Hot Damnation!

Damnation.

Some like to yell about it. Others can’t stand the thought of even mentioning it.

But what’s the deal exactly? Who the hell (pun intended, hey-o!) am I supposed to listen to? Obviously different theological traditions will come at this differently but what are some things that we can all agree on? What are some things that, in light of revelation, we can say about that God awful topic, damnation (the reason I say “can” is because it’s my opinion that both extreme’s, those that yell about it and those that are silent, are saying things that we can’t say if we’re to be faithful to the whole of the Biblical narrative)?

It is here, yet again, that I must turn to a gentleman that is quickly becoming one of my favourite living theologians, David Yeago. In the final chapter of Apostolic Faith, ‘The Four Last Things’, Yeago highlights 5 constraints that our teaching on damnation should be bound by. I found these immensely helpful so I thought I’d take the time to share them and expound just a wee bit. If we are to be faithful to the apostolic legacy then these must guide what we say/don’t say in regards to damnation.

1. We have no right to teach with certainty either that some will be damned or that none will be damned, that many will be damned or that few will be damned.
A most important point about the Last Judgment is that it is yet to come. It has not yet happened. When this happens it will happen in the utter freedom of God, who is the judge, not us human creatures who are most certainly not the judge (we are, rather, the object of this judgment!). So then, to assume with any degree of certainty and detail the way in which God will execute his judgment is to “usurp his prerogative”, as Yeago says. Just as the coming of the Messiah totally surprised and subverted Israel’s expectations so too the course of God’s judgment is sure to surprise us. We must say then that all people everywhere are in God’s hands and that whatever happens to them/us will, in the end, prove to be entirely consistent with God’s character. This is all we can say about outcomes.

2. We cannot deny with certainty that the God who has conquered death has ways of bringing the gospel to the dead.
Once in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:7-10) and twice in 1 Peter (3:18-20; 4:6) reference is made to Christ descending to the place of the dead to preach the gospel: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does,” (1 Pet 4:6). The result of Jesus enduring death and descending to the place of the dead is not only that he was able to preach there but that he, in fact, defeated the powers of sin and death utterly exhausting them beyond their last breath. And so elsewhere in Scripture Jesus is described as he who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Jesus’ preaching to the dead is in no way portrayed as a one-time event. Like the crucifixion, which transcends time and confronts each and every person, it is possible that his descent into Hell may transcend time and confront each and every dead person. Given that Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades (the door is open) this is entirely possible.

3. We can and must say, however, that no human being will find a final fulfillment of his/her existence apart from Jesus of Nazareth and those who gather round him.
In Yeago’s words, “the Church does not claim simply that Jesus is a meaningful symbol; it claims that this particular person, as a particular person, is in reality the Lord of all, the one whom all go to meet, the active centre of meaning for the whole universe. He is in person the fulfillment of human destiny, and there simply is no other fulfillment than participation in his risen life. Indeed, the fulfillment is his risen humanity, into which he gathers his brothers and sisters.” Salvation, then, is not something which God has “attached” to Jesus which is unattainable unless you “believe in Jesus”. Rather, salvation is simply the “name for what it means to gather around Jesus and share in his life.” To be sure there is, nor can there be, any human fulfillment apart from Jesus the Christ.

4. If Jesus is the fulfillment of human destiny, then the way to that fulfillment for every human being must be the way of repentance and faith.
“Repentance” simply means to turn from a life without Christ and “faith” means to join our lives with his. So then, repentance and faith are of ultimate importance for each and every human being. Since he is the fulfillment of human destiny then turning to him and entering into shared life with him matters infinitely. Therefore, any sort of “wider hope” or “universalism” must be the hope that those who do not know Christ in this life will nevertheless be brought to repentance and faith in him (This is important to note. Proponents of a “wider hope” or “universalism” are all too often accused of pluralism. However, to be sure, one can hold to a “wider hope” and not be guilty of pluralism if they maintain that it is only in Christ that salvation is possible).

5. We must confess that in all God’s dealings with creatures, in mercy and in judgment, his aim remains the same: communion in love.
God’s aim always and everywhere and in every situation with regard to his creatures is “communion in love”. However, God is not coercive, so his love is nor forced upon anyone, now or after death. So then, because God is not coercive we cannot exclude the possibility of damnation even though we may hope it never becomes an actual reality. We cannot say that Jesus’ warnings are simply empty threats rather than real life-or-death warnings. However, before hurling these warnings at anyone else we must realize that they are first directed towards us.

