The Awaited One A Common Hope

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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St Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, generally agreed to be the oldest document in the NT and to have been written around AD 50, shows how the apostle and the Christians to whom he wrote were living with a vivid hope that Jesus Christ would come soon and gather them all to himself. When this was to occur was not known. 'The Day of the Lord' would 'come like a thief in the night' (1 Thess. 5: 2). Nevertheless it would be soon, even in the lifetime of the apostle himself (1 Thess. 4: 13-5: 3). A few years later, when closing his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul quoted an early Christian prayer, apparently used even by Greek-speaking communities in its original Aramaic form: 'Marana tha!' or 'Come, O Lord!' (1 Cor. 16: 22). Many years later the Revelation of John, which would become the last book of the Bible, closed with the same prayer in Greek, 'Come, Lord Jesus!' (Rev. 22: 20).

New Testament Christians expected that the Lord's coming was to bring the general resurrection of the dead, the doomsday of judgement for all, glorious salvation for the elect, the damnation of the reprobate, and the transfiguration of the world. Various elements fed these vivid hopes of an imminent end and/or coloured the way they expressed it: images from the OT prophetic and apocalyptic books, dramatic scenarios from intertestamental literature (which were written around the time of Jesus but never became canonical books of either the OT or the NT), urgent words of Jesus (derived from him, even if adapted and expanded by the early Christians) about living in expectation of the end, Jesus' own resurrection from the dead (the beginning of the general resurrection, as already mentioned), and the experience of a new existence through the forgiveness of sins and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The anxiously awaited coming of the Lord would both change the present situation and reveal new things. The First Letter of Peter spoke of an inheritance 'kept in heaven', the 'salvation in readiness which will be revealed at the end of time' (1 Pet. 1: 4—5). Paul highlighted the glorious resurrection at the end (1 Cor. 15: 20—8) and the fullness of knowledge to come: 'Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully' (1 Cor. 13: 12). Or else the apostle drew together the glorious consummation of salvation and what is still to be revealed (Rom. 8: 18).

Paul himself had to adjust his end-time expectations. When writing 1 Thessalonians he anticipated being one of those 'left alive until the Lord comes' (1 Thess. 4: 15). But when he wrote 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 4: 16—5: 5) and Philippians (1: 20—4), he had apparently 'reconciled himself' to being dead before the Lord's final coming. Another, more significant shift took place in the apostle's thinking. At the start he envisaged the final resurrection affecting the Christian community, whether dead or still alive (1 Thess. 4: 15—18). His mature masterpiece expected a resurrection that would encompass not only Christians and other human beings but also the whole created universe (Rom. 8: 18-25; 11: 25-6).

Some twentieth-century scripture scholars made much of the difficulty NT Christians experienced in adjusting their expectations and recognizing that the Lord's final coming might be indefinitely delayed. It was even argued that Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to help early Christians to cope with the embarrassing delay in the end of all things. What strikes many other scholars, however, is rather the ease with which NT Christians adjusted to the delay in the timetable. Paul, or someone writing in his name, had to take the Thessalonians to task about thinking that doomsday had already arrived: 'As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you. not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here' (2 Thess. 1: 1-2). The last Gospel to be written had to take into account that, although the apostolic generation had almost died out, the Lord had not yet come (John 21: 20-3). The delay in the arrival of the Lord's day posed a serious difficulty for what is probably the last NT book to be written. Irreligious scoffers were anticipated to come 'in these last days' and to say: Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!' (2 Pet. 3: 3—4). The author of the letter countered by insisting that God does not measure time as mortal human beings do. The delay reveals the divine patience and desire that sinners should repent.

Even after an intense expectation of the Lord's imminent coming died down, for hundreds of years a communitarian dimension continued to shape Christian attitudes towards death, judgement, heaven, and hell. The general resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Lord to judge all people (Matt. 13: 47-50; 25: 31-46) could be pictured only as eminently social events. The ancient symbols of faith professed a communal belief in the coming of the Lord 'to judge the living and the dead', 'the resurrection of the bod/ (or of 'the flesh', or of 'the dead'), and the 'life everlasting' (or 'the life of the world to come') (ND 1-13). The resurrection of the dead, the judgement, and the life to come concerned everyone. A social, ecclesial dimension surrounded even such clearly individual episodes as martyrdom and the request of prayers for the deceased.

As presented by Luke, the death of the protomartyr, St Stephen, took place in a public, social setting and brought about serious consequences for the Christian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem (Acts 6: 8-8: 8). The writings of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. £.107) and St Justin (d. £.165), which preceded their martyrdom, and the publicity attested by the acts of such martyrs as St Polycarp (d. £.155), Sts Perpetua and Felicitas (d. 202), and St Cyprian (d. 258) made their deaths not only heroic, personal sacrifices but also personal testimonies before the world (see Mark 13: 9-11).140

At least from the end of the second century, as attested by the tomb inscriptions of Abercius, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (in modern Turkey), Christians prayed for the dead, and at least from the third century celebrated the Eucharist for them (and with them, as much as possible: that is, beside the deceased's resting place). In Ch. 1 we recalled

140 Through the efforts of St Antony of Egypt (d. 356) and others, religious life developed as a surrogate for martyrdom. St Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) in the East and St Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) in the West gave a stable configuration to this new form of Christian existence, which meant anticipating in community here and now the communion with the risen Lord that is to come beyond death.

