God. And much of that art is grounded in various biblical images of the infernal regions as a place of unquenchable fire and of the all-consuming worm that never dies (Mk 9:43, 47-49). It is portrayed as a place of a divinely imposed exile where the sinner is condemned to an outer darkness (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), far from the precincts of Heaven.
Furthermore, damnation is envisioned as something that comes upon the clueless sinner by surprise. It is a recompense for not taking the call to conversion seriously and for squandering their time on earth in frivolous and presumptuous living, as in the days of Noah (Mt 24:37-39), where right up to the moment of judgment people were unaware of the disaster about to befall them.
In the famous metaphor of the sheep and goats (Mt 25:31ff), for example, Jesus gives us an image of judgment day as a divine referendum on whether or not I treated the “least among us” with charity. And in the narrative those who are damned are nonplussed by the accusations and filled with indignation at the charge that they failed to love Christ in their failure to love their neighbor. “Wait, what? Who is here? The Bridegroom?? Doh! Murphy’s Law in action!”; “Hang on just a second… I didn’t do what, Lord? To whom? You? When? What?” However, nonplussed or not, they are consigned to perdition.
There is also the startling parable of the marriage feast (Mt 22:1ff; Lk 14:15-24), in which even those who do respond to the invitation of the master but who show up without a wedding garment, are cast into “the outer darkness.” A similar sternness is found in the parable of the unwise or “foolish” virgins who did not keep enough oil in their lamps and are then caught short when the bridegroom arrives (Mt 25:1ff). Once again we see how perdition is depicted as something unexpected and surprising in its suddenness.
My point in citing these examples of the Dominical statements on judgment is to throw a bit of cold water on the popular idea, championed by C.S. Lewis and others, that the “gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” In this view, Hell is not a place of divine punishment so much as it is a state of self-exile on the part of the sinner who chooses for all eternity to reject the divine offer of love. I too subscribe to some version of this “self-exile” motif since, after all, if Hell is merely a place of divine punishments for my crimes then it should not be eternal since at some point the penal recompense for my misdeeds should run its course and end at some terminal juncture.
So the notion of damnation as a kind of eternal decision on the part of the unrepentant sinner to reject God seems to me to be the only viable way to maintain the notion of Hell as eternal. Nor have I ever put much stock in the argument that Hell is eternal because our sins, though finite in origin and nature, offend an infinite God. In such a scenario, God acts more like the wounded petty aristocrat, who inflicts the death penalty on a peasant who stole an apple off of one his three hundred fruit trees, rather than a just and loving Father. Punishments must fit the crime and should not be wedded to antiquated notions of social standing.
However, all that said, the danger of all self-exile theories is that they can lead to the very presumptuous insouciance that Christ warns us against so often in the Gospels. “Surely,” we assure ourselves, “I would never willingly choose to turn away from God for all eternity!” I might say to myself, “I know I have sins and I know I am not always what God wants me to be, but I am basically a good person and I know I would never choose self-exile from God!” The net effect of all of this self-justifying deflection is a failure to see the eschatological moment at hand, to see the provocation and the “crisis” that the Gospel places before us as the condition for admittance into the King’s banquet.
And it also has the effect of blunting our own awareness of the many ways we choose every day to turn away from this crisis of provocation and into a foretaste of Hell through my constant deflection of the decision for or against Christ. It lends itself easily to co-optation into the therapeutic understanding of the modern self, with its inward focus on the reality-constructing action of the imperious “I”. In such an approach, not even judgment day is really something that “happens to me” in a theo-dramatic encounter with God wherein I am judged based on my inaction toward the least among us.
In other words, even judgment is my own action and damnation is just my self-judgment. There is obviously an element of truth in this insight. But divorced from judgment as an encounter with God who is “Other” it can quickly descend into an overly psychologized understanding of things.
Finally, there is the added problem—pesky in its annoying intrusion into our theorizing—that the motif of Hell as a form of self-exile has little to no grounding in Scripture. For example, the King says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Nowhere do I see a show of hands from the accursed signaling their desire to willingly toss themselves into Satan’s flaming mosh pit.
Obviously, none of the imagery can be taken literalistically, and it is possible to reconcile the self-exile motif with the more Scriptural notion of an “imposed” Divine judgment. But the essential message of Christ in the New Testament is persistent and consistent: I am placing before you two ways, one of which leads to life and the other that leads to death. And a studied neutrality toward that choice is itself a choice. There is no avoiding it.
This theology of the “two ways” has deep roots in the Old Testament with its construal of the Law as life giving, and its rejection as death dealing. And in the New Testament the two ways are linked to the acceptance or rejection of Christ, who is the incarnational presence of God himself and therefore is the intrusion of the Kingdom into our time and history. This decision for or against Christ represents an apocalyptic crisis for each one of us in our souls. What is hidden will be revealed (apocalypse as unveiling) and this revelation will either issue forth into repentance and life or into rejection and death.
What I am claiming is that the language of Christ with regard to salvation and damnation is neither predictive in the sense of a strict eschatological census—the “wide” and “narrow” paths and all that—nor is it merely admonitory as in, “You kids be careful, because if you aren’t you may end up in Hell.” Rather, his language is crisis language, decisional language, and as such constitutes the establishment of the Gospel as a pedagogy of provocation calling us to that determinative choice known as “faith”. It is the apex and fulfillment of all prophecy in the old covenant.
The two ways converge on Christ—and the time for decision is now.
People speak endlessly today about the “crisis” in the Church. But I would submit to you that the nature of this crisis is that it actually represents the denial of the true crisis that is the Gospel as such. In many ways modernity itself can be defined as the cultural manifestation of the rejection of crisis and its replacement with the cult of bourgeois well-being. In other words, the vertical dimension of the Gospel as the irruption into our lives of a supernatural provocation that demands a choice of decisive importance (what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “Ernstfall”) is precisely what is denied in practice in so many quarters of the Western Church as it rushes headlong into its modus vivendi with modernity’s therapeutic flattening of all things: “Behold, I make all things old again.”
The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called this the Church’s refusal of her eschatological edge, of her refusal of crisis, of the “messianic time” in which we now live. We have gone from sojourner citizens to mere citizens, very much at home and complacent with remaining right where we are.
And this is why the accommodationist Church of today is so toxic to the soul. She does not recognize the true hour of her visitation. Indeed, she recognizes no “hour” at all; there is no crisis and therefore no decision. Our modern churches look like the cul-de-sacs that inspired them and are designed to blunt the force of any such hour or crisis. We must wake from this slumber before it is too late. Because the Bridegroom will arrive when we least expect it and our oil lamps have been taken from us entirely, as somehow contrary to the spirit of aggiornamento.
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