Well then, what are we to do? On this basis, the most appropriate way in which to entertain a wider or universal hope is in prayer. “If it is not impossible that those who have not believed in Christ in this life may nonetheless be received into his fellowship in death, then it is certainly permissible to pray that it may be so”.

Amen.

*The image featured above is a painting from the Chora Church in Istanbul depicting Christ’s victory in the place of the dead. I believe that is Adam and Eve whom he is pulling up out of Hades.

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7 comments
  1. Andrew said:

    Hey Jon,

    A couple thoughts about 1 and 2.

    1. What about passages that seem to promise a certain outcome? Is God not also free to bind himself to a certain course of action?
    2. Have you considered the alternate interpretations of those passages which would not imply Jesus preached to people already dead?

    Blessings,

  2. ashley said:

    Great Article.
    David Yeago is great. Do we know when Apostolic Faith will be published for realz?

    Have you read Love Wins yet? (I just got it…hopefully going to read it next week).

  3. jt* said:

    @Andrew, which passages and which interpretations are you thinking of in particular?

    @Ashley, I have no idea when it’ll be published but hopefully soon! I’d like to own it as a book. I have not read Love Wins yet, although my housemate (Ejay) has it so I’m sure I’ll get around to reading it sometime in the next couple of weeks. From the looks of the type-font it shouldn’t take too long!

  4. Andrew said:

    Jon,

    Briefly:

    1. I could give a bunch, but for example, Rev 14:11, 20:9-15, Matt 25:46, 2 Thes 1:9, John 5:28-29.
    2. Re: Ephesians (4:7-10), many have interpreted it as meaning “the lower parts, the earth”, so that it is just talking about the incarnation, not a descent of Christ into hell. This view has been around for some time, e.g., Calvin held to it, and some good scholars today support it.
    Re: 1 Peter (3:18-20), some have argued the text is talking about Christ preaching through the Holy Spirit, through Noah, to the people alive in Noah’s day. Others have agreed that it is talking about Christ preaching to disembodied spirits, but have said it is referring to his announcement of defeat to the evil angels (3:18-20 does not say Jesus preached the gospel to these spirits, just that he proclaimed). Re: 4:6, some have argued that “the dead” refer to the living unregenerate, so that Peter is using the phrase the same way Paul does in Eph 2:1.

    Fwiw.

    • jt* said:

      Thanks Andrew.

      I don’t think Yeago is denying the reality that there will be a very real outcome. All I hear him saying is that we human creatures cannot say with certainty exactly what those outcomes may be. The scriptures you list simply attest to the fact that God *is* judge and he will in fact judge but none suggest, as far as I can tell, that we’re entitled to proclaim just what that will look like for particular people. Is that fair?

      In light of alternate interpretations, I suppose the passages are open in some ways to differing interpretations. However, in light of both Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant agreement on the interpretation Yeago highlights I find it rather favourable and congruent with the broader canon.

      • Andrew said:

        I suppose it depends on what is meant by “what it will look like” means. I.e., I think we should be extremely reticent to judge the state of particular individuals (unless it is directly revealed, like the cases of Satan and probably Judas), and I think the descriptions of hell and heaven in scripture are to some degree only analogies of their referents. On the other hand, I think the texts I cited are very clear that part of “what it will look like” is that there will certainly be people who do not make it to heaven. Thus I’m compelled to disagree with Yeago when he says “We have no right to teach with certainty… that some will be damned… .”

  5. jt* said:

    Fair enough. Although I’m not entirely convinced that those texts you noted clearly say “that there will certainly be people who do not make it to heaven”. I would want to maintain that those are very real *warnings* Jesus gives. Not that they are empty warnings by any means. But, just because the judge could very well sent the goats to eternal punishment does not mean that this will, in fact, happen.

    Also, part of what I didn’t really mention in the post is that in the same chapter Yeago talks in some length (and quite convincingly) about the *possibility* that the Last Judgment could be the “final presentation of the gospel” to the dead so that, really, none are without excuse (including those who may have never heard). So, it’s from this perspective that Yeago argues that we can’t say with certainty that “some will be damned” because if in fact the Last Judgment is a sort of final gospel presentation then it’s entirely *possible* that every knee will bow and tongue confess. Of course, not everyone will find that convincing, but I thought it was rather interesting and not totally out to lunch!

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