Monica on her deathbed asking her two sons to remember her at the altar of God. Believers knew that their dead, although dying in God's friendship, still needed to have their personal sins expiated or cleansed and to grow spiritually before reaching the vision of God. Such prayers for the dead, far from being mere individual practices on behalf of deceased individuals, belonged in the wider setting of the 'communion of saints', an article found in the Apostles' Creed and primarily denoting a fellowship in Christian life with the saints and all the baptized faithful, both still living or already dead.141 Christians, faced with the death of a relative or close friend, believed that they had not lost their link with the deceased, and maintained through prayer their communion with the dear departed. Inevitably, praying for the dead became a typical feature of eucharistic liturgies both in the East and in the West.

Whether by violent martyrdom or by 'natural' causes, death means the definitive end of an individual's life and a final personal encounter with God. Along with their lively sense of the ecclesial and social dimension of death, ancient Christians also acknowledged its individual aspect. They recalled some stories from Jesus that depicted the death of such individuals as the rich fool (Luke 12: 16—21), a 'rich man', and the poor 'Lazarus' (Luke 16: 19—31). The individual subject's moment of death concerned NT and later Christians. Nevertheless, the social context of death and life beyond death remained primary: Jesus himself had set the social tone. Some Sadducees presented Jesus with a puzzling case for faith in the resurrection, a woman who in obedience to the Law married successively seven brothers: 'at the resurrection, when they rise from the dead, whose wife will she be, since all seven had married her?' Jesus refused to be drawn on this individual case, but insisted on what the resurrection will bring to all the elect; a transformed, 'angelic' life with God that leaves behind any marital unions (Mark 12: 18—27). Jesus' parable of the five foolish and five prudent girls at a wedding celebration put entry into God's final kingdom in a clearly social setting. When the bridegroom came, 'those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut' (Matt. 25: 1-13).

Only a few official documents on the final destiny of Christians and other human beings have come down from the first millennium. Let us recall two documents which exemplify the communitarian and even

141 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds , 3rd edn. (London: Longmans, 1972), 388-97.

cosmic mentality that continued to characterize Christian teaching and thinking about the shape of things to come. One challenge to mainstream Christian teaching on human destiny came from those who claimed that the punishment of hell is not eternal but only temporary, or, in other words, is a period of purgation to be followed by the general restoration of all damned human beings and demons to their former state (apokatastasis). A provincial council held at Constantinople in 543 condemned those who held 'that the punishment of the demons and of wicked human beings is temporary, and that it will have an end at some time or that there will be a complete restoration (apokatastasis) of demons and wicked men' (DH 411; ND 2301). Later in this chapter we will examine hell and its eternity. Here we want only to highlight the 'social' way church leaders approached the issue. So far from considering the possible deliverance of this or that individual 'soul' from hell, which some later legends attributed to the mercy and power of the Virgin Mary, these sixth-century official Christian teachers faced the question of the general restoration of the damned to their original state.

Our second example comes from a profession of faith approved by the Eleventh Council of Toledo in 675. The bishops confessed a true resurrection of the body for all the dead, and added: 'We do not believe that we shall rise in an ethereal body or, in any other body, as some foolishly imagine, but in that body in which we live, exist, and move' (DH 540; ND 2303). This seventh-century council took a stand against deviant versions of what lies in store for us—errors that had been around, particularly in Gnostic circles, since the second century. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other Christians of the second and third centuries set their face against the Gnostics who downplayed matter, overemphasized the spiritual, and interpreted redemption as the human spirit escaping from the bonds of the material creation, understood as intrinsically evil, to the world of light. These writers insisted on a true resurrection of the flesh, and repudiated any reduction of it to the rising of a mere ethereal body. The Eleventh Council of Toledo coupled such over-spiritualized views of the resurrection with the error of expecting resurrection in some 'other body': we will rise, the Council insisted, in that same body in which we have lived. Centuries earlier Irenaeus had struggled with the bodily continuity which he knew must be upheld if risen human beings were to remain personally identical with what they had been. He asked: 'With what body will the dead rise? Certainly with the same body in which they died, otherwise those who rise will not be the same persons who previously died' (Adversus Haereses, 5. 13. 1).

The challenge can be stated baldly: in what sense must we rise with the same body? What counts here as bodily sameness? Does it mean a numerically identical body? If so, what can that entail? It may be best to speak of 'embodied histories' being raised. In resurrection God will bring to new, transformed life, the total embodied histories of all those who have lived and died. However, we translate Irenaeus' insistence on the resurrection 'with the same body', Gnostic-style tampering with resurrection hope has been around since the second century. Caroline Walker Bynum brilliantly documents the persistent resistance of Christians to recurrent attempts to over-spiritualize the reality of bodily resurrection which normally involved reducing the personal continuity between risen persons and their prior, earthly existence.142 The majority of Christians rejected any notion of 'ethereal' bodies and any tampering with bodily (and hence personal) continuity between the deceased and the risen, however difficult it might be to envisage what such continuity might be like.

What comes through the debates and teaching on the resurrection from the time of Irenaeus and in later centuries is the concern with the general resurrection or resurrection of 'all the dead'. What primarily concerned believers for the first millennium was the risen destiny for everyone or for the embodied histories of all those who have died before the final coming of the Lord.

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